'The Winchesters' Star Drake Rodger on How the 'Supernatural' Spin-off is John Winchester's 'Breaking Bad'

'The canon's there. We know where it's leading,' the actor says of his character's story.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Drake Rodger as John Winchester in 'The Winchesters'

The CW

Sure, The CW's Supernatural spin-off The Winchesters boasts executive producers who worked on the original (showrunner Robbie Thompson and executive producer Jensen Ackles who spent 15 years playing Dean Winchester and also reprises his role here as the narrator), but on set, the biggest Supernatural fan may be Drake Rodger, who now plays John Winchester.

"Even just getting the call to play John Winchester, it was like, 'Hell yes.' Before I read the pilot and knew what the show was about, I knew exactly the story I wanted to tell with him. Because he has some questionable parenting choices he's made, and I think, for me, that just opened the door to be like, 'What's the psyche? What happens in someone's life to make someone raise two children to be two of the most efficient killers that ever existed?'" Rodger tells Metacritic.

The actor, who thus far is best known for a role in The In Between and for his photography on Instagram, is such a fan of the long-running demon-hunting drama that he can (and does) easily drop references to specific episodes in conversation. It's invaluable institutional knowledge about the world he is stepping into, especially because he has some pretty big shoes to fill.

John Winchester, as fans of Supernatural know, is the father of Dean and Sam Winchester. He was a military man who fell in love with hunter Mary Campbell, married her, and tried to raise their young sons in a quiet life. But darkness caught up to them in the form of Azazel, a demon with whom Mary made a deal years earlier. Azazel killed her, dripped his blood in infant Sam's mouth, and John swore vengeance. He then dedicated his life to hunting Azazel, dragging his growing boys on the road with him as he did.

John became a hunter, but he was actually supposed to be a legacy for the Men of Letters, a more scholarly institution that fights demons and monsters. He just didn't know he was a legacy because his father Henry disappeared when he was just a young boy, leaving John with a bitterness about his mother Millie being forced to be a single mother, and with a hole in his knowledge of the supernatural.

Here, Rodger talks to Metacritic about starting John's journey when we know where he ends up, building the all-important romantic connection with Meg Donnelly as Mary, and whether John has a signature weapon or begins a journal in The Winchesters.

As a fan of Supernatural, how are you working through what pieces of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's performance, or even Matt Cohen's, to pull into your own? Even though John will grow and change into the man we know him to be, there are certain parts of his personality that have been ingrained this whole time.

Last night [editor's note, this interview was conducted in mid-September] I was watching Season 1 Episode 20 ["Dead Man's Blood"], which is one of my favorite episodes of Supernatural. It's a very telling episode for John Winchester. He has this line talking to Sam where he's just saying, "Once Mary died, all I saw was evil in the world around me. And everything that I did was to prepare you for that, I wanted you to go to college; I had a college fund for you. I wanted you to have a house and kids and family, but I couldn't see past the evil." And so, to me, if where I end is, I can't see past the evil, and Jeffrey's, as he says, portrayal of John was very drill sergeant. It's life or death and all he sees is death. So, to me, it's a very Walter White, Heisenberg, Breaking Bad transition of, "Let's show who John Winchester could have been; let's show what he wanted to be versus what fate or God or whatever you want to call it had in store for him." And to me, it's a sad story.

It is, but because we mostly saw John be that drill sergeant in Supernatural, we are often much quicker to think of Mary as being the sad story because she was the one saying she wanted to get out of hunting and she never can and she dies when her boys are so young, only to be so out of place when she's plucked back to Earth years later. But because he gets pulled into this world through Mary, do you see parallels between him and Sam at all? I'm thinking about how Dean pulled Sam back to hunting in the Supernatural pilot, but I imagine it goes deeper.

I do. Even rewatching Season 1, it's pretty wild. Sam has some dark, dark energy and at times almost an evil draw to kill these things and to hunt and to finish this: to kill the Yellow Eyed Demon and avenge his mom. It is very similar to what we're gonna experience through the first couple of seasons of The Winchesters: John is going through that same thing — that same pull to the supernatural world. This person is working through his demons killing demons, and that's not healthy. If you're a war veteran and you have PTSD, that's almost its own demon in and of itself. It's a version of you that wants to live out almost these horrific fantasies, these memories, and John has found a way where he can live them out, and when he lives them out, it's celebrated — it's like, "Oh you're doing a good thing for killing these demons." But it isn't all altruistic in that regard. There's a part of him where it's a device.

Coming from a family of hunters, Mary knows a lot about bad memories and probably also PTSD. Is there opportunity for her to help him with some of his not literal demons?

As the show goes on, I think it's gonna be kind of evident as these things play out that John's got a problem. And it's, for lack of a better analogy, almost like alcoholism: the more he's in it, the more we are able to realize, like, "Oh, this is a problem." We know what happens when John goes over the edge, right? That's where we pick up in Supernatural: He's at the bottom of the barrel. We — and by we, I mean the audience, but I also mean the characters — get to see John drinking himself to the bottom of that barrel in The Winchesters. It's heartbreaking to the characters in the show because they're gonna want to help, but as much as they want to help, it's like, the canon's there. We know where it's leading.

But it's not leading there immediately, and we know also know that, even if it's not picture-perfect, Mary and John's relationship is going to be romantic. So tell me a little bit about how you worked with Meg to develop how they would start to relate to each other and banter with each other.

One of the notes that we have gotten is that they definitely want to see the romance — because everyone's a sucker for romance — come on early. So Meg and I just spent a ton of time around each other and really just just fell in love as friends and that's been so beneficial to telling the story of John and Mary and for our banter; it just made it a lot more natural.

These are two star-crossed lovers and, in my eyes, it's kind of like, Mary's trying to get out, John's getting in and it's these two paths that across where it's like very much like, "Oh, I see me in you, and you see you in me." There's this instant connection between the two of them, but the conflict comes from being on two separate paths here. And are right now they're crossing, but eventually they'll have crossed.

The bloopers are gonna be a lot more flirtatious! [Laughs] We get the note to drop back all the time, but we love any banter we can have.

Once their romantic feelings for each other are more fully developed and present within the story, how does that affect how they work alongside each other on such dangerous hunts?

I'm about to go full fanboy here! In Season 1 Episode 16, it's called "Shadow," and basically Sam and Dean are taken captive, and there's an argument to be made that hunters, especially family, especially the Winchesters in particular, when they're with their loved ones they're stronger as a unit. But in that episode they explored that at the same time you're stronger, you're also weaker because now the only person who's gonna stop you from doing your job is in the room with you. If Mary gets taken, there's nothing John won't do to get her safe, and that becomes dangerous, the same way it was with the boys: The second Dean or Sam was taken, "Screw killing Satan, I'm going for Dean." So, I think, in a way, they're much more effective hunters until they're not, and then when they're not nothing else matters except for getting the person back.

Technically Mary isn't the only person who could stop John or who could be a weakness for John because his mother is out there, too. How influential will she end up being on his hunting, in terms of, he may be willing to put himself in the line of fire, but that could put her in danger somewhere else?

John was born in 1950 and his dad disappeared at 4 years old, so Millie had to shift into this "I need to be your mother, but I'm also your father. I have to fill both of these roles." And I think Millie leaned a lot more in the masculine — a lot more in the father's role — and I think she did exactly what she thought she had to do, but I think the side effects of that is she is less of a mom to John than she is a dad. Kind of in the same way that John was a drill sergeant to Sam and Dean, she's kind of a drill sergeant to John. There's there's obviously an immense amount of love, and if we know anything about the Winchesters, family is the most important thing in the world, so it will be very interesting and I'm excited to see how the fans react to how we how we leave Millie and him. Like you said, having that added danger of me involving myself in this world means she's also gonna be involved.

John at least has training from being in the Marines. What is the evolution of his fight style in The Winchesters and does he have a signature weapon?

We're getting into the signature weapon now and starting to try to work it in. John's a war vet, but in Vietnam they didn't really have much basic training; they didn't really have much outside of rifles skills; there was no real hand-to-hand back then. And so, his style of fighting is a lot more brutal, but you'll start seeing in this first season the evolution of Mary imparting her hunter wisdom. We're definitely telling a chronological story of John's progression into this world through his fight style and how efficient he is at fighting. But [his evolution in general] is a story that we're telling, really through everything. We've had several conversations with the hair makeup team, the wardrobe team, and everything means something. The color of the clothes that we're wearing means something.

Is John starting a journal at this point in his hunter life?

The character is definitely taking note of everything that's going on. And the cool part about journal is we get to figure we get to figure so much stuff out that Sam and Dean didn't have to because they had the journal. Like, we come in contact with a monster and have no idea how to kill it, so having to figure that out is part of the fun.

Right, like at this point in the story they shouldn't even know there is a way to actually kill demons.

Yeah, and I really do enjoy that because, to me, it means, "Oh these are to be taken seriously." You have to go through this entire possession ritual. It is really cool.

The Winchesters airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. beginning Oct. 11 on The CW.

Get to know Drake Rodger:
Only a film and television actor for two years, Rodger has already appeared in independent films Murders RX, Not Alone, and The In Between, with Quiet In My Town coming soon.