“Supernatural” star Jared Padalecki has headlined the hit CW series for 10 seasons alongside Jensen Ackles, and, like many public figures, has used his name recognition and fervent fanbase to help support a number of charitable causes throughout his career, including A Dog’s Life Rescue and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Now, Padalecki has launched a T-shirt campaign through Represent.com to benefit nonprofit organization To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), which supports people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.
The CW’s actors are a philanthropic group, with Padalecki’s “Supernatural” co-star Misha Collins founding nonprofit organization Random Acts to promote and facilitate good deeds across the world, and “Arrow” star Stephen Amell continuing to raise money for F— Cancer through his own Represent T-shirt campaign. Padalecki credits Amell with inspiring him to launch his “Always Keep Fighting” shirt, which is on sale at Represent through March 17.
Variety spoke to Padalecki about his passion for the cause and his personal experience with depression. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, but formatted to allow Padalecki to share his story in full.
Variety: How did the campaign come about?
Padalecki: I, for a long time, have been passionate about people dealing with mental illness and struggling with depression, or addiction, or having suicidal thoughts and, strangely enough, it’s almost like the life I live, as well. These characters that we play on “Supernatural,” Sam and Dean, are always dealing with something greater than themselves, and I’ve sort of learned from the two of them that they get through it with each other, and with help and with support. And I, in the past, have had my own struggles of not [being] so happy with where I am in life, which is strange and I think it goes to show. … Maybe a lot of people don’t know this, but Season 3, we were shooting an episode, and I went back to my trailer to get changed and just kind of broke down.
A doctor came to set and talked to me for about 30 minutes or 45 minutes and said: “Jared, I think you’re clinically depressed. I think I should write you a note and we can shut down production for five days and then we can take it from there.” And it kind of hit me like a sack of bricks. I mean, I was 25 years old. I had my own TV show. I had dogs that I loved and tons of friends and I was getting adoration from fans and I was happy with my work, but I couldn’t figure out what it was; it doesn’t always make sense is my point. It’s not just people who can’t find a job, or can’t fit in in society that struggle with depression sometimes.
Luckily, two of my great friends, Jensen who everybody knows very well, and my friend Kelly who I work with, came to my trailer to check in on me and talked to me for probably an hour or so and then, I was like, “All right guys, I’m going through a tough time right now. I don’t know what it is, but I’m just going to keep my legs moving. I’m going to keep fighting.” They let me go that day. They were like, “Hey buddy, go home. Call your family, and you’re off work. Come back to work tomorrow.”
So I went home, and the next day I showed up for work and just kind of gradually got better, but it’s something that I’ve been passionate about for a while. Then, Mr. Amell himself did a T-shirt campaign to raise money for F— Cancer and as soon as that happened, I think I saw him over the summer, he came to visit me in Austin and he was like, “It’s incredible. The fans have rallied around this great cause and are helping raise awareness.”
Obviously, cancer is fairly ubiquitous, and if you don’t have cancer, you know somebody who does. My father has cancer and has had for many years. I’ve lost many people to cancer. Our show has lost somebody incredible, Kim Manners, to cancer.
So people are aware — though it still can use all the awareness and research funds possible — and it occurred to me in the back of my head that this was something that I wanted … I didn’t mention it then, but a charity dealing with depression and addiction and suicidal thoughts and mental illness was something that I would love to do this T-shirt for, whenever it happened.
Finally, I guess it was in January, Stephen was like, “Dude, you’ve dragged your feet long enough, let’s get this going. What do you want to do? What kind of shirt do you want?” And I was like, “All right,” and I had just lost another friend — not the first friend, unfortunately, I’ve lost to suicide — but I lost a friend here in Vancouver who I knew for 10 years and he lost his battle with depression.
So I was like, “All right, this just makes sense.” Funnily enough, we were doing a show specifically about suicide and it was like the world beating me over the head with a stick: This is what you need to do. This is what you can help raise awareness and funds for and help to start a conversation to hopefully destigmatize these things that people are — for no good reason — ashamed to have, and there’s no shame in it.
I say constantly that there’s no shame in dealing with these things. There’s no shame in having to fight every day, but fighting every day, and presumably, if you’re still alive to hear these words or read this interview, then you are winning your war. You’re here. You might not win every battle. There are going to be some really tough days. There might be several tough times in any given single day, but hopefully, this will help somebody to think, “This isn’t easy; it is a fight, but I’m going to keep fighting,” and that’s why we did this shirt.
Then they insisted that I have my face on it, which I really didn’t want [laughs]. But they convinced me that it would help add a connection and help maybe start a conversation, as opposed to, if you see a shirt that says “Always Keep Fighting” and there’s nothing on it, they might think somebody is a UFC fan or something. But if you see some floppy-haired weirdo with that message, you might think, “That doesn’t make any sense; guy doesn’t look like he’s fighting.” Maybe they’ll question it and someone who’s wearing the shirt is brave enough to say, “You know, I’ve dealt with some stuff in my past,” or “My loved ones deal with some stuff,” and “Every day is a fight for me. Maybe not every day anymore. Maybe once a week or once a month, or once a year … but I remembered to always keep fighting.”
I didn’t want to say, “Never Give Up,” because to me, when you say “never give up,” it makes it sound like you’re being beaten down. It puts you on the defense, as if your only option is either to give up or to get beaten up.
I don’t want somebody to wake up and say, “Don’t give up today — I hope this isn’t the day I get beaten down.” I want somebody to wake up and brush their teeth and think to themselves like, “Today’s not going to be easy. Today’s going to be a fight, but I’m going to fight.”
Not like, “I hope this doesn’t beat me,” but “I’m going to continue to beat this today and every time it gets tough.” And if you’re struggling with addiction and whatever your addiction is, drugs, or booze, or food — walking past a pizza with your name on it and you just know where that leads, just treat it as a fight. Instead of saying “I hope I don’t give in,” I want people to say to themselves, “I’m going to win this fight.”
Even if there are a thousand small fights, even if every other minute you’re thinking about suicide, or depression, or addiction, or if you have mental illness, I want people to hit it head on and take action. And to be proud that they’re winning their fight, period.
I am consistently awed by our fans and by the community that is aware of these shirts and supporting it and being vocal about it and I’ve read some amazing posts on Twitter and Facebook about people who are saying, “I’ve been depressed for so long. I’m embarrassed to talk about it, but it’s going to help me talk about it,” and I think that’s such a big step. It takes that. Bearing your struggles alone, I don’t think we’ll get very far.
Variety: You recently wrote in a Facebook post that the episode you were filming when the shirt launched also deals with suicide. Was it just coincidental timing?
Padalecki: Yeah, a bit coincidental. I mean, “Supernatural” does already sort of deal with [those themes] … every season, Sam and Dean are dealing with something greater than themselves and they have to either rely on the help of another, or a greater influence to help them get through it.
It was sort of coincidental that this [was the] episode that we happened to be shooting during the launch of the T-shirt — I knew what the T-shirt was going to be, and I knew what the charity was going to be weeks ago when we were shooting three episodes ago. I didn’t know when we were going to launch. I didn’t know if it was going to be after the T-shirt was done, or after whenever it takes to print a silk screen, and I fought tooth and nail to not have my face on the picture … [laughs]. So it just so happened that we launched while we were doing scenes about characters who had their battle. So yeah, it was a remarkable coincidence.
Obviously, this show is very fantastical. You know, people die and they come back to life, there are zombies and ghosts and demons and angels, so in a sense, it’s a sci-fi show, but in my opinion, what the science-fiction genre allows us to do is openly talk about various human issues and very important themes and there are things that are difficult to do on [other] shows … we’re able to tell a story without shoving the story down the audience’s throat.
We’re able to tell it in a very “Supernatural” way … we’re not saying people are legitimately possessed by demons, but if you’re possessed by an urge to do a drug or to harm yourself, or to beat yourself down, then you have to beat those demons as we try to do on “Supernatural.”