Most actors want career longevity, but they may not think about longevity with one particular character. In film, they can bounce around; in television—especially for successful actors—the opposite is true. When an actor signs on to a new series, a contract keeps them locked in for an initial seven years. So much can change in that time, and what keeps the work fresh and exciting often comes down to how much an actor is allowed to evolve, on-screen and behind-the-scenes. That’s been the case for Supernatural’s Jensen Ackles, who’s gone from series star to sometime director of the hit CW drama.
Best know for Supernatural and previous series Dark Angel, Smallville, and Dawson’s Creek, Ackles got his start on sitcoms like Mr. Rhodes and Cybill before landing a prime gig on the daytime drama Days of our Lives. As Dean Winchester on Supernatural, Ackles plays a man on a mission, a soldier who would sacrifice himself time and again for his brother or his cause. The subject matter is dark, but Ackles infuses the role with wit and charm, tapping into various sides of himself, often within the same episode. Having grown from a young man trying to impress his father into a warrior suffering with PTSD, he’s a man whose soul has become so twisted that he’s literally demonized. In all of these moments, Ackles’ job has been to keep Dean relatable while getting to play a bit more than shows often allow this late in the game.
“A lot of it is relying on my instincts of playing this character for as long as I have. I don’t want to completely change my performance; it’s just tweaking and ramping it to a level that’s different from what you’ve seen with him,” says Ackles. “The lines that are written, the situations he’s in … all of that come into play, but as far as the idiosyncrasies of Dean Winchester, you’ll see that because I’m still playing Dean, I’m just playing him as a demon. So it’s more devil-may-care, more painting-the-town-red. It’s a sadistic version of him.”
“You have to have answers, and if you don’t have answers then you lose your crew.”- Jensen Ackles
While this would be a great enough challenge for many, Ackles admits that to truly push himself out of his comfort zone, it was important to step behind the camera. Having been interested in how projects are made since the early days of his career, he was finally allowed to direct an episode of Supernatural’s sixth season. In every season since, he’s been given more important episodes, continuing to challenge himself and learn some of the most important lessons about production in the process.
“As an actor, I come on set prepared to portray [Dean], to find the nuances in the scene, to play him as best as I can. As a director … every actor, set, camera movement, prop decision, visual effects decision, special effects decision—all of that is directed right at me. So I have 12 department heads coming to me every five minute saying, ‘Do you want this, or do you want this? How do you want this? If we do this, we could do this.‘ And I have to [say], ‘I want that, and here’s why.’ And I don’t ever have to think about that as an actor! So it is two totally different frames of mind,” says Ackles. “As a director, you’re an island unto yourself. You’re not collaborating with another director; you’re the sole captain of the ship, and it can be lonely up there. You have to have answers, and if you don’t have answers then you lose your crew.”
Supernatural is in its tenth season with no real sign of slowing down. This season, Ackles directed episode three, in which his on-screen brother Sam (played by Jared Padalecki), “finally catches up with Dean.” It was the first episode shot after the summer hiatus.
“Let’s just put it like this: day one coming back from hiatus, I’m directing, I’m getting back into the groove, and I’m introducing a new character, which is Demon Dean,” Ackles laughs. “And already we’ve seen him in two episodes that I haven’t filmed yet, and boom! ‘Okay, go. You’re now here, in this storyline’… I got together with [showrunner] Jeremy [Carver, who] said, ‘You know what you’re doing. We trust you.’ Which is fantastic, but also a little scary because it’s like I hope I made the right choice!”
As an actor and director, Ackles finds that if he gets a pat on the back from a co-star or camera guy after a take, he knows he’s done something right. The team vibe that comes from production is what fuels Ackles and keeps him motivated. He admits he doesn’t know what his future holds beyond the show, but he isn’t making plans to give up performing in exchange for directing, either. As long as he can continue to tell strong stories and work with people who push him to be better, he’ll be happy.
“I love working with talented people. There’s kind of a heightened sense. It’s like if you’re an amazing basketball player and you get to perform with another amazing basketball player, somebody who understands … and can elevate their game, that’s exciting, you know? It’s inspiring,” says Ackles.
Supernatural returns October 7, and airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on the CW.