When I wrote a birthday message for Jared Padalecki last year, I had no idea that this year’s birthday would take place in a world that is completely different. I thought Supernatural would be wrapped and over, and Jared would be on to his next project (which we didn’t know at the time will be Walker). I thought Jared would have celebrated the last birthday on which he was still Sam Winchester. Instead, Supernatural is in limbo with production stopped just short of the series finale, and the actors and the fans are all in limbo too until they film those last two and air the remaining episodes.
That’s a tough thing for all of us. As Jared posted a few weeks ago, being Sam Winchester and a lead actor on Supernatural has been a huge part of his identity for more than fifteen years. Having all that yanked out from under you unexpectedly is even harder than having a planned ending that you can anticipate and prepare for, surrounded by the support of the people you’ve been close to for all that time. His post was heartfelt, but there’s always mixed response when a celebrity posts something personal online. There was also speculation about why Jared has grown out his hair and his beard (during this time when he doesn’t have to step in front of the cameras). All that discussion about hair and beards made me remember some of my earliest chats with Jared, so I thought for his birthday this year, I’d throw it back to some of my favorite moments with him. Like most of us, I don’t know him well. We don’t know any of them well, even though it can seem like we do if they’ve made themselves accessible and enjoy interacting with fans like this cast does. I’ve been lucky to spend a little time with him when he’s not on a stage or at a convention over the years, so I thought I’d share just a few of the little glimpses I’ve gotten in those times of the person Jared Padalecki is – thoughtful, warm, emotional, intelligent. And a very good writer.
I first met Jared in 2007, shortly after my friend Kathy and I fell in love with Supernatural and spontaneously decided to fly across the country to see Jensen Ackles in a community theater production of A Few Good Men in Fort Worth, Texas. (Yes, our families did think we’d lost our minds) There was no fandom twitter, so fandom was connected through sporadic posts on Live Journal mostly. We happened to read that someone had spotted Jared and then girlfriend Sandy on a flight to Texas, along with speculation that maybe he was going to see his costar perform. So when we saw a very tall man in the lobby candy line trying to be inconspicuous (by putting on a hat), we knew who it was. The audience for the play was mostly the regular community theater-goers, so nobody else went over to say hello other than us. Well, me. Kathy refused to budge from the corner. I don’t know what I was expecting as a brand new and extremely passionate Supernatural fan, but Jared’s warm welcome was not it. I said it was awfully nice of him to fly all the way down here to see his friend in a community theater play.
Jared brightened, that now familiar white-teeth smile making his whole face light up.
“Of course I would, he’s my bud!”
Jared was so nice, I felt protective of him immediately.
Me: Are you sure we should take photos, right now nobody knows who you are? But if we take pictures, they probably will come find out.
He waved my concern away and posed for photos and went on his merry way, standing in the refreshments line like the rest of us and greeting Jensen’s dad with a joyful “Papa Ackles!” and a big hug for Danneel – also in the candy line.
Wow, I thought, what a nice guy. Also? He was a baby! Look at those bangs!
The first time I got to spend more than a few minutes with Jared was on our first set visit, which took place the next year, in 2008. There’s a whole chapter devoted to that in the book Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls. But what told me more about the kind of person Jared is was not the interview we did that day, but the moments in between. Kathy and I sat there rapt watching them film for an entire day, and came away with a little bit of understanding about what makes that set so special. Jared and Jensen seemed to set a tone that kept everyone from getting stressed out, from crew to guest actors, with constant jokes in between takes and then a lightning fast snap into professionalism when the cameras rolled. It was clear to us, as nobodies from the outside, that everyone making the show loved it – because everyone kept coming up to us eager to tell us about the part they played in that, with obvious pride. Every single member of the crew also had glowing things to say about “the boys”. The same thing has happened every single time I’ve had the privilege of being on that set over the years.
We soon had our own proof of how nice “the boys” are. As midnight approached, the PA who was watching over us told us that shooting had run too long, there was no way we could do interviews with Jared and Jensen as had been planned. She apologized profusely but we were fine with that – we had already had a day that was beyond our wildest fangirl dreams. Jared and Jensen, however, had other ideas. One after the other, as they wrapped, they came to find us.
“Come on, we’ll just do this on the fly,” Jared said, and we jumped down from our chairs to follow him out of the studio and onto the lot. It was pouring rain and Jared’s legs are ten times longer than ours, so we essentially ran after him as he helpfully carried our little primitive audio recorder and did the “interview” as we hurried to the makeup trailer. He kept right on answering our (rather breathless) questions in the makeup trailer, and then instead of saying goodbye, invited us into his own trailer to keep right on going! It was late at night, he was exhausted and wet and must have just wanted to go home, but he was a lovely host anyway, introducing us to his dogs Harley and Sadie and generously answering all our questions.
Here’s the part of that interview that I was reminded of when all the discussion of Jared’s hair (facial and otherwise) happened.
Lynn: It reminds me of what Eric Kripke said about this [looking at fan reaction online]. He said he likes to hear what the fans are saying, but not so that he can follow it and do it, because then he’ll lose the vision and what they love in the first place.
Jared: Exactly, exactly, and I’m lucky because I’m able to avoid the internet and opinions. I remember when I started Gilmore Girls, I was 18, fresh out of Texas, just graduated high school, pretty naïve — and the 5th episode they cut my hair. The internet was kind of new and I was like oh, weird, they write about that? Cool! And so I read about it and it was like ‘oh Dean has a different hairstyle’ and a girl was like ‘he looks ugly, he looks like a girl’, and I was like, that hurts! … I don’t know where it comes from but not only is the bad, bad, but the good is bad, even if it says ‘he looks hot, he looks better than he used to’. Even that’s bad… you get false confidence or arrogance and you know, just start focusing on vanity, which I don’t want to do. My job is to flesh out Sam Winchester how I can, not to take from a billion people, but to play it my way, otherwise all these shows would be CGI – but there’s nothing interesting in that, they would make it exactly like choose your own adventure novels, but that’s not fun. It’s like choose brown hair, etc, but that’s not interesting.
Lynn: And then you’re devoid of emotion and reality.
Jared: And history and experiences.
Lynn: That’s a really good recipe for staying grounded.
Jared: I’d like to take credit for it, but it’s nothing more than – it’s once bitten twice shy kinda thing, you know? I’m not a masochist, it hurts so I stay away. And it’s stupid that I’m hurt, but still, I am hurt.
Once again, I was struck by what a nice person Jared is, and this time also by how thoughtful and sensitive a person he is too. That conversation happened twelve years ago, which seems unbelievable now. The world has changed a lot, but what he said that day still makes a lot of sense.
He contributed to that first book for us, and then to another, and another, and another. He even read them all.
Fast forward to 2015 at a convention. Jared casually asked if I was working on another book and I said yes, I’ve heard so many powerful stories from fans about how this show and fandom has changed and even saved people’s lives, so I want to put all those personal stories together in a book so everyone will understand just how special Supernatural is. Jared considered for a minute and then said that he had a story to tell too – and that’s how Family Don’t End With Blood ended up being written by both the fans and the actors. (If Jared wanted to write a chapter, I thought, maybe the other Supernatural actors did too. They did.)
Working with Jared for the two years it took him to write his chapter in that book let me see some other sides of him. I was blown away that he wanted to share a story that was so personal in a book. He had already started the Always Keep Fighting campaign and had spoken out about his own mental health challenges, but it’s different talking about them in an interview and actually sitting down and writing the story of your own most difficult and hopeless moments, in the first person, with all the details that actually happened. It was a tremendously courageous thing for someone who is a ‘celebrity’ to do, opening himself up for judgment and ridicule – and that hurt we’d talked about so long ago – but he wanted to do it. I think there were a few times I asked, ‘are you sure?’ He was. He wanted to make a difference. He wanted to give back.
In the three years since Family Don’t End With Blood was published, I’ve heard from hundreds of people who say that Jared’s chapter did make a difference, sometimes a life saving one.
I learned about Jared’s determination too as I worked with him on his chapter. I learned that he was someone who wouldn’t get annoyed when I sent him lots of follow up emails, and that he would still smile when he saw me at conventions even though he knew I was going to ask how his chapter was coming along. I learned that he doesn’t do things half assed – I was not the one asking him to make most of the revisions that got made, that was mostly him. And I never once asked him to say more. That was him. He wanted to tell his story in a way that was real and genuine, and he kept pushing himself until he did, until his chapter was thirty pages long.
I knew, when I started putting together the final book about Supernatural last year (There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done, which came out in May), that I wasn’t going to ask Jared to write another chapter like that – he had written his heart out in Family Don’t End With Blood. He once told me it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. But he still had some important messages to get across in the new book – things he’d said at events and interviews over the past year about the show and about being Sam, that he wanted fans to know and remember. Even though he was incredibly busy trying to film the last season of the show, he also included some new thoughts about the legacy Sam Winchester leaves behind in his chapter for that book.
And he was, once again, still smiling after my many follow up emails trying to meet the nearly impossible May publication deadline. Sometimes when you work with someone, your view of them changes, and not always for the better. In this case, working with Jared on those two books made me appreciate him even more.
I’m sure Jared, like all of us, has changed quite a bit in the thirteen years between that first meeting in the candy line and now. But I think that capacity for honesty (and admission of not being perfect), innate sensitivity, and thoughtfulness about himself and the rest of the world are still what shapes him. There are so many fan-written chapters in Family Don’t End With Blood and There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done that talk about how Jared has inspired someone else. How his openness and affection have enabled change for someone, or his portrayal of Sam has given someone the strength to always keep fighting. That says alot.
I hope, on this last birthday on which he’s still Sam Winchester (for real this time), that he can continue to hang onto all those things and know that they make a difference.
That he makes a difference.
Happy birthday, Jared Padalecki! Thank you for Sam Winchester – and for being you.
You can read Jared’s chapters in Family
Don’t End With Blood and There’ll Be Peace
When You Are Done – links here on the home
page or at peacewhenyouaredone.com