Last year I wrote a long post for Mr. Ackles’ birthday and the top five reasons he’s a pretty special person. This year, I find myself emotional in a slightly different way about Jensen’s birthday today – because this is the last year that on his birthday, he is still Dean Winchester.
I fervently hope that at some point in the future, Jensen will get to portray Dean again – and I know, because he has said it more than once – that Dean will always be a part of him. But this is the last March 1st when Jensen is Dean and Supernatural is still filming and on the air. The last birthday when Dean’s story is not yet fully told, and the character that Jensen has inhabited for the past fifteen years is still so much a part of him – likely in a way that no character will ever be again. It’s a rare and special thing to be able to play a single character for fifteen years, as he has often said; they become a part of you, a best friend who you come to love.
A few years ago, Jensen talked about a dream he’d had that really struck a chord and brought some surprisingly strong emotion. It was a dream about Dean, from Dean’s perspective. A dream in which Dean hands over the keys to the Impala to a motorcycle rider and trades vehicles – because Sam is dead and he no longer needs a vehicle with a passenger seat. Recently, Misha mentioned the dream too, saying that Jensen had shared it with him and Jared and they had all gotten emotional. At the time he had the dream, I’d had the chance to talk to Jensen about it. Perhaps, I’d said, the dream was not just about Sam losing Dean, but was as much about Jensen thinking about eventually having to say goodbye to Supernatural – to Jared, to Misha, to Bob, to Jerry, to Serge, to the crew he loves. I think that’s why it hit all three of the actors so hard to remember it now, knowing there’s only one more month of filming. It’s not like they won’t see each other or remain friends, but it will inevitably be different. Just like the everyday happenings in the fandom will change, Jensen has to say goodbye not only to Dean, but to Sam and Cas and Jack too.
So this post is a reminder of how much Dean Winchester has meant to me and to so many others, as Jensen and his fellow actors face saying goodbye to their beloved characters (temporarily at least!). A reminder that as hard as it is to say goodbye, Castiel’s words to Jack are still true. We are so lucky to have had this time with these characters – to know them and to love them. So lucky that they were here at all.
Dean Winchester, more than any other fictional character ever, taught me to never give up. That you don’t have to be perfect to be a good person, or win every battle to keep on fighting. You can be flawed, and constantly struggling, and ricocheting back and forth between good decisions and bad ones, and still hang onto the goal of doing what’s right. Of fighting every day with the purpose of saving people, hunting things. That works literally in the show, but figuratively in real life, and has inspired countless people to try to change the world for the better in a million ways.
Dean’s incredible, unshakeable loyalty and the way he fiercely, unabashedly loves those he calls family – perfectly willing to move heaven and hell to save their lives and keep them with him – has been a revelation. I’ve never encountered another character as determined as Dean Winchester. Do not get in between him and someone he cares about, because he will never ever give up making sure they’re safe.
He’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t want him to be. He can be singleminded and obtuse and lashes out when he’s hurt in ways that can hurt others (even those he cares so much about). He started out a product of the way he was raised, brittle and defended and brusque because of it. It took me a whole season to really understand the depth of emotion and vulnerability he was hiding under that gruff no-chick-flicks-moments exterior, and another fourteen seasons to understand how much it eventually cost him to let some of those walls down. His moments of vulnerability have brought me to tears again and again. I’ve been there to see how much those moments cost Jensen the real person in real time, too; how real those tears are. I’m pretty sure that’s why they get to me the way they do.
I am incredibly grateful for Dean Winchester and the inspiration he’s brought me for the past fifteen years. I’m incredibly grateful that Jensen Ackles cared so much about this character that he brought him to life and made him real, and never let him become a caricature. No matter where the story went, Jensen kept Dean being Dean. Because he cared about the closest imaginary friend he’ll ever have, as he recently said. He talks about his relationship with Dean in the chapter he contributed to the new book, There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done, and I’ll hang onto his words whenever I start to miss Dean Winchester too acutely.
I’m sure that next birthday, there will be all sorts of new things to celebrate – because this is Jensen Ackles we’re talking about. He’s talented in so many ways, and perhaps more importantly, he’s a kind and caring person who always gives 100%. There will be other acting roles, perhaps more directing. Already there’s that incredible Radio Co. album full of songs, and I’m sure that’s only the tip of the iceberg. After that dream sequence recently, maybe we’ll see him struttin’ his stuff on Dancing With The Stars (sorry, Jensen, couldn’t resist…) I’ll celebrate Jensen’s future successes and be excited for every step of his journey. This year, though, I’m wishing Jensen a happy birthday and celebrating the fifteen years he’s put into crafting the most amazing, inspiring, heroic, entirely human fictional character I’ve ever had the pleasure of ‘meeting’.
Most Supernatural fans would agree that there are plenty of reasons to adore Jensen Ackles – and his birthday seems like the perfect time to reflect on what some of those reasons are. I’m sure everyone’s list is a little bit different, so this is my own personal collection of reasons why I’ve admired Mr. Ackles for well over a decade and why I still do today.
I feel like somebody out there is going to call BS on what I’m going to say next, but it’s true – the first thing I noticed about Jensen was his acting. I casually watched the whole first season of Supernatural (and the Jensen season of Smallville) without saying OMG this guy is smokin’ hot! (That admittedly came later). Instead, I noticed him because his performance as Dean Winchester suddenly and unexpectedly made me fall head over heels in love with the show and the character. It happened as Dean and Sam were having a heart to heart, leaning up against the Impala on top of a panoramic cliff sometime in Season 2, Dean breaking down and finally sharing his guilt and pain with his brother. Somehow I had missed the nuances of the character in the first season, perhaps because I was only watching to placate a friend who had fallen for the show, but Dean’s (Jensen’s) tears and palpable anguish in that scene just flew off the screen and right into my heart. I literally let the pile of papers I was grading slide off my lap and fall to the floor as I stared open mouthed and asked out loud “How did I not realize this is the most incredible television show ever?”
There was no going back after that realization, and it was due to that performance (and Jared’s performance, because something magic happens with they’re onscreen together and I’ve never been able to separate the Winchester brothers anyway). Since that initial revelation, I’ve been blown away by Jensen’s acting again and again and again. He has broken my heart and made me sob my way through countless boxes of tissues. He has made me laugh until I was crying all over again. He’s made my heart sing with joy in those rare moments when Dean allows himself some measure of happiness and contentment (or just plain relief that someone he loves has come back from the dead….again…) I’ve never loved a fictional character the way I love Dean Winchester, and that is largely due to Jensen Ackles.
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!