As soon as “Into The Mystic” finished airing, I immediately tweeted my congratulations to amazing guest stars Dee Wallace and Shoshannah Stern, who – along with Jared, Jensen, Misha and writer Robbie Thompson – made this episode both emotional and hysterical. And also important. This season is giving us some nuanced, deftly drawn female characters, including Mildred and Eileen. So I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Shoshannah Stern about her experience on the Supernatural set and playing Eileen.
Lynn: How were you cast on the show?
Shoshannah: I really don’t know how that happened. I was in New York working and got an email from my manager saying that he got a call from the show asking if I’d be available to do it. I was like, uh… yeah. We had to wait a little bit just to make sure that all our bases were covered, and then for a while all I really knew was that I was going to play a hunter and she was going to be deaf.
Lynn: Did you know about Supernatural and its enthusiastic fandom before you were cast?
Shoshannah: Oh, I absolutely knew about the show. I’d watched it and had actually gone out for Ruby, although I don’t remember which version. I just remember feeling like I wasn’t going to be right for the part, but having this feeling that going in for it was something I really needed to do. But, no, I didn’t really know how enthusiastic the fans were. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, I don’t know.
[Nope. Our fandom is a well kept secret. But mighty. Just ask the radio hosts who had Rob Benedict and Louden Swain on last week…]
Shoshannah: I mean, I had heard some things about [the Show and the fandom], but I don’t think I fully understood its depth and breadth and probably wouldn’t have, until I met my interpreter who interpreted for me on the show. She turned out to be a member of the SPN Family, though she was so professional I’d never have guessed! She was completely focused on her job as an interpreter and didn’t make it about her or her love of the Show. I’ve had interpreters who tried to talk to actors or ask for pictures before on other shows. Not this one, even though she was so invested in the show. When I told her that, she just said no, that’s what you’re supposed to do as an interpreter, I’m just doing my job. But no, that really impressed me. She’s one of the best interpreters I’ve ever had on set, and she’s now a friend of mine. So congratulations, SPNFamily, you guys make awesome interpreters and I’m grateful!
She’d gone to several cons and she really became this amazing resource for me. I still text her with questions about stuff fans bring up to me and she very patiently explains it all to me! It was really through her that I finally fully realized just how big and devoted the fandom was. Better late than never, I guess!
Lynn: SPNFamily is everywhere! I’m curious, how was the character of Eileen described, and what notes did you get about how to play her? What decisions did you make yourself in order to bring her to life so vividly?
Shoshannah: I had several email conversations with Robbie, who I knew from Jericho. He was great. He referred me to the Supernatural Wiki so I could do some research on female hunters that were on the show before. I’m kind of a nerd in that way, so I looked at that. I also had some weird questions about how she would move, and he and our director, John Badham, were very patient with me, and my thousand and one questions. They were both really helpful and generous, but they both consistently said that I should really make Eileen my own. Because Robbie’s so good at what he does, she was such a fully realized character that it was a joy for me to sink my teeth into her and try to do just that.
(Lots of us in fandom are nerds, which explains why the SuperWiki exists and is the resource we all use, whether it’s to write a research paper or a piece of fanfiction or make a fanvid!)
Shoshannah: When I started thinking about her, and she’d been hunting on her own since she was sixteen, I started thinking about this deaf FBI agent who actually existed and had a show based on her. She had taught herself how to read lips extraordinarily well. I personally can’t read lips as well as Eileen can, but it made sense to me that since she was so well-trained as a hunter, she’d develop that kind of skill, one that had elements of fantasy, but was still grounded in reality. I liked that even though she was so well-trained in that sense, she still missed that whole The Walking Dead reference, and that’s why she thought the brothers were monsters. No matter what, lip reading is never 100%, and I thought it was great that that element of it was showed.
[I love when Show gets it right. Boom!]
Shoshannah: Besides that, there were some other little things, like that first sign that Sam uses with Eileen. It’s actually a slang for “eff you,” but is similar enough to “thank you” where the mistake would be believable. I thought it’d be funny if the mistaken sign actually meant something. John also asked us to improvise in some of the scenes we did, and that wasn’t something that I was expecting to do in this specific show, but that turned out to be another really fun thing to do.
I tweeted that John said at the end of the goodbye scene, he said something like, just say whatever you want. So when Jared and I were shooting it, we just randomly came up with that whole, “you can’t call me” thing. There’s something about doing improv that is always scary, but always really fun because you have no choice but to commit. You can’t really think too much about it. You just have to go with it, and it just wasn’t something that I was expecting to do there. I did some of that in Another Period on Comedy Central, and everyone around me was so good at it I was just trying to keep my head above water. I didn’t think we’d be doing it on Supernatural, but I’m glad we did.
(Yet another ad lib that totally worked. It’s one of the things I love about the Show).
Lynn: In a more serious vein, the importance of representation is talked about a great deal in fandom, and as a psychologist (and as a human) I recognize how much it can impact someone to actually SEE themselves in media. Especially media that’s beloved and important to them. It is, however, tricky – in this case, Robbie and the director and you were able to make Eileen a kickass female hunter who happened to be deaf, which made her a character that was fully rendered and a powerful positive representation. What is your own experience with issues of representation?
Shoshannah: I feel like sometimes the representation I see regarding my own specific experience is great, but all too often, it’s represented in one color, and that color is a sad color. It’s a color that represents the loss of something, and that’s because that’s interpreted from the perspective of someone who’s never lived it for themselves. If you don’t have that particular experience, then you’re coming from a point of reference of having that be a deficit, and having a character that lives a life built on that deficit. My life isn’t like that. I live a life that is full of colors. With that said, as an actor, I know I have a responsibility to represent my particular community, and the spectrum within that community is very large and varied, but within each part, there’s an entire multifaceted prism.
That’s why I created and wrote Fridays (my web series – created with writing partner Josh Feldman, who’s also deaf). Getting there was difficult, because when we first started pitching it, the specific sort of representation we were trying to execute wasn’t fully understood. The response we often got was, “We don’t understand why these characters are deaf,” which was kind of the point. There doesn’t have to be a reason why. In reality, there’s never a reason.
That’s why having a character like Eileen, and allies like Robbie are so important. What I loved was that Sam never identifies Eileen as deaf when they first meet. He just picks up on it, and then the word “deaf” is never mentioned between them. Moreover, Eileen isn’t defined or tormented because she lost her hearing to the banshee. She’s more haunted by the fact that she lost her parents than anything else. I felt like that was something that he got absolutely right, because she says in her conversation with Sam that she doesn’t even remember her parents, so she doesn’t remember hearing either. She’s never known anything else, so it’s just a part of her. That’s my experience too.
People have said that the reason why the banshee didn’t go after Eileen was because she couldn’t hear it, but I don’t agree. Nobody else could hear the banshee except the victim, and the song the victims heard wasn’t an actual song, it was inside their head. My head is always full of noise, so if the banshee logically wanted to go after her, it could have. I choose to believe that the banshee didn’t target Eileen because she’s not weak. And I’m really proud and completely in love with that sort of representation.
(So agreed! I never thought about that as a possible explanation, since the banshee wasn’t making actual noise anyway – so that doesn’t make sense. And hell yes, Eileen is not weak!)
Lynn: I loved some of the scenes you had with both Jared and Jensen. What was the most fun scene to film, and what was the most challenging?
Shoshannah: The scene on the couch with Eileen and Sam where they’re both kind opening up to each other was something that felt like I really needed to get right. It felt like something that was really important, not just for my character, but for Sam’s, since it felt like a part of a very large arc, one that might possibly be eleven seasons long. Jared was really great to work with there since he’s such a good actor, so I’m not sure if challenging is the right word, it just felt crucial.
The hardest scene for me to do was actually where I had to cut Jared’s hand, because I had to use this specific knife that squirted blood and I just constantly did it wrong in every possible way, too fast, too slow, too much blood, too little. It was the last scene we were shooting that night too, and so it felt like everyone was standing there watching me screw up for a very long time and waiting to go home. Jared was sweet about it though, and I think that’s because he could tell that I was feeling like a very big idiot.
Lynn: Were “the boys” goofing off at all, as they are sometimes known to do? (The several times I’ve been on the set, I was struck by their ability to be goofing off and then snap back into character the moment the cameras roll!) I think you tweeted about how watching them have fun made it fun for everyone .
Shoshannah: There was a very specific mood to the set that I felt right away. People were really friendly and happy, but they were also really protective of the boys. You could just feel that the crew loved their job, loved coming to work, and that they were very proud of the show. Both of the boys were really nice to me, and to everyone else, but something in their faces light up when the other one is around. It’s just very endearing to see, considering they’ve seen each other most days of the week for months on end for more than a decade. I think that’s where the whole feel of the set comes from–these two.
Lynn: I totally agree. And I think every single guest actor we’ve interviewed has said that same thing!
Lynn: And what was that you tweeted about Jensen signing ‘thank you’ with his foot?
Shoshannah: Yes. It is true. Jensen tried to sign thank you with his foot. Jared was asking me if he could sign thank you with his left hand rather than his right, or the other way around, and I told him that it didn’t matter which hand he used, as long as he didn’t use his foot. Jensen was sitting on the floor when I told him that, and so of course he tried to do it. It was awesome.
Lynn [laughing] Of course it was. I love what you said about Jensen and Jared having so much fun on set that they make it fun for everyone else. Can you remember an example?
Shoshannah: I also tweeted that at one point Jared was pulling Jensen around by his foot. I think it was when we were blocking that whole banshee scene, which took a long time, and then suddenly there they were with Jensen scooting along on his butt and Jared running around with him in tow. They looked like they were around five years old. It just made me laugh, but when you’re new on set, you’re never really sure what you can or can’t do and I thought, well, maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging them, so I kind of did a side eye to see what the rest of the crew were doing and they were all smiling or trying not to smile. So I was like oh, ok, good, I’m good.
(Sounds like the Supernatural set for sure!)
Lynn: You also had great chemistry with Dee Wallace – there are fans calling for a spinoff starring Eileen and Mildred! How was working with Dee? Did she already know how to sign?
Shoshannah: Oh, it was amazing. I fell in love with Dee at first sight. It’s hard not to. She’s really vivacious and focused and so talented, and working with her was so much fun. I also think she’s gorgeous, and my husband completely agrees! She had used sign language for another job that she did before, but that’s the thing about sign language. It’s not the easiest language to learn. It’s very specific and you have to incorporate almost your entire body, so that requires a lot of time and effort. I think what Dee did so well was how she infused so much energy and enthusiasm in her face when she signed. I told her that she was going to steal the show and I think I was right about that.
Lynn: One of the great things about Eileen and Mildred is that they were funny without being made fun of. Does the comic timing come easily to you or have you had to work at it? (I loved your subtle reactions, especially to Dee – an expression, a lift of the eyebrow, etc. I laughed out loud – literally – at several of Eileen and Mildred’s conversations)
Shoshannah: I really don’t know. It’s something that I really enjoy doing, but it’s also something that you have to keep at, and… yeah. Sorry I couldn’t give you a better answer!
Lynn: No worries. Acting mystifies me, but I’m impressed when people do it well – and grateful.
Lynn: Unlike Mildred’s attraction to Dean, Eileen seemed to respect Sam as a fellow hunter, but not be lusting after him. Was that your decision to play it that way or scripted notes? (I think it was a fabulous decision which made Eileen all the more believable as a hunter).
Shoshannah: I don’t think this ever came up in the script, or in any of my discussions with Robbie or John. I think if it did, we’d all be in agreement that as a hunter it wouldn’t make sense for Eileen to go there. I don’t think she’d even acknowledge any sort of attraction she might have to anyone… no matter how perfect his hair might be.
Lynn: [and oh, it is…]
Shoshannah: She doesn’t have her own version of Dean to watch her back, so I think she’s trained herself to be very guarded against anything that could come as a distraction. Still, even though Eileen’s pretty much a solitary creature, I think there’s something very human about her, so there’s probably something deep inside of her that does crave some sort of connection. I think Sam probably made her think about things she’s never thought about before, and that was unexpected, and probably caught her off guard. But I think that’s a good thing for her.
Lynn: I think so too. So that’s Eileen. How about Shoshannah? Was it at all intimidating to work with such good looking (and tall…) guys?
Shoshannah: I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost fifteen years now, so for me, pretty is as pretty does. It’s a bubble out here, and everyone walks around looking like they’re in a catalog, so I really didn’t think I’d be fazed. And then I met them. So I immediately went to makeup and told them, “Give me all the makeup. All of it. I have to stand next to them.”
(Oh, we get it. Believe me, we get it. Said everyone who’s ever stood next to Jensen and Jared ever.)
Lynn: You also worked on Jericho (and were apparently pretty badass there too) – did you already know Robbie? And do you know Richard Speight, Jr., a fellow Jericho and Supernatural alum?
Shoshannah: Yes! I knew Robbie. He’s just something else. His writing is brilliant. I also know Richard. In the first show we did after we got picked up I actually had to rescue him from the trunk of a car during a radioactive storm in the middle of a shootout. He was stuck in there in his underwear with another guy (Bob Stephenson) who was also in his underwear. Fun stuff.
(Okay, I need to find that episode. Like now.)
Lynn: Can you talk a little bit about #DeafTalent?
Shoshannah: I’m obsessed with Idris Elba’s speech on diversity, particularly the bit where he talked about the minority experience. Every minority community has something specific they’re always trying to move past that the majority typically gets wrong. We have so many talented people in our community that don’t get the opportunity to apply that talent. My cousin is an amazing nurse who was offered a job at the hospital that trained her the day after she graduated from nursing school, but they rescinded the offer when she requested an interpreter–even though they had no problems at all providing her with one when she was in school, and someone else was paying for it. What the hospital did was illegal, but they still did it anyway. (Just so people know that there’s a law against doing things like that – I know because I’m deaf, but I wanted to make that clear). That kind of thing is ridiculous, and it has got to stop.
I often get the question, “Are you really deaf? Because if you’re not, you’re a really good actor.” I feel like when it comes to acting, people think that if someone is authentic, then it isn’t really acting. They don’t realize how wide and varied the spectrum of being deaf is. For example, as I’ve mentioned before, Eileen speaks, hears, and reads lips better than I do, and that was really challenging for me to play. I had several moments on set where it was a real test, but I loved that challenge, and I’m so grateful I was given the opportunity to take that on. I’ve also played people at the opposite end of the spectrum, who have less hearing than I do and who don’t speak at all, and that was a different sort of challenge in itself. But even when I’m playing a character who happens to fit in the same part of the spectrum as I do, I still have to, you know, act.
The bottom line of what #DeafTalent means to me is that if you have talent, that talent should speak for itself, even if you happen not to speak or hear yourself.
Lynn: You said you were a nerd. Are you a fan of anything yourself?
Shoshannah: Yeah. I love a lot of things! Most of that is stuff I grew up with that I loved when I was younger, and have taken with me through the different chapters of my life, like the Anne of Green Gables series or My So-Called Life. But right at this moment, I am a very big fan of my baby girl. She’s just really really cool.
(She is really really cool. And she clearly appreciates a cool car.)
Lynn: Okay, last question. What has the reception from the SPNFamily been like? Has anything surprised you?
Shoshannah: I thought they were going to hate me. I was bracing myself for this outpouring of “leave Sam alone!” I mean, I try to kill the guy. Also, I’ve had my share of pushback in the past, because some people really didn’t like that my character ended up with Hunter Parrish’s character on Weeds. It’s a part of what I do and I get where it comes from, but I have to say I never expected this sort of warm and wonderful welcome this time around. I told Robbie from the very beginning, when he first told me about the SPNFamily, that if they were happy, then I’d be happy… and it seems like they’re happy.
I think fandom is pretty damn happy. And I’d love to see Eileen make a return appearance. Fingers crossed!
Stay tuned for more interviews and episode reviews, and live tweet and photo coverage of Houscon coming up!
caps: thanks to @kayb625!
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