Jensen Ackles and The Winchesters team promise to carry on Supernatural legacy: 'Trust us'
Mary Campbell has a problem. Her dad's on a hunting trip and he hasn't been home in a few days. But unlike Dean Winchester — her future son — she doesn't have a younger brother to help her find him. She does, however, have an almost equally as tall partner that she meets on her journey. He might not know as much about the lore, but his last name is Winchester.
Narrated by Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), The Winchesters is a Supernatural prequel following the lives of John Winchester and Mary Campbell in the 1970s, long before they get married, have two kids, and — spoiler alert! — Mary ends up on the ceiling of Sam's nursery. Of course, fans know the story of those two kids extremely well, as the adventures of Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean were chronicled over 15 seasons (and 327 episodes) of Supernatural. But in 2020, as Supernatural came to an end, star Ackles found himself, much like all of us, trapped indoors with his family and in desperate need of a creative outlet.
"It was full pandemic lockdown 2020, Danneel and I with three kids in a house and we're like, uh, we need to do something creative," Ackles, who executive produces The Winchesters, tells EW.
You remember the time: John Krasinski was hosting Some Good News, everyone was baking, and Patti LuPone gave us all a tour of her basement. "Almost every celebrity was doing something ridiculous in their house, and I'm like, well, I don't want to embarrass myself by trying to make a sourdough loaf," says Danneel Ackles, who appeared in later seasons of Supernatural and also serves as an executive producer on The Winchesters.
So instead, Jensen and Danneel decided to start a Supernatural rewatch show: They'd film themselves watching fan-favorite episodes and share their thoughts. And the idea was a hit! After shooting a pilot on their iPhones, the CW wanted to bring the series to broadcast. But when Jensen and Danneel realized that creating 10 episodes in as many weeks wasn't realistic, the idea died about as quickly as a demon during an exorcism.
But that experience had sparked something. "That kick-started Danneel and I workshopping ideas and it also put us in the Supernatural world," Jensen says. "Then we asked: What would be a story that I would want to see outside of the show?"
It's not the first time someone's pondered whether there were more Supernatural stories to tell. Over the course of the series' long run, the show tried more than once to launch a spin-off, first with Bloodlines — which followed monster families in Chicago — and then again with Wayward Sisters — which followed Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes) and Claire Novak (Kathryn Newton) as they led a group of women through the hunting life. Neither idea took off. So, what was left? "If you're going to spin off from this world, it's gotta be about a main character, it's gotta be about a Winchester," Jensen says. "I think it was Danneel who was like, 'Well, it's your mom and dad.'"
With the launch of their new production company, Chaos Machine Productions, in October 2020, Jensen and Danneel called Robbie Thompson to see if he'd be interested in serving as The Winchesters' showrunner. Thompson worked on Supernatural from season 7 to season 11, and penned some fan-favorite episodes, including the 200th episode, "Fan Fiction," and one of Jensen's favorites, "Baby."
"I remember very vividly [executive producers] Bob Singer and Jeremy Carver coming in and saying, 'The 200th episode is going to land this season and we want to do it as a musical in a high school where kids are adapting the Chuck Shurley books,'" Thompson says. "My first reaction was, 'Oh my god that seems so terrifying, I really want to do it.' I had the same kind of reaction when Jensen and Danneel pitched this to me."
Because what could be more terrifying than creating a prequel that doesn't mess with the mythology established by Supernatural, while still giving viewers something that feels new and unexpected? If Sam and Dean thought saving the world was hard, they should try rewriting it.
"A lot of people are like, 'Hang on, are you changing the lore? Is this like Back to the Future, where Dean and Sam are going to start to disappear in the picture?' It's not," Jensen says. "We obviously don't want to change anything that was experienced on what we lovingly call the mothership."
"It's a big ask, but we are asking the fans to go on this journey with us and trust us," Danneel says. "Everybody who's involved in this project loves this show. We have lived this show for 15 years; it's a family member. So just trust us that we're going to take care of it."
Thompson adds, "The Supernatural fandom's extremely passionate, but I consider us part of that. How do we do this but keep Supernatural exactly the way it is? That was the intriguing challenge to me."
For starters, you have to cast the right people. And you have to find them on Zoom. With the help of Supernatural casting director Robert Ulrich — and an estimated more than 30 hours of chemistry reads — they landed on Drake Rodger and Meg Donnelly. Rodger plays a young John Winchester, a bit goofier than fans remember him, just back from Vietnam and about to be introduced to a world where, as Dean once put it — or will later put it? — "Unless it's Godzilla, it's real." Donnelly is a young Mary, someone who's all too familiar with the life of saving people and hunting things. They're characters we know, characters we've seen played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Matt Cohen, by Samantha Smith and Amy Gumenick. But they're also completely different. (For one, I doubt we'll be seeing Mary in a pink nightgown anytime soon.)
"We talked about that contrast a lot. There's the Jeffery Dean Morgan John, who is amazing and complicated and dark, and then there's Matt Cohen's John, who was the kid who was abandoned by his father at four, at least from his point of view, and who went off to Vietnam early," Thompson says. "With Mary, it was who is the kid who, much like her own children, got handed a knife at such a young age and was told that the monster under her bed was not only real but here's how to kill it?Being able to dive into that and stay true to who they are but also show this different slice of their lives and different perspective on them has been a blast."
"She's not very vulnerable," Donnelly says of her Mary. "She doesn't like to show vulnerability, because she's gone through so much, especially as a hunter her whole life. She didn't choose to be in this world, and she's trying to look for ways to get out."
Although Donnelly admits she didn't watch Supernatural when it was on — "It was definitely too scary" — Rodger was a huge fan, and even watched the show with his brother. That's why he wasn't sure he'd want any part of a prequel. "When I came in for the pilot, I was like, 'Okay, cash grab. Let's see what we're doing.' I was so skeptical," Rodger says. "And then once I read the pilot, I realized pretty quickly that there's actually a story to be told here."
Unlike the show that came before it, this isn't a story of two brothers against the world. John and Mary find themselves more consistently working with other hunters. In the pilot, fans are introduced to Carlos (Jojo Fleites) and Latika (Nida Kurshid), friends of Mary who help them on their search. "We are embodying a lot of what Supernatural did, at the same time, Supernatural was a two-hander," Thompson says. "That family expanded as characters like Castiel [Misha Collins] and Bobby [Jim Beaver] and others came in, but we're starting with a larger family. Robert [Ulrich] did an amazing job of putting together some incredibly talented kids who have now all bonded and come together to form their own thing."
Together, they will take on monster after monster. Put another way, they'll take on monsters of the week. "A touch point for us was those early seasons of Supernatural. We will have a big bad for the season but we're going to do some classic monsters of the week," Thompson says, with Danneel adding, "That's the scary stuff. And we're gonna be scary."
For those working on the show, the scary part comes with legacy. Because joining the Supernatural universe isn't just about learning exorcisms and getting used to an endless supply of fan-made Gifs. It's about joining the Supernatural family, one of the most passionate fandoms out there. "There's such a unique relationship between the cast of Supernatural and the audience of Supernatural," Thompson says. "The actors are extremely aware of the legacy that they are stepping into."
And if anyone can help prepare them for that legacy, it's Sam and Dean. At this point, Rodger and Donnelly have had a couple "Welcome to Supernatural" talks over dinner with Jensen and over lunch with his former costar Padalecki, who isn't a producer on the project but has shared his support. "When we were in New York, Jared sat down with Drake and I and was like, 'If you ever need anything, I'm always here for you,'" Donnelly says.
Recalling what he said to the new leads, Jensen says, "There was probably a small pep talk. This isn't just coming on to a new thing, this is something that has 15 years of intense storytelling and you guys are a representative of this thing that we built, of the family. And there's a big population of people that are very protective of the story and of these characters and you are the new stewards of this and you need to understand the weight of that and you need to understand how important it is to treat this with care and respect." He then adds with a laugh, "Because I'm like, listen, I didn't work my ass off for 15 years to have you kids come in here and f--- it up."
(Donnelly admits she's already gone to Jensen for help with picking locks and the more complicated matter of dealing with a height difference between you and your costar. Jensen's an expert in both.)
So, with a support system in place, there's nothing left to do but dive right in. "You can't recreate Supernatural, you just can't," Thompson says. "What we wanted to do with this show was shine a light on new corners of the Supernatural universe."
And they're doing just that. Production is underway in New Orleans as they introduce a new John and Mary, before they created the two men destined to save the world. So, what's their story? That's what Dean wants to know. And if anybody's good at getting answers, we hear it's that guy.
The prequel's first season has 13 episodes to establish what they hope will be the first successful Supernatural spin-off. This time around, there will be less Sam and Dean and therefore, probably less flannel. But there will be monsters. There will be lore. And most importantly, there will be Winchesters.
The Winchesters premieres Tuesday, Oct. 11 on The CW.
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