This television season has been a big one for Shoshannah Stern. The writer-producer-performer released the second season of the Sundance comedy she co-created with Josh Feldman, “This Close,” and she also returned to the CW’s “Supernatural” to literally resurrect the character of Eileen Leahy.
After being killed by a hellhound in the 12th season of “Supernatural,” Eileen returned to the 15th and final season first as a ghost who was able to escape hell when Chuck/God (Rob Benedict) opened the rupture. Rather than a one-and-done guest star appearance before the series signed off for good, though, Sam (Jared Padalecki) does a spell to bring her back to life and she bonds with the Winchester brothers anew.
Returning to the show after two successful seasons of running and starring in her own show, Stern says, has given her “a better understanding of all of the pieces that have to come together” to make something work well creatively and functionally.
“I used to feel a lot more anxiety and pressure as an actor before I did my own show because I felt as if I had to get everything absolutely right. I still feel like I want to get everything right because I care deeply about the process,” she admits, but “I hope doing the show has allowed me to become a better partner when it comes to collaboration because there’s hopefully more to trust.”
Here, Stern breaks down learning about Eileen’s return and what it took to slip back into her skin after so much time away, Eileen’s new relationship with Sam and how she might be most helpful in taking on Chuck.
Many characters come back from the dead on “Supernatural,” but the way Eileen came back was with a little bit of rewriting the lore that had been established seasons earlier. What were the conversations like between you and the writers about why Eileen was able to receive that special treatment?
I’ve always wanted to come back to the show, but the more I learned about the lore the more it seemed like that in Eileen’s particular case, she’d probably have to stay dead. So even when I found out I was coming back, I didn’t know why or how for a while. I thought that it was going to be a one-off thing, like a flashback of some sort, but I was down for that. Eileen means so much to me that I was just like, “I’ll take whatever I get.” Then I did a panel at Comic Con last summer and saw Robert Berens in the audience. I love him as a writer and follow him on social media, but I’d never had the actual opportunity to meet him until then. He’s just so open and warm and welcoming, and we immediately had the best, most profound conversation about Eileen that floored me because of how much thought he’d clearly put into all that. And then he was all, “So they’re announcing your return this weekend! And also what Eileen gets to do is going to be so cool!” I was like, “Wait… what?” So that’s really how I found out. I always offer up myself as a resource every time I do something because collaboration is my favorite thing about what I do. With that said, each writer is different when it comes to that, so it’s always a very fluid thing. It just happened that Meredith Glynn wrote that first episode, and the collaboration we built together out of that has become a friendship. With that said, I think I have a built in self-protection mechanism in that I kind of refuse to let myself realize the magnitude of things I do until after I’m done. I’m also not super fluent in the lore that comes along with it, because it’s super-smart and probably too advanced for me. So while I can now recognize that the way Eileen came back was really special, I don’t think I allowed myself to while I was actually doing it. I think it’s a testament to Robbie Thompson’s legacy because he created the character of Eileen. Because of how he molded her, they were determined to have her come back somehow, even in a way that’s never happened on the show before. And that’s pretty cool.
Often when characters come back from the dead, they are forever changed — sometimes because they are not fully themselves, sometimes because they just have had new, crazy experiences — how did you want to see Eileen changed in this final season?
Change is inevitable because all characters grow from the experiences they’re given. Growth is change. I’ve had time to think about this because some fans of the show had very nicely wanted to see Eileen come back in different ways throughout the seasons. When the show was doing the AU, I probably wouldn’t have said no if they had decided that’s where they wanted to go with her, but in my bones I had always wanted to see Eileen back the way she’d been before. She’s such a special character because she has this really interesting mix of strength and vulnerability, and I didn’t want to see her lose that and become someone who’s more jaded or bitter. With that said, when they did bring her back, playing her as a ghost was a bit difficult because she was so sad and traumatized at first. But even underneath that, I think Eileen never really gives up and that’s why she was able to get out of hell in the first place. Once there was that possibility of things being different, the kind of hope and openness that infused everything she said jumped off the page for me, and so I let that take over in how I played her. Hope is a powerful antidote, the only one we have against fear. I think that’s such a gigantic part of who Eileen is, and that’s what I love about her.
How much do you want to layer your performance with what Eileen went through when she was dead? Is her time away weighing on her?
One thing that was especially sad about Eileen being in hell is how it probably took away her ability to communicate with any of the other beings there. I’ve seen the set and the way it’s lit, and it’s so dark in there that I think she probably had to have been alone with her thoughts for several years. The memories of her life and the connections that she made, the things that she might have been afraid of doing were probably the only conversations she had for years, and they were all with herself. So I think now that she’s back, she doesn’t want to waste any more time being stuck in her head or having regrets or being afraid of things. She wants to be in the moment, feel what she feels and do what she wants to do. Eileen’s also never really had a family or a home; she’s always been pretty solitary. So I think that the newfound joy of having a home and sharing it with people who will always have her back is something that’s so new and almost like a drug she hasn’t come down from. But that’s inevitable, and that all that she went through has to catch up to her in one way or another.
What is it about Sam that Eileen is connecting to at this point in her life/story?
I think one thing they have in common, and there’s a lot there, is that they give without any real agenda. But I think the significance of him bringing her back probably isn’t lost on either of them. This spell works only once, and so Sam really could have brought anyone back, but he chose Eileen. Yes, he’s a good person, but he’s also a strong person that stands up for what’s right. I don’t think he would have had any problem saying, “Sorry Eileen, but I can’t use this spell on you” if it wasn’t the right thing for either of them. But he didn’t hesitate. Because of that I think it kind of shows that even though their connection was brief, it was significant. Now that Eileen’s gotten a second chance, especially considering that Sam was the one to give it to her, I think she’s become fearless in potentially exploring that connection. I think it’s probably one that she reflected on quite a bit when she was in hell. I think that’s why it was especially meaningful for her to find out that Sam has also been there, because he understands better than maybe anyone else where she is at this place in time.
When Eileen is paired with Sam, do you consider her a good balance/counterpoint to him? Or do they make a good team because of their similarities?
Their origin stories are basically the same. I’ve never verified this with Robbie, but I’ve always felt that Eileen was written as a mirror image of Sam. The audience was first introduced to Sam as a baby, way back in the first episode with his mother burning on the ceiling, in the same way that Eileen was introduced in “Into the Mystic.” They both have or have wanted to study law and get out of hunting, they both hunted down the monster that killed their parent and found it lacking. They’ve died, gone to hell, and come back. Character wise, they both have this stubborn sense of morality they cling to, and are fiercely loyal. But I also think that Eileen, being more newly reborn, has a bit more hope at the moment that maybe Sam has, but because of that I think she may be making him feel a bit lighter. And I think one major difference between them is that while Eileen has always been alone, Sam has always had Dean. I think that’s why Sam feels more comfortable being a bit more unsure of things. Sam might be the most important person Eileen’s ever had in her life, and that’s a lot of responsibility to place on someone. So while I like this new and refreshing free-spirited side of her, I think Eileen should probably do what Sam is doing now and evaluate her new lot in life a bit more.
In recent seasons, it has taken the whole hunting team — whoever has been left standing in that particular time — to take on the big bad of the season. What particular strength or trick up her sleeve do you think Eileen has that will be most helpful in trying to stop Chuck?
One thing that I love about Eileen is that she’s written as such a strong and capable hunter because she uses her whole body instead of relying on one sense. Even so, I think her biggest strength is that she’s fiercely loyal. Even after just coming back from the incredibly painful and draining experience of hell, she was almost immediately happy and hopeful, and it felt like there might have been a palpable shift in the mood in the bunker because of that. That’s hard to do and I think it takes an incredibly strong person to pull that off. I think that, along with her faith in the Winchesters and in what’s right, are her strongest weapons. But I think she wears a lot on her sleeve, like we saw when she attacked Sergei. That was all her wanting to protect Sam, without any smoke or mirrors. Misha [Collins] actually asked the director, Amyn [Kaderali], to give me a knife, because he wasn’t sure size-wise I would conceivably be able to take down someone as big. But the knife didn’t feel right. I was grappling with it and so it actually felt less real to me, but I had to really convince everyone with my performance, so there was a lot of pressure. But then after I did it, Misha just casually said, “Yeah, OK, about that, I was wrong.” But I think that’s how Eileen hunts: with her heart, and she’ll continue to use it as fiercely as possible.
It feels like the way Eileen walked away from Sam and Dean (Jensen Ackles) in “The Trap” can’t be the end to her story. Would you be happy with it if it was the last time we saw her in this run of the show?
It doesn’t feel like it’s the end to her story to me either. Even so, that bit wasn’t easy to film because it was the last thing I had to do. I knew I’d be leaving for a bit, at the same time that Eileen was. So it was weirdly serendipitous, and we kind of kept tearing up even when the camera wasn’t rolling. But with this being the last season, it’s kind of always the last of something on set so the value of things are heightened in a way that forces you to stay present and appreciate all that’s in front of you in the moment. I had a project waiting for me in L.A. that I needed to start pretty immediately, but they were kind enough to remain very flexible just so I could accommodate my schedule with the show. A lot of that is because they know how important it is to me, and that commitment isn’t going to change from my end. You’re only sad if things mean something to you, so there’d be so much gratitude prompting that sadness whenever her story actually does end. But no. I refuse to believe that what we saw is the end of her story just yet.
How did you feel most changed, stepping back onto the set of “Supernatural” after running and starring in your own show?
When Eileen first appeared on “Supernatural,” I hadn’t even done the web series yet. I actually wrote that in my trailer because my daughter was a baby at the time, so there wasn’t a lot of time to do what I needed to do. … For better and for worse, it’s not just all on you as an actor. … Being an actor is how I started as a writer, because I’d always have ideas about what my character would say or do, but now it’s maybe less weird than me being like, “Hi! My name is Shoshannah, I play this character and I have notes!” One cool thing is that I was on set when the news first came out about the remake of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Even though that’s going to be on a much bigger scale, it felt really significant to be able to sit down and have an open conversation with Jared about all the anticipation and hesitancy that comes with being a producer on a show you also star in. It was really constructive to be able to share all the things that I know now that I wish I knew then and it helped me really put a shape to it all for myself. You never step in the same river twice, and it won’t be the same for him, or even for me if I get to do this again, but now that “Walker” is a go, I know Jared will have that conversation with someone else in the future and it will be just as beneficial for both of them.
What did it take for you to say yes, you wanted to come back for this final season?
It didn’t take much. I was a cheap date. I said yes right away. I really didn’t care how we saw her again, I just knew from the first time I played Eileen that this was a character that was really important to me, and I always knew that I wanted her to come back, even when she was alive. I’d like to think that I always knew she would, but it’s sometimes difficult to separate what you want from what you think will happen. I remember when I found out that this was the last season, I felt sad about it, but then I said to someone, “Well, maybe now that will force their hand and we’ll have to see Eileen again.” It might have been wishful thinking, but I always felt like she had so much potential. But I never anticipated she’d be given so much to do, especially with the story winding up. It’s a testament to the value of the character, but it’s also been humbling to be able to play that. I’m very grateful.
What did it take to slip back into Eileen’s skin after so much time away?
A lot has happened in my life since she’s been away from the show, which kind of weirdly resonated with the character and made it surprisingly easy for me to come back to her. I think both Eileen and I have faced things in our respective lives that may have been painful, but have helped put a lot in perspective. We’ve realized that ultimately we have to be comfortable with who we are and what we want in life. Recognizing that is has made us face our fears in a way that’s made us more comfortable in our skin. I think we’re both more open and invested in our connections to people and so, being on set for such an extended period of time really endeared all the people on set to me. It was only natural that I would feel that way about the people on set of my own show, but I feel the same way about people on the set of a show that’s not mine, so that in itself illustrates how meaningful it was for me to be able to come back to her.
What do you hope Eileen’s legacy is after the show ends?
This show is such an important part of so many people’s lives. When I did my first — and only — convention, I was amazed at how many people turned out for Eileen. But I realized that the way the Winchesters live their lives are kind of analogous to people who have disabilities, whether they’re invisible or visible, because the surface of what their lives seem to be doesn’t necessarily match how it actually is. They have this thing that makes them different than what the world perceives as normal, and so they therefore require a hidden network of people who understand that life. I think might be one reason why Eileen had that sort of impact on the fanbase. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a deaf person kick ass the way that Eileen does and I’ve certainly never played that before. Deaf or disabled people are usually the victim, not the one who rescues. The fact that she is such a viable love interest is not insignificant either. So many times people don’t see people with disabilities as feasible relationship material. Because of that they’re often desexualized and written off, especially in that particular sort of way, but it’s something that is so central to the human experience, and it’s something that people deserve to have if they’re so inclined. And so the fact that the main character of the show is interested in a deaf woman in that way is something that I believe is the opposite of reductive. It’s enhancing, not just for the a character, but for young people with disabilities in the audience. I hope they see themselves the way that Sam sees Eileen and realize that they can, should, and will be seen that way by people that are important to them and to the world, because that carries an inordinate amount of weight.
What are you taking away from shooting this final season that you will apply to future working experience, including a new season of your own show?
One valuable thing that I learned from all this is something that I was actually concretely able to do — and that’s shadowing the great Richard Speight Jr. as a director. He’s someone that I kept touching base with once I started this journey as a creator, and he actually kind of sparked the idea of possibly directing material myself because we’re similar in that we both kind of cut our teeth on “Jericho” and now we’re doing different things in the same field. He’s become such an invaluable resource to me and so he was really the perfect person for me to be able to learn from. But that’s something that literally wouldn’t have happened without the help of [executive producers] Jim Michaels, Andrew Dabb, and Bob Singer. It’s very difficult for deaf people to get the opportunity shadow because of the added layer and logistics of accessibility. It takes so many people to commit to saying yes and all that will entail, but these guys made it possible. I was also able to talk to Jensen about the specific challenge of directing something that you’re also starring in, which was something that was intimidating for me. What I learned from all these guys is that directing is really about solving problems, and that’s something I’ve really learned how to do in the experiences I’ve been given recently. So hopefully directing is something that I’ll be able to execute in the future.
When the show comes to an end, what do you anticipate your involvement with the property to be?
Stands knows that I will do anything they ask. That’s a partnership that will hopefully continue until they can’t stand me anymore. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of charity work and I’m very grateful to them for making that a reality for me. As for conventions, the one that I did was an amazing experience, and I look forward to hopefully being asked back. To be completely forthright, I think the convention world has been very slow to recognize and understand the specific responsibilities and the resulting advantages of accessibility. Accessibility is not charity. It’s not something people do out of the kindness of their heart. I’ve lost count of how many times fans have reached out to me for help when conventions don’t want to provide interpreters or ramps or captions. The sad part is I think that it’s probably true on both sides of the stage. With that said, my experience meeting the fans was so enriching I’d love to come back if I was invited. I think there’s an opportunity in that to spread more awareness about accommodations in an organic way, and if that’s a part of what I can do, then that’s what it’s going to be, but both sides have to be committed to that in order for that to happen.
How do you feel most changed by your involvement with “Supernatural”?
From the very beginning, “Supernatural” has been weirdly intertwined with my growth into the person that I am now, who is hopefully going to evolve in the person I’d like to be. It’s kind of been the catalyst for so many important events in my professional life, and so even if it seems like “This Close” and other projects I’ve done/will do don’t have anything to do with the show, inside me, it feels as if they’re all connected. The show has constantly challenged me to do things I haven’t done before, and that’s given me the confidence I needed to push myself further. The most recent development is all the stunts that I was given to do in this season. I had to do at least one physical thing in every episode that I did. I’d shot guns before, but there aren’t necessarily a lot of physical things that are usually given to characters that are deaf, so I was kind of intimidated by the thought of doing that. But it felt really stimulating to do that, and it actually made sense on a corporeal level because once I thought about it, stunts are a way for characters to communicate in a way that isn’t verbal. And so I see that coming out now in the things that I write and it’s a really cool thing for me to explore. But I think the biggest lesson in all this for me in all this is that “Supernatural” has proven there is a place for a character who is deaf in any world that exists out there. I think I’d always tried to believe that before I did the show, but sometimes that belief felt thin, as if I was wanting to hold on to something that wasn’t actually there. “Supernatural” has solidified that into something that’s now tangible, and now there’s something there for me to hold on to. I think I will walk away from this experience, whenever that point may come, stronger in my conviction that there’s so much more that can and will be done.
“Supernatural” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the CW.