Whether you know her as the lovable but ditzy Taylor Otto in sitcom American Housewife or the singing and dancing alien Addison in Disney's Z-O-M-B-I-E-S franchise, you know Meg Donnelly as a performer who spreads joy to all who watch her. Thus far, that has been in lighter content, but now she is stepping into the much darker world of Supernatural in The CW's prequel spin-off The Winchesters.
In this franchise, Donnelly steps into the role of Mary Winchester (née Campbell), who is the mother of Sam and Dean from the flagship series. That series started with Mary's death by demon on the ceiling of Sam's nursery, but now we're going back in time to learn her story. Set in 1972, The Winchesters meets Mary after her father Samuel Campbell goes missing and she sets out to find him, vowing that once she does she's going to get out of the hunter lifestyle for good. (Spoiler alert: Although she'll likely find Samuel quickly, she will not be exiting this life.) Immediately, she also meets John Winchester (Drake Rodger), who Supernatural fans know she will come to fall in love with and marry. But for now, they are just getting to know each other and she is training him to be a hunter.
"He sees the good in everything. Mary sees the bad in everything. They're very different people, but they do have these feelings for each other that are just undeniable," Donnelly tells Metacritic. "It's definitely a challenge when it comes to fighting and when it comes to having disagreements in the team and wanting to do different things because they really care about each other, so a lot of times they're putting each other on the line to sacrifice themselves for the other person because they love each other."
John already exhibited that willingness to sacrifice himself for Mary in the premiere episode of The Winchesters, but luckily he didn't have to. His Marine training and paying attention to the knowledge Mary already began to impart on him paid off quickly, and the two were able to work individually to stop two separate supernatural forces that were threatening their lives and the lives of Mary's friends.
Here, Donnelly talks to Metacritic about building her version of Mary, especially as a leader and in relation to John, Mary's special nickname for John, and whether she hopes to keep her life as a singer separate from the world of The Winchesters.
Drake rewatches Supernatural as a fan and also a bit for his performance. What was your approach to how much to pull from things Amy Gumenick and Samantha Smith did as Mary in the original show for your own version of the character?
I definitely looked at a lot of the clips from the old videos and watched the episodes. I definitely wanted to incorporate a lot of that. Me and Drake alike have been adamant on just knowing where Mary gets to in her life. She can definitely be a different person, but as the episodes go on, [she has to] progress into the person that she becomes. Mary is badass throughout all of Supernatural, but just playing very much an independent, 19-year-old version of Mary who's like, "I want to get out of hunting" and just kicks butt is so much fun to play. So, I've had a really awesome time making Mary who I want to be, but at the same time, making sure that I pay homage to the Mary in Supernatural.
Because Mary wants to get out of hunting but can't, is there a sense of resignation you feel you have to regulate in your performance? The audience might find a lot of joy and satisfaction in seeing her kick a demon's butt, but does she?
She definitely thinks this is what she has to do because she just wants to find her dad, very similar to the Supernatural first season as well. Her motive is, once she finds her dad, she's out because she never wanted to do this; it's just something that you're born into and it's hard to get out. She is really, really hard on the fact that she is going to get out. And I do think about the Supernatural timeline as well, where unfortunately she doesn't — she thinks she does, but there's never really an end to it, and that's the theme: Once you get into hunting, what is worse for hunters is not how it starts, it's how it ends. And I think in Mary's mind the whole time, she wants to believe that it's possible, but every time she gets out a little bit, it always brings her back in. She knows she's good at it, and she knows that she wants to help people, but I think she wants to help people in a different [way]. So, that whole arc for her is just really interesting because every time she gets vulnerable, she closes back up again because something awful happens.
Even before John steps onto the scene, it's more than just her family who she has in her hunting corner, so to speak. Now, though, she seems like she has to step up to be more of a leader because she's the most equipped to handle demons. What kind of a leader do you consider Mary to be?
She's always being bossed around by her dad, so takes the leader role because she's always watched her dad do the same thing, but I think it's very hard for her because she's so used to being on her own. It takes her a second to step back and not be as bossy as she wants to be because she thinks she knows what's best for everybody, but I think she realizes working as a team makes hunting a lot easier and working as a team makes her enjoy it more. Even though she wants to get out, I think there is some weird thing as well, where she's like, "Oh, maybe if I work as a team, maybe this is not so bad as I thought it's gonna be." She still wants to get out of hunting, but it makes her question that for a second because she really enjoys having team players.
In the premiere it truly seems like Mary is learning about the Men of Letters alongside John, but I'm curious if you had conversations on set about whether she was being truthful in those moments or if she just wanted to keep knowledge to herself and keep him innocent a little longer.
I know she's seen the symbol everywhere, but I think it was something that her dad kept from her, for sure. And I think that's another reason of why she's like, "Wait, do I even know my dad because he has this whole other life?" And I think that's why John and Mary bond easily, as well — because their parents are just keeping all these things from them.
There is a moment in the premiere where John says he thinks he's being haunted and Mary takes him very literally, having him pull out an EMF meter. How does her experience with supernatural-related trauma affect the way they work together and relate to each other when, thus far at least, his trauma is strictly from humans?
They both have very similar traumas with their parents and feeling guilty for people that they've lost, feeling like they could have done more, living with like survivor's guilt, and just a lot of of loss that's happened. She's been hunting since she was 5 years old, and he went to Vietnam, so they've both dealt with a lot of things at a very young age, and I think the two of them understand each other better than anybody in their lives. So, I think that's why they bond very quickly. Mary never trusts people ever: She always has her guard up, and I think seeing John being vulnerable with her and reaching out for help made her trust him a little bit faster because she realized that there's some people out there who just want to do good and they're not trying to cut corners or take advantage of people, and I think that's why their bonding starts so fast.
When you talk about trust, can we trust that Maggie is really dead? Mary saw her body, gave her a hunter's funeral, all that?
The thing is with Supernatural, anything can happen; anyone can come back. Just knowing that Maggie is such a thing that weighs on Mary, I feel like they're definitely going to play into Maggie, for sure.
And going back to the relationship with John, Mary has started calling him Soldier Boy, which has an extra layer of meaning since executive producer and actor Jensen Ackles played Soldier Boy on The Boys. I imagine that was always scripted, but is it something that really will stick as an ongoing nickname?
Yes, that was in the script in the pilot, and there's a couple other times now that we're doing more episodes that I'll say it, even if it's not in the script. So, it's definitely in there a lot more. I think it's so cute! It's just become a thing that they have, and also, Drake and I improv all the time, especially in car scenes, and I think a lot of it they're keeping, which is really cool. So we have bits we do that weren't necessarily scripted because we wanted to take a lot of inspiration from Sam and Dean in that way, even though it's obviously a very different relationship. You get to see, "Oh this is where Sam and Dean learned that banter from: watching their parents." And we have been incorporating little Easter eggs in the banter and just having so much fun with that.
For years, Supernatural fans used to ask about a musical episode and then the show actually did one, even though the two leads were not known for performing that way at the time. However, you are. But are you hoping to keep the singing and dancing part of your career separate from this particular world and show?
Incorporating any type of musical stuff, I'm so down for whether it's Mary in the car singing or we go out to a bar and she's singing with a guitar or something like that. Doing a whole musical episode would be so funny, but I feel like that'd be a lot more down the line. I am totally open to anything musical because that's totally what I want to do, and it's really funny because Carlos is so musical and so over the top, and in real life, I would so be Carlos, and so, having to play Mary in those scenes of being like, "Ugh," it's funny because in real life it would be the opposite. Maybe as Mary gets a little bit more vulnerable in the seasons, maybe she would open up to that kind of stuff.
Do you find any of the training you'd had to do to sing and dance on set has helped with the stunt training on The Winchesters?
Definitely. When it comes to memorizing choreo to counts, that definitely helps. Martial arts, boxing type training, which is what Mary is trained in, is so different from dancing, but it definitely helps memorization-wise and not being afraid to make a fool out of yourself. If it looks awful, well, I tried. Performing on stage is definitely a very vulnerable thing, too.
How does the weapons work affect this?
A lot of the stunts I'm doing is mostly knife work. Every time we know we're going on a hunt, I always have a miniature knife in my belt buckle. And Mary always wears the anti-possession charm, so having that always on my wrist at all times, sometimes during scenes I look at it and I get goosebumps because I'm like, "This is so crazy that we're doing this."
The Winchesters airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.
Get to know Meg Donnelly:
Although Donnelly started acting as a child, her first major roles came as a teenager, first on Netflix's Team Toon and then American Housewife (Metascore: 60), feature film The Broken Ones, and the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S franchise. She also stars as Val on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (64).