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EXCLUSIVE: Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki Talk 'Supernatural,' Souls and Scary Challenges

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 20th 2011 4:00PM
"No rest for the wicked" is a common enough saying. But what about those who fight wickedness? Well, if they inhabit the 'Supernatural' universe, there's no rest for them either.

The sixth season of 'Supernatural' certainly offered new challenges for Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, the show's stars.

In the first half of the season, Sam Winchester didn't have a soul, Dean Winchester had to recover from losing his little slice of domestic contentment and deal with the scarily unemotional RoboSam, and the brothers had to contend with an unusually difficult array of critters, creatures and demonic meddlers.

"The writing took those kind of reliable tools that we used and shelved them," Ackles said of the RoboSam era. "It was a neat experience. They should never do it again," he joked.

In fact, it became clear in the interview that both actors very much enjoy the challenges that 'Supernatural' throws at them, whether it's gut-churning emotional developments or comedically-tinged episodes like Friday's 'Frontierland,' an enjoyable diversion that finds the Winchester brothers in the Old West. (Laura Prudom previews the episode here.)

Riding horses and donning cowboy hats is one thing. But RoboSam? Playing him was a little daunting at first, Padalecki recalled.

"You're like, what? I'm in a boat with no oars," Padalecki said. "But ... it was fun to try and think, what is a soul? Where does the soul reside? Where does it come from? In your heart, your brain, your blood, your liver? It was fun to do that, and I love that problem-solving aspect of acting."

There are no spoilers in the dual interview below, in which they talk about their characters' evolutions, their working relationship and an "intense" season 5 episode that was especially daunting -- but which they're both quite proud of.

This interview, which has been edited and slightly condensed, was conducted before the actors took the stage at the 'Supernatural' Paleyfest event last month. Don't forget to return here Friday for my weekly review of 'Supernatural.'

Maureen Ryan: Making 'Supernatural,' it seems like it's a very intense pace. How do you try to find those very subtle moments or those emotional moments in the midst of that shooting schedule?
Jared Padalecki: The minutiae, as [the late 'Supernatural' director] Kim Manners would say?

JP: I think it brings itself out. I think one of the reasons we've been able to keep finding the moments is because they bring themselves out when you trust yourself in the characterization and the person you're acting across from. When you all trust each other, then you are free to just play and go and he'll bring out different things in the scene that I'll play off of and I'll bring out different things in the scene that he'll play off of. And so that's where you'll find the moments is, I think, trusting yourself and trusting the other actor.

Because if you're kind of too worried about .. Well, we've had moments with guest stars, not to mention [names], not that I can remember any, but we've have guest stars, [where] we're like, "Man, they're just so nervous right now that we're kind of going to have to carry them through it." As opposed to, we've also had guest stars come in and knock our socks off and, we're like, "Cool! Let's play!" It's like playing tennis. If you play tennis with somebody who is great, then you play great. But if you play tennis with somebody who can't hit the ball over the net, then you're not going to play well either. So that's my take.

Jensen Ackles: Yeah, also, the fact that he and I have been doing this together and so intensely for so long... I liken it to playing sports together for so long. You know, you think of like Tony Parker and...

JP: Tim Duncan.

JA: Tim Duncan. I, obviously, would be Tony Parker [Laughs]. But the more you play and the more you work together, the more I think intricate your relationship can become and you play on that.

And I think with that, also knowing your character -- it's very much like a muscle. The more you do it the better you become at it, and so you can start really digging a little bit deeper and peeling back another layer and relying on his intuition as much as your own intuition. And so I think that ebb and flow is a key element to us continuing to get better and better.

Well, and they also like throwing curveballs at you ...
JA: Yeah.

JP: Oh yeah.

Especially the first half of this season.
JA: I would say that was a very difficult stretch of the show. I know [it was] for me because I was still playing the same character, but I was playing opposite a character that was completely different, which is a testament to Jared. I think he did a great job with Soulless Sam, but for me as an actor, that relationship was severed. And so I didn't have that to rely on -- you know, knowing Dean as well as I do, but also relying on Sam being Sam and playing off that. That was now gone and I was dealing with a whole other monster.

And so as an actor, it was very difficult. I mean, I even called the writers and I'm like, "When is he getting his freaking soul back because this is killing me. I'm having to now work harder to figure out what the hell I'm doing."

JP: How it came across on screen though -- I think as Jensen was kind of reeling back and Dean was too, so maybe that...

... fed into the performance. I actually had a question from a fan. When the brothers finally hugged and Sam had his soul back and you guys had that moment, for you as an actor, what was that like?
JA: Well, I had that moment before, though. I had that moment when I read the script. I'm like "Oh, finally, we can get back to the good stuff." Not to say that the stuff previous wasn't good, it was just a different kind of a show, or a different kind of relationship, and to throw a giant curveball or a giant wrench into the system five years in to solidifying this relationship -- it was a big curveball. It was hard to hit. But I think we hit it.

Yeah. You seemed to actually have fun with it in a way. In another question, one of the fans was saying, We've had, you know, Lucifer Sam, evil Sam, we've had Care Bear Sam...

JP: Care Bear Sam! [Laughs]

And then there was RoboSam. Was that a fun challenge for you or was it a little off-putting too?
JP: Absolutely. Yes and yes. It was off-putting because I think you have to draw from your experiences. So, Dean and Lisa [for example.] We've all had relationships where you can kind of pull from it. "Oh maybe this is like my relationship way back when." So you kind of have things to pull from.

I had a meeting with [executive producer and showrunner] Sera [Gamble] at the beginning of the season, she's like "You're soulless." I can't really pull from that time I was soulless. So you're like, what? I'm in a boat with no oars. But it was a fun, up and down [experience.] It was fun to try and think, what is a soul? Where does the soul reside? Where does it come from? In your heart, your brain, your blood, your liver? It was fun to do that and I love that problem-solving aspect of acting.

But like Jensen said, it was also like... Well, damn, I'm so used to years of this relationship where we feed off of each other and build this story that it was tough to then ignore it. And I found myself during certain scenes, like, when we were having a scene, wanting to cut back into what soulful Sam would have done and I can't do that.

You were outside your comfort zone, really...
JP: Yeah, which is really nice...

JA: We both were. The writing took us took those kind of reliable tools that we used and shelved them. So it was... it was a neat experience. They should never do it again. [Laughs]

One of the fans asked, now that it's Care Bear Sam again, is Dean back to being Dean? The Dean that we knew?
JA: I think more or less. I mean, the experience is still there and that hasn't gone away. That's another added layer to the character -- the fact that he has dealt with this Sam in a completely different way and so that's going to raise the bar on him protecting Sam from ever going there again.

So there might be even more of a protective manner. He was always a protective older brother, but now it's like, "I know what the penalties are if I let him go."

But also, your character had this domesticated arc and that seemed to really be important for him as a development milestone as well.
JA: It was. And I had a talk with the writers about this as well, in that, this is a guy who has lived a life of hunting and of the supernatural, and he goes away from it for one year and tries to adapt to a domesticated lifestyle. I talked to them, I'm like, "He shouldn't be a different person, he should just be this kind of fish out of water." So when he gets back in the water it's like "Ah," but he still had that experience and [similarly,] he still had to deal with Soulless Sam.

Now he's going to have to deal with that element and that knowledge -- knowing what life is like on the other side. He obviously made a relationship with two characters [Ben and Lisa] and that still holds true. There's still a part of him, there's still a piece of his heart that was left with Lisa and Ben. So, they'll obviously utilize that.

Have either of you ever studied with acting teachers?
Both: No.

It would seem that your schedules would not permit it, at the very least.
JP: There was an on-set guy for a...

JA: Couple days.

JP: Yeah, he came in for a couple of days...

JA: Just a couple of days [early in season 1] or so...

JP: Yeah. It was four days during 'Wendigo.'

JA: Yeah, yeah. I think [the studio] Warner Brothers just wanted a kind of babysitter, because this was a very big show and we were a couple of young actors and they just wanted to make sure that [all was well]. But after that it was really just, [Jared] and I just kind of relying on our instincts and on each other.

JP: Yeah.

JA: But I have never had any formal acting training at all.

That's impressive because of the range that you have to have as actors. There aren't many straight dramas that go straight-up comedy for a whole hour -- but are still true to the emotional core of the show.
JA: It still keeps the long [arced-out] thread, yeah.

Exactly. So for you is that fun to have that balance of comedy and drama?
JA: Absolutely. I love it.

JP: It's a breath of fresh air.

JA: I couldn't think of a better blend or ...

JP: Situation.

JA: If it was strictly drama all the time, I mean, how depressing would that be? So it really is a breath of fresh air. When those comedic episodes come up, It's like, "Ah, sweet! We get to do something different."

JP: It's a lot of fun. I mean, we get to poke fun at ourselves, which we've done several times in six seasons, [things] that no one else gets to do. I mean, you can't name a show that has...

JA: Broken the fourth wall ...

JP: Broken the fourth wall like we have. And that's been a true, true joy.

Well, in terms of the stuff that's challenging, what's been most difficult for you? You talked about the challenge of RoboSam. Is that the kind of the most difficult head space for you to attain, or have there been things that have been more difficult?
JP: I think, Lucifer was tough. Yeah, I think Lucifer was more tough than RoboSam because of, to bore you for a sec, when I did my thinking and thought process and back story on souls and what the soul encapsulates, I think when you're soulless, you just use pure reason. You're not lacking reason and evil. You're not a sociopath, like 'American Psycho.' You just go, "Hey, well, maybe I'll kill an innocent person, but otherwise this innocent person will kill three innocent people, so okay, bang."

Lucifer had ulterior motives and he had this dastardly plan that he thought was great. And there's a quote that I like, "Everyone is a hero in his own story." Lucifer thought that he was the hero of his own story. It's like, "No, daddy turned against me. I'm not evil, I'm an angel." Like, "I love you, I love roses, I love smells and sights, it's just... you all are not angels, I am an angel." So he had ulterior motives, and it's tougher to lose who you are and become [that character] as opposed to just going blank.

Right, right. How about you, Jensen? We talked about this past arc, the one when Sam was soulless, but what else represents a big challenge for you?
JA: Well, any kind of any kind of heavy emotional stories or scenes in particular. I would say those are the challenging moments that really kind of make the day feel [productive]. Whenever I shoot a very emotional scene or something that really propels the story, something that really peels back some layers, I get to go home and feel like I did a lot of good work that day. I get to kind of hang my hat on that day, which is gratifying for me.

I've got a couple of those scenes coming up this next week [during the shooting of the season finale] and I haven't had them in a while, but looking back a few years ago, when Sam would die and Dean was talking over his body.... It's moments like that that are kind of like, you know, in the graph, those are really peaks in my memory as an actor of what my work has been. And it's actually hard for me to watch some of those scenes too. Because it recalls those emotions that I actually went through. Because the brain knows it's not real, but the body doesn't.

How about you, Jared? I mean, if you had to pick moments where you're like, "I am proud to say that I did that"?
JP: The toughest thing was Lucifer and I was really proud of it. I really loved the episode.

JA: When you're in the rose garden? Yeah. That was, I thought, probably one of the best scenes that he's ever done. I felt like an audience member in that scene. I felt like I was watching his performance. I was just watching an actor do really good work. And sometimes I forgot that I had to give a line.

"Oh, whoops, it's my turn."
JA: Yeah, "Oh, wait, it's my turn."

JP: When it challenges you so much, you can stick a feather in your hat and be like, "Wow!" I dreaded the scene. I was nervous about it. You don't get nervous, really, when you work 180 days a year [for] six years. [Usually] you're like, "OK, it's another day." But it's like, OK, we know what we're going to go and do today, we're going go and we're going to have some ebbs and flows. But those peaks and those valleys are extreme.

JA: That whole episode...

JP: That whole episode was intense. I think for both of us.

JA: It was very intense for me because I played devil Dean.

Didn't you curse yourself out at one point? You yelled at yourself?
JA: Oh yeah, we had a yelling match, and I ended up having my stunt double [say lines] off camera, and he's not an actor at all and so I had to remember what I was going do and figure it all out. It was such a head game for me, and then we get to the end of the shooting schedule and he comes in and just knocks it out of the park with Lucifer.

JA: But it was a fun one.

Well, it certainly shows that you guys work hard and really prepare and I know, based on the messages I get from fans, it's all really appreciated.
JA: Thank you.

JP: Thank you.

And that's why this show is getting New York Times stories and TV Guide covers and things like that.
JA: That was cool.

JP: And Jeopardy.

JA: We were a Jeopardy question. And the guy didn't get it.

A brief reminder of the rules for commenting on my 'Supernatural' posts:

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You don't have to love every episode or development -- I don't. But if you can't express yourself in a calm, civil fashion, or if your starting point is that 'Supernatural' and/or a particular character has been ruined for all time, then please take your thoughts elsewhere.

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Lorna Wolbert

ha like his wife, gen? she cant act to save her life.

May 04 2011 at 10:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched that Jeopardy! They might have been referring to another one, but the one I saw was Teen Jeopardy (i.e. Abominably Easy Jeopardy), there was a TV by actors category and 4 out of the 5 (5 out of 6? how many questions are there per category?) questions were CW shows, haha it was so weird. "This horror show stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki" or something, and no one knew.

This was a lovely interview. :) I love how they finish each others' sentences!

April 24 2011 at 12:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Maggie Martínez

hahaha what was the Jeopardy question? XD

April 23 2011 at 5:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This is a wonderful interview, in-depth, revealing. I love reading the actor's thoughts on their characters and craft. This is such a treat to read ! Thank you

April 22 2011 at 8:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mrs. robinson

Great guys, great interview. Thanks.

April 22 2011 at 7:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's very interesting to know how it works "behind the scene". Jensen and Jared have done an excellent work with their respective character, they gave a real life to Dean and Sam. This is why I really hope that the writers are listening those actors when they give their advice on how Dean or Sam are supposed to be.

April 22 2011 at 5:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mandy Dillon

That was a really excellent interview. It showed how in tune both Jared and Jensen are with each other and that really comes across on screen. Supernatural is the most underated show on TV and if people only took the effort to watch it and see it is not just a show about two good looking dudes. (Misha Collins admitted that's what he first thought of the show, and was pleasantly surprised by the storylines). The writers of the show deserve real awards as do Jared and Jensen. I was very surprised to read they had no formal training. Their acting skills have grown even better over the six seasons. I think the things most people love about the show is the brotherly love between Dean and Sam. And no matter what happens, it always comes back to that :)

April 22 2011 at 1:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I really appreciate reading a good interview like this where the actors talk of the character development and plot lines of the show. I have heard before JP saying Lucifer was a tough challenge, but always thought it would be the season 5 finale he was referring to, where Sam and Lucifer talk through a mirror. Both actors do a great job of the 'facing themselves' type of scenes, which we have seen in a few episodes. And the coedy episodes are some of the best! Thanks for the interview.

April 21 2011 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great job Mo! It is so nice to hear the actors talk about their craft and not only the challenges they face, but what they view as their own personal proudest moments. The fact that they work so well together only enhances their characters' presence on screen and makes for a truly outstanding show. Congrats on the job you did moderating the Paley panel as well. It was nice meeting you at the event! :)

April 21 2011 at 7:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What a treat! Thank you, Mo. These two actors are extraordinary and it's so fun to hear them talk shop with a decent interviewer! I didn't know about the Jeopardy question! Anyone know what the answer was?

April 21 2011 at 6:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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