In the spring of 2019, while Jared Padalecki was finishing shooting what would become the penultimate season of “Supernatural,” he began to sketch out an idea for his next project. After starring in the WB Network/CW drama alongside Jensen Ackles since 2005, Padalecki’s first thought was of continuing their partnership beyond that one show.
“I was tired of being on camera for 20 years straight,” he says. “I wanted to produce a show called ‘Walker’ starring Jensen Ackles.”
“Walker” would be a reimagining of the enduring CBS series “Walker, Texas Ranger,” which ran for nine seasons between 1993 and 2001 and starred martial artist and actor Chuck Norris in the ass-kicking titular role. But unlike the new versions of vintage series that the CW has launched before, from “90210” to “Melrose Place,” “Walker” will not continue the world or any of the characters of the original show. Instead, the series follows the modern trend of updating its story and its hero for the present-day audience.
The idea came to Padalecki in his Vancouver trailer after reading an op-ed by a law enforcement official who walked away from duty rather than submit to separating migrant kids from their parents and putting them in cages, as was being asked of him. “I thought, ‘What an interesting person who struggles with what they are bound to do by duty and what they think they should do by their own moral compass,’” he explains.
From the beginning Padalecki knew he wanted his show to be about such an officer, and he knew he wanted to film in Austin, Texas, which is not only the headquarters of the Texas Rangers, but also where he and his family reside. It wasn’t until the extended producing team of Dan Lin, Lindsey Liberatore and showrunner Anna Fricke were in place that he realized he should star in it, too, because it was his “passion project.” Then “Walker” was truly born.
“The original [series] was this lawman who abides by his own rules, and he would just do head-spinning kicks on people, and obviously we can’t do that now; that would be laughably bad,” Padalecki says. “We don’t want the audience to ever know whether Walker is quote conservative or quote liberal, or quote Republican or quote Democrat. This version of ‘Walker,’ we play with the gray area: This is not a show about a martial artist kicking minorities in the face; this is a show about a legit Texan saying, ‘Hey, I need to hear the whole story before I make a decision.’ So this version is less about what goes through somebody’s fists and feet, and more about what goes through somebody’s head and heart.”
Padalecki’s character will therefore challenge some antiquated notions of what it takes to be tough. “I’m sure there are some MAGA hats who may be pissed off,” he notes, but he was “just in no way interested” in doing a show that leaned into toxically masculine tropes.
Even though CW chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz acknowledges the show is “a different flavor” for the network, he wanted it on his schedule because of “a five-letter word,” namely, Jared. “Jared had a desire to do this; we had a desire to support Jared — it was a good mix,” Pedowitz says. “If we’re going to expand what the brand is, it’s good to expand with a person who has represented the brand so well through his career.”
After guest-starring roles in series such as “ER” and appearances in films from “Cheaper by the Dozen” to “New York Minute,” Padalecki saw his career kick-started when he booked the role of Rory’s boyfriend Dean on “Gilmore Girls,” which was airing on the WB network. He appeared on that show from 2000 to 2005 and then booked “Supernatural,” also originally for The WB. When the network was shut down and The CW was born, “Supernatural” survived and Padalecki went on to spend the majority of his career there. Now he is expanding his résumé and relationship with the network not only by being No. 1 on the ensemble call sheet for “Walker,” but also by serving as an executive producer for the first time in his career.
“I want [Jared] associated in some form with The CW, no matter how it goes. So if it went with this as he only wanted to be a producer, that would have been fine,” Pedowitz says.
For Padalecki, earning the privilege to help shepherd a show from inception to air — behind the scenes in addition to on-screen — has been a singular experience. “I can protect that original idea, but furthermore I get to try and make sure our cast and crew are treated correctly and that some of the habits that can happen on a TV show that end up hurting people don’t materialize,” he says.
Where in “Supernatural” Sam Winchester was the younger brother in a duo, at the start of Padalecki’s show Cordell Walker is a widowed father of two teenagers who moves his family back to his parents’ ranch. Both characters are in mourning at the outset, and both have to balance their sense of duty to “keep the world safe” with their desire to focus on family. Given those parallels, what especially aided Padalecki’s transition from Sam, whom he played for 15 years, to Walker was the time he spent getting to know his new character before donning his Stetson on set.
(It also helped that Fricke asked him to be “scruffier” than the clean-shaven Winchester, in order to age him up a little.)
The CW put “Walker” on its development slate in the fall of 2019, when filming was underway on the final season of “Supernatural.” The plan was to shoot a pilot in April, but when the pandemic hit, Pedowitz pivoted strategy quickly and ordered the show straight to series in January. “I think we would have wasted people’s time trying to do a pilot in COVID,” he says, adding that if a production is going to run the risk of shooting, the network should be prepared for a series greenlight.
With production shut down this past spring, Padalecki found himself with months to sit with the script for “Walker,” which was “more time than I’ve ever had to try and create or understand a character,” he says.
When it was safe to resume production, Padalecki returned to “Supernatural” first, in August. He was wrapped out of that series on Sept. 10, and five weeks later, he was back in the States and on set at “Walker.”
“I don’t really know what it’s like to get rid of a character necessarily, so what I tried to do was focus on the new character. In ‘Supernatural’ I’ve been afforded the opportunity to do this a couple of times: There was Gadreel Sam, Demon Sam, Lucifer Sam, and so I’ve been able to approach these other roles with the thought process that I wanted it to be interesting but not classic Sam, because I don’t think acting is just being who you’re comfortable being,” Padalecki says. Now, “Sam is just there somewhere in the background for me to visit him whenever I want, but Cordell Walker is who I’m helping to tell a story.”
The decade and a half that the actor spent on “Supernatural” has helped prepare him for “Walker” in other ways, too, from setting the tone as a leader on set to stunt work — although he admits there has been an adjustment from riding shotgun in a 1967 Chevy Impala when heading to cases to “chasing down perps” on horseback. On a personal level, being thousands of miles away from his kids while filming “Supernatural” has informed the emotions and struggles Walker experiences having to jet out of town for his job.
“I’ve been absent a lot,” Padalecki reflects. “When I’d get home to Austin, my kids [didn’t] understand that I’m not just skipping out, that I’m working really hard — 18-hour days — to try and pay the mortgage and buy their food and pay for their school and their uniforms and their toys. I didn’t know the routine. I’d get home and want to spend time with my kids, but they’re not used to me and I’m not used to them. It is very much art imitating life.”
In between takes on “Walker,” Padalecki wants to create a family vibe for his fellow cast and crew members, which is taking some figuring out since COVID-safe protocols limit interaction. When they call “Cut!” at the end of a long day of shooting, he gets to hop in his car and head home to his wife, Genevieve Padalecki (who will play Walker’s deceased wife, Emily, in the new show), and his three kids, Thomas, Austin and Odette. Now more than ever, he can be a part of setting that routine at work and at home.
“For so long I didn’t know what my life was outside of ‘Supernatural.’ I’m starting to figure it out now,” he says.