Sarah Wayne Callies has logged time in some of the most noteworthy TV series of the past few decades—mostly notably in The Walking Dead, but also in beloved genre fare like Prison Break and Colony. She’s also starred in big-screen features like The Other Side Of The Door and Into The Storm. Callies’ latest role is far more relatable than dealing with zombies, but no less complicated: She stars in NBC’s new drama Council Of Dads, playing Robin, a woman whose husband (Thomas Everett Scott) is dying of cancer, so he assembles a group of three other men to take over helping to raise his children in the event of his death.
When we spoke with Callies, it was during the initial wave of anxiety after the coronavirus outbreak had spread to the States. She was in isolation with her family after a potential exposure scare in Los Angeles. Thankfully, it turned out all right, but there was an undeniable sense of concern threaded throughout our talk. Callies proved more than able to lighten the mood, talking about her new series, the way she worked on The Walking Dead, and the small subset of viewers who can’t seem to separate actor from role.
The A.V. Club: We usually start out with just a casual, “How are you doing,” but seriously, how are you doing?
Sara Wayne Callies: I’m fine. I’m on day eight of a self-imposed 14-day quarantine. I was in Los Angeles for half of last week, and when I got back, a friend of mine, who I had seen, said that a few days later he had developed a fever and a sore throat, so I went into quarantine with my family. A couple of days later, he said his fever had broken after 48 hours, and they refused to even test him, so we expect to be fine, but it’s… It’s an exciting time! [Laughs.] I’ll tell you that much.
AVC: I think of that old ironic curse: May you live in interesting times.
SWC: These are definitely interesting times. It also feels like my career has come to life. [Laughs.] I definitely recognize this apocalypse.
AVC: You’re anticipating questions five through seven already.
SWC: It’s funny. My family—on our sort of global WhatsApp—I’ve got family in London and in the States, and then we live in Canada—there have been quite a few nudges about my career lately. I’ll be frank, I’m very grateful that my career has shifted into a loving family drama, because hopefully that’s the way this ends, too. The zombies can go home, and we can stop panicking.
AVC: Let’s move on to something more lighthearted, which is a show about terminal cancer. How do you describe Council Of Dads to others as far as what you think will draw them in? Because the elevator pitch—this father is dying of terminal cancer—doesn’t exactly scream fun romp.
SWC: [Laughs.] Well, actually, I don’t think that’s the elevator pitch. I think the elevator pitch is a community steps up to support a family in a time of difficulty. I think it’s less about the loss than it is the healing. This is a show that takes for granted what so many of us already know about life—that there’s pain and there’s difficulty and there’s suffering and loss and grief. But what makes this show unique is that this is not a family that’s left alone to process it. Because grief is a weird sort of plague in our community, right? We don’t handle it well. We’re not exposed to death right now in our culture the way we used to be, so when someone is grieving, very often—after the first sort of six weeks—people don’t know what to do with you.
I lost my stepsister when I was 19, and people just had no idea how to talk to me. They were afraid they would say the wrong thing, and so they wouldn’t say anything. All of a sudden, you can find yourself feeling very isolated and very lost and even with the sense that maybe I should be over this by now. And so, taking all of that pain of life for granted, this, to me, is kind of an extraordinary and uplifting story about a family that puts in place a different mechanism. A family that finds a way to grow through the pain, and to expand through the pain rather than shrink in it.
AVC: You’re a spouse, parent, and sibling yourself, so I assume it wasn’t hard to put yourself in Robin’s shoes in that regard?
SWC: No, and even some things about our current situation, you know? Like I said, my family is today on day eight of a 14-day self-isolation—self-quarantine. I don’t go six hours without somebody in my community coming to check on me. A friend of mine was at a liquor store the other day, and she was like, “Shelves are emptying fast. What can I get you? I will drop it off at the bottom of your driveway. You can pay me back when you can.” There is this sense of people looking out for one another. And I think there is a sense—in my life at least, it’s very real—that the family that I rely on is not limited by the family I was born into.
There are people with whom I share blood from whom I’ve been estranged for 20 years. There are people with whom I share no blood that I consider—the guy I call my brother is actually technically my ex-stepbrother, but that matters to me not at all, because we’ve chosen to be there for each other.
And the day-to-day people who watch out for me and my family—most of them are community members that we’ve lived up here with for 10, 15 years, and we’ve developed a sort of familial connection. The show kind of hit me in the teeth. At the time that we were filming, we started shooting about six months after I lost [Walking Dead actor] Scott Wilson, who was one of my closest friends and somebody who I lived with—him and his wife—for weeks at a time. I’d be in L.A., and in the last three weeks of Scott’s life, I was there helping him through that transition process for about two of those weeks.
It meant that there were certain parts of the show that I needed to do no preparation for at all, because Robin’s husband’s name is Scott. I was literally having all these conversations with a dying Scott, unable to save him, and that was all right there. And then there were other scenes—there’s that scene in the bathroom [Where her character breaks down, blaming herself for not catching the cancer earlier. —Ed.], and I couldn’t do it. We did the rehearsal, we did the first take or so, and I’m looking at the director and Tom Everett Scott, and I’m seeing in their face, like, “Oh, my god, she can’t do this.” [Laughs.]
And we can’t do the part without this scene. And so I asked for a minute, and I went off by myself, and I had a conversation with Scott Wilson. I was like, “Listen, man, I can’t get to this. And I need your help.” And I realized in that moment that part of why I couldn’t get there is because it was way too personal. I felt such a personal sense of failure for having lived with him for those two weeks and not having saved him. Not being able to feed him the right food, or convince him to take his medicine or whatever. And once I was able to be honest with dead Scott about that—ghost Scott—then I could go in and do the scene, and then the scene was over pretty quickly. But it’s universal. My father-in-law, who’s the most important male elder who’s ever been in my life, died in between shooting the pilot and the season. The last thing I ever did with him was crawl up in bed with him in his office and show him the pilot.
Everybody working on the show has a story like that, whether it’s crew or catering or the electric—camera department, cast, writers—I think this kind of a story is so universal. The story of how do you keep living? How do you find the joy and beauty in life? How do you raise children? When you’re learning about grief in community with other people.
AVC: One of the big draws of series like Council Of Dads or This Is Us is the emotional catharsis they tap into.
SWC: Sometimes we need a good cry. Here’s a question for you: Did the show also make you laugh? Because my hope is that there is a balance. When you watched it as an outsider, did it feel like there was levity in it, too?
AVC: Yeah, there’s levity. I think what makes those moments work is—a friend of mine always talks about how you can’t help but laugh at a funeral sometimes. So it’s the gallows humor element of it, where it’s almost like things become funnier in grief, because you have to laugh in the face of tragedy sometimes.
SWC: Totally. When we’re really in the shit, you develop a sense of humor that sometimes you’re not even proud of.
AVC: Did you and Tom Everett Scott ever bond over the fact that you were both killed on screen during a zombie apocalypse on previous shows?
SWC: Oh, my god! I didn’t even know that was true. Tom and I bonded over a lot. I adore him. He is such an extraordinary man. And I think they did something very brave with this pilot, which is that they kill the lead at the end of it. It’s a little bit like the first season of Game Of Thrones, except they did it in 42 minutes. Here’s the man the show’s about, and he’s gone. No, Tom and I didn’t bond over that, because I didn’t know that was true. Which apocalypse did Tom die in?
AVC: In Z Nation, he was murdered during that zombie apocalypse.
SWC: Here’s the thing about my life and my career, and it’s weird that this is true, but it is: I have an outsize number of friends who died in zombie apocalypses at this point. It’s sort of a thing with me. Tom and I spent a lot of time talking about parenthood. About how it’s just super different from what you think. Parenthood is far richer and far darker than you could possibly know. Actually, my own child—my eldest, who’s 12—said to me the other day—we had a big bonfire outside, because we live in the woods, and we were on day two or three. My 12-year-old goes, “Hey, Mama, is it harder to be a parent than you thought it would be?” I looked at them and my 6-year-old and said, “Well, does it feel like I didn’t expect it to be this hard?” My 6-year-old kind of takes a deep breath and goes, “Mm… not all the time.” [Laughs.] But it’s true, and I think right now a lot of people in this isolation are experiencing an intense level of parenthood. Almost a homestead-style parenthood, where we’re up in each other’s business all the time. And there’s a beautiful intimacy to that.
AVC: So many of your most notable roles have been in genre fare, whether it’s sci-fi, horror, or fantasy. Was it a coincidence, or is there something about these fictional worlds that’s especially compelling to you?
SWC: My true north of what I want to act in is always driven by what have I not seen before. I think storytelling is sacred, and I think it’s a real honor, so my goal has always been, “What stories can I tell that haven’t been told before in that way?” People straight-up made fun of both Prison Break and Walking Dead when we were promoting the first seasons. They went, “You make fun of prisoners in your story.” They went, “The zombie apocalypse is not an ongoing series.” And I like those kinds of challenges. And, similarly, with Colony—Colony’s about an expression of science fiction with a balance of male and female perspectives I hadn’t seen before, and the element of the sort of World War II parallel. And I felt that way about Council Of Dads. I hadn’t seen this before, and I hadn’t seen a show this diverse, this honest, this reflective about my own experience of family.
AVC: When you sign up for something more genre-oriented, do you especially enjoy the fantastical elements of fictional universes? When we interviewed Jon Bernthal a few years ago, he mentioned being inspired by you on the set of The Walking Dead, because you were so committed to the world. You’d be checking people early on: “Oh, I’m sorry, is there makeup in the zombie apocalypse? I don’t think so.”
SWC: [Laughs.] I had a different perspective on that show when it came to costumes and vanity. I eventually evolved. I just think our job as storytellers is to take seriously the circumstances of our world. And if that means it’s the apocalypse and there’s zombies running around, in my opinion, that means your clothes shouldn’t stick, and you shouldn’t be wearing makeup. I lost a bunch of weight for that show, because I wanted Lori to feel super skinny, like any food she ever had she gave to her son. I tried to create a character that was frayed at the edges. Not likable, not relatable, but somebody who was living in an apocalypse and losing their shit on a daily basis. And I don’t know if that’s the right—there’s no right or wrong. That’s just the way I tell stories.
Working in something that’s a really grounded reality in Council Of Dads, I find that it’s actually a lot harder in some ways. When you have a concept, it’s easier somehow to—you’re inventing more, so it lands differently in your heart. I’ve never been more tired than I was on Council Of Dads. But it wasn’t a physical exhaustion. The days on Prison Break or Walking Dead or Colony, it was usually two days an episode of physical work. And it’s great, because there’s no acting, right? If you’re running, you’re running. If you’re in the rain, you’re in the rain. If you’re in a car crash, you’re in a car crash. There’s something very straightforward about that kind of work. And there was nothing like that on Council Of Dads. It was just show up and try to be honest.
AVC: There seems to be a running theme of you portraying characters with these deep rivers of strength in the face of really terrible things. Not just Walking Dead or Colony, but a film like The Other Side Of The Door. A lot of your career is dealing with really dark stuff.
SWC: I wish I were funnier. It would be great to do comedy. I did a couple of episodes of Letterkenny, like “I need to do something fun.” So it’s amazing. The first day on that set, I’m like, “Wait a minute. This is what your job is like? I have been in the wrong part of this business the whole time.” It’s weird about the darkness. I think part of that—you know, I had a weird childhood. I saw somebody go mad when I was really young. There was a suicide in my teens that I was kind of close up to. There were a few nasty years in there, a few things that I haven’t wanted to talk about publicly. I think the darkness comes maybe from a place of just feeling like sometimes when we tell those stories, people who’ve been in dark places feel less alone. Or maybe that’s at least some gold that you can spin out of that hay when it’s in your own life.
I’m definitely not drawn to darkness in real life. I think there are people who are like, “I was always drawn to bad boys.” I’m like, “Nope, I knew from a young age that that is bad. And I’m not interested in any more of it.” In some ways, I think Council is one of the lightest things I’ve ever done—apart from Letterkenny—because there’s so much hope to it. It really is something that I hope will help people. That sounds so cheesy. It’s true, though. It’s weird the way the show is landing in the zeitgeist at this moment—I mean, this exact moment of isolation and loss and fear.
AVC: Some of my friends are saying, “Oh, all I want to do is watch reruns of The Office,” and other friends are seeking out Contagion and disaster/dystopia films and stuff. It’s interesting to see what people are drawn to during these moments.
SWC: Right now, more than anything else, I’ve never been—at the moment I’m launching a show—less concerned about the show itself and more concerned about people.
AVC: You’ve been on several shows with extremely passionate fan bases. And there’s always this wave of a small minority of unfortunately very vocal fans who can’t seem to separate actor from role, and who have these vitriolic reactions to people playing characters they don’t like. And it’s mostly men reacting against complicated women characters. You experienced this, Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad experienced it, and so on. With a few years’ hindsight, do you think differently about it than you did when it was happening?
SWC: For what it’s worth—and as long as we’re calling things what they are—I think it’s mostly white men. I don’t want to lump men of color in there because I have never been walked up to in the street and spoken to rudely by a man of color. The only people who’ve ever done that about a character are white. I don’t know what to make of that, but it does seem like it’s worth pointing out. I mean, look: On the one hand, it’s a compliment. As an artist, any time you evoke a reaction, you’re doing your job. Mediocrity only ever means that people are going to be indifferent, and what’s the point in that?
I wonder if social media has helped people separate actor and character because they have access to us representing ourselves through our own channels. And so they can look at the difference between your character and the person you’re willing to show to the public. That’s not to say they know who you are, but at least the part of yourself you’re willing to share. It’s an interesting phenomenon. From a writing perspective, you have to have characters that elicit complicated reactions from people, because otherwise you have a posse of characters who are likable and there’s no drama.
AVC: True, but a decade ago, the vitriol you would get probably didn’t seem based on the quality of the work.
SWC: I don’t know that we’ve gotten better about it or not. I kind of took my eye off that ball, but I think maybe what we have done better is maybe we’ve stopped so exclusively writing these shows from an only white, male, straight perspective. So that anybody who disagrees with them becomes a bitch. And maybe what we’ve done instead is we’ve written a more balanced portrayal of male and female experiences. Just to take The Walking Dead versus Colony experience: Lori was the leading lady of Walking Dead, but Lori existed dramaturgically only to get Rick to where he needed to go, right? There was no sense of why she did what she did outside Rick and Shane.
For instance, Rick reuniting with his wife in episode three, she’s so happy to see him, so relieved that now there is somebody to look out for her and her son, and then the very next thing he does is he turns around to go save a racist redneck stranger on a roof. We’re in Rick’s story, so that’s a heroic moment, but there was another way of telling that story that includes Lori’s perspective, which is one of being devastated and heartbroken that her husband would choose a stranger’s health and safety over hers and her son’s. There’s an abandonment there that’s really breathtaking, but the show was written from the perspective of this guy, so we never heard Lori’s perspective on that. What we heard is her trying to challenge Rick, but we only ever saw it in the context of her challenging our hero, which immediately makes her—to some people—a villain. I will also say there’s a remarkable number of women of all races who have come up to me and been like, “Dude, Lori was my homegirl, and I loved her.”
I just think they weren’t quite so vocal about it because they have lives and they have something to do other than troll on the internet. But then you have Colony, and Colony was a two-hander. So my character and Josh Holloway’s character both did things that the other character found frustrating or wrong or that they would have made different moral decisions about. But their stories were told so evenly that you didn’t have a hero and a bad guy, or an antihero. What you had was an equal perspective of a husband and a wife who were making different decisions that they thought were the right thing for their family. So maybe part of why these things are changing is because our storytelling is becoming more balanced.