"An actor has to burn inside with an outer ease." - Michael Chekhov
“Acting deals with very delicate emotions. It is not putting up a mask.
Each time an actor acts he does not hide; he exposes himself.” - Rodney Dangerfield
"I don't know what is better than the work that is given to the actor
- to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself." - Laurence Olivier
I've often wondered what makes a great actor. I've found the answer to be very elusive. It's open to interpretation. It's like asking about art. What makes great art? A painting can be a masterpiece to one person and just a mess of color to another. My dad used to say that he didn't know what made great art, but he knew what he liked. I guess I've taken the same approach to acting. I don't always know what kind of acting I like, but I know it when I see it.
There was something special about Jensen Ackles the first time I saw him on the screen. He was just a guest star on the series Dark Angel, playing the unstable Ben, but his performance grabbed your attention. He still has that same power as Dean on Supernatural. Jensen brings out so many tiny facets to Dean, with just a look or a turn of his head. He's not one to just act with dialog, but with his whole body. The way he walks and stands can convey so much of how Dean is feeling. But perhaps Jensen's greatest physical attribute for his acting is his face. He has the ability to express so many emotions, while keeping so many others just under the surface, yet making you aware of them all. A glint in the eye, a quirk of the mouth, Jensen uses them all with ease. His eyes, more than anything else, seem to have a powerful inner light. The camera picks up their green color so beautifully, along with all their expressions and emotions. They can be bright and full of life one moment and dark, dead, and lifeless the next. They can burn through you in a moment of anger or touch your heart with their sincerity. I've never seen another actor with more expressive eyes and who uses them so well. They truly show his inner fire.
Jensen also uses his voice to convey so much of what Dean is feeling. There's the frightening power of it when he's angry and the fragile breaking when he's distraught. He always seems to know just the right way to say a line to where you can't imagine it being said any other way. He makes them his own - almost inseparable from himself. They become so tied to who Dean is and in some ways to who Jensen is.
Most of all he makes you believe every moment of what Dean is going through. There's never a moment where he breaks character even when he's not the key actor on camera. There's been a few moments where you can see this happen, such as when he reels in pain getting back into the car at the end of "Shadow" and Dean's grimace of pain as Sam gets up to check on their dad in the cabin scene in "Devil's Trap". You can almost miss them if you're not looking in the right place, but they're there....showing Jensen giving his all to the performance. He also does an excellent job with the physical scenes....the fights. Dean is a strong, physically built hunter. He rarely loses in a fight except when he's actually knocked unconscious - otherwise he keeps fighting to the bitter end. And when Dean's hurting physically, Jensen puts his whole effort into that performance as well. Even something as mundane as awakening from sleeping awkwardly in a chair in "No Exit" is given all the realistic grunts, groans, and stiffness it deserves. When Dean is wounded or hurt, Jensen makes you feel it. Every movement is shown with painful clarity. It's a testament to how detail oriented he is with his acting.
As adept as Jensen is with the dramatic scenes and the more physical ones, he's also equally equipped to handle comedy. I first saw evidence of this on Dark Angel, when he played Alec in the second season. You immediately liked Alec, even though he had his annoying moments, due in part to the humor Jensen brought to the character. He's brought the same quality to Dean with all his smart-assed one liners, which are so memorable. Dean likes to diffuse tense or uncomfortable situations with humor. It's his defense mechanism when things get difficult. Jensen also uses the humor to bring out more of Dean's vulnerabilities, such as his fear of flying in "Phantom Traveler" and his awkward encounter with some ogling women at a birthday party in "The Kids Are Alright".
I could go on and on about Jensen's acting, his physical presence, his ability to express emotions so well, but I've decided to concentrate on some of his best scenes as Dean. These are my own opinion, of course, and cover all three seasons so far. Jensen has brought us many great performances, in every episode, but there are certain ones that stand out above all the rest.
The Top Moments -
Calling Dad - When Dean makes this phone call to his dad, it was the first breakdown for the usually emotionally detached character. Returning to his childhood home, where he witnessed the death of his mother is clearly traumatizing him, as is his concern over his younger brother's recent confession that he's having visions. Jensen brings Dean's impassioned plea to his dad at first with control, but soon the walls crumble along with Dean's emotions. It's our first look at Dean with his unguarded emotions, as his desperation shows through the normal mask he wears.
Meg's Exorcism - I remember being shocked by this scene when I first saw it. Never before had I seen Dean so angry, spitting venomous lines, and even threatening to march right into hell to exact his revenge. I was amazed by Jensen's ability to take Dean to such a violent turn. I almost felt the need to move away from my TV a bit, the emotions were so powerful. But at the end of the scene, Meg dies, and Dean is left with the answers he needs, but clearly effected by the loss of a human life at his hands.
Everybody Loves A Clown:
Attacking the Impala - The death of his father brought out the dark and violent side to Dean. Like the broken shell of his car, Dean was empty and bitter. Refusing to admit his feelings to Sam and blowing up over his brother's own guilt didn't bring him any relief. Initially, Dean taking a crowbar to the trunk of the Impala just seemed like a release of the anger he felt over his dad's death. However, as we discovered in a later episode of the burden John placed on his oldest son, this violent attack brought on a whole new meaning. The scene still works, no matter what was behind the bombardment. Dean hits the trunk 17 times, only stopping when the crowbar slips from his hands. As he turns around, his face a mask of loss and emptiness, you can see that he still hasn't found any peace through this action.
Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things:
Outburst at the professor - Dean's descent into darkness continues when he wrongly accuses the college professor of bringing his daughter back from the dead. "What's dead should stay dead!", he vehemently yells. The first impression is that this is about John's death, but by the end of the episode we learn Dean was actually talking about himself. Once Sam gets Dean out of the professor's house, he calls Dean on his erratic behavior, but Dean denies that he's got a problem. He only relents a little, confessing to "being an ass" once Sam brings up their dad again. Jensen's eyes are so expressive in this scene...hurting, but unwilling to break just yet.
Roadside confession - Emotional scenes like this one can be difficult to carry off, but even tough guys can only hold it together so long. Dean's confession that he's responsible for John's death comes through a veil of hard fought against tears. Jensen shows the struggle, allowing Dean to tell Sam what he wanted to know while letting Dean's walls down a little further. As the sunlight highlights his green, tear-filled eyes, it's a beautiful yet tragic sight.
What Is And What Should Never Be:
Being with Mom - This episode really gave ample opportunities for Jensen to stretch the breadth of his acting even further. As Dean awakens in his alternate reality he soon finds himself on the doorstep of his former home with his mom very much alive. At first he's confused, even questioning if this is real, but as his suspicions are eliminated he embraces his mother with all the love and tenderness of a lost little boy who's finally come home. Unwilling to break whatever spell has brought him there, he decides to spend the night, probably feeling truly safe for the first time since he was four. Jensen brings all the earnest longing to this moment, leaning into his mother's kiss as she says goodnight.
Distance between brothers - All is not perfect in this seemingly peaceful reality, however. Along with his dad still being dead, his relationship with Sam is strained and distanced. Even though he tries to find a connection with Sam, there's too much past history of missed events and stolen prom dates. You can see Dean's struggle to find something, anything to reclaim the relationship that he's so used to.
At Dad's grave - A scene that reportedly had some of the crew in tears, Jensen shows Dean struggling with the ramifications of his life. He questions why their family is denied happiness and why it's his job to save so many lives. Tears running down his face, he somehow comes up with an answer, perhaps realizing as he does in season three's episode of "The Kids Are Alright" that this normal, happy life is not meant to be his.
Choosing the hero's life - Realizing that he's a victim of the Djinn and asleep in a dreamworld, Dean decides it's time to wake up before his body is drained dry. His family makes one last appeal for him to stay and live a life of happiness and peace. Jensen brilliantly shows the indecision, the doubt, the longing to stay, but knowing this reality isn't real and can never be. Unshed tears fill his eyes as Dean makes the hardest decision he's ever made....to choose a life of hardship and pain over a shortened life of contentment.
All Hell Breaks Loose, part one:
Losing Sam - In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes of the series, Dean finally finds his missing brother, only to witness him being fatally stabbed in the back. He clutches onto Sam, trying to convince his little brother and himself that this isn't as serious as it seems. But the harsh reality of the situation soon takes over and Sam falls limp into Dean's arms. Jensen perfectly expresses Dean's world crashing in around him. His worst nightmare now an actuality, Dean's loss and failure to save his brother are complete. With one final yell of Sam's name into the night, he succumbs to his sorrow and buries his tearful face into his dead brother's neck.
All Hell Breaks Loose, part two:
Talking to Sam - To me, this scene is the complete package. A perfect marriage of writing, cinematography, lighting, music, and acting. Bringing Dean's utter despair to the forefront, Jensen gives one of his very best performances. Sharing memories of their childhood and his dedication to protect his brother, he ultimately ends up blaming himself for Sam's death. Any pretense of self-worth is stripped away as he fights against the overwhelming emptiness in his life. He can't live with his failure and he can't go on alone and he ends up asking his lifeless brother what he's supposed to do now. Jensen again, brings everything to the surface. He's at last brought Dean to his breaking point, to where he can find no more hope. His voice breaks over his declaration of failure, and with it our hearts. It's so hard to see Dean at this, his lowest moment, and yet a triumph of seeing Jensen express it in such desperate beauty.
Dream A Little Dream Of Me:
Dean confronts himself - What greater insight can you gain from a character than when that character is talking to himself. Through Jensen's brilliant performance of not only normal Dean, but Dream Dean, we learn how he really feels about himself, his dad, and how he does not want to die and go to hell. There's no walls to protect him this time and he can't escape from the truth. Jensen keeps normal Dean cool, denying what the Dream Dean is telling him....at first. Meanwhile, Dream Dean keeps pushing, pressuring Dean to accept how he really feels. He hates himself, has nothing in his life besides Sam, and was nothing to his father but a "blunt little instrument".
In an explosive outburst, Dean attacks Dream Dean and ends up shooting him in the chest with a defiant "I don't deserve to go to hell!" on his lips. Jensen lets the fury loose and it's powerful to watch.
At the end, Dream Dean comes back to life, but with demonic eyes. An image of evil and bloodspattered wrath, he tells Dean that he's going to die and "this is what you're going to become!". Jensen looks as frightening as we've ever seen him...black eyes and tightly pulled face as he yells out his lines. Normal Dean can only stare in fear at what very well may become his fate.
Dean's first death - Dean dies numerous times in this episode, but the first one is one of the hardest to watch, perhaps because he's still conscious for just a few seconds before he succumbs to the fatal gunshot wound. The second Sam gets to him, Dean seems to know it's all over. He immediately puts his hand against Sam's chest, holding onto his jacket.
The rest is all Jensen. He struggles to hold on, his eyes finding Sam's in a mixture of sorrow, apology, forgiveness, and fear. Dean doesn't get a chance for any last words, which in a way is almost fitting considering how much the brothers communicate without saying a word. It's a beautiful, raw, and painful death scene and Jensen does an exceptional job.
An actor takes the writer's words, the director's cues, and crafts a performance which we, the audience, must believe. The best actors do this without effort. Jensen appears to be an actor who can do just that. It's not just in the big moments, but also in the quiet, small, and tiny things which he brings to his characters. He makes us care about them, from the lost Ben to the cocky Alec and the tortured soul of Dean. Jensen can do it all: drama, action, and comedy and is certain to have a long and successful career.
** All the caps featured here were made by me. Please give me credit if you take any to use. Thanks! **