Welcome to the Family – A Chat with Supernatural’s Gil McKinney
I had the pleasure of chatting with Gil McKinney recently – and was it ever a pleasure! Gil, who plays Henry Winchester (Sam and Dean’s grandfather) on Supernatural, is one of the newer additions to the conventions, but he’s already become an integral part of the experience, and part of the SPN Family. (In fact, at his very first convention, right after his singing knocked our socks off, Kathy and I looked at each other and said oh yes, he needs to stay!)
Gil started off by asking questions instead of answering, which is always the way we like it. He also gave an impromptu private piano concert in between photo shots. Which is definitely the way I’d like all our interviews to go.
Gil: I looked up your website for Fangasm – that’s really cool! And you have a Ph.D. So how did you get interested in this?
Lynn: Well, I’m a huge Supernatural fan [understatement, as you all know…], so I thought it would make sense to research the psychology of being a fan. You know, figure myself out in the process. And write some books about what it’s really like to be a fan. Especially a Supernatural fan.
G: Well, I’m happy to help out in any way I can.
L: Awesome. So you’ve filmed two episodes. When you did the first one, what did you know about the Show? Did you know how popular it was?
G: I really had no idea. I knew of the show – I auditioned for it when it was a pilot, and I tested for the role of Sam.
L: A long time ago!
G: (nods) So I knew of it way back when, ten years ago now. I knew it got picked up and was having a decent run. But when I got the audition, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if it was still on or not! I was kinda surprised. I hadn’t even read for it in that entire time, so it was news to me that it was still going strong. The audition went really well, I felt. I knew a little bit about the character from what they told me at the audition, but mainly just that he was Sam and Dean’s grandfather. I left the audition and I vividly remember that I called my manager, like I do most of the time after an audition, and I told him I felt like it went well and I was happy with what I did, but that for some reason I just didn’t feel like I was gonna get it. Sometimes my instincts are dead on and sometimes way off, so he said let me see what I can find out. And he called me back a little while later and said they really loved you and they put a pin in you and you might get this.
L: They put a pin in you? Ouch….
G: (laughing) When they say, they put a pin in you, they just mean that you’re their choice. Then you have to be approved by the studio and network and that sort of thing. So I was very excited, and before I knew it, I was on a plane to Vancouver. I hadn’t worked in Vancouver since probably 7 or 8 years – the same time I tested for SPN I ended up getting a pilot called ‘Lost In Space.’
L: Like the 60s show? Danger, Will Robinson??
G: Exactly. And I believe if I’m not mistaken it was a pilot the same year that Supernatural was a pilot. And Eric Kripke was also the showrunner on Lost In Space.
L: What? How funny is that!? [I managed not to go on and on about my love for Kripke here, believe it or not]
G: I went to Vancouver to shoot that pilot. John Woo directed it and it was so much fun, but for some reason it didn’t really gel in the end, it didn’t come together. It was the WB back then, and it was an expensive pilot for them, so it didn’t get picked up. So I was excited to go back to Vancouver and work there again because I love that city.
L: (gushes) OMG me too!
G: They brought me up a few days early, and I went straight to the studio. It was night by the time I got there, and I went in and they measured me and fitted me for this suit.
L: That awesome suit.
G: It was an awesome suit. So that was really fun. And I don’t think I saw Jared that night, but I did get to see Jensen and chat with him for a few minutes. And he was super nice. We hit it off right away, and then I had a few days off before shooting. I met Serge – do you know Serge? His last name…
L: Oh yes, we know Serge! Serge Ladouceur. He wrote a chapter for our newest book, Fan Phenomena Supernatural – all about how as cinematographer he makes the Show look as awesome as it always does, how he makes choices about how to light a scene and the actors, etc.
G: He was directing the episode, and it was his first time directing. Though he has been the cinematographer from the beginning, if I’m not mistaken…
L: He has.
G: So he was very excited that he was getting to direct. He and I met for coffee one day a couple days before we started shooting, and I got to know him a little bit and we talked about the character. He kinda informed me about who Henry was. And at that point, I really started to get excited.
It wasn’t until – I think we were halfway through shooting the episode and I’d spent some time with Jared and Jensen — that they informed me of the massive following the show has and the wonderful fans. They let me know about the cons, which I was completely unaware of, and told me if and when they do come calling, they suggested that I be open to joining the cons. They said they’re a lot of fun.
L: Now you see why they said that.
G: I had no idea. I was getting kinda impatient, like why aren’t they calling, do I need to be reaching out to them? But I just kinda waited it out. At first it was just DC Con, just the one.
L: Well, they want to know how you’ll do…
G: Right, so they tested me out in DC and apparently it went pretty well and I had a blast, so then they called and wanted to start booking me on some more. It’s been really fun, I’m very happy to be a part of it. That’s a really long answer to your question, but no, I had no idea what was about to unfold!
L: Little did you know. So, back to the episode. Because Serge is a cinematographer, did you find it any different being directed by someone who has so much experience with that? I’ve been on set several times and watched him work, so I know how much attention he pays to lighting and how a scene is set up. Was it any different?
G: I’m sure he couldn’t help but constantly be looking at that sort of thing. As far as being directed by him, the fact that he took time to meet with me and we spent an hour at least discussing the character and getting ready to shoot — I could tell that he really cared so much. And that this was a really great opportunity for him and he really wanted to do a good job. He’s a really kind man and I think at times there was a little bit lost in translation at times when it came to actually telling me what he wanted in certain scenes, but we really worked it out and having had that meeting going into it, I was in a much better place than I would’ve been had we not. He definitely helped me out and cleared some things up for me. Directing an episode of hour long television is quite an undertaking and the schedule is pretty brutal. They are long days, and I thought he did a wonderful job.
L: Me too, the episode turned out to be amazing.
G: Serge was really great at paying attention to me, and if I had any question, he was right there to do his best to answer. The other really cool thing was that I saw how helpful everyone else on the set was to him, because it’s such a family type dynamic there that everyone wanted him to succeed and everyone wanted him to do the absolute best he could do. So if he ever felt overwhelmed or confused or whatever, there were constantly crew guys he knows well and has worked with for so long, and they were right there every step of the way to help him out. It really was a collaborative team effort.
L: It’s an amazingly close and supportive crew. From what I’ve seen, they work like a well-oiled machine. I’ve never seen anyone lose their temper or freak out, even when things go wrong – they all seem to have a sense of humor about it. It’s amazing.
G: I couldn’t agree more. You said it, it’s like a well-oiled machine at this point. And the energy on set is really supportive. Everyone welcomed me with open arms. And it’s honestly one of the most fun times I’ve ever had working on anything. When you’re doing a guest star on a tv show, a lot of the time you’re not always made to feel so welcome. You show up and you do your best and people will be cordial, but it’s not the same. I mean, it’s a very special thing they have going on up there. The only other experience I have which comes close would be working on ER. I did 23 episodes over two seasons, and a lot of the cast, writers, directors had been there since the beginning, so that was a similar type thing.
L: And another long-running show too.
G: Similar to Supernatural in that I was part of the family from the first day, so it was a very special experience.
L: I wanted to ask you about two of the scenes you did on Supernatural, one which was very physical and one which was very emotional. That very physical scene where one of the brothers throws Henry up against a wall, did that take a lot of rehearsing and blocking?
G: In the motel? Yeah, there was… (laughing). If I remember, there wasn’t a ton of rehearsing, but enough to get those beats down and get the action down. Obviously, rehearsing for camera and that sort of thing. The guys have been doing this for so long now that they’re obviously just so sharp and so good (starts laughing again).
L: What?? (laughing too, though with no idea what’s funny…)
G: There was one time when I’m handcuffed to the chair, and somehow I miraculously get out of the handcuffs. And we were rehearsing that and I was so, you know, just wanting to really get into it and wanting to do a good job, and I really committed to the point that I actually kind of cut my wrist on one of the cuffs…
L: Ouch! Not funny!
G: Not bad, but I was definitely like almost attempting to really get out of them somehow. And I think it was Jensen who was like, woah, calm down, slow down! Know what I mean? I was just so in it and wanting to do a good job that I got caught up in the moment and had to realize oh, this is pretend, they’re probably gonna cut there and take the handcuffs off of me and we’ll make it work.
L: I feel like that’s what makes you a good actor though. People who are really good at it are not so much acting as sort of feeling or experiencing what their character is experiencing in that moment and then it comes through as genuine, if that makes any sense.
G: Right, I do try to work from that place a lot. When it comes to that physicality. For Jared and Jensen, they’ve gotten so good at doing it – and not to say that they’re not committed because they absolutely are – but they’re so honed in on what they’re doing. I can imagine, they do so much physical stuff on that show, if they were to be like so unbelievably invested in every single moment or every single thing it would be absolutely exhausting! I know for me, I would leave dog tired. And I’ve never worked on a show like they do, never done the day after day long hours like they do. So I think they know how to work smart and they know how to pace themselves. Know what I mean?
L: With my psychologist hat on for a second, yes. I think they couldn’t stand it if they didn’t.
G: It does get pretty heavy, you know?
L: Especially on Supernatural. If you guys were the Winchesters for real, let’s face it, you’d have lot more psychological problems!
G: (laughing) Absolutely
L: What was it like doing that very emotional scene, when Henry is dying and he apologizes to Sam and Dean and then dies in their arms?
G: That was an interesting experience. Leading up to the actual part where I died, I was on the floor with the boys. We shot pretty much everything in that scene leading up to it, including shooting Abbadon and I think we shot Dean cutting her head off, and then we were going to reset on the floor there. Jared and Jensen are really fun to work with, they have a really good time, and like I said before, it’s a fun set to work on. Sometimes they can goof around, which I enjoy, it helps me relax.
L: I saw them do that on set once, make jokes and tease each other to put a guest star at ease.
G: I think they know that and they also know that’s how they work too. But I’ll say that once we got to that part on the floor, and that whole sequence, both of them really like brought it down and I knew that was a special moment. I wanted it to go well, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, and both the guys were really invested as well. And I think it turned out really nice.
L: It did, definitely.
G: When we were shooting it, I was on the floor and Jared was kinda behind me, so I couldn’t really see his face. But when I watched it all cut together, I thought it was really sweet, I really saw that wonderful performance from Jared and Jensen as well. There’s this one close-up of Jared that I thought was really nice. So yeah, I was happy with the way it all came together.
L: Everyone was. So when you went back for Mother’s Little Helper, did you know that you were coming back?
G: I didn’t know. I was told from the beginning even before shooting “Time Goes By”, that even if you die that doesn’t mean anything on this show, people die all the time and come back.
L: Yep. That’s our Show.
G: So I was hopeful that at some point I might get to come back, and I’d had small conversations with Adam Glass about his ideas, but it was almost a year later when I got the call to see if I was available to do another episode. I was thrilled to get that call and to go back up there, and when I read the script and found out it was cool flashbacks, I thought that was really interesting. I think Jared had a light episode for that one and Jensen was in it a bit more, but I didn’t have scenes with either of them because mine were all flashbacks.
L: Did you get to see the boys at all?
G: I went up to do a wardrobe fitting again and I asked one of the ADs if I could say hi to Jared and Jensen since I wasn’t going to be working with them. So they worked that out and I got to go see them outside their trailers and say hello before they had to go watch something. They just always crack me up, so we had a nice chat. And then Misha was directing the episode and I had yet to meet him.
L: You’d never met Misha?
G: No I had not. So I was excited about that and to work with Alaina [Huffman] again.
G: Alaina lives 5 minutes from me and we’ve gotten to be close friends through this whole thing. She’s great, and a very talented actress. We help each other with auditions – if she’s got something, she’ll pop over to my house or vice versa. It’s nice having someone that you trust and is so supportive to work with.
L: It’s just another example of how we all become family – SPN Family. Like the actors who do cons, they’re best friends now, it’s been a bonding experience for them just as it has been for fans. I don’t think it’s happened to this extent with any other show.
G: I know, it’s crazy! And really awesome. It just makes me so happy to have been blessed with this and be able to be a part of it. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a play, but it reminds me of that sort of theater family type thing. I’m so excited to go on these trips and get to see the guys and hang out and see a different city. It’s like we’re on tour, and it’s the coolest thing!
L: You’re like a rock band on the road. Especially now that there’s so much music going on at the cons.
So, how was it being directed by Misha? Were you implicated in any pranks?
G: (laughing) No, mainly because Jared and Jensen weren’t there when I was shooting.
L: So you missed the pies in the face…
G: I saw some of the pictures and heard some of the stories though. You know, I didn’t know what to expect from Misha. I didn’t know what he’d be like as a person. I try not to have any pre-conceived ideas, but all I knew of him was Castiel, because I’d seen him do that character on the show. So when I got to set, I was a little nervous, and he went out of his way to come find me when I got there and was so warm and just awesome. Obviously, he’s a smart guy, very sharp.
L: Very. He wrote a very insightful chapter for Fan Phenomena: Supernatural. And we’ve had some fascinating conversations with him about fandom and SPN.
G: And he was on top of it as a director. I was unaware that it was his first time directing an episode of the show. He is such a pro and I’m sure doing as many episodes as he’s done, he was very comfortable being on set and being around the crew, and he did a really great job. A lot of times it’s nice being directed by another actor, because they get it, they know how to talk to you. And he was great from that standpoint. There was maybe one time where we were shooting that long scene, that long walk and talk where Alaina and I were walking up that winding staircase inside the nunnery and it was just – it was a long talk and a lot of different angles and he did a great job. It was a difficult scene to shoot, but the crew was really behind him. Some of the other producers came in and helped him figure out what it was we needed to get. I really enjoyed working with him.
L: I’m not at all surprised. So let me switch gears to talk about fandom and conventions. What was your first impression, and what surprised you about cons?
G: The first thing I did at a con was have a meet and greet at DC Con, and I think it was with Kim Rhodes and Chad Lindberg, and somebody broke out Cards Against Humanity, which I had never even heard of. And they had a Supernatural version! So that was an awesome ice breaker. Those meet and greets are wonderful, but for that to be the first thing I did, I was kinda nervous. Like, what am I supposed to talk about? And sometimes the fans are nervous too and not super talkative, so that was a great ice breaker. We laughed a lot and had a great time. That set me up for my first solo Q & A. And walking out onto the stage, and getting that response – I was just like, you know – it felt so good, I was totally blown away. I think the first thing I said was “This is the weirdest thing ever”.
L: (laughing with him) It must have been like, OMG!
G: Yeah, and I had no idea, I was not expecting that at all, but it felt really good. So that was my introduction. Richard and whoever else was backstage said oh dude, you’re a natural, so I knew it went okay. And I enjoyed myself.
L: And we enjoyed ourselves too.
G: I mean, look, I’m so hard on myself sometimes, I put all this pressure on myself to have the perfect answer to every question, and that’s just not realistic.
L: (teasing) Ya think?
L: You said recently that singing at the conventions has kind of helped you regain your confidence when it comes to singing. Did I hear that right? [Though it’s hard for me to believe it ever waned – he’s that good!]
G: You did. I grew up singing, it was a big part of my childhood and then all through college. I was a voice major at USC Southern Cal, all the while knowing I wanted to be an actor, wanted to be in LA and give this thing a shot. But I had the music thing going too. Then at a certain point, I don’t know if I just got burnt out with it, but it started to take a back seat to the acting. I wasn’t putting the time and energy that I should’ve been on it. I did a couple musicals after college in LA, a couple of Broadway national tour type things, but nothing was really panning out and I started to get discouraged. For a while, I was like, I just don’t wanna do it anymore. So it got away from me and I lost my confidence with it.
Lynn: Performing, acting included, seems like such a brutal business. So much rejection is a part of it.
G: Yeah, it is, and I try not to look at it like that, but I think deep down on some level it is a form of rejection. So after a while I just got really frustrated and stopped singing as much. But the cons have given me this drive again to start exploring that and to take some chances. I was nervous at DC con, it had been a long time since I’d sung live in front of an audience like that, but I put in the work and I knew what I wanted to do. And when it was done I was really happy and felt really good. I was proud of myself and the fans were just so awesome. And it gave me some confidence back. There’s just something about singing in front of a live audience, there’s nothing like it.
L: For the audience too! The cons have gotten increasingly musical, and that’s making them even better.
G: (nods) Well, when they told me that I was invited to DC, I was looking on the Creation website to get an idea of what it was all about and I saw something about karaoke and a Saturday cabaret – I think if I’m not mistaken this is the first year of the cabaret?
L: Yep. The things that preceded it weren’t working as well, but this is – now it’s one of my favorite things.
G: (laughs) Well good, it’s one of my favorite parts too! When I saw that, I told my rep to let Creation know that I sing and that I’d be more than happy to participate. I think they were excited to have me be a part of it even though they had absolutely no idea about whether I could sing, but they were willing to give me a shot.
L: They kinda took a chance…
G: They did! And I’m glad they did. I did this again at the last con, finding these great background tracks on iTunes, so I can sing along to the background tracks and rehearse with them, so it’s a little more predictable and I know what I’m gonna do. But now it’s turned into this thing where we have these amazing musicians in Louden Swain and they’re like yeah we’ll try to do whatever you want. So after singing with them for the first time in NJ, singing with a live band, that kicks it up a notch! Now we’re really trying to put some songs together, and I feel so lucky. Richard is great, he’s kinda spearheaded this whole thing, so he’s pushing us and motivating us to make this the best it can be and try to have a polished – well, somewhat polished, a little rough around the edges – show for you guys.
L: Richard is the best thing that ever happened to SPN cons. And he puts a lot of thought into what will work and make a great con for the fans.
G: I believe you. I’m so impressed with him. He’s a smart guy, very quick witted, and he’s hilarious. He’s so perfect at doing this, I can’t imagine anyone else.
L: I really feel lucky too. Lucky that this is the show I happened to fall in love with and decide to write books about. Because everyone we’ve met and gotten to know has been amazing – like, truly great people. Whoever the casting director is, I feel like I owe them a lot. Everyone they cast on the show is awesome!
G: Hmm. I think you should email the casting director, he’s a really nice man. I don’t think they get called for interviews very often. I think he’d really appreciate it after all the work he’s done for this show.
L: (makes notes and puts it on the to do list). One of the things that Richard wrote about in Fan Phenomena was the weird experience of being at a convention and suddenly you’re famous – when usually you aren’t recognized at your local Starbucks or whatever. But at a con, you’re Elvis.
G: (cracks up) I mean, you said it, that’s it exactly it! That’s how I’ve described it to some of my friends. I’ve worked enough that I sometimes feel like people look at me like they think I look familiar, from a commercial or Friday Night Lights maybe, but they’re not sure what from, but rarely do I have someone come up to me and know my name. I don’t know if that’s ever happened. But at these cons, yeah, you’re like a celebrity in this world of Supernatural, in this microcosm of the Marriott.
L: Exactly! Within these walls, you’re a superstar. I rode in the elevator with you the first time we met, and then you got out and the other people in the elevator were just like AAAAAHHHH!
G: That just makes me so happy, it’s so flattering. I’ve been telling my friends that I’ve been doing this, and some of them know about Supernatural and some have never heard of it, but I’ve been trying to explain to them what this is. It’s like you go and hang out with the actors from your favorite tv show in the entire world, the show that you love the most. And you can actually go sit down at a table with one of the actors or you can get an autograph or a picture with them or whatever – and so it’s from that standpoint it’s like really really cool. I’m just so flattered and so honored to get that kind of love. Up to this point in my career I’ve never come close to having a response like that from a crowd of people, you know? The other day I was in an elevator [at the con hotel] and a bunch of people piled in and I was like up against the wall and there was a girl right in front of me and she kinda looked over her shoulder, I think one of her friends kinda pointed like I was there and she saw me and then she couldn’t catch her breath and started to freak out a little bit. Her friend was like, are you okay? And she says no, no I’m not and she started crying!
L: You never thought you’d create that kind of reaction in people, huh?
G: No, not at all. All this from going on an audition for Supernatural!
L: What was your fiance’s reaction? [Gil brought his fiancé to the Dallas con]
G: She loved it, she absolutely loved it. Obviously I told her all about what I was doing and explained to her what goes on and she’d seen some of the You Tube vids of me singing, and that made her really happy. She could see the response from the crowd on the vids and she thought that was awesome. But yeah I think being there she was blown away and was just like, you should definitely keep doing these, this is so great and so much fun and this is so good for you. She was completely blown away by the whole thing and very excited for me.
L: There’s a chapter in Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls where we interview Danneel Harris for the first time – she was dating Jensen at the time, they weren’t married yet. And one of the things she said has always stuck with me. When we asked her what it was like being at a Supernatural convention with him, she said “It’s wonderful to watch the one you love being loved by so many people.”
G and L together: Awww.
L: I’m glad your fiancé could come and experience it for herself.
G: I was too. Her mom drove over from LA and her grandparents and aunt and uncle live in Dallas so they got to come and that was cool too. They hear about what I’m doing, maybe catch a commercial or an episode here and there, but to walk into that massive room with hundreds of fans, I think that was a fun experience for them because they don’t totally get it.
L: This sort of defies explanation.
G: You’re right, it does. One of the first things Richard said to me was ‘this makes no sense.’
L: (grinning) And yet… So anything else you wanted to tell me?
G: The only other thing I wanted to say, and I don’t even know how to say this, but it really kinda hit home for me in NJ. There’s more going on at these things than taking pictures and signing autographs and that sort of thing. I really was moved unbelievably in NJ just because I know that for a lot of the fans, it’s so cool to get to go and take a picture with one of the actors, but I also know that the other huge thing is the friendships that the fans have made along the way with each other. Traveling there from all over the world and reuniting at these cons, that’s just as big a part as anything. I really started to take notice of that and I was just — it’s just so awesome and some people said some really wonderful things to me that were totally unexpected. It just warmed my heart, and I came back really emotional from NJ, like this is something really special going on here.
L: That’s what Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls is about – so much of what makes this Show and this fandom so special is that it’s about being part of a community, a family. A bunch of other people who get how you feel, who you can be real with. That’s especially powerful for women, because we’re not always able to be real. Or for anyone who’s felt different for any reason, or like an outsider. We’ve heard so many powerful stories about how Supernatural and finding this fandom changed – or saved – someone’s life.
G: That’s it exactly. And that kind of hit me and I connected with them in NJ. It’s a place, like you said, for some people who feel like an outsider or don’t fit in or feel judged or whatever – to come and just be themselves and be with their friends and make new friends and feel accepted and loved. And to celebrate this show that they’ve connected with on such a deep level. It’s just so awesome, and there’s not a single bad thing about it.
L: Are you sure you haven’t read Fangasm? You just gave a really coherent description of fandom and of the reciprocal relationship between fans and the creative/producer side.
G: I went to the cocktail party in Vancouver, and I remember that night I was exhausted and only went for a little while. But I went in NJ and hung out for a while – I know what my commitment was but I just wanted to hang out for a while after and just enjoy it. And I kinda stepped back and watched everyone just having the time of their lives. I was so touched by that. And at a certain point, people just started coming up to me, like an informal line formed, and they just wanted to come up and say hi and ask me a question or ask me advice on something so I made myself available to that and it was really great. That was like an unexpected awesome gift of that whole weekend.
L: I’m thinking about a new book, on how Supernatural has changed lives. Maybe you should write a chapter.
G: I’d be honored, I really would. Because like I said, this has already touched me.
Like so many of the people who make this Show, Gil definitely gets it. A welcome addition to the family, don’t you think?
If you’ll be at Chicago Con, come say hi – we’ll have a table in the vendor’s room to sell our books at a special convention price. You might get lucky — the one you buy may be autographed by Jensen, Jared or Misha!
So, is it Tuesday yet???
For more info on Fan Phenomena: Supernatural
and Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, click the links
at the top of this page!