10:30 am EDT, April 10, 2017

Exclusive: Shoshannah Stern on deaf representation and her return to ‘Supernatural’

Supernatural fan favorite Shoshannah Stern discusses her career as a deaf actor and takes us deep inside the mind of Eileen Leahy in this dynamic interview.

Last Thursday’s Supernatural episode “The British Invasion” finally saw the season’s two biggest conflicts come together, as the British Men of Letters get wind of Kelly Kline and her devil-spawn baby. Sam and Dean pull Eileen Leahy — the deaf hunter they met in season 11’s “Into The Mystic,” who’s clearly become a close friend between then and now — in on their mission to rescue Kelly from both the British Men of Letters and the Prince of Hell, Dagon. Meanwhile, Mary has sex with Ketch, but no one really wants to think about that.

In the big showdown between the various parties, Eileen accidentally kills a Man of Letters when Dagon vanishes from in front of the Colt’s bullet, and according to the organization’s Code, this means she must die in punishment. However, Mick Davies has a crisis of faith, as we suspected was coming, and Sam and Dean are able to get Eileen to safety. Mick himself doesn’t fare so well — due to this incident, the recruitment of American hunters is deemed a failure, so it’s “assimilate or exterminate” — a kill order is put out on all of them. When Mick objects, he’s killed too.

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We’ll presumably see our hunters once more become the hunted, for the crux of the season, but until then, let’s focus on one of the most positive and least miserable parts of “The British Invasion” — the return of Eileen. Fans fell in love with this vivid character, played by Shoshannah Stern, in her first appearance, and she was the one-off character that we’d most like to see return to the show on a more regular basis.

Shoshannah Stern, who you may recognize from Jericho, Lie to Me, or, possibly most prominently, Weeds, is a deaf actor, from a fourth-generation deaf family. As well as her work on screen, she’s starred in several stage productions with the acclaimed Deaf West Theatre company, and has written and developed a webseries, The Chances, which premiered recently at Sundance. Shoshannah joined us for an in-depth conversation about her return to the role of Eileen Leahy, her experience as an actor going out for roles not initially written as deaf, and the normalization of all minority groups in the media.

In this episode, the two arcs of this season – the British Men of Letters and Lucifer’s nephilim — finally intersect in a story where Eileen, Sam and Dean face down a Prince of Hell, and Eileen accidentally kills a Man of Letters. After that ending, it feels like Eileen is still at risk — he has a double hit on her, a specific execution order thanks to “the Code” the Men of Letters live by, and the wider command to kill all the American hunters in general. What kind of state is she in after the events of this episode? Should we be worried about her? Might we see her again as the final few episodes bring things to a head?

As I know you know, I can’t confirm anything. I really hope we get to see her again (and then again and again) because I love this character. I also think it goes without saying that you’d have to be living under a rock to not worry about anyone who exists in that world. But you know what, Eileen is a tough cookie. She doesn’t scare easily. For that reason, I think she doesn’t really care about the Code as much as she does her own moral compass.

To her, killing a human, whether it was intentional or not, violated everything she stands for. In a weird way, killing Renny might have turned out to be a good thing for her, because I think that might have been the first time she realized okay, maybe I don’t need to go through things alone. She has the Winchesters now, and I think that’s the closest thing she’s ever had to family in her life. Because of how much she talked to Sam about her parents in “Into The Mystic,” I know that can’t be something that she takes lightly.

The British Men of Letters knew about Eileen’s history, but one aspect of her circumstance that the episode unfortunately didn’t have time to explore was the fact that like Sam and Dean, she’s a Men of Letters legacy — in fact, given that her family came from Ireland, she may have even been a British Men of Letters legacy. After actually meeting the Men of Letters, how do you think Eileen would feel about knowing that this is the life that her family — her grandfather certainly, but possibly also her parents, it doesn’t really sound like an inheritance you get to opt out of – adhered to?

I think for her, the hunter life is a struggle. Sometimes she wishes she could leave it behind, but it’s also been woven into the very fiber of her existence, and I think she knows just how complicated it would be trying to detangle that from everything else she is. I think because of the kind of childhood she’s had, she’s always believed being a hunter meant you had to be solitary. And now she’s discovering that might not necessarily be true.

Gif credit: cheerfulcinnamon.tumblr.com

The new friendship and connection she has with Sam is a part of it, to be sure, but seeing what Sam has with Dean has been just as valuable. Not only are they brothers, they hunt together, they have each other’s back, and maybe that’s made them stronger both as hunters and as people. Now that they’ve welcomed her into the fold, I think she’s in a place where she’s like, okay, so I got the short end of the stick as a kid, but maybe that isn’t the way it always has to be. I think that has a lot to do with why Eileen is lighter and happier now as a person than she was the last time we saw her.

Eileen is a character who helps to pad out the Winchesters’ world — though the audience hasn’t seen her since we first met her, it’s obvious that she’s been in frequent contact with them. When did you know you’d be coming back to the show, and what do you consider when stepping back into her shoes to play a relationship or a comfortability that’s clearly progressed a lot in the meantime off screen? (She seems pretty on top of the whole Actual Lucifer thing.) Do you think that this was her first trip to the bunker, or just the first one we happened to see? Also, what was working on that beautiful set like for you, given lot of your previous work on the show was (I believe) shot on location?

I’d like to think that I have a sixth sense, and so for a while, I had a feeling that I was going to come back. But a lot of that was probably hope, because I love Eileen as a character so much I actually physically missed her sometimes. Like, I’d wonder how she was and what she was up to. I also had such a great time on the show that I knew from my first day on it that I wanted to come back. I just didn’t know that I would. I was told pretty early on in the season that they were going to bring Eileen back towards the end. Even though that could have gone so many different ways, I think knowing that early on that I was coming helped a lot, because it kept Eileen alive and busy in the back of my mind, and once I got the script, it turned out that she’d been just as busy over there in the world of Supernatural too.

In terms of the relationship and comfortability you speak of, I’d like to think that a lot of the comfort and camaraderie you see between Eileen and the Winchesters onscreen is genuine. We all have kids around the same age. My girl was a few months old when we did Into the Mystic, and turned two when we were filming The British Invasion, so my family was with me both times. There’s a lot of common ground there, and it was very easy to pick that up where we left off.

As for the bunker, well, she’s a Woman of Letters, so that bunker is technically hers too, right? But I selfishly would like to think that’s the first time she’s been there, just purely because I would want to know exactly what happened if it wasn’t! And yeah, that set is great. It’s imposing, but it’s also got this very unique energy to it. I had worked on set before, luckily, and seen the bunker and war room, but actually shooting in there was very cool.

You also got to shoot in the Impala, and we got an out-take video from the post-production team of a hilarious, ridiculous group exit in the showdown between the gang and Mick Davies. Can you tell me what was even going on there? Was that like, 4 a.m. on a Fraturday and everyone had lost control of their lives? How the hell did the guys keep a straight face?

First of all, nobody had a straight face except Jensen. If we looked like we had straight faces, it’s because we have very good editors in post-production. And no, I have no idea how Jensen does it. And yes, it was maybe 5 am, it was freezing, there was snow on the ground, we were soaked and muddy from rolling around on the ground after Dagon blasted us, there was a river next to us and above us, a highway under construction plus trains coming by on the regular.

But yeah, I think besides all that, it’s just something about working with Jared and Jensen. You never know what you’re going to get. But even in my short time with them thus far, there have been so many other absolutely hilarious moments that people will never get to see, and I’m very glad I have that one to have and to hold from this day forward. These two are a gift to us all, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Before now, love interests for Sam and Dean have been introduced as that and only that, usually to serve a plot where romance gets in the way of duty or family. There hasn’t ever really been room for the more natural romances of your typical ensemble drama, where two fully-formed characters may fall in “endgame” love incidentally along the way. However, if Supernatural was ever able to integrate real romance into their story — perhaps one day when the show’s drawing to a close, if they choose to give the boys a happy ending – Eileen would be a lot of people’s number one choice to end up with Sam. It helps that not long before they met him, he mused over the possibility of finding a “something,” some day, with another hunter who knows the risks of his life. How do you feel about Sam’s chemistry with Eileen — and more importantly, how do you think Eileen feels about it, after spending the last year getting to know him better?

I can see where that comes from, particularly because I think Sam and Eileen have been written as almost a mirror image of the other. They have so many shared experiences and interests that sometimes they’re almost eerily identical. I mean, she even has a car that’s like the girl version of Baby that we didn’t get to see. That’s a shame because that car was really, really hot. At the same time, when we look in the mirror, we’re not really seeing ourselves, we’re seeing ourselves in opposition. And I think that’s true for them too. While Eileen has always been alone, Sam has always had Dean. While I think Eileen probably has had, and still has, people in her life, I think she most certainly has never had anything that even compares to what Sam and Dean have.

Gif credit: samwinchesterappreciation.tumblr.com

As a viewer, I would love to see Eileen open herself up to something else, whatever that is, be it a deeper sort of friendship or the possibility of something more, because you can’t spend your life without any meaningful connections. At the same time, as the actor who plays her, I think that would be unfamiliar and maybe even frightening in terms of the world of the show. When you open up to someone, you’re taking a risk. And every time you take a risk, you’re making yourself vulnerable. For Eileen, as a hunter, that could be dangerous. But I think she has a lot of experience with unexpected things happening to her that sometimes throw her for a loop. While her capacity for change might be slower, I think it’s definitely there, and change is always exciting, whether you’re a hunter or not. Sometimes it’s worth the risk.

I read elsewhere that you went out for Ruby, earlier in the show’s life. I’m curious about the casting process for roles not initially written as deaf (I’m assuming Eileen was) and your attitude in approaching those auditions or interviews. Were any of the notable roles that you’ve gone out for and secured similar to the “Ruby” scenario, in which the character wasn’t specified as deaf? What was that process like, and what advice would you give to any aspiring deaf or disabled actors who might not feel confident going out for roles that don’t specifically factor in their disability? Once a character is written as deaf or disabled, whether originally intended or not, how can actors tackle suggesting changes if a provided script includes incorrect or problematic presumptions about the abilities or limitations of the actor?

Yes. I did go out for Ruby. Like I’ve said before, that audition stood out for me because so much has to happen before I even get in the room that I’m not privy to. My agents have to not only submit me, but in most cases like this, actually pitch me, and the people on the other end have to be like, well, let’s just see what she can do. And just getting the opportunity to audition for a demon, that was incredible to me. I knew that I wasn’t right for it, and I knew that they knew, but just getting that audition felt like a massive accomplishment for me.

“My agents have to not only submit me, but in most cases like this, actually pitch me, and the people on the other end have to be like, well, let’s just see what she can do.”

Though I knew I wasn’t going to book the role of Ruby, and the right person absolutely did (I have a massive girl crush on Genevieve but that’s a story for another time) there have been other times when people have taken a risk on me in that sense. With Jericho, I originally went out for Emily, who was played by Ashley Scott, and they went back and wrote the character of Bonnie for me. With Threat Matrix, I went out for the role of Jelani, who was played by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (yes really) and then they came up with Holly. With Lie to Me and Supernatural, I don’t know the hows or whys of it, but somewhere along the way, they decided to write characters with me in mind and said, do you think you want to do this? And I was like oh hell yes. And that’s crazy, because with all these characters, there had to be a massive undertaking on so many levels to make it possible for me to sink my teeth into them. I’ve been very lucky.

I actually think I might prefer going out for these roles. I have auditioned for roles for characters that were written as deaf, and sometimes I don’t get them, and sometimes I do, like Megan on Weeds, and I am so very grateful for that. However, suggesting changes after the character is written can sometimes be a sticky slope, particularly in television, when that character fits into part of a larger and continuing arc. I find myself always wanting the portrayal to be as authentic as possible, and so I always offer myself up as a resource and say, hey, I’m here if the writers might have any questions about the whole deaf experience and how that might translate within the story. I’d like to think that I have some understanding of the writing process, and I certainly understand that all writers are different. Some love collaborating, and some don’t.

“There are always going to be things that I don’t necessarily agree with, whether it’s as an actor, as a deaf person, or as a woman.”

I also think that when you create a character, you usually have a specific vision of that character, whether that vision is authentic or not. As an actor, I feel you’re not going to win any battles if you don’t come into it with respect for that vision, whether you agree with it or not. There are always going to be things that I don’t necessarily agree with, whether it’s as an actor, as a deaf person, or as a woman. Even so, that can be agonizing sometimes, and so sometimes if I don’t get the opportunity to collaborate with the writers, I’ll go to the director and say, hey, here’s the thing about this, what do you think? Most people come aboard a project wanting the best thing for it, and so it usually works out to some degree. You win some battles, and you lose some. At the end of the day, however, a big part of acting is surrendering. And so, ultimately, I have to go into every job I take surrendering to the process and to the character, or else I’d really suck.

I know you’re a fan of Idris Elba’s speech to British parliament about nurturing diversity. I have extremely strong feelings about the dual responsibilities of the media when it comes to representation of any sort of marginalized group or minority – whether that’s race, sexuality or in this case, disability.

I believe that there’s a duty to give the world stories that tackle the issues or challenges faced that minority head on, allowing viewers to draw strength or understanding from them, if they need it — say, Speechless — and I believe that there’s a duty to provide stories in which people of a certain community are shown as totally normalized, that their “something other than straight-white-cisgender-able-bodied” aspect is treated as incidental — not ignored, because that’s sometimes impossible, but not at all the focus of the piece, just a part of everyday life, like in Rogue One. How do you feel about these two tracks for representation?

I think to truly encompass the brilliant ideas that Idris Elba talked about, representation can have as many tracks as it wants or needs to, but it can’t be one dimensional. Having representation on the page isn’t enough. You have to stretch that page until it becomes an entire world. It’s beautiful and thrilling to see characters that aren’t straight/white/cisgender/ablebodied on screen, but I feel like in order to truly execute that to the point where it resonates enough to manifest itself in the real world, representation has to come from all and every direction possible. While I think Hollywood is starting to understand that it’s needed in front of the camera, the progress with representation behind the camera isn’t anywhere where it needs to be.

I think if you feel drawn to telling a story about a specific minority experience, and you’re not a part of that minority, you have to examine that experience for what it actually is, and not what you think it is. And if you find that you don’t want to do that, and you’re making a movie or a show about deaf people or transgender people or orange and purple people and don’t want to bring deaf or transgender or orange and purple people on as consultants, as writers, as producers or directors or grips or anywhere else behind the camera, then tell a different story. Tell your story. Don’t tell our story for us without us.

What’s been your experience with how representation is handled on Supernatural specifically? It’s certainly a show about a couple of hot white men, but I think they do a good job first of all in respecting women as equals and women in positions of power — doctors, sheriffs, hunters. So that’s one factor of Eileen, purely as a woman, and then her deafness is also normalized.

In regards to physical disabilities, they’re pretty uncommon in an action-packed genre show where there’s no sci-fi technology to turn them into a superhero. Hunters generally need to be in peak condition and rely on all of their senses, a lot of luck, and sometimes divine intervention just to stay alive. What kind of things did you think about personally, or address with the production team, when performing Eileen? What kind of blind spots would a deaf combatant have, realistically? I’m under the assumption that it’s kind of like driving — that being super conscious that your sensory perceptions aren’t all there means that you’re on higher alert than other drivers, and never get complacent. Is it like that for Eileen and hunting?

Supernatural is extremely special in that sense. I’ve had exceptional conversations about representation with Robbie Thompson, who’s since left the show. Eileen is really his baby, and he said to me once that he wrote her (and all other characters he’s ever written) like she was the lead character in her own movie, and that’s truly remarkable. Even though she was his baby, for maybe one of the only times in my life, he approached me first to ask me for any notes I might have if he got anything wrong. And it’s not just the writers. They don’t know, because I talk a lot of shit to them, but both Jared and Jensen have done things for me on set that exhibit a rare sort of sensitivity to what I need as a deaf person in order to work.

“[Robbie Thompson] wrote her…like she was the lead character in her own movie.”

And yeah, I think that serves as yet another reason why this character means so much to me. I mean, in America, deaf people still can’t become policemen or soldiers. There are real reasons for that, granted, but to be able to step into a world where there’s a deaf hunter who hunts on her own, has for fourteen years and it’s not seen as an insurmountable obstacle she’s somehow managed to overcome, but a given, an ordinary thing… that’s been on another level. It’s beyond just, “oh, yay, I got to shoot the Colt and stab a banshee” because granted, these would be extremely cool things for anyone to do. But as a deaf person, it’s above and beyond.

I played a lot of soccer when I was younger, and for a while I played on a travel team for my city. I was the only deaf person on it, and I knew I had to work harder and faster than anyone because of that. I think Eileen’s like that too. Sure, she has blind spots. Who doesn’t? But she’s aware of them, and because of that, she’s going to know that she’s in danger before anyone else.

Still, the fact of the matter is that there’s a reason why most people come into life with the capacity to hear things. Eileen doesn’t have that capacity. There’s no way around that one. At the same time, I think most people rely on their hearing so much that they don’t necessarily maximize their other senses as much as they could. Eileen doesn’t have that problem. All her senses are maximized except the one. And so as a hunter, she’s generally been written so well that the only changes I’ve suggested are things that happen when she’s not hunting, like to make sure she could see Dean’s face as well as Sam’s on FaceTime, that people are always facing her, and of course, to insert as much sign language as I possibly can. #SPNSignLanguage, y’all!

Supernatural actors have frequently created merchandise campaigns to benefit specific organizations or charities, but I think this is the first time we’ve had a scholarship! What made you realize this was even a possibility? Tell me about the Eileen Leahy Scholarship, the #SPNSignLanguage campaign, and what Gallaudet University can offer to students.

I actually don’t even know that it’s possible, and it might still not be. We don’t have enough money for a scholarship at this point. It was kind of a crazy goal to have, but one of the most humbling aspects of my experience on Supernatural is learning just how many people see a part of themselves in Eileen. I just felt like I had to try to do something if it seemed like I might be in a position where I could. A large part of that was because I had no idea just how massive and devoted the fanbase of the show was before doing it. There’s a reason why it’s called the SPNFamily, because they feel a kinship, a sameness with the other people in it. That’s something I really relate to.

As someone who comes from a deaf family that goes back four generations, I know you have to surround yourself with people you feel that sameness with in order to understand who you are, beyond what might make you different from the rest of the world. Gallaudet University is singular in that it’s the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf people, and that it’s probably one of, if not the largest, deaf communities that currently exist anywhere in the world. So whether you identify as deaf or if you have some hearing loss and are exploring that aspect of yourself, if you go to Gallaudet, you’ll find people that share your experience and that feeling of sameness is going to benefit you in some way, shape or form.

You recently debuted your short form episodic series The Chances at Sundance Film Festival – my impression of that project is next-level normalization. This was the same project you Kickstarted, originally titled Fridays, yes? What can you tell us about that and when will we be able to see it?

I’m in love with what you said about next-level normalization, can I keep it? A couple years ago my writing partner Josh Feldman, and I wrote a pilot called Fridays, about the lives and loves of two best friends who happen to be deaf, tried to show it around town without much response, and then decided f#ck it, we’ll just do it ourselves. We shot it in a day in our friend’s apartment for $250, and then we put that up on YouTube. Our plan was to raise money for it on Kickstarter and then shoot more episodes on our own.

“96% of our backers were people we didn’t know. Most of them weren’t even deaf.”

What happened with that was kind of crazy. We raised more money than we were asking for, and very quickly. The craziest thing was that something like 96% of our backers were people we didn’t know. Most of them weren’t even deaf. They had just found our project on YouTube and felt like, yeah, I respond to this. Several really amazing publications also somehow found our project and wrote about us and what we were doing. And then a brand new and really exciting company, Super Deluxe, saw the pilot on YouTube, and so we ended up shooting five episodes with them instead.

I actually wrote the first episode for that in my trailer on the set of Supernatural when I was shooting “Into the Mystic.” Along the way, the title for that changed for logistical reasons, and so Fridays became The Chances. Our world premiere was at Sundance this past January, which I don’t think I’ve even really been able to process yet. Since that time, there have been some very exciting and very big developments, but I’m going to have to pull that really annoying thing where I say I can’t say anything about that yet, but hopefully I can soon. Very, very soon.

Follow @Shoshannah7 for updates from Shoshannah Stern.

‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW

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