Behind The Scenes with Curtis Armstrong – An Inside View of Metatron and Supernatural
Previously, in Part One of my thoroughly enjoyable chat with Curtis Armstrong, whose portrayal of Metatron was so inspiring and powerful in the last few episodes leading up the Season finale, we talked about the evolution of his character. One of the things I love most about the cast of Supernatural is how much they care about their characters. I’ve heard it countless times, from the stars of the Show and from guest cast who have done a handful of episodes. Everyone truly, genuinely cares. And that makes all the difference to the quality of the show!
When we left off in Part 1, we had been talking about the evolution of Metatron, and the changes that became obvious in ‘Don’t Call Me Shurley.’ The next episode, ‘All In The Family’, was being developed at virtually the same time, which meant that keeping the character consistent from one episode to another was a bit of a challenge.
Curtis: And what happens for the most part in ‘All In The Family’ is that Metatron is back to being what he was before, which is basically a snarky guy who’s giving them information for the purpose of hopefully destroying Amara. But he has this other thing going on inside of him which is that he is going to try to do this. When he says to Sam, “I’ve got this,” it was another interesting thing. Because to say he’s got it, so that then Sam hustles Cas out – my feeling was that Metatron was going to make his last attempt, but I didn’t really think even he believed he had it in him.
Lynn: That’s how it came through.
Curtis: Right. And so his last moment is a genuine one, he does it – and when we rehearsed that scene and I delivered the line “Save the universe”, I remember Tom coming up to me and saying sort of wrinkled-brow, like he wasn’t sure about something, meaning a choice. And he said “So, what? You’ve given up already?” And I said, yeah, I have. And he said okay.
Lynn: I think that played right.
Curtis: Well, it was the one that I chose, and it was the one that made the most sense to me, given what had happened before. It seemed to me to be the right choice.
Lynn: So Tom, knowing that you have an understanding of this character that you’ve developed over many seasons, didn’t get it but trusted your instincts?
Curtis: Oh, he got it. It wasn’t that he didn’t get it, he got it completely, it was that he just wasn’t sure it was the way to go and he wanted – as he has in the past – he just wanted to make sure that was the direction I wanted to go in. Because you could have gone another way, you could have made it emotional, you could have had a William Shatner moment and had him saying please, save the universe! There were other ways it could have been said, but logically Metatron has tried the only thing that he could do to stop her and it has had no effect except to make her hair a little more tousled…
Lynn: (cracking up)
Curtis: So what’s he going to do? He just has to make that one plea to say that he meant well and to save the universe, and what better final words are there, for somebody like him?
Lynn: They are, they’re the perfect final words. And they seemed completely genuine. We had developed enough empathy for Metatron over the past two episodes that his death really carried a lot of horror to it. It was a death that most of fandom reacted with NOOOOOOOOOOOOO, we feel for Metatron now! I think it would have been maybe even more powerful if it had happened during Robbie’s episode, when we were all feeling that Metatron is us, he’s fighting for humanity. But I do think it still really worked.
Curtis: I don’t think it could possibly have worked in Robbie’s episode – and by the way, going back to that, there’s one thing – the scenes with God and Metatron were longer. We actually cut at least half of one scene.
Lynn: OMG, you’re kidding! There was more??
Curtis: Where Metatron explains his change. And this is something that Bob Singer and Robbie labored over. The truth was there was so much dialogue with those two characters that they could not keep it, it was just too long, so then it came down to making the decision, in Robbie’s words, which darlings to slaughter.
Curtis: The amazing thing is, what they chose [to cut] was Metatron’s speech, which is a lengthy speech, about how he came to realize why the world is worth saving, the universe is worth saving, and it all came out of his discussion about Castiel. In the original script, he says something to God to the effect of, you see all, so you know what your bff Castiel did to me before, and God says yeah well, it looks like he beat you almost to death and I’ve gotta say, from where I was, it looked like you deserved it.
Lynn: Oh wow
Curtis: And Metatron says something like yeah, I did. But then he says, I woke up in a hospital in this cold hospital bed and do you know what the first thing was that I heard? It was the sound of my heart beating, and what a beautiful thing it is, to know that your heart is still beating. That you were almost gone and – I’m now paraphrasing, it’s been too long and I don’t remember the speech – but it was this long speech about waking up from a near death experience and being aware that he was human.
Lynn: Oh, that’s such a beautiful speech!
Curtis: It’s a beautiful speech, but what they ultimately decided, and I can’t disagree with them – as much as I loved it and as key as it was – it explains everything about his transformation in one speech! And of course once we saw everything put together and how it all came out, it was their decision ultimately that the specificity of what it was that motivated the change wasn’t as important as much as it is the change.
Lynn: I guess they’re right, because it worked.
Curtis: Because then it becomes laying it out. You say, okay, Castiel almost killed him, he wakes up and has this religious conversion or whatever it is. And it was their decision, I think, that the big save humanity speech, the crying one, because of where that scene went – which was not where they were necessarily expecting it to go, from an emotional standpoint – they didn’t need to explain why it happened.
Lynn: And I think what we as viewers assumed was, essentially we did get it – that it was his experience of being part of humanity and being hungry and thus being empathic to a dog who needs a bite of sandwich, that’s where the change came from. So essentially we did still get it.
Curtis: Yeah, because it was filled in for you without being specific. And in a lot of ways, what makes television so horrible sometimes is the fact that everyone feels you have to explain everything.
Lynn: Yes, oh yes.
Curtis: And the fact that in this case, as important as it seemed to be – and of course I didn’t know what they’d cut because when I finally saw it, I was as wrapped up in it as everyone else, and it flowed. Nicole Baer, who edited that episode, it flowed so beautifully, every choice was perfect.
Lynn: She’s so good.
Curtis: Oh man, I just love her. And the way that it came out, beginning with feeding the dog and his clear attachment to an animal, and then coming to the point of, not just why did you abandon me, but look at why your creations are better than you are, because they do this and that and that, and he lists this litany of what humans do, for all their failings. And that is essentially saying the same thing as I woke up and realized I was human and how wonderful that is.
Lynn: It is.
Curtis: So that’s a very personal response. It’s a lot stronger to talk about that from the standpoint of people, because Metatron could be relieved that he’s still alive and it would have no influence necessarily on his direction. But to come to an understanding that humans, as fallible as they are, they do so much good and believe so much and give positively, that argument is a much larger and more important argument than how he feels.
Lynn: It also makes more sense to me, and maybe this is just me seeing it as a psychologist, but I saw Metatron’s evolution as a move away from narcissism, which of course always comes from severe hurt and trauma and abandonment. Being able to get rid of that defense allowed him to develop empathy for other people. So going back to part of his explanation being very focused on “I woke up and I heard my heart,” instead focusing it more on humanity made that evolution more obvious.
Curtis: I agree with you completely. And there’s also the other aspect of it, which is that Rob and I, when we were first doing that scene, the humanity scene, it was really tense. Because they were shooting the scenes in the bar chronologically, which made a lot of sense. Bob Singer wanted it that way with the exception of that one location scene. Shooting in order was really helpful. And then we get to that scene and I had this sort of dispute, with Bob, a disagreement about blocking. He was concerned because there was so much dialogue, he was concerned about movement, so that it didn’t just become…
Curtis: And people just talking. And so at one point he said, in this scene, the humanity scene, get up and walk away and then turn around and come back. And I said, I just can’t do that, this is where I’m putting all the money on the table, I can’t turn my back on him while I’m making this plea.
Lynn: Right, right
Curtis: it just doesn’t work for me. And we went back and forth about it and finally he agreed that it would be okay if I just got up from the table and got closer to him [Rob] from the movement, rather than walk away from the table. But as a result of this, we wound up – we only did I think one take per angle – so we started on Rob’s close up, then we did a 50/50 of the movement on either side, then we did my close up, then we did one from above. So four angles, and I don’t think we did more than one take on either angle.
Curtis: So the first ones, Rob’s and mine, Bob Singer said okay, we don’t need any more, that’s it, we can’t improve on this. But at the end of that – I can’t tell you how intense this was – at the end of that, Rob and I were talking about it, and I said, you know, I don’t know whether Robbie really intended this and he’s not responded to it – I think he’s really backing away from talking about this maybe out of necessity, and maybe you’ve talked to him about it, as far as the internet – but I said to Rob, this whole thing about what humans do and what they give and they’re better than you because they never give up and you do, that is to me – the fandom is just going to go ape shit when they hear that, because that is them.
Lynn: Yes! That’s always keep fighting!
Curtis: They always keep fighting. And I don’t know whether he meant it that way, but that’s how everybody is going to take it. I mean, it’s not obviously how I’m going to take it because I’m talking about – the character is talking about — something different. But Curtis looked at that on the page and thought oh, that’s a tip of the hat to the fandom.
Lynn: That’s what I put in my episode review, exactly. I think he did intend that and it came through loud and clear. And I think I said in my review, who would have thought that Metatron, of all people, would be the one delivering the underlying message of the whole series and the whole fandom?!
Curtis: Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it?
Lynn: I love that Robbie was able to write that pivotal episode for you and that he gave Metatron such an important role in the show itself, even more important than he always had been. It allowed him to say some of the things that Supernatural is all about. It was like a gift from him to you and a gift back to him because you did it so incredibly.
Curtis: Well, I looked at it the same, I looked at it as – I mean, obviously I don’t look at Metatron the way the fandom does. I’ve looked at him, from the very first episode, as being not just a special character, but the kind of character that actors seldom if ever get to do in an entire lifetime, to do that kind of a part. When you’re on a television show where you’re being written as this character who has so many facets – as story collector, as bibliophile, as angel, as demon, as monster, – but always articulate and almost always funny. There are so many facets to the guy.
Curtis: I don’t think there was an episode in four seasons that I thought oh, they just didn’t get it, this script doesn’t get it. There are some that are more favorites than others, if you can say that, but they always knew who he was, you know?
Curtis: They always wrote him right, he was always a great character. And the turn is remarkably fast given where he was in that previous episode where he’s doing the filming of dead people to sell to the news. To go from there to rock bottom – which is what Jeremy told me when I talked to him at one point. Again, I forget what it was, it was about that episode, and I had a problem with something and I talked to Jeremy about it. And he said, well — and this was about as much information as I could ever get out of anybody – he said, we need him to hit absolute rock bottom before we… – and then he caught himself, and after a pause, he said, you know, do anything else.
Lynn: Have a redemption arc, in other words.
Curtis: Well, he never said redemption.
Lynn: I know, but…
Curtis: And I assumed, being somebody who’s used to jobs being fleeting, I assumed what he meant was, before we kill your ass!
Lynn: (laughing) Well, that too!
Curtis: Which of course is exactly what happened. And it wasn’t just a gift to me, by the way, it was a gift to the fandom. I’ve spent so many years now listening to people say the most horrible stuff about this character, even though for the most part everyone seems to be aware that I am an actor and not actually him.
Lynn: Yes, they were able to love you and hate Metatron, I think.
Curtis: Yes, people have, for the most part, been great – but there have been some very horrible things directed my way.
Curtis: But for the most part, the fandom has been pretty great – they’ve made a point, in their 140 characters, to say ‘love you tho’!
Curtis: (laughing) And that’s always appreciated. But in a way, I think that it was – because of the way the fandom takes this show, which is unknown in my experience, the level of emotion and depth and commitment and skin that they all have in it –
Curtis: They were so exhausted from hating him that to give them something like ‘Don’t Call Me Shurley’ was a present to them too, because it allowed the fandom to finally see that there was somebody human there who they could love on some level.
Curtis: So as much as it was for Robbie to give to me, and for Rob and me to give to Robbie, it was also a gift for Robbie to give to the fandom, from a Metatron standpoint.
Lynn: Absolutely, because this whole experience for him on Supernatural also has been unprecedented, I think. Exhausting and exhilarating and just a one of a kind thing.
Curtis: He was amazing.
Lynn: (gets emotional and tries not to show it, because still SO not over Robbie leaving…)
Lynn: [ahem]. Robbie has also been beloved by the fandom for the queer representation that he has included in his episodes.
Lynn: Having God say ‘I’ve had some boyfriends’ was of course a huge thing for so many people in the fandom. And Metatron’s reaction was, I think, a big part of how validating that was.
Curtis: Mm hmm.
Lynn: Because he didn’t make a big thing of it, he didn’t make a joke of it, he just kind of raised an eyebrow and went “Oh.”
Lynn: Was that your interpretation or was that the explicit direction on the page?
Curtis: Oh, there was no “Oh” on the page, there was no line for Metatron at all.
Lynn: (surprised) Oh!
Curtis: I responded to what he said because that would be Curtis’ response. And also because it makes – I mean, that would be my automatic response in any event – but I would not have been able to make that response if it didn’t make sense for Metatron to make it.
Lynn: Right, right
Curtis: To me, it felt like anybody who had been alive as long as Metatron and had as much earthly and unearthly experience and is as intelligent and well-read as Metatron, would just find it impossible to have a problem with that.
Lynn: I totally agree, but you didn’t have to do that, and his reaction is what made that a really powerful line.
Curtis: And that was something that came out of our – just the way that Rob and I were acting together – and Robbie mentioned something about it. He sent me a message from that scene, after he’d seen that scene, and I think it was in specific reference to that part, that there were little interjections, as he put it, that he was so grateful for our having done. I think there was another line that I threw in because we needed an extra line, which was when I’m on my knees and I say, you know, the place is actually really nice, it’s like Cheers and everybody knows my name. And then I said, ‘and the light is so forgiving,’ which was not in the script.
Lynn: (laughing) And was a great line!
Curtis: So there were some things that were thrown in, just improvised because they seemed right.
Lynn: They did seem right. You guys were on a roll.
Curtis: All I can say is, that’s what happens when you’re in an environment where you’re allowed to play and you have the material to play with.
Lynn: So true. It’s one of the things that makes Supernatural so special. So how do you feel about maybe being gone from Supernatural? I don’t know if anyone can definitively say that. But this has been a wild ride for you too.
Curtis: Yeah, I’ll be honest with you, it has been a surprisingly difficult transition, which – I’ve never been on a show, even given that I wasn’t a regular on it – I’ve never been on a show that long since Moonlighting. Just in terms of calendar years. And, you know, it was weird, the whole thing was weird. Because in a way I never really felt like I was completely a part of it when I was doing it – I never really got to know the guys really. I loved working with them, working with them was just a dream. I loved every MINUTE that I shared a screen with those guys. They were so good and terrific people to work with.
Curtis: I really enjoyed that, and the other people too, like Emma and Amanda and Keith, the people I worked with on that last episode. All people I worked with on occasion. Those were people who I really just enjoyed doing it. But I never felt really part of it, I wasn’t there enough. And I think part of it also had to do with the fact that I wasn’t doing the conventions, and that means that you never really get to know those people.
I did three in the US and one in England, and the one in England I remember one night going to the bar and everyone was in the bar of the hotel in Birmingham and we all were sitting around and I remember talking for a long time with Jared that night, but basically I never really got to know those people.
So on a personal level, it’s not like we’re still hanging out or anything. It was like I came and went. I feel like in a way I was like somebody throws a rock into a pond and there’s a splash and there are ripples and then eventually the ripples go away and the pond looks just like it was before you got there.
Curtis: So in some ways, that’s how I feel. In another way, I feel sad because I loved the part so much and I’m going to miss that kind of writing and being able to say those kind of lines. I miss the intelligence and articulateness of the writing, the sensitivity of it, it’s so rare.
Lynn: It is. So very rare.
Curtis: I’m going to miss that terribly. I’m going to miss going to Vancouver, I love Vancouver. And I’m going to miss that crew, and that’s a really interesting part of it. That the crew on that show was so fantastic – the camera crew, Serge, all the make up and wardrobe people – I mean, there’s nothing I hate more than make up and wardrobe, I just hate it…
Curtis: But somehow going up there and going into those costume fittings, I mean, it was always interesting – once we got Metatron out of that outfit into other outfits – the Metafiction one, where she put me in a smoking jacket and an ascot – but I really loved working with those people. I always felt, in a curious way, I always felt really safe whatever I was doing with that crew. Because they are so good and they were personally so supportive. So to answer your question, I guess for someone who feels like it now appears to have almost been a dream, because I feel like my time there was sort of ephemeral. I guess it’s what our time is anywhere because we’re there and then we’re gone, but it’s weird to think of not being there anymore.
Lynn: It must be.
Curtis: But by the same token, everyone says oh nobody dies on Supernatural, which is true, but in Metatron’s case I can’t help thinking – and I don’t even want to think this and I suppose I shouldn’t – but to bring him back would be somehow diminishing the significance of his sacrifice. And they were able to do a lot with the character who they were originally planning on killing off at the end of Season 8.
Lynn: I’ll say!
Curtis: So when you consider, certainly as an actor, I have absolutely no complaints. As an actor, it’s nice to know that I was in 3 episodes or 2 or whatever and I was doing enough for them to say you know what, let’s keep him. It’s really gratifying from that standpoint. But my overall feeling, I must admit I’m glad that I’ve been working on this book, because it’s kept me very distracted.
Lynn: Your autobiography.
Curtis: Yes, and it’s another weird thing, I’m literally right now at the point in the book where I’m writing about Supernatural!
Lynn: That’s so weird!
Curtis: I leave the show at the moment that I’m writing about leaving the show.
Lynn: That’s very meta…
Curtis: (cracking up) it really is! It’s a strange thing. I guess that answers the question as best I can – it’s sad, I have to say.
Lynn: Well, I feel sad, partly because I love talking to you and hearing your insights and I love your part as Metatron. That’s maybe not so surprising for me, but the fandom is really sad, and that is surprising. The change in Metatron was big enough that they felt like oh, we just started to get him and boom, you killed him.
Lynn: And that’s great because that means that his sacrifice and his death had power, but people are sad to see him go.
Curtis: Well, it’s possible — I guess to read too much into things — but it could be that another benefit of having something like this happen for the fandom is the realization that everything is very fleeting and all things do pass and it might be a good idea for everybody to appreciate each other even in their differences because it’s very possible that the person that you’re hateful towards or at least snarky about one day is gone the next. So there’s probably a good lesson there too for everybody.
Lynn: Totally agreed. And I hope you know that there’s sadness in the fandom. I was surprised at how much the opinions changed.
Curtis: That’s a tribute to Robbie though. It takes a real genius to be able to turn popular opinion on a dime, and that’s what he did with ‘Don’t Call Me Shurley’. That was three years of hatred that he turned upside down.
Lynn: I agree, it was due to his brilliance. But it also wouldn’t have come through with such impact if you hadn’t played it as you did.
Curtis: I agree with that – I mean, it could have a brilliant script and nobody would have seen it — And the fact that we were able to do it, that Rob and I were able to carry that off, that part is down to us. But it’s a chicken or egg thing.
Lynn: You’re right. I don’t think you can disentangle them at this point, they all came together.
I’m sadder than ever, after this fascinating conversation, that I won’t get to chat regularly with Curtis about Supernatural anymore. But I can’t wait to read his autobiography, and he has a new show starting in the fall.
Curtis: It’s called Highston, we did the pilot last year. It’s on amazon, a half hour comedy. For scheduling reasons we couldn’t start shooting the actual show until this fall, but it will premiere in the winter sometime.
I’ll be on the lookout for it!
In the meantime, I’ll still be grieving the loss of two brilliant people who helped make my favorite Show the incredible experience that it is. I have no doubt they’ll go on to do more great things – but we’ll miss you, Robbie and Curtis.
Gratitude to @kayb625 for screencaps!
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