When I first spoke to Sarah Wayne Callies in 2014 for the release of the joyous disaster movie delights of Into The Storm, it took a while to adjust to the completely different persona she exudes in real life, compared to the often quiet and maternal characters she’s played over the years. Filled with a blunt and refreshing honesty, she’ll happily share experiences – good and bad, while punctuating the air with an occasional swear word, making her an incredibly easy person to talk to.
We caught up with her, complete with cold, to discuss her latest role in The Other Side Of The Door, a horror movie that is as much a tragic family drama, as it is a grisly ghost story. Directed by Brit Johannes Roberts, the story sees a husband and wife in turmoil, struggling to readjust to life after the death of their son, but when the mother Maria is offered a chance to speak to her son one last time she disobeys the conditions of the reunion and things escalate into paranormal darkness.
In the lead role Sarah Wayne Callies gives another strong performance as a mother who would do anything for her family (though hopefully in a less divisive manner than her character of Lori in The Walking Dead did) and holds the dramatic tension throughout, while various encounters with the living and the dead serve up plenty of scares for the audience. So without further ado…
As a fan of the genre, for me a good horror film should have strong characters, as without that key component you don’t have any investment in what happens to them. The Other Side Of The Door and especially your strong central performance really help to draw the audience in, but is it the dramatic element that appeals to you, rather than the horror?
Well I don’t know anything about the horror genre, because I’ve never seen any horror movies because they scare me. So I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I’ve never even seen The Shining… I really, really, really don’t like to be scared and so I approach everything as though it’s a drama, because to me the scariest part of this movie is a woman losing her child, that’s the most unimaginable thing and so maybe that’s why that’s true – that I end up playing women who end up being closer to the emotional heart of things, than the horror heart of things.
And I wondered if that was intentional when you were starting out, as last time I spoke to you it was for Into The Storm and then before that there was The Walking Dead and you seem to excel at playing those maternal characters – did that happen organically?
Yeah, I think it might be that I’m a crap actor and that’s who I am! Do you know what I mean? I just mother people! [laughs] The first season of Walking Dead the production office would call me and they’d be like ‘We’ve got a new actor coming in, would you handle them?’ and I’d say ‘Sure!’ and they’d stay at my house for a week while they found housing and I organised all these parties. I think I believe really firmly in community and so knowing that on a film set you usually have a short amount of time to build these things, I tend to just mom everything .
Last night for dinner it was me and Andy Lincoln and Jon Bernthal and Andy’s wife and John’s wife and kids and Norman was going to come, but got sick and they were all like “Where should we go and what should we do?” and I said “I don’t know Andy, you’re fucking English! How about you handle London!” and he said “But you’re the one who does that.” So I said “Fine!” and I end up organising all of this stuff. So maybe it’s just that those are the roles I play because I’ve always been that way.
So almost like an extension of yourself?
Maybe, but that really does make it sound like I can’t act though! Which is possible, maybe I just ‘do me’ in everything. I don’t know… God I hope not! Shit! I am playing ‘not a mom’ in the Giancarlo Esposito movie I just shot, so we’ll see how I do.
Which film is that?
It’s called This Is Your Death, but it’s not a horror movie, it’s a really dark satire about an American television show where people commit suicide on TV. So it’s about the culture for fame and the cannibalistic media television loop we’ve created.
The heart of The Other Side Of The Door is the tender and tragic relationship between the husband and wife, was that initially what drew you to the film?
The thing that drew me to it was the grief and the madness being two sides of that same coin. I was nineteen and my step sister died and watching her mom go through that grieving process was one of the most inexplicable and harrowing things I’ve ever seen. Because I think particularly when parents lose children, grief is just a kind of madness and it’s also not linear – it’s not like you’re better today than you were yesterday and tomorrow you’ll be a bit better, it’s not like that. It’s you’re fine for six months and then one day – and this actually happened – I picked up the phone to call my sister and she’d been dead for five years and I was like ‘Oh my god I have to tell Mindy!’ I picked up the phone and I was like ‘Holy shit, she’s dead’ and I was in floods for a week and then I was fine for another three years and it makes no sense.
I thought Johannes did it brilliantly in the script, even down to the idea that when her son comes back initially she’s like ‘This is great news’ the audience is watching it going ‘Holy shit, this about to become a really scary horror movie’ and she’s going ‘I can read to my son every night, this is a win’ and to me that’s the madness of grief and that’s really interesting to play.
The turning point in the movie, and the part that really has to sell to audiences, is believing that your character would open the door – what’s strange for me is how much becoming a father in the last couple of years has changed my sensibility and sensitivity to the world, so that moment is completely believable to me now and, I think, to anyone who has a child…
Absolutely and I do think… look I’m the last person who should be talking to about horror movies, because I don’t know anything about them, but it seems to me that there’s a moment in every horror movie where the audience goes ‘Don’t do that!’ and if you can get them past that moment, you have a movie, which is to say the movie fails if Maria opens the door and they go ‘Oh you fucking idiot!’
Whereas if you see this is a woman who is so broken she doesn’t care if she lives, or dies, she’s just desperate for some sort of connection and forgiveness. Then everything that happens afterwards is a tragedy rather than irritating, so that’s out of my hands that’s his script and his directing – I make it work, or I don’t, but to me that’s the part of the movie that it hinges on, because that’s also the part of the movie where it goes from being a drama, to a horror movie, because up until then it’s a relationship drama.
I was just saying to Johannes that what’s great about The Other Side Of The Door, is that it seems to spend the perfect amount of time getting to know the characters, before the door opening, so you can utterly sympathise with them and he said that was the hardest part – finding the balance between character time and getting to the horror.
Well it’s brave isn’t it, because there’s nothing ‘bounce out’ frightening that happens – there’s nothing horror that happens in the first twenty minutes of the film, but I mean he really takes the time to build a drama, trusting that once the drama is in place the rest of the movie will be scary and I think that’s got to be brave and I don’t know but I feel like there’s got to be pressure from a studio saying ‘I want you to scare the pants off them’ ten seconds into this thing.
Obviously you worked on The Walking Dead for three years and were used to the Atlanta heat, how was your transition and experience of going over India?
I called Andy (Lincoln) after a week and I said ‘You can’t ever complain about Atlanta again!’ India is such an order of magnitude and we were only there until the end of May, we weren’t even there for the peak of the summer – it’s absolutely unrelenting and you’re in a city so you sweat and then the dirt just sticks to your face!Mumbai was mental, but it was the perfect place for this film, personally it completely de-stabilised me and it was exactly right for the performance and JR knew it and so he would wind me up! I have to say it was one of the best relationships with the director that I’ve ever had, there was just a synchronicity and a simpatico that was very cool, although I’d never say that to his face – make sure when you tell him later, you tell him that it was quite shit!
I mean it was difficult – logistically Mumbai is a difficult city, to cross a street it takes you half an hour and for the life of me I don’t know why, but nobody gets into the film business because they want to be comfortable – well if you do you’re an idiot and need to find another job – you get into the film business because you want to tell a story and Mumbai gave us a better story than we ever would have had without it.
When I spoke to you for Into The Storm we were talking about you getting pelted with golf ball sized ice pellets…
What was your physical challenge on this film?
Well I was viciously sick, the whole time. I was too cavalier, because I’ve travelled all over the world and I’d always been fine and I was too cavalier with what I ate and I just never got better. I’d go four days being okay and then three days not being okay. I don’t know why I’m not supposed to talk about that, but you can see in the course of the film I visibly lose weight and I can’t imagine that somebody isn’t going to notice that, but that was the hardest part… going four days with two bananas, at a certain point you’re just out of your skull! But again I wasn’t there to be comfortable, I was there to make a movie and I think we made the movie the way it needed to be made.
And finally, you mentioned still being close with the cast from The Walking Dead, what is it you miss most from your time on that show?
I miss my friends. I mean that was the reason I took almost three years to go back to television, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to make a community like that again, that fact that we have on Colony is staggering to me and an enormous gift. That first season cast you know Steven and Norman and Melissa and Andy and John and Jeff DeMunn and Laurie Holden and Emma Bell… there was – and I say this with such respect and such affection for everyone who is on the show now, most of whom I’ve never met – but there’s a different psychology to starting a show that no one thinks is going to be a success, than there is to joining the most successful show in the world and there was a bit of a band of brothers feel to it all.
I mean the first season I was in this hotel, doing press with Andy, and people were sitting down and going ‘Are you kidding me? A zombie show?’ and there was this collective sort of – I wouldn’t say contempt – but a sense of people laughing behind their hands and thinking ‘Sweet girl we thought you had a career, what’s happened to you!’ and I was not saying ‘Oh trust me this is going to be a huge hit’ I was like ‘I don’t know, we tried to do something really unique and really honest and Frank Darabont is a great film maker and Gale Anne Hurd is one of the best producers in the world, so give us a shot.’
There was something about that first season… we shot in that quarry, which was hot and uncomfortable, but there was no cell reception and there were no trailers, because the trailers were a mile down the road, so between set ups we’d just sit and talk to each other. Nobody went to go cool off, nobody went to check their phones, we just got to know each other and that’s lightning in a bottle, that’ll only happen once in all of our careers and that doesn’t mean wonderful and amazing things don’t come after, or before, but we knew as it was happening – this was a community of people who care about each other.
Maybe the best way to put it was that every single actor that I worked with, you did your best work off camera for somebody else, because that was your fucking job – my job is to give you your performance, so you can look good and that’s unheard of, that’s absolutely unheard of, a sense of ‘I want to make you look good, because I know how good you are and I want everyone to see how good you are.’ There was a moment during the third, or fourth episode when Melissa McBride who had zero lines basically and didn’t start until episode three, or four I think, all of a sudden she’s taking a pick axe to Ed’s head and Andy turned to me and we went ‘She’s just raised the bar. We’ve got to keep up with that woman – what’s her name?’ and I was like that’s Melissa. Norman joins the show and all of a sudden there’s this fucking maniac, with squirrels, shouting at everybody and we’re like ‘Oh!’Every time it was time for somebody’s episode to be up, they just levelled it up for everybody and I think seeing that you think ‘Everybody’s got to see what you’re doing, everybody’s got to see that’ and it’s probably the same way now, but I don’t know – I’m not there! [laughs]
Sarah Wayne Callies, thank you very much!
The Other Side Of The Door is out now in UK cinemas and released in America March 11th.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.