Worth the Wait! A Fascinating Chat with Tahmoh Penikett
We’ve been trying to catch up with Supernatural actor (and star of numerous other genre favorites) Tahmoh Penikett for what seems like forever. So when we stopped to say hello at DCCon, Tahmoh threw up his hands when he saw us.
Tahmoh: Let’s just do it!
Lynn: Great! Let’s do it!
Kathy: (ever the voice of reason, whispering to Lynn) We don’t have the interview questions…or your iPad…
Luckily, Tahmoh is the sort of guy you can wing it with. We had enough burning questions stored up that it really wasn’t a problem. And I still had my old school audio recorder that has been with us through a ton of Supernatural interviews from the early days of researching for writing Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls and our very first chats with Jared, Jensen and Misha. I kinda love the trusty little thing.
We sat down in the green room and everyone immediately jumped up to look for an outlet and recharge our phones. You have to take advantage when you can!
Tahmoh: I’m good to go when you guys are.
Lynn: Okay! Well, I definitely want to talk about Rift World Chronicles, we’ve been retweeting everything we see so people will know about it.
Tahmoh: I appreciate that.
Lynn: I’m excited about it!
Tahmoh: It’s a fairly quick watch, so you can get into it when you’ve got a spare 35 minutes or something.
Lynn: But first, I’ve got some burning Supernatural questions if that’s okay.
Lynn: So what is your take on why the character of Gadreel is so popular, despite the fact that – if you look at the character’s arc, for most of the time Gadreel was kind of the bad guy. But he’s become a really popular character anyway. And I think some of that is because you’re a popular genre actor, people already knew you, you already had lots of fans. But even the people who didn’t know who you grew to like the character. By the time he sacrificed himself, people were devastated. It was a powerful moment. Very sad.
Tahmoh: I think number one, probably because I played against the character being one note, him being an evil sort of angel who was just sort of blindly killing other angels and taking direction from Metatron. He easily could have been played very simply , but I played it with a lot of inner turmoil. He had serious reservations about what he was doing and with all that happened, that was increasing as time went on. He was purely driven by redemption in the beginning. He was convinced by Metatron early on that he could regain that respect and the position that he had before if he followed Metatron and did exactly as he was told. And whether he was blind or just so socially inept after being in prison for thousands of years, we’re not sure but that’s kinda how I played it.
Lynn: That really came through.
Tahmoh: That’s why he was so easily convinced. He was almost childlike in the beginning. Then he quickly came to his senses and he knew that what he was doing was wrong. But there was part of him that just really really hoped that it was all gonna work out in the end. But he got to a point – and I played it, even though the script was not indicating in any way that he was having problems with it — I played it as though he was. I think he was having a lot of issues with it, and the guilt was building up to a point where he knew that all that redemption that he had been fighting for in the beginning, he knew he was never going to attain it. Unfortunately he had to take the route that he did at the very end to make amends for himself.
We take a quick break so that Tahmoh can order some dinner before he has more con obligations.
Tahmoh: Chicken…Seasonal squash medley?
Lynn: Oh, that was good, I had that.
Tahmoh: It was good? Great. I’ll have that.
Kathy: (getting us back on track, as she did so many times in Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls) The way you played Gadreel reminded me a lot of Mephistopheles in Dr. Faustus, who’s one of my favorite characters. But it’s also that he’s consciously doing things that are wrong and yet you can see that sort of struggle throughout.
Kathy: Which makes him, I think, the most interesting character in the play. Mephistopheles is kinda the heart of that play because of that ‘I am evil and I’m doing the bidding of the devil’ yet at the same time, he can see what Dr. Faustus can’t see, he knows how it’s going to play out and he doesn’t want it to, so he’s kinda trying to stop it.
Kathy: And that’s really, like I just really loved the way you played it, and it kinda brought that to mind for me. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are so drawn to him, because he is torn, he’s not just this evil character.
[I love it when Kathy fangirls out. It’s like her inner Supernatural fangirl and her inner English professor geek were both in overdrive. She also seems to be speaking Tahmoh’s language.]
Tahmoh: Exactly. You’ve got to find those opportunities. As an actor, you have to color your performances as much as you can, because that’s who we are as humans. We’re never completely – we’re always playing with both sides, that’s how our minds work. We’re always playing with other options, we’re always constantly thinking about going in two different paths.
Kathy and Lynn: [are nodding]
Tahmoh: It was just a pleasure to play him, because you’ve got to understand that they don’t give us a sense of what we’re doing. I wasn’t told the story line arc when I came in there, so I ended up making some choices after the fact. And I thought I was playing the angel Ezekiel, so I looked him up and I did my own research and made my own choices.
Lynn: That’s so interesting – several other guest actors have said that to us too, that you really have to act in like a vacuum. But they must have known that Ezekiel was going to be Gadreel, but they don’t tell you.
Tahmoh: They often don’t give you a real heads up, they just don’t unfortunately.
Lynn: We just had a similar conversation with Curtis Armstrong. That it’s frustrating sometimes, when all he can play is what’s written on the page, and he wouldn’t really know more.
Tahmoh: Yeah. And I think Curtis, I commend him for that because he’s done this long enough that he realized. Because you know, you’d be, as an actor, you could play against what they did, but unfortunately Curtis had to be that. I easily could have been the actor who played it with him, who was just his willing henchman, but I chose to play Gadreel with more conflict. If anything, that helps color his performance too. It’s got to be there, you know? I could’ve been that actor, but to be honest with you, I think my arc probably would have been shorter if I did play it that way.
Kathy: So as you were playing him that way, did you get the sense that they started writing him that way?
Tahmoh: I did, yeah. And I’ve experienced that before. You know, with other performances, but I can’t take credit for that. But I think that was the case.
Lynn: I wouldn’t be surprised.
Tahmoh: That’s what the writers do, you know? They pay attention to what they get from your performance, and they take from it. So it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.
Lynn: Do you feel – I asked Curtis this, there was a scene where Gadreel is talking to Metatron, and he’s being his puffed up self, all blah blah blah, and I don’t even know if you had any dialogue, but you could just see on your face that Gadreel had had it…
Tahmoh: It was the bowling alley.
Tahmoh: So they didn’t write that, but I was like, for me I was like, this is just ridiculous. Like he’s just gotten to that point, so I made that choice, consciously. I think I have one line in it, and I made a conscious choice in that scene, that’s where Gadreel has just had enough. He’s just like, this is too much, this is ridiculous.
Lynn: So they wrote that line but the way you added the expression and delivered that line conveyed something way more.
Tahmoh: Exactly. I wanted there to be a shift there. So I got it in there and the camera really shows it. (laughs) Oftentimes most of the bitchfaces that they’re showing are from that bowling scene.
Lynn: And those are some epic bitchfaces!
Tahmoh: Where I’m just like, you’re too much…
Everyone: [is laughing]
Tahmoh: It’s the beginning, it’s the real beginning for me – it’s the character’s real beginning where he’s like, just he’s really not believing this anymore.
Lynn: That made him such a more believable character. He was painted at the beginning as very naïve, and I think you could buy that to a certain extent of – maybe as a psychologist, I sort of looked at him as a trauma victim.
Tahmoh: [nodding] Yeah, yeah you could.
Lynn: He was isolated…
Tahmoh: He really was…
Lynn: And maybe wrongly sort of blamed…
Tahmoh: Mm hmm…
Lynn: And you’d have all this fall out from that, and that would explain the blankness and that willingness to do anything.
Lynn: But he also came off as smart, so you wouldn’t buy it forever.
Tahmoh: Yeah, exactly.
Lynn: And you played that ambivalence, that dawning realization.
Tahmoh: Yeah. Exactly. And you know, that’s just it. I tried to honor — just for myself — to think about the fact that he’s literally broken when he first comes out. He’s just damaged goods, he doesn’t even know how to function. An angel in a human vessel, down on earth – he’s been in prison forever, so he’s literally socially inept and trying to find his way and he needs direction. That’s why he was God’s most trusted angel , he’s someone who takes orders well, who is complete and grounded when he’s serving a higher master and he has a purpose. Hence Metatron coming in at this time, when he’s more lost than he’s ever been in some ways, coming in and easily swaying him.
Lynn: Talk about taking advantage of a vulnerable person. A formerly strong smart person who you could get to do whatever.
Lynn: What was – the very first episode as Ezekiel, which I think was the season premiere…
Tahmoh: I think so, yeah.
Lynn: And they introduced that character, I remember that my first impression in my episode review was, I don’t know what to think of this character. Is he good, is he not? I feel a sense of foreboding but I don’t even know what I’m attaching it to.
Lynn: Were you consciously even in the first scene trying to plant a seed of doubt, or were the writers?
Tahmoh: Subtly, but the writers did it well enough with the writing – more than that, they did it well enough because Dean has real reservations about whether he can trust him, so when it’s written like that and you’ve got your lead character having real reservations, you don’t wanna really play the twisting the moustache or you wouldn’t – you have to be really careful redrawing it. If anything, you want to commit to the one thing that I’m trying to convince you of, which is that I’m honest in my intentions. Because it’s already there, the doubt is already there, you as an audience already have it because this is a new guy and all the angels previously have been bad experiences. So it’s already there and you play against it, you just commit to the fact that I’m honest in my intentions and I really do want to help.
Lynn: I guess that’s why it came through as so confusing, because you’re picking up on Dean’s mistrust.
Lynn: But partly too because you, you sort of look like a good guy…
Tahmoh: Mm hmm
Lynn: And you sounded like a good guy, but it was there from the beginning, that sense of doubt.
Tahmoh: Yeah, that first episode was a lot of fun to do.
Kathy: We’ve talked to so many guest actors who talk about how different the Supernatural set is – and the times we’ve been on the SPN set, we’ve been struck by how well everyone gets along, how much they joke around but how they work like a well oiled machine too. The Battlestar and Dollhouse sets sound pretty fun too. What was the SPN set like?
Tahmoh: Oh, it was great. You know, I’ve told this story before, but Jensen – my first significant scene was with Jensen.
Kathy: Was it that one, that first scene?
Tahmoh: It was the scene where I wake up and he’s got me in the fire circle. We’re in the factory or wherever and I’m saying to him, listen, I’m just here to help, and he’s not quite trusting me, right?
Kathy and Lynn: Right.
Tahmoh: That was my first scene with Jensen and he just gave 100%. He was giving me 100% and I was impressed, because a lot of actors dial it in, especially that many years on the job. You get tired, they’re pacing themselves, they’ve gotta save the real work for when the camera is on them. But he gave me 100% and it really blew me away. I was impressed. And then, our next day together, we had like ten scenes, it was incredibly heavy and again he gave me 110% every single time the camera wasn’t on him and I was really… that was just such a positive thing to see. Because again, it’s rarely the case and he really brought it and I was really really thankful, and I took the time to tell him that.
Lynn: Was he surprised to hear it? Because we hear guest actors say it a lot, but I wonder if they say it to him too.
Tahmoh: I don’t think he was surprised to hear it, but he was appreciative. You know, maybe people don’t tell him enough.
Lynn: We’ve heard a lot of people say it, to us anyway.
Tahmoh: I stopped him and I made a point of it on set, but days later after we’d done the work. Because the last thing you need is – I just wanted to make a point that was outside of that day and of that heavy scene, I just like told him how much I appreciated it, and how great it was to see someone still that passionate about the work.
Lynn: After ten years! I think it’s hard for us who are not actors to understand what a difference that would make, but it clearly does.
Lynn: But I’m trying to imagine what it’s like acting opposite someone who’s NOT giving that.
Tahmoh: Yeah, it’s challenging. But unfortunately that’s just how it is sometimes. You still have to do your work, you have to bring it. Working on a set, it’s not the reason most of us start this. Most of us start off in theater or what have you. You fall in love with the art form and it’s a very different creature than doing it on set. Set is so stop and go, stop and go, very close up, let’s do it again. It’s very hard to drop in and out all the time. So when you’re a guest and you don’t know the actors and you come onto a new show, it’s even more challenging. That’s your job as a professional. That’s the challenge, yeah.
Lynn: I’ve heard enough people say the Supernatural set is different that I believe it.
Tahmoh: It’s great, man. Everyone has worked together for so long so they’re all very invested. It’s a warm crowd.
Lynn: The crew too.
Tahmoh: Yeah, exactly. It’s everyone.
Lynn: Alot of what we write about and study is fandom. I’m curious what was your take on conventions when you first did them. I guess you’ve done them before, for BSG?
Tahmoh: [laughing] I’ve done alot of conventions.
Kathy: You’re doing one next week too!
Tahmoh: Yeah, I’m doing one next week, it’s great, a lot of the cast is gonna be there, so I’m pretty excited. It’s obvious how passionate these fans are, they’re really really invested in the show and you have a very tight knit community, and I think because of how active everyone is on social media, it’s made your community even stronger. It’s impressive to see how international that community is. People are really invested, they just love the show and they’re very proud to be a part of it. And in large part, that comes down from the leads and the way they conduct themselves. I don’t think this fandom would be as strong if they weren’t as giving as they are.
Lynn: I don’t even think the show would’ve lasted this long without the comfortable relationship that’s developed between the cast and the fans, and without this many conventions. These face to face relationships that have happened over a decade – that kind of contact sort of breaks down the stereotypes, on both sides.
Lynn: Fans have fewer stereotypes about the actors, and the cast has fewer about the fans.
Tahmoh: Yeah, I absolutely agree. It’s a special group, man, it really is. It’s great to be a part of it. It’s been a very positive thing since it’s happened.
[For some reason, when Tahmoh uses that sort of slang expression, like it’s special ‘man’, it just makes me warm all over. Know what I mean?]
Tahmoh: People sometimes forget that I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been a professional actor for 14 years now and in genre stuff. So I’m very familiar with it and with the fandoms and the universe and I’ve always appreciated them. If anything, this fandom just reminds me – gives me gratitude because you know, there’s points in this business where you’re working where the superficial egotistical side of the business can be heightened. You can be in that mind set, that perspective, a little too much in an unhealthy way, because you’re working on a show, because you’re doing some press, because there are all these wonderful things that are happening to you. But they’re ultimately not the things that will keep you mentally and spiritually happy in the long term. But going full circle, and experiencing all this again, it just makes me realize how loyal these people are and how loyal the fandoms are. They’ll always support your work. And I really do appreciate this community for that in particular. They’re incredibly giving and are always looking forward to your next project. That’s a special thing, that says a lot about these people. So there’s just a lot of gratitude.
Lynn and Kathy: SPN Family.
Tahmoh: You know, I had times where I was sick of conventions because I wasn’t in the place where I felt like I could be myself and be very giving. It’s a taxing thing. I just signed 465 autographs. That’s a lot of people. I personally – who I am as an individual – I have to give something to every single person, and that takes a little bit out of me. It’s exhausting, but I have to do it. Because if I’m not myself, if I’m tired and exhausted and I misrepresent myself, I’m not okay with that. I’ll wake up the next day and not be happy, and that will sit with me for a few days. So I’ve done that in the past where I’ve done conventions and am just too tired while I’m working, and it’s become a negative for me, so I wouldn’t do them for a while. But again, I’ve come full circle. And these shows have been quite manageable because they’re once a month and it’s just been perfect, it’s been something I can handle. Something I look forward to. A good thing, and there’s a big lesson in that. It reminds me, it’s like life. This is a constant, you can trust in these fans. And that’s something I’m very grateful for.
Lynn: I’ve never really participated in another fandom. I feel pretty lucky to have landed in this one! Once you’re part of this SPN Family, the fandom will follow you and support you.
Tahmoh: Yeah, it’s so true
Kathy: and it’s one of the fandoms too that’s most studied by academics because it is, in so many ways, an outlier fandom. Even the really big fandoms like Harry Potter and Sherlock, this one still stands out as very different.
Tahmoh: Yeah, I believe it. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it. 100%
Lynn: Your perspective is similar to Mark Sheppard’s, who has also been in so many genre things. I think you two probably came in understanding fandom a bit more. But that makes your perspective really interesting, — you knew genre fandom, but this one is still unique to you.
Tahmoh: For sure. Yeah, 100%.
Kathy: We were having a debate yesterday, a bunch of aca-fans who are at this con, like, is it really different? Is the Supernatural fandom really different? It’s nice to have your perspective.
Lynn: You’ve probably been asked this but I’m not remembering – anything fun or funny happen on set?
Tahmoh: Yeah, I mean, you always get asked that unfortunately
Tahmoh: No it’s okay, I mean there’s not any particular thing that happened. There was like – the boys are just constantly cracking jokes on set, which is great, man. And there’s real levity on set, which is great because sometimes you’re dealing with some real heavy shit, you know? People are getting cut, people are being harmed, there’s violence, there’s blood, whatever. So in between takes, they’re joking around, they’re killing it with the camera crew and the camera crew is throwing jokes back and everyone is just cracking up. Everyone is making a point of having fun, and that’s important when you work the long hours that you do. And that’s something I really really appreciate. It starts from them down. If those guys aren’t in a good mood, if they’re tired, if they’re not doing well and they’re not joking around, it’s gonna affect the crew, it’s gonna affect the other actors. It’s gonna affect every department that’s there on set working that day.
Lynn: Are you that same kind of actor as they are? Some guest actors have told us they were a little caught off guard, that they’re not the kind of actor who can just snap right into it when you’ve been cracking up, like Jared and Jensen do.
Tahmoh: [laughing] Well, that’s the problem with them, they’re just so used to doing it for ten years!
Kathy and Lynn: We’ve seen it, yes.
Tahmoh: When I do emotional stuff, I’m very in character. I drop in. So yes, challenging for me at times. But other times, you know you get very comfortable and sometimes you can get in the pattern of turning it on and off. If I’m deep in my stuff and I’m doing a heavy scene, I’m not socializing. I’m off getting prepared, getting ready to go to the place I need to. The guys know that too though, right? They see that. If you’re in it and you’re doing your thing, they’re not gonna bother you.
Lynn: They seem really good at being tuned into the other actors they’re working with.
Tahmoh: Well, they’ve worked with so many actors! They’re seasoned seasoned veterans.
Lynn: Though I feel like they could sort of be jerks about it…
Tahmoh: Oh they could, they could.
Lynn: Like this is our show, get with the program.
Tahmoh: Yeah. Yeah. They’ve done so many hours of television though, they’re ready for everything. They’ve seen it all. They’ve seen people have melt downs, they’ve seen people be exceptional, they’ve seen people be really challenging, they know how to deal with everything. And they work off of each other too, they do it together really well.
Lynn: They [Jared and Jensen] do seem to have their seamless sort of working. They’re the two people who are there almost all the time – that’s a lot of acting with one other person.
Tahmoh: It really is. They’ve just got a groove, they know each other very well.
Lynn: When I’ve talked to them off the record, they are still just as excited about doing this show as they were in the beginning, which is amazing.
Tahmoh: It really is amazing, it’s just rare.
Kathy: So, Riftworld? How did you decide to do it?
Tahmoh: My agent told me about this quirky little script, it was The Portal then. The producers basically told Erin [Karpluk] that they knew me and that I was willing to do it if she did it, and they told me the same thing.
Lynn and Kathy: [cracking up]
Lynn: Wait, it was like a set up?
Tahmoh: Pretty much! They told me that Erin was willing to do it if I did it and I liked working with Erin so I said let’s do it. So a couple of days into shooting she said, so how do you know these guys? And I’m like, I don’t know these guys, you know these guys!
Lynn and Kathy: [laughing]
Tahmoh: These guys pulled a fast one on us.
Kathy: That’s pretty brilliant though.
Tahmoh: Old producer trick. But we had a blast doing it and it was really interesting. I realized how long it had been since I was really having fun on set. I realized that I hadn’t been enjoying the work like that for a while, just playing in a comedic way, it had been a while since I’d been allowed to do it, and the freedom to do it.
Lynn: Freedom to do it, because?
Tahmoh: Well because if you’re working for a large network, you’ve got a story line, you’ve got a character to play, you’re somewhat confined with what you can do with your performance, you can’t just go off and be creative. And it’s comedy too, so you’re working a totally different muscle.
Lynn: Oh, I see.
Tahmoh: So I didn’t know that we’d ever do anything more with it after that, but they came to us with these eight episodes and said check them out. And I read them and we both thought they were fantastic. So we were like, let’s do it. So we shot it last December for 3 weeks and the rest is history. We did it, it’s out there now, I’m very happy with it. For the budget we had and the short amount of time we were given to shoot, it turned out well and I think people will enjoy it. It was fun to do comedy.
Kathy: Had you done comedy before?
Tahmoh: In acting school, theater school. The industry has never really seen me doing comedy, they’ve never really given me the opportunity.
Lynn: You know what though? I’ve seen enough of you doing panels here that I can see that you can totally do that sort of dry subtle humor on your feet.
Tahmoh: Yeah. I like it. Anybody who knows me well knows that I love making people laugh and I love comedic stuff. In acting school I remember whenever I’d do it, our scenes were the favorites, people loved them. I love making people laugh so this has been a great thing for me.
Lovely Creation volunteer: Your food is here.
Lynn and Kathy: Perfect timing.
Tahmoh: Yeah, so I’m so appreciative already. The boys gave me a tweet about Riftworld the other day and my goddamn phone almost blew up it was being retweeted so much. And I appreciate that, that the community is going to support us and check it out. I hope they do, and if we get enough views and it justifies it, we’ll get a second season.
Lynn and Kathy: That would be awesome. Can we take some pictures?
Tahmoh: For sure. But you’re getting my sleep face, I’m so tired right now.
Lynn: Are you coming to the concert tonite? The Saturday Night Special?
Lynn: That’ll wake you up!
Tahmoh: Thanks, ladies. Sorry it took us so long to get together to do this.
Lynn and Kathy: Totally worth the wait!
Tahmoh disappeared out the green room back door into the super sekrit hallways of the convention center, and we heard him greet one of the other actors with an enthusiastic “Hey, buddy!”
It was a fitting ending for the interview, in keeping with all the things he said about how special this little Show and the people who bring it to life are.
Stay tuned for more exclusive interviews and convention posts – and check out our books on Supernatural on amazon, with thoughtful insights from Jared, Jensen, Misha and all the SPN cast and our own fangirl adventures too.
And check out Riftworld Chronicles here! Let them know we’d love to see more!