Sarah Wayne Callies interview: Into The Storm, The Walking Dead

We talk to Sarah Wayne Callies about dealing with bad weather in the disaster film Into The Storm, and her role in The Walking Dead...

NB: The following contains a Walking Dead spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen season three yet. It’s in the last question.

From time to time interviews can have a touch of serendipity about them and no, I’m not referring to the John Cusack rom-com. Just the other week I’d written a piece defending Sarah Wayne Callies’ character from The Walking Dead, Lori Grimes, and no sooner had it been published than the opportunity arose to speak to her about Into The Storm.

Into The Storm is a gloriously fun disaster movie that sees her caught in the middle of some supremely unhappy tornados. Playing the sensible and scientific role that means, of course, that no one listens to her, a decision that some of them might come to rue.

I’ve long been a fan of Sarah Wayne Callies and her incredible ability to maintain a high level of intensity in her performances, as so many of her characters are subjected to horrific circumstances – it’s high time she got to play a role that involved nothing but fun with kittens, just to give her a little respite. The Walking Dead, as already mentioned, gave her a great role (divisive or otherwise) among a uniformly superb cast, as was also the case in Prison Break. 

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Next year will see her defending her family from supernatural threat once more in The Other Side Of The Door (a film Callies told me at the end of the interview that director Johannes Roberts had “directed the shit out of” and that she thought he’d done something really amazing with).

Our interview found her on fine form and full of laughs, which was always going to be slightly surreal having seen her suffer so much on screen. So without further ado…

Congratulations on the film first of all, it was so much fun and I loved that it reminded me of the great revival period in the 90s for disaster movies, were you a fan of those movies?

You know, I am – I loved them all and Twister especially, so being a part of this was a real joy for me!

And how did you come to be involved with Into The Storm?

It’s an interesting thing, because I was shooting the third season of Walking Dead and I knew and the producers and writers knew that I was leaving the show, but obviously we couldn’t say that to anyone. So when this movie came up, I read the script and I said, “Look, this is the kind of movie that I would love to watch, so it’s the kind of movie I’d really like to be in, can we somehow make this work?” And it required a sort of absurd amount of secrecy [laughs] on the part of everybody involved on The Walking Dead! But they made it work and they let me out of the third season to film this movie and then I came back and did the flashbacks.

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So it was really generous, actually, on the part of the producers of both jobs to work together, to sort of keep the state secrets! [laughs] And to cover me in the process of doing it, as I thought it was a ball, so I’m so grateful that they did. 

And talking of the process, how was it to actually shoot? Because it looked like it was hard work as even without the digital effects there seemed to be constant wind and rain and water…

And hail! The hail is the one that really… the wind and rain are okay, but the hail… [chuckles]. You know Steve [Quale, the director] who is an absolute mad scientist – doing a movie with Steve is like playing chess with Bobby Fischer, you just have to allow yourself to know that he’s thought this thing through so many more moves ahead of you.

For the first week I’d ask why, I’d be like, “Okay, so how does this fit in?” and he would start talking and I’d realise, you know what I’m not going to understand these explanations and that’s cool! I will do my job [laughs] and you do your job and you’re going to make something amazing.

So Steve being as meticulous as he is, noticed that in a lot of movies where they have hail they use ice chips, but that the way hail forms from a meteorological perspective is usually round and so he found a company that makes ice – a specialty company – that makes ice the size of cue balls and they were a dollar a piece and he somehow convinced Warner Bros to buy him buckets of the stuff, so that we could use it in the hail sequence when we’re running past the pool. But then we discovered that these round cue balls of ice weren’t necessarily showing up on camera the way we wanted them to, when we threw them randomly.

So they actually had our producer, Todd Garner, stood up on a roof and overhand pitch these cue balls, so that in the tighter shots they would pass inches from our face! [laughs] And he was throwing them from two stories up and I just remember at a certain point the stunt co-ordinator came up to me and shrugged his shoulders and he’s like “I don’t know what to tell you, just don’t get hit!” [both laugh] and I’m like “Really? That’s the advice!” and he said, “That’s the best I got for ya!” So we ran and ran and ran and at one point I slipped and veered off the course I was supposed to be on and I got tagged in the lower back with one of those things and I’ll tell ya – when someone pitches a cue ball at you from two stories up, you feel it man! [laughs] It was really sore!

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And I’m guessing a laptop [which she holds above her head in that scene] wasn’t much of a shield when someone’s hurling things at you from every angle!

Well yeah, I mean the laptop’s a great help if it’s coming from straight above you, but in so far as I wasn’t wearing body armour! [laughs] I had several moments in this movie where I thought ‘From now on, if I’m ever in another weather movie, during the fitting I’m going to put myself in Kevlar from head to toe and do my best to look cute, but there’s no time for vanity in a movie like this, you just have to think safety and work. 

So even if you do a weather movie set in the scorching sun, you’ll be wearing a great big winter coat!

[Laughs] That’s exactly right! I’ll just look ridiculous, but at least I’ll be protected!

The film also uses a lot of first-person footage, with cameras everywhere throughout – did that cause you any logistical problems from an acting point of view?

No, you know it was great as it completely absolves you as an actor of a need to put your mind technically towards thinking ‘Where’s the camera? How do I make sure I stay in my sight lines?’ all of that nonsense, which is my least favourite part of acting. I come from theatre, I like to just get up so you can just put your back to anything you want and talk to other people, that’s my favourite part of what we do.

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And so we could do that, because between the camera crew, the practical cameras the other actors were holding and the cameras that were mounted on the vehicles, you could kind of do anything and it would get on camera. And the great thing is that even if it didn’t, because we were doing a first person story and the audience is in there with us – even if important moments happen with the back of your head [in shot] – it’s ok, because the audience understands that this is not a movie where you’re entitled to a close up of every face for every line. So it was really freeing getting to work on this movie, I loved it.

One of the things I love most about your work is your ability to maintain a really high level of intensity throughout your performances. And while I know that the material is partly indicative of that, it must be quite exhausting even with that style of shooting?

Well you know part of what was really new for me on this movie is that I’ve done a lot of television in the last few years – in TV you shoot an episode in eight days and so whatever happens, you’ve got eight days to film it. In this movie the story takes place over about 12 hours and was shot for 12 weeks, so it was really a challenge for me to just try and be meticulous about what happened two seconds ago, and what’s happening in two seconds and how do I make this one second right here coherent, in the middle of all these special effects and all these stories that we’re telling.

That was very new for me and it was an interesting challenge to make sure that the emotional continuity of it would make sense when you had that much time to tell a story that took place in one day. It was a great exercise. 

For my last question, as I’m a big Walking Dead fan and you mentioned being written out – I think Lori Grimes must have the most traumatic and horrific exit for any TV character that I’ve certainly seen, were you shocked by how she went out?

No, it’s The Walking Dead and if you’re going to kill the leading lady of a show like that, I don’t think you want to see her walk into a car, hear a gunshot and that’s the end of it. When they told me – I mean I’d always known Lori was going to go, because she goes in the comics – but when they told me it was her time, I just said, “Let’s make it a moment of redemption and make it a moment between her and her son and let’s build it around that.”

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And I think they did a beautiful job of articulating a character who’s been such a focus for all kinds of controversy and all kinds of issues about sexuality and morality and women and femininity and everything, to make that moment of incontrovertible love and sacrifice for her family. For all the other things that we’ve speculated about that she may, or may not be, she leaves in the way I always knew her – as a woman who would do anything to keep her family safe. And they built all of the gruesome stuff around that and I just think they did a beautiful job. I love it, and that’s the way Lori went out.

Sarah Wayne Callies thank you very much indeed!

Into The Storm is out now in UK cinemas.

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