Misha Collins Then and Now – Our Reciprocal Interviews with Castiel’s Alter Ego
In honor of our favorite trench-coated angel’s return to our favorite Show, we’re finally posting some excerpts from our chats with Castiel’s quirky, eccentric, norm-defying portrayer, Misha Collins. As should be obvious from those descriptives, Misha is one of our favorite members of the SPN family.
We first sat down with Collins shortly after he joined the cast, and before he had any clue what “fandom” was all about – or even that Supernatural had so many passionate fans! We had spent the day on the Supernatural set, doing interviews for some articles in Supernatural Magazine, so by the time we returned to our hotel at Vancouver’s lovely Sutton Place, it was already late – not too late though, we hoped with some trepidation, for our scheduled interview with Collins. We’d been seriously impressed by Castiel’s dramatic introduction to the show, and his already powerful connection with Dean, and couldn’t wait to chat with the actor who portrayed him.
Our set van pulled up to Sutton Place behind the one transporting Misha, and when he jumped out, we were completely caught off guard by how much the actor didn’t look like the character. Obviously the lack of trenchcoat was instrumental, but frankly, we just didn’t expect Collins to be so — well, attractive! Dressed in faded vintage flare jeans and a gauzy shirt, he looked like he’d just stepped out of the 70s, which was a very good look on him indeed. Add to that a beaming smile instead of Castiel’s uber stern verging-on-constipated expression, and damn, who knew! An hour later, we joined Collins in Sutton Place’s cozy bar, Gerard’s, for a drink and what was scheduled to be a half hour interview. Misha had just been booked for his first Supernatural convention, so he kicked off the interview by asking us what to expect, since no one had prepared him. Which seemed odd to us, since he certainly had a few convention experts at his disposal.
Lynn: No? Did you ask Jared and Jensen — because they’ve been to a million.
Misha: Yes, but I didn’t get a clear picture. Maybe they didn’t want to scare me. It’s an unusual phenomenon? In your opinions?
Kathy: There have been other shows popular enough for conventions, of course, but Supernatural seems different. The dedication and also the level of involvement really is what impresses us. Not just watching the show, but writing meta-analysis of the show, fabulous fanfiction, screencap by screencap analysis of scenes…. We just came from an interview with (propmaster) Chris Cooper, and talking with him about the little tiny things fans pick up on. They know that you have to find the exact same thing you used in season 1 and bring it back in season 4 because fans screencap it and say hey, it’s not the same.
(Not us, alas. We’re oblivious. You could probably replace the Impala with a hybrid and we wouldn’t notice. JUST KIDDING! But seriously, our friend Mary once realized that a scene of Sam and Dean burning bones at a graveyard was footage from a previous episode. And she was RIGHT!)
Misha: It is amazing the level of creative input, not just the nitpicking continuity questions, but the creative input.
Now that we were five minutes into our allotted thirty and had not yet managed to ask one measly question from our handy dandy prepared notes, Misha hijacked the interview once again to ask another. This constantly happens to us in interviews, which we used to think was due to the fact that we’re an English professor and a psychologist, not journalists, and thus we fail at journalistic rigor. Luckily their questions are as interesting as ours anyway at least half the time.
Misha: Can I ask one more question, then you can ask your questions?
Us: Oh, sure, no problem, of course. (Really, who would say no to those blue eyes??)
Misha: From a psychological vantage point, what needs is this fulfilling?
Leave it to Misha to ask a question that took us an entire BOOK to answer. He’s now got it all in one handy dandy place in Fandom At The Crossroads. At the time, we were only beginning our research for that book, but we laid out our theories about the supportive, normalizing, validating role that the fan community plays, and the ways in which creative expression like fanfiction, vidding, and fanart can be for play, celebration and fun – and for exploring identity, self expression, even working through trauma, with the fan community a kind of group therapy experience. Collins, we have to say, listened much more intently than most of our students. Alas.
Misha: That’s very interesting.
Kathy: Most fans kind of get into fandom because it’s a way to be accepted. So if you’re passionate about a television show, most people outside of that community will look at you and say “Get a life”. Within that community, it’s a conversation about people and places. That’s where we started and just really wanted to be.
Lynn: The other weird thing about this fandom is, the more we’ve researched it, the more we realize that it’s a very reciprocal fandom. The creative side — the actors, writers, production office, directors, the art department –they interact with the fans directly and in a very respectful way. This is a smart, educated, older fandom. It’s not 10 year old kids who don’t know what their boundaries should be. So they’ve really built up this really reciprocal, active relationship.
Misha: That’s very interesting.
At this point, we realized we were now halfway through our allotted time, and Misha had mostly fixed us with those puppy eyes and kept us talking with “that’s very interesting” interjections. Damn!! We started to wonder if we’d been compelled-by-an-angel. Breaking eye contact with difficulty, we attempted to change the interview back to US interviewing HIM.
Lynn: You must have had some interactions with the Supernatural fans.
Misha: You know, I’ve received fan mail and it’s actually, I don’t know why, but previously my fan mail was coming from the US prison systems. Inmates were writing me.
Lynn: (at the time utterly clueless about Misha’s propensity for teasing with a completely straight face….) Wait, what? Was that because you were on ‘24’ or what?
Yes, those are Lynn’s incredible powers of hypothesizing.
Misha: (still with that totally serious face, ensuring that Lynn would continue to look like a moron….) Honestly, I don’t know. I assume it must have been 24.
Lynn: (continues to look like…..yeah yeah, whatever.)
Misha: (realizing we’re going to, sadly, remain clueless….) Well this will be different because it seems like actual letters from people who really have a personal investment in getting a response, which gives it a different tenor to the writing than someone trying to collect a random collection of autographs that have no sort of personal meaning. Other than that, I’ve been approached on the street, there’s no way for me to tell if they’ve been avid fans or people who just watch the show. They were very respectful and positive.
Kathy: This is an interesting fandom, because they don’t always take well to new characters in the show, they pretty much want the show to be about the boys. Your character is an exception, almost immediately the fandom took to this new character. We’ve never seen this before.
Misha: (deadpans) You’ve hated the character.
Lynn (beginning to get with the program): Did we say that?!
Misha: (grinning) I think part of that has to do with the build up, being receptive to Castiel. It was such an inherent piece of the story. The character is a super character, a super cool character, it was a super cool introduction to the character.
Lynn: Talk about drama! And it doesn’t hurt that there is a great deal of chemistry between Castiel and Dean.
Misha: The scenes that we’ve had together, there’s something that clicks and they’re easy, the way we interact with each other.
Lynn: There is, yes, in Castiel’s interactions with Dean. I always wonder how much of it you can feel in the moment. Could you tell if it’s going to be good, how it will play out on the screen?
Misha: No, never. I’m not very good at telling. I think they’re really right on. I think the things that are horrible actually turn out to be the best.
Lynn (deadpans): Luckily you’re not doing the editing.
Misha: (who can take it as well as he can give it) Right. I don’t know why, but there’s always a certain intensity, like a quiet intensity that seems to organically comes out when we’re (Cas and Dean) doing scenes.
We pointed out that for some reason, the Cas and Dean scenes, especially early on, were set up in a very intimate way, with lots of whispered conversation and emotion-packed stares and glares. Fandom, predictably, was almost immediately captivated by the character and his relationship with Dean.
Kathy: The first online community devoted to Castiel (and Dean) was created within 42 minutes of the character’s introduction.
Misha: (deadpan) Why do you think it took so long? Maybe the servers were down or something.
We took a break when food and drink arrived, and somehow Misha once again took up question-asking instead of question-answering.
Misha: So is that stuff mostly on Live Journal? What is Live Journal? How gigantic is it? How many people in the domestic US belong to these communities, about 10,000 people, or 100,000 people?
As you can see, Misha is an excellent interviewer. It took us about ten minutes to realize we were once again being interviewed instead of interviewing, and to determinedly turn the tables back. Did he have any idea, when he auditioned for Supernatural, how passionate the fandom was?
Misha: I had no idea what I was walking into. I had no idea when I went into audition.
Lynn (grabbing the chance to ask one of our many still-unasked questions): Oh hey, that’s one of our questions! What made you audition for this role?
Misha: The desire for a job. I think I didn’t even realize until after the audition what it was for, I thought it was a guest star. My manager told me, but I wasn’t paying attention. It was a demon that I was auditioning for. Kripke didn’t want it to get out to fandom (that Castiel was an angel). He gave me a little direction, after I did the demon version once, he gave me a little direction to change it to be an angel, and he told me they hadn’t been down on earth for two thousand years so there would be a quality of just looking at humans as though they were strange alien beings.
Lynn: You do that so well. Psychologists are always trying to read people’s non-verbals. And there’s this subtle sort of little twist you do, regarding people a little too long and sort of speaking a little more slowly, because you’re not sure of your footing. It’s very subtle, but it’s very there.
Misha: Cool. It’s fun to play with that.
Lynn: Castiel is a complicated character and I think fans like that too because he’s not — you can’t really peg him. Is he good? Is he not good? He’s a sympathetic character but he can be a bastard. Does he like Dean, does he hate Dean, does he want to take Dean apart?
Misha: (deadpans) Does he want to take Dean to bed?
Lynn: (nearly spits her drink all over her interview notes). Excellent question!
Both of us (silently): Everyone wants to take Dean to bed…..
Kathy: (recovering from the take-Dean-to-bed visuals first) So, has anyone told you anything about what the conventions are like?
Misha: No. I’ve never been to one.
Kathy: Well, there will be thousands of people. And as soon as you walk out onto the stage there will be clapping and cheering.
Misha: Sounds like a fantasy.
Kathy: It does, doesn’t it? Then you’ll have to answer their questions on the spot.
Misha: I have a friend who was on the last Star Trek series and he was telling me about his conventions a few years ago, and I was thinking, wow, I hope my career never comes to that. Then I got the first call and I was like, WHAT???? FANTASTIC, I can handle this, sign me up!
At the time, Misha had just filmed his acrobatic guest spot on Nip/Tuck, and there was a clip on Youtube which the SPN fandom was loving. For obvious reasons.
Misha: My barber found it and when I went in for my hair cut, he said your Nip/ Tuck clip had like more than 30,000 hits — oh, and it’s airing next week. I didn’t know it. I said, how the hell did you know that? It was a pretty weird role. When I shot it, before I was shooting this, I thought it would be under the radar. Famous last thoughts.
Lynn: That’s pretty funny. And even after having been on things like 24, because that’s a pretty popular show, it doesn’t have the sort of concentrated fan base that this show has. This is something different for you.
Misha: Totally different. Interesting, because something like 24, there’s more people watching me, but no one interviewing me.
Lynn: No, exactly. Not watching you in the same way. I mean, I don’t want to make you paranoid….
Misha: You are!
Lynn (evil grin): Am I doing a good job? Yes, that’s what we do.
Misha: I think it makes me take it a little more seriously. It sort of makes it feel like a bit more of a responsibility. It’s just not some junk that people are half watching. There’s a bit more devotion on the receiving end. This may be totally out of line, but it feels like Jared and Jensen sort of feel that way with the cast and crew. Just the sense that they’re being watched. I haven’t got that kind of attention myself, so that’s good so far.
Kathy: You will at the convention. The Supernatural conventions are like a self-contained universe, and it’s a different universe. There within that universe, you’re a celebrity.
Misha: That’s funny how when they send the contracts they mention security, and I thought, I’m certainly not going to need that!
At this point in the interview (of which we’ve only included excerpts), you may be thinking that surely our allotted thirty minutes had long past. You would be right. This didn’t occur to either us or Collins as we sat in Gerard’s trading interviewer duties, however. It was Misha’s turn again.
Misha: Let me just go back to that last point, being scrutinized by the fans. The other thing is, seeing how nasty they are to the people they don’t like, it makes you conscious of that, it’s just not sort of the carrot on the stick. Just the accolades you get that are going to your head and skewing how you think. There’s a little bit of fear for me, being new. What if they turn on me? It would be devastating, it would be like a divorce. I don’t want to go through that.
Lynn: Don’t worry, they’re not tired of you.
Misha: (deadpans) You haven’t seen the stuff that we shot already, it’s pretty embarrassing.
Collins’ zinging sense of humor was apparently nurtured in a remarkably pop culture-free childhood environment.
I was raised fairly isolated from the popular culture in general. We didn’t have a TV. We didn’t have any money. We moved around a lot. I was in 15 different schools by the time I was a freshman in high school. I was often an outsider at the school and I never really had a tight network where I would get involved. I was wearing the Michael Jackson glove when everyone else was already on to Prince….I do get into things but I’ve never had a devotion to any popular culture and I’m always not understood at all.
Lynn: So you grew up not really a fan and not watching TV — how did you decide to become an actor?
Misha: Good question.
Lynn: (silently) Finally!
Misha: My mom was a professional storyteller when we were growing up, which meant that she would go and tell a story to a school assembly here and there. She did community theater and I was in a couple of her plays. Nothing serious. Then I did a couple of plays in high school. My mother would come to whatever school I was in, and direct the play. I don’t know how, but I would end up getting cast as the lead. As I looked back I was horrified at the nepotism that went into that. I think that the teacher should have said absolutely not, you’re not casting your son as the lead. So I have that background. But I was going to go to law school, I went to the University of Chicago. Then I got out of school and didn’t know what to do with myself right away. I took a little time off and I started a software company. I was just sort of floundering around.
At this point, Collins must have realized that the interviewer/interviewee roles had been flipped again, suddenly exclaiming, “Wow, I haven’t given such a long-winded answer in a long time.” We assured him that was fine, and so he went on. Except, abruptly and inexplicably, he was now speaking with an unidentifiable but definitely non-American accent!
Misha: I was going into character for some reason when I was in college.
Lynn: (silently) Apparently that has continued into the present.
Misha: I was a Russian foreign exchange student,
Lynn (silently): Ohhhh, so that’s what this is!
Misha: And these lasted for a long time, like six to nine months and it was fun and everyone laughed until they got really sick of it. So a couple friends said you should really try acting. Basically I got a head shot taken and took one class when I was living in DC when I interned at the White House. My first audition was for Barry Levinson for Liberty Heights. I didn’t even know what an audition was. I had no idea what I was doing. I got the part and worked on it for about six weeks. Then there was another movie casting locally, which was Girl Interrupted. I thought, this is easy! I’ll be a movie star for a little while. Then I moved out to LA, got an agent and went to my first LA audition and I saw 30 guys there. Auditioning in Baltimore and DC there would be me — the same old me and a black woman and a 4 year old child. Then moving to LA, there were 30 guys that looked like Mike Doppleganger. It took me nine months auditioning five days a week to get a guest star on Charmed. That was my first role in LA. That’s a long-winded story for ya.
It was. So long winded that Misha was chastised by The Powers That Be for being late for some phone interviews and we were chastised for making him late. Hey, we were the ones BEING interviewed half the time, it wasn’t our fault! Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Misha at a convention knows that he took on the experience with the same intellectual curiosity he brought to our first interview. Sometimes his Q & As are so hysterical that we’re crying from laughing so hard. He broke the rules early and often (huge surprise there….) and in the process changed the norms for cons, and for the ways in which the creative side interacts with fans. He treated fans like fellow adults, asking as many questions as he sorta-kinda-maybe answered (a dynamic with which we were already intimately familiar), tossed out the no-cursing norm, and generally engaged in witty banter that some fans matched him step for step and others just quirked an eyebrow. When we sat down with Misha at the Chicago Supernatural convention this past November, we asked him what made him push those boundaries so soon.
Misha: I think what made me do it is just that I don’t terribly like rules or conventions or being bounded by normalcy.
Us (silently) No kidding!
Misha: I think I’ve said it before but I actually mean it – rooting out the insidious forces of normalcy is one of my main life objectives.
All kidding aside, that’s exactly how those “forces of normalcy” can be – insidious, shaming, damaging. Hey, we just wrote an entire book about it, after all.
Misha: I don’t like to play by the rules, so it was funny, that said, I had a moment when I first got on Supernatural when I was like, omg, people are paying attention to me and I have fans, maybe I should cultivate an image and like try to seem really cool. I had this sort of moment of being commercially self conscious, and it took me maybe a month to realize, no, this is just not fucking who I am and I don’t wanna behave that way and I’m not gonna do that. And then I started being like, here, here’s a picture of me in drag, fuck it – which is, by the way, so much more liberating and relaxing. It’s funny, the first few interviews I did as an actor, I was really trying to say the right thing, like trying to figure out what’s the right thing to say in this circumstance, how to present myself, how to promote this project, whatever. And there’s not a more surefire way to give a stifled boring empty vapid meaningless piece of interview. Everything that comes out of your mouth sucks if you’re trying to say the right thing, so I very quickly learned that I needed to not try to say the right thing and just be myself, and I’d be happier and better adjusted. Uhhh….I’ve forgotten the question.
Kathy: You just answered it.
Misha: Oh, good. There’s also this strange phenomenon that happens, and it is definitely some sort of normative force, like you said. I don’t know where it comes from, but there’s a certain set of basic rules that as an actor coming into celebrity you almost inherently understand. It’s inherited. You know you’re supposed to interact with your fans in a certain manner, sort of distant, reserved, strong boundaries. But then if you take one step back and analyze it, to what end? What is it that you’re really protecting? I mean, you don’t want people showing up at your house and getting stalked, but there are so many other boundaries that are kind of arbitrary that we all subscribe to automatically without even thinking about it. It’s kind of difficult to articulate, but it’s amazing the expectations that everyone has going into this dynamic of how we’re supposed to behave.
Kathy: On both sides.
Misha: Right. On both sides. Everybody knows that they’re supposed to behave in a certain way. There was never a manual, there was never anyone who dictated that, but this is normative behavior, they’ve been established somehow. It’s funny, I still see myself falling into this – why am I behaving this way? Why am I so reluctant to share any information with people, or whatever. You have to kinda check yourself, wait, why are you doing this? Sometimes it makes sense. I don’t wanna actually have to have an inbox full of a million emails…. But the truth is, the fans are by and large so respectful of those boundaries, that you’re kinda inherently safe. Like all this bullshit of five security guards every time you go to the bathroom – no one is going to do anything to me, no one has ever done anything to me and no one ever will, and yet it’s something that we all go, oh yes, that’s normal.
Actually we’ve never thought that was normal, and frankly it always made us shake our heads a bit. But then again, we don’t really like norms much either. Obviously.
Lynn: And then you get back to LA and to Starbucks and nobody bothers you.
Misha: Actually the girls at the Starbucks have a huge crush on me, but whatever. They like shake and blush when I come in. That was a bad example.
Lynn: (is glad Misha hasn’t lost his touch of throwing our interviews totally off track) Oh.
Kathy: What has surprised you most about fandom?
Misha: What has surprised me most…. To be perfectly honest, I think that the overwhelming creative energy of the fan community has surprised me the most. I never imagined that it would be such a strong force, and that’s also another thing that’s motivating me, is like trying to figure out ways to play with that. It’s a fascinating social experiment, like, what can be done with this? I mean obviously charity things are something that a lot of others in similar positions have done, but I’m interested in doing like massive art projects with fandom, because there are a lot of amazing artists.
Boy, is that an understatement! The endless creativity of fandom never ceases to amaze us. Or Misha. Misha had the last word as we ended our chat – but this time we didn’t mind one bit.
Misha: Congratulations on your new book – and I want a copy!
You can get your own copy now on amazon.com. Coming up: Chats with Kim Rhodes and Brian Buckley!