I’m not alone in loving the return of Eileen Leahy on Supernatural a few weeks ago, so I couldn’t wait to interview Shoshannah Stern again. She’s crazy busy right now (with all good exciting things) but still took the time to answer my questions – which just proves all over again how awesome she is.
In her most recent Supernatural episode, the character of Eileen gets to flirt with Sam Winchester, prove what a badass hunter she is by singlehandedly taking out a demon, fire the Colt, and accidentally kill a particularly annoying British Man of Letters, for which she needs a Sam hug. As you do.
Lynn: Eileen was a fan favorite by the time that first episode in Season 11 (Into the Mystic) was over, and fans—me included–were so excited to have her back. What is it about the character that you think has clicked so much with fans?
Shoshannah: I know that for me, when I got the first draft of the script for Into the Mystic, Eileen leaped off the page and into my heart. There were just so many dimensions to her. I love that both of her episodes so far haven’t really been about her taking down monsters, but the different sorts of emotional baggage that’s left behind in their wake. There’s a side to her that’s hard, and I think that’s the side you see first, but then there’s another that’s vulnerable, and it’s kind of surprising. I also love that she can take some things seriously and take the piss out of others. And yeah, she’s deaf and shoots a Colt. None of these things are exclusive.
Lynn: I’m a huge fan of Robbie Thompson, who created the character of Eileen. In fact, everyone knows I’m still massively grieving his departure from Supernatural. He wrote some of the most iconic, memorable, fully realized female characters the show has had. What was the impact of his initial characterization of Eileen?
Shoshannah: Oh, so am I. I think that impact is still being felt. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several truly spectacular conversations with him that I sometimes replay parts of in my mind. One reason for that is that I think he may understand the importance of representation better than maybe anyone else I’ve ever encountered in my professional life. Another is that when you come on a show as guest star, it can sometimes feel as if they were born when they met the main characters and once they’ve served their purpose, they cease to exist. But Eileen felt so fully formed that it was easy to understand where she’d been and where she was going. He breathed life into her, and her being deaf was just one small part of that life.
Lynn: That’s a great way to put it – I feel like Robbie breathed life into all the characters he created for Supernatural. Where are my tissues? (composes self…) So, I’ve spent the last decade studying fandom, and one of the things that is unique and valuable about the fan community and the people drawn to that community is the sense of being different in some way and thus respecting difference across the board. How do you think that intersects with your own views on the importance of representation, and how does it impact fan reception to Eileen?
Shoshannah: I’m sure most people are fascinated when they encounter people signing in the wild, but what they don’t realize is that, at least for me, I’ve always felt pretty much the same way about people who speak. That might be what attracted me to film and television in the first place. I loved that I could see people having all these passionate, intense, funny and crazy encounters, but unlike real life, they were accessible to me because on my television, they were captioned. I think it’s part of human nature to be curious about other people and their lives. We’re all so different and yet so similar. But for anything on television or in film to be successful, it has to feel authentic. Like, if someone seems like they’re acting, then they’re really bad at it. I think the same thing applies with representation. If it looks like you’re trying to represent something, you’re probably not. It’s so easy for me to tell when actors who aren’t deaf are playing characters that are because I can see in their faces that they’re thinking about how being deaf would affect everything they do. In reality, you don’t think about it. You just live it. Representation just is, and I think that’s why people respond when it’s authentic.
Lynn: That makes so much sense. And the actors on this show, you included, make it authentic. Fans definitely love how badass Eileen is too, and she got to show that off in this episode — I particularly loved your delivery of “Demon” in response to the demon’s “Hunter.” How do you decide on the inflection to use in dialogue like that, when so much rests on the way the line is delivered?
Shoshannah: I really don’t think about stuff like inflection, just because stuff like that just isn’t in my vocabulary. Hearing and speaking aren’t things that come naturally for me. I’ve spent years and years sitting in speech therapy and audiologists’ offices learning how to do these things and mostly wishing I could be outside playing soccer. And I’m still not that great at it. Inflection is a very fine tuned and precise thing. You have to be able to pick out specific intonations and syllables, and I just don’t have that facility. When I take on a role where I’m voicing for myself, I deliver the line the way it makes me feel. And if that doesn’t land, the director tells me to do it again. And sometimes again and again. But that didn’t happen in that particular case.
Lynn: That line totally worked, everything about it. One of the things I love about Supernatural is that the cast and crew and writers — everyone — really cares about the show and works hard to ‘get it right.’ I noticed that every time Sam or Dean was having a conversation with Eileen, they made sure that she could see them speaking. I remember you told me last time that part of your characterization of Eileen was that she was very good at reading lips. Is that attention to detail something you discussed, or just Supernatural and its cast being good at what they do?
Shoshannah: I always make sure I bring stuff like that up in my initial conversation with the director, so we won’t run into a problem if they have this big fancy idea for a shot later on. But it happened to come up with Jared because I’ve never had a problem reading his lips in any of the conversations we’ve had. But anytime we happened to improvise on camera; I would have absolutely no idea what he was saying. I mentioned that to him when we did Into the Mystic, and he said oh okay, so Sam is an asshole. I said, like, well, that’s better than the other way around. And then when I came back to the show, one of the first things he said to me was, you know what, I watched myself on the show after you said that and you’re right, I didn’t even know I speak differently when I’m playing Sam, but I guess I do.
Lynn: That’s true, he does – Jensen and Misha do too when playing their characters.
Shoshannah: Most people don’t ever stop and think about that stuff because they don’t have to. I thought that was pretty cool.
Lynn: I guess that is the Supernatural cast being good at what they do – and caring about what they do and who they do it with. That’s a great story. I also really loved that Sam was given the opportunity to sign something again and this time to get it right—at least I think he got it right. I also loved that he got to sign ‘mistake,’ which seemed to refer back to Sam’s difficulty signing in the first episode you did. Was all this scripted, or was any of it added to or embellished by you or the boys?
Shoshannah: This time around it wasn’t scripted. We shot that fun scene in the war room right before that other heavier scene, and we were all playing around with some signs I had taught them. Both of them were actually pretty good at it. And our director John Showalter is just the sweetest, most collaborative person. He was pretty much like if you see anything in the script you feel should be signed, then just go ahead and do it. So I was just like hey Jared, listen. You need to sign this one thing. He didn’t really have a choice. But he was like, please please just tell me that what I’m doing here really means what you say it does. He was petrified that I might be pranking him. I was like dude, ask my interpreter! And she came around from behind the camera, and he wouldn’t really let me look when he showed her in case there was this big conspiracy. He was like, does this really mean mistake? And she was like yes. Even then I don’t think he was completely convinced.
Lynn: (laughing) That’s the price of playing pranks a lot, I guess. You live tweeted the episode when it aired, which is always awesome — care to share any of the (not G rated) things the boys learned to sign?
Shoshannah: On my god, no! I can’t. I’d be embarrassed to say. Not only because they were really random and bizarre things but also because it was wholly and completely me who instigated all this. But it’s also their fault because they bring out some kind of inner frat boy I didn’t know I had.
Lynn: I feel like they bring that out in a lot of people. There is undeniable chemistry between Sam and Eileen – it was obvious even in the flirty way Eileen says “bye Sam.” Was that scripted—like, Eileen says in a flirty manner–or was that your take on how Eileen would probably have said it?
Shoshannah: All that was scripted. It was on the page. I was so bad at it. I was asking John [the director] if I could be funny with it, and he was like, no, listen, Shoshannah, you need to try to be sexy. And I was like right, the key word here is: try.
Lynn: I think that’s part of Eileen’s charm, so you weren’t bad at it at all! I loved that little moment. And while I actually hope that the show never tries to add an actual romantic relationship to Sam or Dean’s lives–because I just don’t think it’s that show or that it makes sense for the way the Winchesters live–I do really hope that Eileen survives and returns. And I wouldn’t mind more of that flirting. Do you think the character’s chances are good considering what an experienced hunter she is, or is the British Men of Letters’ death sentence likely to do her in?
Shoshannah: I agree. It’s a show about a world that has a lot of darkness in it. I think that’s why it’s cool to see the lighter side of these characters, particularly two hunters, like Sam and Eileen, whose job is to go up against that darkness everyday. But the difference between that world and ours is that we can’t always fight the kind of darkness we have in ours. But in their world, that danger is always real. It’s not imaginary. While I think Eileen is probably one of the more capable and skilled hunters out there, I don’t know how you could not worry about anyone who exists in that world. But the cool part is that in their world, there are no rules. Anything could happen.
Lynn: So true, you never really know with Supernatural. I enjoyed that in this episode, Eileen got to interact with both brothers. I got the feeling that she now feels close to both Sam and Dean. What has been the impact of getting to know them and seeing their closeness on Eileen, who has always had to go it alone?
Shoshannah: I think you’re right about that. I know that a part of her initial and immediate connection with Sam in Into the Mystic was that she was questioning the hunter life. And then she quickly realized that for better or worse, it’s not the kind of life that’s easily left behind. I’ve said before that at first I didn’t feel like Eileen being a love interest for Sam made sense in that kind of world. But then again, friendship is absolutely one kind of love. How do you define what a love interest is? Having a one night stand with someone isn’t necessarily going to change your life, but having a real connection with someone who shares your experience can. Leading a solitary life is lonely, even if it’s by choice. I’m happy Eileen has the Winchesters there with her in that life now, and that it’s pretty clear they have been since Into the Mystic.
Lynn: I agree with that totally. I’m gonna cross my fingers for that. You also got to spend some time being hugged by Jared–and from your tweets, apparently being hugged by Jensen too. In your opinion, how would you rate them as huggers? Personally, I think they’re pretty good – except when they don’t know their own strength!
Shoshannah: I mean, they’re okay. I wasn’t mad at it….
Lynn: That’s very nice of you. (ahem). So, the SPNFamily is known for their support of causes which resonate. Can you say a little about the Eileen Leahy scholarship (to help a Supernatural fan attend Gallaudet University, Shoshannah’s alma mater) through the #SPNSignLanguage tee shirt campaign?
Shoshannah: It’s more of an attempt at a cause than anything else right now. A scholarship is a pretty big goal to have, but I mean, why not try? Like I’ve said before, I was dumbfounded at just how many people reached out to me and said they saw a part of themselves in Eileen. A lot of people don’t realize that 9 out of 10 deaf people are born to hearing families. And so, like Eileen, they don’t always necessarily know that there are other people out there that share their experience. It isn’t always easy to find deaf communities around you. You have to really seek them out. Sometimes that means leaving home, and not everyone has the resources to do that. So after I saw how many members of the SPNFamily reached out to me with questions about how to embrace that specific part of themselves, I just wanted to try to see if I could help do that for one of them. I hope that I can.
Lynn: I hope so too. And I’m hoping the big news you mentioned to me is about your new project, The Chances?? I wrote about Fridays, as it was called at the time, quite excitedly in our first interview, so I was thrilled to hear the updates. If there’s anything you can share, please do!
Shoshannah: I feel like creative things tend to happen in clumps, and so all the stuff that I’ve had happen with The Chances has been weirdly integrated with the stuff I’ve had happen with Supernatural. I feel like they have both fed off the other in some way. I wrote the first episode of The Chances in my trailer when I was shooting Into the Mystic, and I did The British Invasion almost right after it premiered at Sundance. I feel like playing Eileen had a lot to do with that. I kind of had to tap into a side of me that I didn’t really know I had, and because of that, I feel like I need to thank Supernatural and the SPNFamily for helping me make The Chances. I can’t wait to share it with you as soon as I’m able! It’s all very exciting and very cool.
Lynn: Something to look forward to.
I had also invited Shoshannah and some other SPN actors to the book release party for my new book, Family Don’t End With Blood: Cast and Fans on How Supernatural Has Changed Lives. If any SPNFamily would like to join us, info and tickets are at familydontendwithblood.com.
Lynn: And I’m hoping you’ll still be able to come to the book release party for Family Don’t End With Blood on May 10 in LA too. Fingers crossed!
Shoshannah: Oh I do too!
Keeping my fingers crossed for the return of Eileen to the show too. Who’s with me?
More information on The Eileen Leahy Scholarship: http://www.shoshannah-stern.com/blog/?page_id=457
More information about The Chances: http://series.superdeluxe.com/thechances/