Talking This Close, Representation and Supernatural with Shoshannah Stern
The first things you notice about actress Shoshannah Stern in person is her bright, expressive face and her wickedly funny sense of humor. She brings both to the role of Kate Bailey, a newly-engaged deaf publicist in the new Sundance Now series This Close, created by her and her writing partner Josh Feldman.
Born into a fourth-generation deaf family, Stern graduated from Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, and has been active in Hollywood for almost 20 years, playing a variety of roles in film and television.
In addition to playing fan-favorite Eileen Leahy, badass deaf banshee hunter and friend of the Winchesters on the CW show Supernatural, Stern is known for playing Bonnie Richmond in the CBS post-apocalyptic drama Jericho and Megan Graves on the popular Showtime series Weeds. She also had a recurring role on the Fox series Lie to Me and on the short-lived ABC series Threat Matrix.
She graciously agreed to answer some questions for Nerds & Beyond about This Close, her time as Eileen and representation in media.
Nerds and Beyond: What was the impetus behind this project? What made you want to see this through?
Shoshannah: I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to do the work that I’ve done as an actor. But what people often don’t tell you is that doing what you dream of doing can be like a drug—once you get it, you want more. There have been long periods in my career where not only was I not getting work, I wasn’t even able to get in the room to audition for anything. I recognized a kind of feeling in myself that wasn’t a good feeling, and it was taking me in a direction that was kind of dark. I knew I had to put these feelings somewhere, and so I started writing, but it was only in private. Nobody knew I was doing that except for my husband. And then I met Josh, and so I came out of the closet as a writer to him. He read my stuff and then he actually wanted to start writing together, which was mind-blowing to me at the time, and still kind of is. After a year of writing together and recognizing that we were subconsciously trying to write what we thought other people wanted to see from us, we came up with the idea that is now This Close.
Nerds and Beyond: What’s it like being in the creator’s chair for This Close and the web series The Chances? Has that experience influenced or do you think it will influence how you approach other projects?
Shoshannah: It’s been such a learning experience. And I’ve always loved learning. That’s why I went back to school when I was pregnant to get my master’s degree in film studies. Being able to learn from all these wonderful people that have come aboard our team for this has just been indescribable. I’ve learned the true meaning of collaboration from them. I used to think collaborating meant that other people see what you see, but it really means people see what you can’t see. That’s been magical, and that’s something I hope to keep seeking out in the other things that I do, should I be so lucky.
Nerds and Beyond: Tell me about Kate. How did you approach both writing and performing this character?
Shoshannah: Kate was identical to me when we did Fridays, the pilot we put on YouTube that we made for $250. Then along the way she took on a life of her own, and now we are very different. She’s much more Type A and more pulled together than I am, and more focused on the surface of things. But I love her and how she’s always trying to be better and how she sees the best in people. I was so in love with her, and the writing process for the show was so condensed (we wrote the whole season in 7 weeks) that I really wasn’t able to think about playing her until the day before. But I think because I had spent so much time with her, I really loved getting to breathe life into her.
Kate (Shoshannah Stern) and Michael (Josh Feldman) share a moment in the first episode of This Close, premiering on Sundance Now on Valentine’s Day.
Nerds and Beyond: You and Josh have this wonderful easy chemistry as Kate and Michael. What was it like working together both as creators and as actors on This Close?
Shoshannah: Josh is my best friend. But he’s also my creative partner. I always love spending time with him because I always walk away from these times feeling like I am more than what I was before that time with him. I have an almost three year old daughter, so I don’t get to spend as much time with him as I would like to. So it was great getting to go to work with him everyday and just be in the writer’s room with him and get lunch together everyday.
Nerds and Beyond: What are you hoping audiences take away from the show and these characters?
Shoshannah: My greatest hope and my wildest dream is that people are able to see a part of themselves in Kate and Michael no matter how much they hear or what language they use to communicate. The stories that we are telling through these characters are familiar ones—and that was a conscious choice. I’m often asked what it’s like living in a deaf world, but I don’t believe there is one. There’s no such thing as a deaf world or a man’s world, there’s one world that we all live in. There are just different ways of looking at it, and so we’re hoping to show one world through a different kind of lens.
Nerds and Beyond: What has it been like working with Sundance?
Shoshannah: It’s been magnificent. They are such wonderful collaborators and they have been so unbelievably supportive of our vision. My favorite story is that after we got the season plan approved, once we started writing, we got totally stuck on what we had planned for Episode 5. It was toward the end of writing, and so Josh and I were both a little bit crazy. So we totally went rogue and wrote a completely different episode and submitted it to them. Then once we did we were like, OMG they are so totally going to fire us, what were we thinking? Then they came back and were like, “We have no notes. Carry on.” And now it’s my absolute favorite episode in the whole season. They’re just incredibly creatively centered, and I still think about some of the notes they gave us because they were just brilliant. I really can’t imagine doing this show with anyone else.
Nerds and Beyond: You mentioned on Twitter before that if Eileen Leahy hadn’t come along when she did, you might not have believed This Close could work. Could you elaborate on that?
Shoshannah: I was at a somewhat confusing time in my life. I had just had a baby and I was trying to kind of put myself and my priorities back together, and we had just finished the script for Fridays. At that time I wasn’t sure if it would work, if people would be interested, if it could even be possible. Then I got the offer to play Eileen and it kind of cemented in my head and in my heart that there was mainstream interest in people that had different sort of experiences in life. Not only that, Eileen had so much strength to her that I kind of drew strength from her personally while figuring out how to play her. So that’s when I told Josh, we have to make both of these characters deaf. We had originally thought only Kate was going to be deaf, but because of Eileen, that changed.
Nerds and Beyond: What drew you to the character of Eileen?
Shoshannah: What’s not to like? She was such a strong character that still had heart. Even though she can single handedly take monsters down and prefers hunting alone, she still acknowledges she’s flawed and she’s always trying to be better. She’s not afraid of making connections or laughing at herself. And her being deaf is only one part of her, not the entirety.
Shoshannah Stern as Eileen Leahy in the Supernatural season 12 episode “The British Invasion.”
Nerds and Beyond: What was your reaction to reading the script for Eileen’s final episode?
Shoshannah: I cried. And I was in Trader Joe’s. I woke up everyday for a while after that with a heaviness in my heart and I didn’t know why. Then finally I talked to my sister and I said, “I don’t get why I’m grieving someone who isn’t real. I know Eileen is a character but I’m waking up everyday feeling like someone in my life died.” And she, being the genius that she always has been said, “Because Eileen was real to you. And thank god for that.”
Nerds and Beyond: If she could, how would you want to see Eileen come back to Supernatural?
Shoshannah: I would love that. I think she was so strong as a character that there was more to her story and I’d just love to explore that. But the world of Supernatural is so complicated and dense that figuring out how she might come back is way above my pay grade. I just know I loved her as she was, so in a dream world, it wouldn’t be another version of her, it would be the same version that we all got to know. But I have no idea how that could or would happen.
Nerds and Beyond: What was it like being a part of the If I Could Tell You campaign for Stands? What about it made you want to jump on board?
Shoshannah: That was another amazing moment. I was just honored and floored to be asked. There wasn’t a question in my mind or a doubt in my mind that it was something I wanted to do. If you have the capacity to do good, you should try. Charity work is something I’ve always wanted to do more of. It hasn’t always been accessible to me, but Stands is so extraordinary in the way they do things. They have a kind of sensitivity and emotional intelligence in how they do things that I just fell in love with them immediately.
Nerds and Beyond: What was your first Creation convention experience like? Would you do another one?
Shoshannah: It was mind blowing. I have stage fright so I was scared shitless. I was like, what am I even doing? But the amount of love I had gotten from the [Supernatural] Family was so important to me that I wanted to show my appreciation and so I did it for them. And it was just an colossal outpouring of love from all directions, and I was inspired by so many of the people I met and their dedication to not just the show but to all sorts of representation. I lost count of how many people learned sign language or how to applaud in a way that I could understand them. I wish more people were like that! It was definitely a lot for me, and I have so much respect for people who are on the circuit. I met some of them and they’re like the coolest people ever and I want to be best friends with them, so I’d definitely love to try again one day if I was asked to!
Nerds and Beyond: What does representation in media mean to you, both personally and as an actor?
Shoshannah: It means authenticity. It means showing people who live the experience they’re portraying and don’t dip in and out of it once the camera stops rolling. It means normalizing what we see and showing different perspectives. It means giving people a chance to work, whether it’s in front of the camera or behind, even if it means stepping outside your comfort zone a little bit. That’s the only way any one of us can truly grow.
Nerds and Beyond: What would be your advice to someone wanting to do a project like This Close?
Shoshannah: Tell the story you want to tell, not the story you think people want to see. And make your own shit. Don’t wait for someone else to tell your story for you. Tell your story yourself. Find any way you can to show people that story. I think often seeing is believing. It was so difficult for us to try to explain to people what we wanted to do with our show until we did it ourselves. The most common reaction we got was, “Okay, so if this is a story about characters who are deaf… but it’s not about them being deaf… then why do they even need to be deaf?” But once we did the pilot ourselves, we were overwhelmed by how much all sorts and kinds of people just got it, and saw things that we didn’t even realize were present in the story.
Thank you, Shoshannah, for taking the time to talk with us!
Be sure to check out Shoshannah’s new show This Close, premiering on Sundance Now on Valentine’s Day.
Want to know how to watch This Close? See the video below and also for information on a free month for Sundance Now!
— Shoshannah Stern (@Shoshannah7) February 12, 2018
You can follow Shoshannah on Twitter and Instagram @shoshannah7.