So the actor who plays my favorite fictional character of all time (that would be Dean Winchester) is having a birthday today, and it’s a “big” one. Jensen Ackles is turning forty, and on that momentous occasion, many fans are posting messages for him about why he’s special to them. I thought I’d chime in and try to put into words why I agree, and in the process wish Jensen a very happy 40th birthday.
It’s no secret that Supernatural has changed my life. I never would have thought about publishing a book, let alone seven. I never would have travelled all over the world – by myself sometimes – or met the fellow fans who are now some of my closest friends. I never would have found my voice and figured out that being me was okay. Loving a television show and joining its wild, crazy, supportive community made all the difference in my life – but if Jensen Ackles hadn’t played Dean, and Jared Padalecki hadn’t played Sam, that never would have happened.
I am so grateful.
It wasn’t the premise of the show that drew me in. It wasn’t the rock music (as much as I loved it from day one). It wasn’t the gorgeous sleek black Chevy Impala, though I fangirl Baby almost as much as I fangirl her owner. It wasn’t the amazing special effects or the scares or the monsters-of-the-week with their commentary on so much more. It wasn’t even entirely the brilliant writing, though I never would have stuck with the show if there hadn’t been plenty of that. Instead it was Sam and Dean. It was the complicated, messy, unique, fraught, angst-filled relationship between those two brothers – and the love that refused to be extinguished between them – that made me fall in love with Supernatural. Yes, that was partly the writers, and I’ll fangirl Eric Kripke forever for creating those characters. But I’m fairly certain that if two other actors had been playing Sam and Dean, I would have said huh, interesting, and maybe watched a few episodes. I wouldn’t have fallen head over heels in love and not looked back.
I watched Season One with a friend and didn’t fall. I enjoyed, but I wasn’t a fan. It was Jensen, with his incredible acting, who finally pushed me over the precipice and sent me careening into a life-changing journey. Early in Season Two, I was grading papers, only half watching the show, when suddenly I realized that my stereotypical red grading pen was hovering uselessly in midair. I had become so engrossed in the scene I was watching that I’d forgotten all about the papers – in fact, they were about to slide onto the floor. On the screen, Dean and Sam leaned against Baby, a gorgeous Vancouver background framing them. And while I watched, transfixed, Dean Winchester – who had seemed on the surface an emotionally restricted gruff kind of guy – broke down. Emotion poured out of him, and at the same time it was heartbreakingly clear that he didn’t want it to. The range of emotions that I could see – could feel – in him was so intense that it took my breath away. His anger, his sense of loss, his pain. And underneath all that, so much love. He turned all that emotion on his brother, and I could see it floored him too.
The papers hit the floor. Who was this character, that he had pulled me into his world so suddenly and completely that my heart was pounding and my own eyes were tearing up? How had I missed the complexity of this character and all that emotion that he kept hidden?
I rewatched the entire first season in a weekend, picked up watching Season Two live, and never looked back. If it hadn’t been for Jensen’s incredible acting – his willingness to make himself, and thus his character, emotionally vulnerable – I would have missed out on the ride of my life.
Over the next eleven years, my fascination with Dean Winchester has only grown, and that again is largely due to Jensen’s portrayal of him. I’ve been privileged to have a fair amount of conversation with him over the years, and I have always been struck by how thoughtful he is about the character he plays. He reads a script and he thinks about it. Why would Dean react this way or that way? What would he be feeling? What drives him, what keeps him up at night, what keeps him going?
As a fan, I think about those things too, dissecting dialogue and facial expressions and every other hint I have about what makes Dean tick. Another actor might just take what’s on the page and say the words and hit his mark and be done with it, especially after doing it for 13 years. Jensen has never gotten to that point – he has never stopped caring. If anything, he seems to care more now. He genuinely loves Dean; is protective of him. If a new writer doesn’t get the characterization right or a new director doesn’t quite understand who Dean is, Jensen is there to suggest a correction or make a subtle change that brings the characterization back to where it should be. The writers, producers, directors trust him to do that and welcome the collaboration. I know how rare that is, and I’m so thankful for it – so thankful he cares enough to nurture and protect the character I care so much about.
I can’t talk about how Jensen plays Dean without talking about how Jared plays Sam. It wasn’t just Dean Winchester who pulled me in, it was the Winchester brothers. And that is something that Jensen and Jared have created together. From the start, everyone who met them talked about their chemistry – the fact that they hit it off the way they did, and that they allowed that mutual affection and respect to translate to the screen, made Dean and Sam’s relationship something special. Both actors have never been afraid to be vulnerable, or to show emotion other than anger (which is sometimes the easier one to express). They were vulnerable with each other, clinging to each other when they were alone in the world – and that was tremendously compelling. I could relate – can still relate – and I’m so grateful to Jared and Jensen for bringing those characters to life in the ways they have.
Sometimes I’m just thankful that the show I picked to fall for, and the actors who have been on that show, are unusual in the best of ways. Jensen, Jared, Misha – all of the actors – have been more respectful of and grateful for their fans than just about anyone else. One of the reasons the Supernatural conventions took off in such an unprecedented way was that the actors were genuinely open to getting to know their fans, instead of making the barrier between them a mile wide. They interacted, they communicated, they talked – and they listened. As a result, those stereotypes about who fans are didn’t hold up. They saw fans as fellow humans, and that has made all the difference. I give Jared and Jensen a lot of credit for their openness, right from the start.
The first time I met Jensen in person, I was a stranger asking him to sign a Ten Inch Hero poster at Comic Con. He was clueless as to my near-hyperventilating excitement, and with a line of hundreds of people waiting for his signature, he could have been forgiven for scrawling his name and then moving on to the next person. Instead he took the time to talk to me – to ask where I got the poster, to listen when I began haltingly to tell him about the movie premiere and my chat with then-girlfriend Danneel. To give me a smile that was genuine, and to make a joke about why he wasn’t there. Little things, but they made a difference (They also caused me to burst into hysterical tears once I was a safe distance away…but not in a bad way…)
The first time we were invited to the set, I assumed I was still a stranger. Sure, there had been a couple of conventions, but I was one of thousands of fans who had stood next to him in the photo op room and smiled. The studio had given us strict instructions that we could interview Jared and Jensen for the book we were writing as long as we stayed on the set (presumably where there were lots of people to watch us in case we decided to….I’m not sure what actually, but just in case). We watched them film, watched Jensen and Jared joke with the guest star to put him at ease, and chat with the crew, and consume candy between takes. It was so much fun that when the PA who was in charge of us said she was sorry, filming had gone too late, there was no time for an interview, that we didn’t break down into sobs. We had already had a utopian day, and we were genuinely okay with that.
Seems we underestimated Jared and Jensen though. When they walked up to us to say hi and perhaps explain that they had run out of time, Jensen stopped short in front of me where I was perched precariously on one of those high set chairs.
“Oh,” he said, and smiled. “It’s you! We know you!”
I was dumbfounded.
Half an hour later, as we waited for a driver to take us back to our hotel, the PA came by to tell us there had been a change of plans – both Jared and Jensen were insisting on doing the interviews after all. IN THEIR TRAILERS. Needless to say, if we thought the day had been utopia before, it quickly rocketed up into actual heaven. It was way after midnight but Jensen (the last to finish filming) welcomed us into his trailer, got us drinks, and chatted until his driver finally came by to say we all really had to go. Once again, he didn’t have to do that – but he did. He and Jared answered all our questions, even the ones that were definitely out of the ordinary. As exhausted as he was, Jensen still jumped up and acted out a hilarious scene of what happens when someone sort of recognizes him in an airport but then can’t figure out who he is. I had been terribly nervous; within ten minutes, I’d forgotten about my nerves and was just having fun.
That’s another thing I love about Mr. Ackles. His sense of humor and playfulness (and those of the other actors) have made the experience of being a Supernatural fan so much more FUN than it would have been otherwise. I got back from Vegas con a few days ago and I’m still laughing about so many of the hilarious things that happened onstage. From jumping up to play the keyboards to tease Jared, to pretending to strip, to throwing back his head and full-on laughing with such contagious abandon, Jensen’s willingness to be a kid and not get hung up on being a “celebrity” makes the conventions the fun things they are. And makes my stomach literally ache after some of the panels – which I don’t mind one bit. That chemistry he had with Jared? Still there, maybe moreso. And the other Supernatural actors have jumped right on the bandwagon, to everyone’s delight.
I feel so lucky that the actors on my favorite show are who they are. That they care about the show, and the characters they play. That they care about the world and making it a better place. That they care about their fans and appreciate the support. When I wanted to write a book about how this show and this fandom have changed lives, I never thought that it wouldn’t be only the fans who would want to share their stories – it was the actors too. From those very first interviews in their trailers, Jared and Jensen have been unfailingly generous with their time and willingness to contribute to every book I’ve written. Jensen told me over and over that “I’m not a writer” when we were putting together Family Don’t End With Blood. He’d watch Jared writing his chapter and shake his head and say not me. But I knew that he had something to say, even if he didn’t want to sit down and type it out. Ultimately he gave me the words and I did the typing, and I think he’s proud of what he wrote. I definitely am.
So Happy 40th Birthday, Mr. Ackles. Thank you for caring about Dean and making him so vivid and real and alive. Thank you for pouring so much love into the bond between Dean and Sam. Thank you for bringing so much fun and laughter to conventions – for not being afraid to be playful. Thank you for the serious conversations we’ve had too, and the way you think deeply about things but sometimes try to pretend you don’t. Thank you for going way out of your comfort zone to allow that chapter to be written. Thank you for the good you’ve done in the world, with charity campaigns and just in the everyday interactions you have with so many people that allow them to feel special and valued. I hope you feel very proud of the person you are.
You can find Family Don’t End
With Blood (and Jensen’s chapter)
In the links on our home page!
PS – Thanks too for being a total effing rockstar onstage and please do not ever stop singing!