Supernatural” returns for its milestone tenth season on Oct. 7, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Winchester brothers after May’s brutal cliffhanger, which saw Dean (Jensen Ackles) return from death as a demon, thanks to the Mark of Cain and the power of the First Blade.

When Variety sat down with Ackles at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour in July, the actor had just finished directing the third episode of season ten — filmed first, in order to give Ackles time to prepare for his dual responsibilities — and he admitted that it had been an interesting challenge to focus on directing while simultaneously exploring a new iteration of the character he’s played for almost a decade.

“The version that we pick up with in the season premiere is going to be a little different from what he is once we see him in episode three,” Ackles explained. “So I had to wrap my mind around where I wanted him to start and then where I needed him to end up for episode three… . I’m kind of happy it came after hiatus because I was able to purge Dean a little bit on the hiatus. It wasn’t like they dropped me right in the middle of episode ten [where] I’ve been playing Dean consistently now for several episodes, I’m in the character, I’ve got it down and now I’ve got to completely switch gears. So that made it a little easier transition. But still, you want to find the nuances that make it different but also make it consistent with what that character is, because it’s not a demon taking over the meatsuit, it is literally Dean becoming a demon… So I had to make it just different enough to where we believe that it is not Dean, but I had to make it subtle enough to keep it in the realm that it’s possible that Dean is still in there somewhere.”

For much of the show’s run, Jared Padalecki’s Sam Winchester has been in a near constant state of transition, and the actor told Variety that he believes season ten will bring Sam back to who he really is deep down: “I tease Ackles — now we get to make him play different versions of himself and I think we get to see the Sam that I love and I know the fans really connect with — the Sam that is kind of like, ‘You know what? Something’s wrong with my brother. I’m going to do whatever it takes to fix it and I’m committed and I’m going to work my ass off and try every route. I’m not taking no for an answer. I’m getting my brother back.’ So I’m really excited about that.”

As complicated as it can be to portray a character with such a tumultuous narrative arc, Padalecki said that Sam’s journey has been an actor’s dream. “We’ve had a lot of seasons of Sam going down the rabbit hole, whether it was demon blood or Lucifer or soulless or Gadreel kind of destroying things. And that’s been awesome, because that’s been like an acting clinic 101. I’ve had to do all these different versions that I really committed to,” he explained. “I wanted to make sure that the different versions of Sam didn’t seem like me doing different voices. I kept on thinking to myself, ‘Pretend you’re auditioning for a different show and the show is about this soulless guy,’ and ‘pretend you’re doing a show where you’re Lucifer.’ I didn’t want it to be ‘Sam as Lucifer’ or ‘Sam as soulless guy’ or I just use a darker voice or something. I wanted to be completely different in the eyes and the mannerisms.”

That was especially true of Padalecki’s portrayal of the angel Ezekiel/Gadreel — a character he shared with Tahmoh Penikett in season nine. “One of the best things about [last] season is people have been really kind about my performances of Ezekiel/Gadreel. I changed a lot of the dialogue into iambic pentameter because I wanted to be different. I wanted to be timeless and to me, Shakespeare and iambic pentameter is timeless and I thought that would help Gadreel appear ageless,” Padalecki revealed.

The last couple of seasons have seen the brothers at odds, often keeping secrets from each other or doubting the other’s loyalty, but Ackles believed that season ten will put them back on a road to reconciliation — if they can fix Dean’s current condition, anyway. “I think at this point there is always the common denominator that they are brothers and that will never change. No matter what they say to each other, there’s an underlying bond that is unbreakable,” he observed. “People say mean things in the heat of the moment, people say things that they wish they could take back. I believe that these brothers are a little too proud to admit that they were wrong or say that they were sorry a lot of the time, but I think it’s understood by the other brother that ‘I know he didn’t mean it’ or ‘He may have meant it, but I know that when it comes down to it, it’s not true.’”

Despite that, Padalecki admitted that he thinks a part of Sam will always crave the normal life he was denied when the show began, even if he accepts that normalcy isn’t on the cards for either of the Winchesters. “If you’ve ever truly wanted or loved something, then it never leaves. There will be an echo, you know? It won’t be tangible, it won’t be his major motivating factor, but I think Sam would welcome an end to it all. I don’t think it’s in the cards for him, I don’t think it’s his destiny, but I don’t think Sam would say no to a button that ended it all, to where he could go live a normal life,” he offered. “There will always be that side of him and it will come out, whether it was Amelia or whether it was this or that or not looking for his brother or whatever… It’s like an alcoholic — he’ll always want to go a bar at six a.m. and get drunk. He might not do it, he can’t do it, but it’ll still be there echoing in the back of his head.”

As for where season ten will pick up in the premiere, Ackles gave this tease: “A little time has elapsed; Dean has gone off and is howling at the moon, as Crowley so elegantly put it in the final scene [of the finale]. Sam is having a pretty difficult time tracking him down and obviously he’s trying to track him down so that he can save his brother from whatever it is that he’s doing or whatever he’s become. That being said, it’s difficult to find Dean because he doesn’t want to be found because he’s having a good time. He and Crowley are off painting the town red. So that makes it a little interesting on Sam and what he’s dealing with now at the beginning of season ten, and we also get to see an interesting side of Dean.”

Showrunner Jeremy Carver also offered us a hint about the season’s overarching plot, which he has previously described as being focused on who the characters truly are at their core. “There’s been a lot of years where, by the end of episode one you’re like, ‘okay, this is the myth journey of the season,’ and I think this year it sneaks up on you a little bit more. It’s not quite so in your face, because there is the immediate issue of Dean, which consumes a lot of the air in the first run of episodes and it’s very important, so when I say it’s who you are… In my mind last season was, ‘What kind of person do you want to be?’ Each character, whether it was overt or not, faced that at a certain point,” Carver explained. “This year, I think people are going to be cornered a little bit more by themselves or by others, into [realizing] ‘This is who you are, stop BSing around — be who you are, it’s time to embrace it.’ And that might be a very good thing or a very bad thing, and we’re going to see some real drawn lines… It’s very, very personal this year, not just for our two boys but to the other two regulars, Castiel (Misha Collins) and Crowley (Mark Sheppard)… The issue of family is going to be expanded in ways that we haven’t seen on the show before, and everyone’s going to have to own up to it.”

“Supernatural” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.