When fans come to San Diego Comic-Con every year, they all have different agendas. Maybe one wants nothing more than to camp out in Hall H all convention long (provided they get in line early enough). Maybe another wants to load up a spare suitcase full of merchandise and swag. Maybe one is here to learn something at the panels or cut loose at one of the offsite events. But one thing all fans have in common is the desire to rub elbows with the celebrities they admire, and at Comic-Con, the opportunity for a fan to meet his or her idol is almost guaranteed.
For the celebrities themselves, it's an entirely different story. While fans are there to play, celebrities are there to work. For some Comic-Con veterans, this means four straight days of autographs, guest appearances, panels, and interviews. Often, the talent that appears at Comic-Con wish they could set their professional duties aside for a day and just experience the convention the way regular people do. Unfortunately, that's often not possible for a star with a packed schedule, particularly one there to promote his or her new movie or TV show.
During an interview with me for his upcoming film The Visit, director M. Night Shyamalan wistfully spoke of all the things he was missing out on. "I don't get to have the experience that the fans get to have, just walking around and experiencing everything! We're working. So I don't get to see anything...there's a little bit of that feeling, you feel a bit left out."
While the average fan sets aside a chunk of days to really take his or her time with SDCC, much of the talent has to treat it as more of a pit stop, a brief interruption from a busy shooting schedule or writing deadline. Such is the case for Damien lead and former Merlin star Bradley James.
"Unfortunately, I have never really gotten a chance to do the entire Comic-Con thing," James lamented. "There was only one year I got to come [for Merlin], because if Colin [Morgan] had a week off of filming and could attend, then that's when I was scheduled to film my scenes. So it only happened once, because I was working."
The same holds true for him this year. He is in the middle of filming, so the stop in San Diego was a quick, 24-hour turnaround to do a few key interviews and attend the panel for Damien. Then it was right back to Toronto the next morning to continue filming and keep the shooting schedule on track.
And while the Comic-Con appearance is part of their obligation as celebrities to promote their work, for some, it doesn't come easy, particularly for the more introverted talent that attends the convention. "I'll never get used to it," prolific comic book writer and artist Lee Bermejo admitted. He was there to promote his new DC series, We Are ROBIN, along with Suiciders for Vertigo.
"I was on the Vertigo panel yesterday, and it was a disaster on my end. Just a flaming disaster. Some guys have great one-liners and quips, but I'm not that guy. I never want to give away too much, but then I did start talking and nothing made sense. At least, I don't feel like it did. So I'm not good at that at all."
Still, it's not all work and no play for many of the stars that attend. They, like the fans there to see them, enjoy the interaction with their fandoms, walking around the exhibition floor (albeit often anonymously), and meeting the celebrities they themselves idolize.
For Melissa Benoist, the titular heroine of the upcoming Supergirl series, that starstruck moment happened when she met one of her long-time favorites. "I got to meet Victor Garber and I've been a fan of his for so long, as a musical theater fan," she gushed, "and, I mean, I watched all five seasons of Alias. So that was pretty cool. I fangirled!"
Bermejo had a geek-out moment of his own once when he met an artist whose work he had admired and emulated while teaching himself the art of drawing.
"There's this painter that I love, his name is Phil Hale. Most people don't know his work in comics but he's done some really great stuff. And he NEVER does conventions. So this was years ago here at San Diego, and a friend of mine was like, 'You know he's here right? He's at a booth signing his art.' So I went over and I had that moment. I walked over thinking, Oh my God, oh my God, and I wound up standing right in front of him and I had that moment where I was like, 'I can't believe this is happening to me!' I didn't know what to say. For me, it was the equivalent of meeting a professional athlete. It's hard not to have those fan-out moments."
Maybe the most fun, yet surreal, moment for any celebrity is when they're first made aware that people geek out over them, particularly those who have gained some level of fame by creating a passion project solely out of love. San Diego Comic-Con is often the first time they're made aware of just how much of an impact their work has had.
Danny Shepherd, star and co-creator of wildly popular, Kickstarted YouTube show Nightwing: The Series, was overwhelmed when he had this realization.
"This is insane," he exclaimed in shock. "So many people recognize me and are stopping to ask for pictures and autographs!" It's all a new experience for the grateful young actor.
As he spoke with me, two fans nervously eyeballed him, whispering and pointing. Finally, one worked up his courage to approach Shepherd. "Excuse me," he asked. "Could you...?" He trailed off. Shepherd turned around, realizing he was standing in front of a superhero-plastered backdrop and assumed he was in the way of pictures.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" he exclaimed. "Let me get out of your way."
The fan gave him a strange look. "No, I wanted to take a picture with YOU."
Nightwing: The Series co-creator Jeremy Le smiled and rolled his eyes as Shepherd gladly posed for the photo op, a once in a lifetime experience for both fan and actor. "I told him this would happen. Especially if he wore the suit."
It's this immediacy of fan interaction that has brought certain celebrities back year after year, such as the incomparable cast of Supernatural. The beloved actors, whose show has essentially created the modern idea of fandom in the age of social media, have been fixtures at Comic-Con for a decade now, and it still hasn't gotten old.
"It's really cool for us to be able to come to conventions and meet fans and get up on panels where you have that live interaction where you get the feedback from your audience and your fans," said star Misha Collins, who plays long-suffering angel Castiel. "It makes this job a lot more fun and a lot more gratifying, and we get to see that we're actually having an impact on an audience in a more personal way than just looking at ratings on a sheet." Co-star Jensen Ackles concurred that it was the best part of his job.
Co-lead Jared Padalecki, who plays the intellectual, introspective Sam Winchester alongside Ackles' Dean, acknowledges that they owe everything to the fans, and he'll gladly attend every Comic-Con if it means meeting even more of his extended Supernatural "family".
"It's as much for me as it is for anyone else," admitted the actor. "Much like Supernatural, it's greater than the sum of its parts...eleven years later, it's become this family, you know? It's a fun camaraderie between the fandom and the writers and the actors and I truly feel like we're all part of it. It means something to me; that's not bullshit."
A moment that was particularly special to him happened during this year's Supernatural panel, when fans surprised him by organizing to have over a thousand LED candles lit to show support for Padalecki's charity campaign, Always Keep Fighting, dedicated to supporting people struggling with depression and other mental illnesses.
Padalecki, who has been very open about his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, has been equally open about crediting his extended Supernatural family with getting him through it. The gesture from fans at Comic-Con left him floored, as he told E! Online:
"At first I didn’t know what it is. I thought people were holding up their iPhones or something. And then someone handed me the note explaining it and I found out what was really going on. It took everything in my power not to cry."
But that's the awesome thing about Comic-Con, says Bermejo. It's that idea that everyone is a fan, and, for a few short days, both regular people and celebrities are all in this together, united by a passion for the things they love.
"You can just have these random moments and interactions with people you don't normally see, or you only know them from their online personality or TV." Sometimes, he admitted, he can be a little bizarre. "But it's also amazing."
Like the Supernatural actors, Shyamalan was determined to squeeze as much of the best part of the celebrity experience as he could out of his time there this year.
"This time around," he explained, "I'm making a point of stopping, of taking a picture with someone as I walk down the hall, because I want to feel more of it."
James summed it up best when he explained that not just for fans, but for celebrities like him, the atmosphere of Comic-Con is unlike anything else on earth. "There's no cynicism there," he said. "The people who come to Comic-Con know exactly why they're there. They're excited by these stories that get told, these characters that get created. And that energy just fuels this event and has given it life year after year."