Alaina Huffman on Supernatural, Directing, Social Change – and Fangirling Nichelle Nichols!
I finally had the chance to catch up with Alaina Huffman (Supernatural, Stargate Universe and Smallville) at the Supernatural Burbank convention. Our paths have crossed many times, but we had never had a chance to sit down and chat until then – and what a fun conversation it was!
After playing Abbadon on Supernatural for multiple episodes, Alaina had just returned to that set to shadow director Phil Sgriccia. I couldn’t wait to hear all about that, but first we had to gush a little about the SPN Family. The Burbank convention in particular feels like a family affair, since many of the cast are local and can bring their families along.
Lynn: It really does feel like everyone is family at the cons.
Aliana: Especially here, everyone has their family and their kids here.
Lynn: OMG Matt Cohen’s son Macklin is so cute.
Alaina: SO cute!
[Yes, we were gushing. If you’ve seen Macklin, you totally understand why. There followed a brief pause for both of us to grab another handful of Doritos from the bag on the table between us]
Alaina: (laughing) I’m so sorry, you’re gonna have a lot of crunching on your tape.
Lynn: From me too! I’ll just laugh when I’m trying to transcribe it because I’ll know what all that noise is.
[And yes, that’s what just happened…]
Lynn: So tell me about shadowing [director] Phil Sgriccia on Supernatural recently. How was that experience?
Alaina: So cool. I talked to Phil about it quite extensively. You know, going through your career, people always ask, are you interested in directing, or producing, or blah blah blah. I created a comic book a few years back with MTV, and that was my first foray into producing anything and managing a bunch of people around a project that was centered around me. And it was great, I loved it. And it was successful, we launched the full graphic novel and then I just sort of went on with my career and my life. And then this last couple years has been funky. Just to share a little, I’m getting divorced.
Lynn: That’s always hard, no matter what.
Alaina: I feel like we should have a party — 17 years and four kids is not a failure!
Lynn: Absolutely not.
Alaina: But he’s had a really hard time and he’s dealing with his own things, and it’s a bit painful. And it’s just weird, it’s like, what happened here? So I’m trying to move on with my life in a personal way and a professional way and also, I’m a single mom with four kids and it’s all me all the time.
Lynn: Which is unbelievably hard!
Alaina: I spent a lot of the year sort of resenting that even though I did want the divorce. So anyway, I found myself saying I need to do something, I need to be busy.
Lynn: That can be very therapeutic.
Alaina: Not that I’m not busy with four kids and a career, but I needed something to put my focus on. And I talked to Rich [Richard Speight, Jr.] about it and he had suggested this, and then my other friend Bam Bam – James Bamford who directs a lot for Arrow and I worked with him on both Smallville and Stargate. So I just kept having these conversations with people independently from each other and I thought, what am I doing? So I sat down with a friend of mine, Chad McKinney, who was a studio executive over the show and now has moved on to Sony, but he was like, why don’t you talk to Phil? And I was like, that’s a great idea. So I sent Phil an email and said hey I’d love to pick your brain about directing. So we went out for a coffee and we had a 2 hour coffee and I said, I’ve never directed anything, I don’t know what to do. And he said listen, I’m doing shadowing next week, why don’t you come to Vancouver?
Lynn: Phil seems like such a giving person, such a wonderful and talented man. One of the reasons Supernatural has been on the air going on 13 seasons.
Alaina: He’s a great mentor. So I took that opportunity knowing the circumstances that I’m in and I explained to him, I don’t know if I can get away, and I ended up making it work. And I got up on set and, you know, it’s a beautiful family, it really is.
Lynn: It really is, literally.
Alaina: And Phil really is a great mentor. Every meeting we had [after shadowing], he was like, so what happened there was… And he just really took the opportunity to teach me along the way. And honestly? I was lost for a lot of it, during the prep work, because it’s so disconnected from being on set.
Lynn: Right, so different from the part of it that you’ve seen, working as an actor on a show.
Alaina: For 20 years! And so I was sitting in meetings going, ‘what are they talking about? I know I read the script like five times, why don’t I understand?’
Lynn: (laughing) Like hey, I’ve been on this show…
Alaina: Yeah! And I know what department head is talking and I still don’t understand what’s going on! And then we went on the scout, and we had to go back out because we lost a couple of locations because of schedules and blah blah blah, and the second time through everything, I got it. Like oh yeah, the car is gonna come from here and this is this and that is that, and oh that’s what you were talking about!
Lynn: So it started to all pull together and make sense.
Alaina: Yeah. But definitely there were a couple of shots of me probably on the internet like passed out on a set chair…
Lynn: (laughing) Understandable!
Alaina (laughing) I was like just falling asleep. But it was super fun, Ruth Connell was on that episode, which was great. So we got to prank Mark Sheppard and decorate his trailer with Misha’s pictures.
Lynn: So you and Ruth plastered his entire trailer on set with photos of Misha! I love that Ruth pulled you into it and it sounds like Mark loved it too actually.
Alaina: He did!
Lynn: Which I guess is not really the reaction you’re hoping for when you’re trying to prank someone…
Alaina: He was a great sport, it was really really fun. And so funny, but we were worried – we were like well, he’ll either get really really mad or he’ll think it’s funny.
Lynn: Right, it could go either way. But you didn’t really damage anything, it was all in good fun. Sometimes pranks have a mean spirited edge, but not that one.
[Though if memory serves, Mark later said at a con that he kept the picture of Misha above his toilet….and that his aim wasn’t always that great…]
Alaina: Yeah, so the shadowing was a great opportunity and it’s in the back of my mind as something that I sort of have a future plan for. I want to weave it into the fabric of my life right now, which includes raising my four kids by myself and being an actor and now working as a director. One of the things that I realized is that wow, this would be a really tough job for a single mom with four kids.
Lynn: That’s true.
Alaina: They call it the black hole, you’re literally in a black hole for two and a half weeks.
Lynn: Yeah, it sounds like you just have to immerse yourself. Jensen has talked about that, which is why when he directs, they usually give him the first episode filming. And Richard has too, about how much work it is. It sounds a) really stressful because you have so much responsibility and b) all encompassing.
Alaina: Yes. One thing that I loved is that everyone – my sort of mentors that I’ve conferred with on this, Bam and Rich and Phil – they were all like, you’re gonna get asked so many questions. And Misha said the same thing, people just ask you questions and you just kinda have to have an answer. You’re the one who has to answer.
Lynn: it’s like the buck stops there really.
Alaina: And it made it sound like it would be really overwhelming to be asked all these questions, but as I witnessed it – and I wasn’t being asked the questions, Phil was – but actually it feels very helpful to me, because something in everyone’s inquiries would jog your memory and you’d be like oh yeah, we need that. Because you can’t do it all by yourself.
Lynn: Right, and it’s a team, and everyone is there to remember their part of it.
Alaina: Yeah, and everyone is so seasoned. So, it’s there. My youngest is four, almost five in December, he’s in preschool. So I’m sort of weaving it into my life and it’s a focus now, and I think it would be something that I would like to do.
Lynn: And we really need more female directors.
Alaina: I feel like there’s a voice, and every person, each one brings their perspective into it – it’s story telling, an aspect of story telling, and we all bring our perspectives, so I will definitely bring mine.
Lynn: I’m looking forward to that.
Alaina: So I did this course today on manifesting intentions and that kind of stuff, and one of the things I realized as we were going through the work was about being present. In acting, we talk about being present all the time.
Lynn: I’ve heard Jensen talk about that, that if you’re over-rehearsed you can’t be present for the other actor.
Alaina: [nodding] And I wrote in my notebook – it was a big revelation for me – I always feel like I’m escaping, like I almost feel a little guilty, maybe because I’m a mom. But I always feel a little bit guilty when I travel or when I go away for work because I’m truly in the moment. Like I go to museums, I have fun, I immerse myself in a character, I laugh on set, it’s not stressful to me at all. And for years, I felt sort of guilty about that. And so I realized that’s where I am very present, and then I’m like oh, that’s not me escaping, that’s me being truthful to who I am.
Lynn: I wonder if you only feel guilty about that because you are a woman — and a mom.
Alaina: [nodding] Yeah, yeah.
Lynn: I get what you’re saying, I do, but I’m not sure many guys would feel guilty about that.
Alaina: No! And that’s so true, and I know this is sort of a soapbox that I’m on right now, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat on planes with other women saying this or like you’ll have to make a choice, and I’m like, I’ve made a choice!
Lynn: Yeah, like this IS a choice!
Alaina: Thank you, this is my choice.
Lynn: Yeah, I’m doing both. I don’t think we say that to men, you have to make a choice.
Alaina: No, and I’ve sat on the very same plane with my male colleagues who are like oh, your family is so lucky you’re willing to do that for them.
Lynn: Very different perspective.
Lynn: That’s something we talk about in our books. Have you thought about doing that Warner Brothers directors course? Richard told me all about it and it sounds wonderful and I think it’s meant to help women and minority directors be successful.
Alaina: Yes, it’s for minorities but they do have a strong focus on women, absolutely. Nina [Lopez-Corrado] went through that program.
Lynn: Oh, she did! I love her so much. Everyone loves her so much. She’s so damn good.
Alaina: She’s great, and they love her. She’s got a great temperament and everything. Absolutely it’s something I want to get into. There are requirements, you have to have a short that’s been in festivals or a feature…
Lynn: That’s right, Richard told me all the things he did to prepare, to get lined up to qualify, doing some commercials and shorts and things like that.
Alaina: Exactly. So it is a goal I’m working towards and Jenny Klein has offered to write me a short to direct.
Lynn: I miss her as a writer on Supernatural. She’s also awesome!
Alaina: She is.
Lynn: Women supporting women, woohoo!
Alaina: Right, right. And the beautiful thing about it too is that I just have so many great friends who are like so talented. I did a short with Jenny [as writer] and Nicole Baer [as director] this summer.
Lynn: Oh yes, Vagabond! I tweeted it around. Talk about women supporting women – and SPN Family sticking together.
Alaina: Thank you! It was so good and it’s funny because I was on set and Jenny showed up and I had said to Nicole earlier that day, this is the first time this has ever happened to me, and I know it’s because Jenny and I are friends, but I could hear her voice when I was reading the lines.
Lynn: Oh cool, because you know her.
Alaina: I could hear her inflection and her tone and her voice and I was like oh, I get it!
Alaina: I’ve had writers say to me before on other shows, like I hear you, after we’ve done a couple episodes and we get to know each other and have had dinners or whatever, I hear you in my head and I write from that perspective. But I’ve never had it go the other way, where I’ve actually heard the writer’s voice.
At this point, it was getting close to time for the Saturday Night Special concert, and Alaina’s handler, Victoria, came in to let us know. We spent a few minutes admiring Victoria’s awesome concert makeup, which is something she does professionally so her makeup skills are A plus. If you’ve admired the cast’s awesome makeup for karaoke nights, thank Victoria (https://www.facebook.com/vicrighthand/). That led to us wishing her happy birthday and then an epic discussion of birthday cakes, specifically the tres leche cake at Portos which I still have not managed to sample, much to my great dismay.
Alaina: But the line like on a holiday is blocks long. I have a friend who’s a baker there, and it’s not frozen stuff, it’s real.
Lynn: [is pouting]
I managed to pull myself out of my depression to get back on track eventually, however.
Lynn: So one of the other things that you have a unique perspective about is that you’ve been on successful genre shows with passionate fandoms before. For most of the cast, this has been a completely new experience, but not for you.
Alaina: Mm hmm.
Lynn: What’s different about this experience and this fandom from Stargate Universe or Smallville? Both of those are also genre shows with big fan followings.
Alaina: I was saying to Briana [Buckmaster] earlier that I’m a little envious of her and of Ruth and all these new people who have come into this fandom now — especially what’s happened with the band and with Rich, it’s like they paved the road.
Lynn: Definitely. It’s so different having Louden Swain as the house band and Richard as the host all weekend.
Alaina: Creation has been around for so long and I’ve worked with them for so long and with other shows all over the world, but there’s something about this Show and this cast. You can’t even really pinpoint it – we genuinely like each other, and the fandom is genuine. I’ve expressed this before – my show, Stargate Universe, was not well received, it was very negatively received by the fandom and it was fine, we got over it, and people ended up coming around, but it wasn’t warm and fuzzy. But this – it’s like, you walk into it and it’s like a big slap of love in your face and you’re like OMG they love me!
Lynn: [grinning] They do. Even with you being a bad guy.
Alaina: Especially with you being a bad guy!
Lynn: Yeah, I think especially, you’re right.
Alaina: That’s the crazy thing! And I’ve known Mark Sheppard for years, I used to call Mark my secret lover because I’d see him all over the world at these events, and I never worked with him until Supernatural.
Lynn: He did so many genre shows too, so he also has that perspective.
Alaina: Exactly. And so I’d see him and I had done panels with him all over the world. So I’d probably known him for several years before I got on Supernatural and then I was like ‘Oh my buddy Mark Sheppard is on this show!’ So that was great getting to work with him and Sarah, his wife, is a dear friend of mine and like the best thing that ever happened to him and I adore her.
Lynn: Me too, she’s awesome.
Alaina: So it’s just like beautiful. It really is, it’s real, I think anyone can tell, on a regular basis we’re like – yesterday I was on facetime with Ruth for about an hour – I facetime with Lisa Berry, we all see each other whenever we can. And Rich and Rob are doing this amazing show, Kings of Con [check it out if you haven’t already on Comic-Con HQ]…
Lynn: And you’re in it!
Alaina: I’m in it, I play Robbie’s wife.
Lynn: That’s right!
[ETA – If you haven’t seen Alaina’s guest star role on Kings of Con, what are you waiting for? In fact, if you’re not watching every Tuesday, what are you waiting for? It’s absolutely hysterical]
Alaina: It’s so fun, it’s so witty, it’s so well written. Rich directed the episodes that I was in – I was in two but I think he did them all and Robbie wrote them. They hired everyone that they know and they pulled a lot of favors and we just all wanted to support each other. This is how we are, we support each other’s campaigns and charities and – it’s real. There’s usually an email that goes out like, hey can you help me with this? But there’s no resistance from anyone, they’re like YES, what do you need me to do? Let’s get on the same page. I mean, I probably have six or seven text threads with all the different people and we have conference calls about all the things we’re doing, it’s fucking beautiful.
Lynn: And it’s so unusual. I started studying fandom because of this show and this fandom, and I felt like this was going to be a phenomenon early on. But I’ve never seen anything like this – it’s like a family on the cast side – and the crew side too!
Alaina: Yes, the crew is so great too.
Lynn: And then a family on the fan side. It’s this weird – but awesome – reciprocity.
Alaina: And there’s a crossover as well.
Lynn: And yeah, that doesn’t happen either. That’s what my new book [Family Don’t End With Blood] is about, with chapters written by actors and fans – the stories are equally powerful on both sides of whatever you want to call it, it’s not really a divide…
Lynn: Everybody really knows each other, there’s familiarity.
Alaina: And if there is an issue and it’s vocalized, I do think there’s support behind people. Sometimes it’s a conversation, but it’s very rarely an argument.
Lynn: it might be a heated conversation but it gets worked out usually.
Alaina: Yeah, and it’s fascinating to me.
Side note: I have no clue how we ended up talking about Star Trek and then Nichelle Nicholls, but that’s where we went next. Alaina may have been sharing her own fangirl moments, and that led to this…
Alaina: I adore Nichelle Nicholls.
Lynn: Do you know her?
Alainia: I do.
Lynn: [possibly starstruck] Oh wow. I’m kinda in awe right now.
Alaina: Yeah she’s amazing. I’ve had dinner with her several times and she’s told me so many great stories.
Alaina: Two of my favorite stories that she told me, one was how these things [conventions] started.
Lynn: Oh right, because she was there.
Alaina: She was. The first real conventions were Star Trek. And what happened was, it was off the air and fans were really distraught and they wanted to get together and they’re like, we’re gonna get together because we all really connect and we’d love it if you would come. I don’t know how many of them there were, but they wrote letters – this was back in the 70’s…
Lynn: Right, when people wrote letters…
Alaina: And I don’t have all the details, though she tells the story beautifully, but they wrote letters back and forth to Nichelle and said look, we’re gonna have a little get together. It wasn’t a convention, it was at some hotel in NY, it was a ‘get together’.
Alaina: And they said, if we can get enough people, we’d like to send you an airplane ticket and put you up in a hotel if you would come and meet us. And her and a few castmates were like of course! And then there were tons of people who ended up showing up.
Lynn: Because it was really popular, and didn’t they get it back on the air for a while?
Alaina: Yeah, with letters! And so that happened and that sort of created this fan world that happened, and then Gary and Adam were a part of that.
Lynn: They were really young too, they were like teenagers when they started this.
Alaina: Yeah I think like 14, it’s fascinating. And then my other side note on fangirling over Nichelle Nichols – my other favorite story she told me was about the kiss between her and Shatner.
Lynn: Oh the famous kiss, yes.
Alaina: Do you know the story? From what I was told by her, the network at the last minute wanted to pull the plug on it. They got nervous and they were like, no, let’s do a hug.
Lynn: Um, yeah, not the same…
Alaina: Right? We’re gonna make this really big social movement, this civil rights movement…or maybe not. And so the story she told was that Shatner said ‘okay, we’ll get to the hug, let’s do the kiss first though, we’ll just get it out of the way. Okay, you got it? Then we’ll do any version of the hug that you want.’ So this was back in the day before video village, before any of that technical stuff. There was camera, film, you had to check the gate. Young readers may not understand that, we had film. I remember when I started my career, we had film. And you’d have to re-roll sometimes, batteries died or whatever. So the story goes that they did the kiss, and then every take after that, Shatner went to hug her and leaned into the camera and crossed his eyes.
Lynn: So they couldn’t use it!
Alaina: [nodding] So that made all the takes unusable.
Lynn: OMG that’s amazing.
Alaina: Can you imagine how nervous that poor camera guy must have been? He must have been like I’m gonna get fired!
Lynn: What guts that took. I guess he was the star, he was the only one who could have done that – but he did it.
Alaina: Even when the network didn’t want to do it. So I’ve met Shatner several times and I have yet to verify that story with him, but that’s the story she told me and I love it, it’s one of my favorite stories ever.
Lynn: I only met him once but I can believe it.
Alaina: Yeah, definitely.
Lynn: I mean, he’s friends with Misha. Rules? Who needs rules?
Alaina: Very clever, those two.
Lynn: That’s an amazing story.
Alaina: Isn’t that a good one? I love it. And it has a personal connection for me. The gay rights movement was also a really personal thing for me, I liken it to racial civil rights. Thirty years ago it wasn’t legal in a lot of states for me to marry my husband, you know?
Lynn: I know, that’s not even long ago.
Alaina: And even still, there are places that like frown upon it, and like, have you seen my kids, they’re really cute?
Lynn: They totally are.
Alaina: Like, look what happens when you mix things! So yeah, the gay rights thing was to me a really important movement for our culture and our society and that again is a huge part of this fandom. And not just gay but all of it, LGBTQ, curious even.
Lynn: Yeah, open.
Alaina: I’m really proud of the place we’re at with that. We still have work to do but I love that straight people stand up for those rights and gay people fight for those rights, I love that it’s a cohesive thing.
Lynn: I was talking to Rob [Benedict] last week and asked him, do you know what a big deal it is that you got to play God as bisexual, so validating. Robbie Thompson wrote that episode, and it was so amazing. I give Supernatural a lot of credit – they didn’t just make a human bisexual…
Alaina: They made God bisexual! Woo, bam! It actually makes a lot of sense.
Lynn: It does. I do love this show.
Alaina: I’d like to touch on that too. I feel protective of writers because they’re real people, they don’t just write your favorite show, they’re people who are my friends. We had this happen a lot on Stargate, this is where I sort of started to realize that my friends would get all this shit for writing characters or things people didn’t like. And I was like wait a minute, these are the people who’ve brought you your favorite show for like 15 years!
L:ynn: And wrote all those scenes that made you love it.
Alaina: And created the characters that you love and that the actors got to play and you followed around the world to meet, and I feel like they deserve credit and respect and that sometimes they don’t get it. Jenny was the only female on the Supernatural staff for a very long time, and I think that was difficult at times. I am protective – Phil is amazing, as a producer and a champion for the show. They have that site, Shaving People Punting things…
Lynn: I love every single thing they do on that!
Alaina: They’re so clever, right? So yeah, this is such a great talented group of people that are a part of this show and I feel fortunate.
At that moment, Victoria returned to say that the SNS was about to begin.
Lynn: [scrambling for my phone] Okay hang on, I need to take pictures!
Victoria: Work it, work it!
As you can see, Alaina did.
Alaina: I’m so glad we could finally do this!
Lynn: Me too! Have fun out there!
So what do you think, fandom? We definitely need more female directors and I think Alaina has what it takes to be one of them. In the meantime, catch Alaina on multiple stops on Creation’s Supernatural convention tour 2017!
Thanks to @mamaprior for photo assistance!
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