Sarah Wayne Callies Interview: Into the Storm and The Walking Dead

The Into the Storm star talks researching extreme weather, acting opposite a tornado and why she doesn’t watch The Walking Dead.

Into the Storm is the latest film to tap into our anxieties about the weather and the changes we’re seeing in it every day. The film, directed by former visual effects supervisor Steven Quale (Avatar), chronicles what happens when the fictional town of Silverton — which could be anywhere in the Midwest or the South — is hammered by an onslaught of incredibly powerful tornadoes that threaten to wipe the town and everyone in it off the map.

Much of the story is told through the eyes and cameras of a team of professional storm chasers, chief among them meteorologist Allison Stone. Played by Sarah Wayne Callies, Allison is torn between her increasingly dangerous task of tracking the storms and her desire to get home to her daughter. Of course, Callies is no stranger to playing a role with conflicting loyalties: for most of three seasons she played Lori Grimes, the wife of sheriff’s deputy and survivors’ leader Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), on the hit TV series The Walking Dead. Her character — haunted by guilt over an affair she had with his partner when she thought Rick was dead — was one of the more complicated and divisive on the show.

We spoke with Callies by phone about researching the role of a storm chaser, how her real daughter came to play her screen daughter and the reason why she doesn’t watch The Walking Dead.

Den of Geek: How did this role come to you initially?

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Sarah Wayne Callies: Well, you know, they sent me the script and I auditioned for it. It was a pretty old fashioned journey. I did – I was shooting the third season of Walking Dead at the time and so Melissa McBride actually put me on tape in her trailer one day at lunch. And about three weeks later I walked onto the set.

That’s pretty straightforward. What was it about her that appealed to you?

She’s a working mom. I hadn’t done that before. I hadn’t played that kind of a part before and, you know, I think there’s a tension that I see in her that I see in myself and maybe every other working mom I know that comes from sort of oscillation between your commitment to your family and your pursuit of your career, and maybe always feeling that you’re letting one or the other down. Trying to find that balance, which is pretty elusive.

I understand that your daughter in the film was actually played by your real life daughter.

She was, that’s right. Although, you know, when we showed the movie originally my daughter never appeared in the film. She was a character that you get to know off screen through various phone calls. Then when they tested the movie they discovered that they wanted to see my daughter and they’d come to care about her and they wanted to see her face. And so when my daughter found out about it she said she wanted to do it so, you know, I put her through her paces. She auditioned and we have different last names, so nobody knew it was her, and she won the part fair and square so I let her do it. I don’t want her to be an actor but I figured if she had the experience of what it was like — because it’s really not a glamorous job — I figured if she had an experience of what it was like, she’d probably get it out of her system.

And how’d she feel about it afterwards?

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She said, “Mama, thank you so much for doing this so that you can pay for our house. I never want to do it again.” She’s more interested in doing special effects makeup, which is better.

You’re a professional actor, you don’t necessarily need your real daughter there to play your daughter on film but does it add any sort of extra resonance to play off her in scenes like that?

I think it must. I mean, you know, there’s a familiarity and a physical familiarity that you have with your own kids. When it’s someone else’s child you want to be careful to respect that kid’s physical boundaries and their parents’ boundaries and stuff. But with her, I just knew I can pull her up onto my lap and put my arms around her and that wouldn’t be weird because it’s just what we do every day.

I know your parents were professors, so when it comes to researching a role, I get the sense that you know how to really do research.

Well it was certainly a pretty fundamental part of my upbringing. But for this, I just found a professor. I called the University of Michigan, the Department of Meteorology and Climatology and found someone who was generous with his time to sit down and talk to me. I had gotten a textbook on meteorology and found it more or less impenetrable. I don’t have the physics to really understand what was going on, so this gentleman sat down and broke down concepts for me and tried to put things in layman’s terms and define some things for me. If I were a better actor I could say words without knowing what they meant, but I’m not, so I’ve got to know what I’m talking about. But it was fun. That’s the great joy of being an actor, you get to dive headlong into a completely new world for every project. I kind of got off on it.

Your character says something about learning about these storms in case they start to happen in places like Los Angeles.

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The movie doesn’t get into the politics of climate change or extreme weather, but did you learn that these are potentially things that can happen if we continue to not deal with these issues?

I think we’ve globally got a sense that something is going on with the weather for whatever reason. Something is going on with the weather that’s relatively unprecedented. And I think that makes us all nervous because we don’t know what’s coming. We don’t know if next winter New York City is going to be buried under 18 feet of snow or if next winter New York is going to be 75 degrees every day. I know I was in Atlanta last winter and we had an ice storm that shut the city down for four days. People were stranded in cars and sleeping in a Dunkin Donuts. That kind of thing is happening regularly all over the world. So I think there’s a sense of a growing kind of nameless fear that is taking root in people when it comes to the climate. And I think this movie is an opportunity to take that out and look at it in the light of day and get to know its shape and its color a little bit.

This is your first foray into a big special effects movie. Did you make any adjustments acting wise? How much of it was there for you physically on set and how much of it was put in later?

Well, you know, Steve did a great job of making sure that as many of our effects were practical as they could possibly be. I would say we had 50 percent practical and 50 percent special effects. And what it meant for us is that it spared you the indignity of trying to act the tornado. You’re able to respond with your body in the moment which I think is a lot better. I think Steve saved us from a lot of that. And when it comes to the special effects acting, I think a lot of it really has to do with just trying to stay grounded and trying to tell a really simple, really focused human story and let those effects go on around you. Because we really only care about special effects to the extent that they matter and that they impact characters we care about. So, you know, that was all I knew how to do, was to just try and stay as focused and grounded as possible.

You starred in a series that was very much like a post-apocalyptic scenario and this is a movie that sort of has these kind of global implications. What do you think draws audiences to these scenarios?

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I think we’re all drawn to stories about human beings that are pushed to the absolute limit and beyond, partly because it gives us an opportunity to ask questions about how cool we would be in those circumstances. You know, we all want to believe that we would do the brave thing and do the honorable thing, the beautiful thing. But the fact of the matter is that we really don’t know until we’re there and until the sirens go off and we get a sense of who we are in those moments. And telling stories like this allows us, I think, to explore that kind of a thing by proxy.

What’s your perspective now on your time on The Walking Dead?

Gratitude. Gratitude, gratitude and more gratitude. I think it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and we were able to really learn from each other as actors and as crew and as writers and directors. There was a huge sense of collaboration with one another. And I’m so grateful for that. I learned a better way of working. I learned a new way of working. I learned a more collaborative way of working because people were so open with one another. And that’s a huge gift. I’ll take that with me everywhere I go.

Do you tune into the show when you can?

I don’t have a TV so I actually never tuned into the show. But you know, the checking in I do is with my friends. How Andy’s doing and Jon’s (Bernthal) doing and Jeff DeMunn who played Dale and all of those guys. Melissa to this day is one of my dearest friends, you know. I’m less concerned about how their work is going and how the story is going than how they are personally.

What’s coming up for you after this?

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I just did a movie called The Other Side of the Door. I just finished that in India a couple of weeks ago. So that’ll be coming out and that was an amazing experience creatively. I loved it. And I wrote a screenplay actually for Gale Anne Hurd that she’s producing and we’re in the process of trying to get made. So we’re working on all those fronts.

Into the Storm is out in theaters this Friday (August 8).

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