Over the course of her career, actress Sarah Wayne Callies has built a reputation for playing strong, iconic female characters on the small and big screen. After receiving her Master of Fine Arts Degree from Denver’s National Theater Conservatory, she made her television debut as a guest star on the show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Then, she landed the part of Detective Jane Porter on the short-lived series Tarzan. Her breakout role, however, was as Dr. Sara Tancredi in Prison Break, a role that she will be reprising in the soon-to-be released sequel mini-series.
While she was making a name for herself on television, she was also starring in a variety of movies including Lullaby for Pi, Black Gold, Faces in the Crowd, Foreverland, Black November, Into the Storm, Pay the Ghost and The Other Side of the Door. In 2010, she was cast as Lori Grimes in AMC’s hit television phenomenon The Walking Dead, which remains her most well-known role. She stayed on that show until the third season and has since moved on to play another character in the sci-fi genre: that of Katie Bowman on USA’s Colony, co-starring Josh Holloway, Amanda Righetti and Tory Kittles.
I recently had the pleasure of participating in a conference call with Callies in which she discussed Colony‘s upcoming finale, Katie’s motivations and her return to the world of Prison Break. Check it out below!
Katie’s always being pulled in both directions, obviously from the Resistance and from her husband. Can you talk about playing that dichotomy in your character?
Yes, my pleasure. I think it’s called being a woman. There’s something I think about being a working mom: almost every working mother I know feels a constant sense of guilt and failure that either you’ve devoted so much time to your family that the people at work are feeling like you’re not sufficiently contributing, or that you’ve poured so much of yourself into your work that you’re not sufficiently there for your family.
And so obviously in Colony, that’s heightened because Katie’s work is no longer running a bar. Katie’s work is, you know, undertaking Resistance with an eye towards (degrading) not only her family but her city and possibly her species. But I think, you know, as we see in episode nine, part of the cost of that work has been not seeing what’s going on in her own house with their children. And so you know, I mean, when it comes to playing it, it’s not real hard for me to go down that road, because every morning I leave my kids and I go to work. I’m a breadwinner for a family. It’s war.
And I observe in my life that none of my male colleagues experiences the same amount of internal tearing that all the working moms I know feel, and I don’t know quite why that is, but I think maybe culturally we need to soften things a little bit for those of us who are trying to do the family and the work thing, because it does tear you up a little bit in ways that I think we probably could improve.
Was there anyone — either a character or a person in particular — that you kind of were inspired by when you played her? Or did you just take everything from the script? Obviously, you added your experience as a mother, but was there anything kind of else that you brought into it?
Yes. This is going to sound a little crazy — Joan of Arc. I realized—I mean, it started as a bit of joke, which is that Katie is from New Orleans, which is why the bar is what it is. And another term for a bartender is a barmaid. And so the Maid of Orleans is what they used to call Joan of Arc.
So it started as like I just had this weird brain fart and I emailed Ryan and Carlton and I was like clearly you based this character on Joan of Arc. And they laughed and we thought it was weird. And then I was like, let me just go watch a movie about Joan of Arc. And I went in the back and I reread Saint Joan. And I do think there’s something interesting to the idea that Katie, like Joan, is a true believer. And Katie, like Joan, runs face first into that role where your ideology meets the reality of trying to mount a resistance.
And so in that sense, I think they both go in, you know, giving that they’re doing quote unquote “The Lord’s work” like I am doing the moral, ethical, right thing, and I have no qualms about that. I might be afraid, but I won’t let my fear stop me from trying to do the right thing. And then all of a sudden, these are women neck-deep in politics and ethics for which they’re not equipped.
And they have to catch up very quickly. So, you know, it did start as (stuff) that there was something that I found actually very cool about it. Juan Campanella also had us watch a movie called the Battle of Algiers that immediately became one of the best films I’ve ever seen. And there was a lot in that film about femininity as a tool of war, which is why I put Katie in dresses and try to kind of articulate a femininity in her characterization.
In the last episode, Katie and Will are arguing back and forth and he’s like, “I saved you,” and you go, “I saved you, too.” To me, I thought it was really a game changer in their relationship. You know, how do you feel about that?
Yes, I agree. I mean, I think in way, the whole first season builds to that conversation. Will and Katie, I think that in a way, Will and Katie learn that love is not all you need, in the first season, that these ideological differences really may become profoundly problematic in their marriage. And I think there’s a lack of trust that over the course of the season but that really culminates in that final argument. It’s a tough thing to come back from.
And, you know, particularly I think when Will says to Katie, “You put the noose around those kids’ necks,” meaning Rachel’s son. That’s a huge bomb to drop on someone, and certainly people say things in the heat of the moment that they don’t mean, but I think that’s one of those arguments in a marriage that’s going to take them a long time to recover from.
Yes, definitely. You know, another thing that I love about her is that she’s already been in killing situations and we really see it through the eyes of the audience how she reacts to the killing. Broussard, he’s more used to it. But for her, it’s all something very alien to her. Can you talk about how that kind of weighs on her as well?
Well, you know, I mean Katie —among the people that we see in the Resistance—Katie is one of the few I think that we really get to know who doesn’t have any experience tactically. She’s not military trained. She’s not law enforcement trained. You know, she knows how to shoot a gun because she spent time in New Orleans and her husband’s a former Army Ranger, but there’s not – I think all of the things that you have to do internally to get right with the idea that you might have to take someone’s life, Katie hasn’t done that stuff, because she’s a bartender. And she has had the great privilege of never having to get her hands dirty in the name of anything she believes in — you know, liberty, free society, et cetera.
And so, she’s unprepared for – she’s thrown in the middle and she doesn’t have the coping skills. So she doesn’t have the emotional framework to do the work that she’s doing, and so it takes an enormous toll on her. And I think by the end of the season, it wouldn’t surprise me — and I don’t know anything about season two — but it wouldn’t surprise me if she started season two as a confirmed pacifist, just somebody who refuses to take arms again because the cost has been so great.
Why do you think that Katie hasn’t told Will about her part in the Resistance, even before he kind of got forced into fighting the Resistance? And maybe even more importantly, do you think you could keep a secret that big from your husband?
Well I will say that Nelson McCormick, who directed episode six, came to me at a certain point during the filming and he said, “I don’t think your husband should watch this episode.” I said, “Why?” He said, “No man wants to know his wife can lie this well.” And that gave me something to think about.
I mean, first of all, I don’t think Katie was very significantly involved with the Resistance until Will was forced into collaboration. You know, I think these were people in her orbit. I think she warped, you know, she might have taken a flyer from here to there, but she was not neck-deep with them. And I think she makes the decision to join their work fully as a response to Will’s forced collaboration. And it’s partly as a means to protect him, but also a need to balance. Just thinking, you know, I can’t stomach the thought of being a collaborating family. That’s just sort of more than I can take.
And she doesn’t tell him, because it’s the best way to keep him safe. You know, I mean, Juan Campanella, the director of the first three episodes, grew up in Argentina under a dictatorship. He talked to us quite a lot about just those conditions of knowing that people disappear all the time and knowing that information can be an extremely powerful but also very dangerous currency. And I think for Will to have plausible deniability, if he was ever questioned about his wife’s activities, could save his life. And so Katie would never want to put him in a position of having to withhold information that could kill him.
You’ve played your share of strong female roles. Do you feel that you have a responsibility to portray women in a way that other women can identify with?
You know, I’ve had this strong woman question a lot in the last couple of months, and what I found myself thinking, I think all women are strong. I think just getting through the day, making whatever 60 cents on the dollar and having to put up with the high heels and the way men treat you and the way men look at you and the double standards of beauty and aging and everything else. You know, I kind of feel like sister, if you just get from the beginning of the day to the end, you’re strong. You’re a warrior. Because God knows you’re doing twice as much and you’re not getting twice the compensation.
I don’t know. They seem to be the roles that I get cast in. I don’t know that I feel a responsibility to play strong women. I think that’s just how they come out of me. But I do feel a certain responsibility, particularly as a mother of a daughter, to try and work with certain kinds of other aspects of my business that can be problematic, you know, about vanity and commodification of women’s bodies and stuff like that. It’s a tricky line to walk, but you know, I certainly am trying not to get wrapped up in aging.
I’m trying to promote images of women’s bodies as having to be hypersexualized, having to be super thin. I’m aware of that, I think in a new way, having a daughter who will be growing up looking at those images and contending with her own relationship with those images — not only of me, but of women all over. You know, it’s the reason I turned down the cover of Maxim, because I knew someday — I didn’t even have a kid then — but I knew that someday I would have a daughter and I didn’t want her to look at an image of her mom like that and try and find a way of folding that into her own sense of sexuality and femininity and identity as a woman.
I don’t know that I’m doing very well, by the way. I don’t know that I’m succeeding. But I am doing my best to contend with those things.
Was that something that actually made you want to take the role of Katie? And what else actually drew you to that role?
You know, I mean, the thing about Katie, as I said, is that she is closer to me than anyone I think I’ve ever played. And that scared me enough that it made me want to do it. I tend to walk towards things that scare me. But Katie also was every bit as fully developed and articulated as Will in this story, and I think often wives and mothers are accessories to leading men. And it felt to me, reading the pilot script, that Katie’s philosophical universe was as fully represented as Will’s, which made it a really exciting exploration because you can present two very different ethical responses to a dictatorship, to an occupation. And you could have a real dialogue because they were two fully articulated human beings. One happens to be a woman. One happens to be a man.
And I think that dialogue actually is the reason that I wanted to take this job, because I think it’s a really important time right now to be talking about the role of citizens in resisting oppressive governments.
What do you hope people take away when they watch the show?
I hope primarily people take away a sense of entertainment because none of us want to do homework. And I wouldn’t want to show, as ideological and political as it is, I wouldn’t want it to feel like homework.
I’ve said this all over the place, but the first season of Battlestar Galactica was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, because it was so entertaining and I loved watching it. And it was one of the most salient discussions on the Patriot Act that I saw anybody having anywhere.
And I would be so happy if Colony followed in those footsteps — of a show where you just care so much about people and it’s such an interesting and unique world. And while we’re doing that, we’re also talking about the genesis of resistance and the nature of resistance and the definitions between resistance and terrorism, and governments and oppression and repression. That would be – it’s a really tricky balance. It’s a very difficult line to walk, but I think if anyone can walk it, it’s Ryan. You know, it’s Ryan Condal and Carlton Cuse. And I’m sort of along for the ride doing my best on my end. Does that make any sense?
Broussard and Katie have kind of become confidants over the course of the show so far. But the history between them is still a mystery. Can you shed any light as to how they became friends and how they kind of grew to trust each other over everyone else?
I think part of that has to do with the history of a bartender and a patron. Broussard and Katie got to know each other before it all happened. And I always imagine that he’d come into the bar between deployments and she recognized in him a man like her husband — someone who’s a military man, somebody who’s been through some stuff and someone who needs a little bit of space to deal with what he’s been through and what he’s seen, a space not to be judged and a space maybe not for anyone to say “I know how you’re feeling”, because in my experience, a lot of vets feel things that no one can understand.
And so, I think they developed a respect and a friendship before it all happened, before it all went down. I don’t know if they will go this route or not, but something Tory and I talked about is a possibility that when the Arrival happened, he was in the bar and he was one of the people who helped Katie get out. Tory and I talked about it. We shared it with Ryan and Carlton. I don’t know if they’ll build that into our backstory, but…
So I think part of it has to do with that kind of history. And I think another part of it is that I think we all have a gut feeling about the people in our lives that we can really trust. And it doesn’t—sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes it evolves over time. But there are people in your life that you just go “ok, I’m all in. I trust you.” And I think Katie brings that trust out in Broussard and it’s a trust he doesn’t have for many people.
And I think she just absolutely trusts him, which is why Quale’s orders to have her killed really shake Katie to her foundation because she sees that Broussard is contemplating it. It’s his nature as a man who follows the chain of command that is contending his history with Katie. So when he emerges up the other side of that as a human being, I think then he becomes somebody that like – I think that does bring them ironically closer together.
I think you’re right. And as a quick follow-up, because I’m really excited about this: it was recently announced that you will be reprising your “Prison Break” role on the revival series. What are you most excited about in regards to returning to that universe and that character?
It’s such a fascinating, creative challenge to resuscitate something that I buried such a long time ago. There has been a lifetime for me between the end of “Prison Break” and now—the whole “Walking Dead” world, you know, my son wasn’t even born, my daughter was just a baby. I feel like a completely different person. And so the idea of doing what you do in theatre quite a lot actually, which is returning to a role once your own sense of yourself and your own life has changed so much, is just a really fascinating and kind of a scary idea too. But it seems to me all of the more reason to do it.
The story picks up several years later, so Doctor Sara has traveled a distance from where we left her. I just actually finished—I’ve got one episode left in season one. I locked myself in a room and binge watched the whole first season to remind myself who these people are and what we went through and what’s going on.
And it was extraordinary. I mean, I wrote to Paul Scheuring last night. I was like, you know, I don’t watch a lot of television and I don’t watch very much of what I’m in, so some of these episodes I’m seeing for the first time. That first season was an extraordinary season of television. There was just so much really interesting writing and really terrific performances. And if we can build that again, that level of intelligence, it would be wonderful.
It seems like there are a lot of fans who are not happy with Katie, who really feel like she should be doing what she can to protect her family. And you know, in the argument with Will, she says that she’s protecting basically everybody’s families, which is kind of her attitude. What would you say to those people who are saying Katie needs to get out of the Resistance work and follow Will?
Should the French Resistance have given up and followed the Nazis? The history of civil society is the history of resistance. And I think Katie’s perspective is it’s not enough to just raise children. You have to raise children that are free.
And you see it in her daughter: this little girl is getting used to it. She’s only eight. And so, her memory, the longer this goes on, her memory is more and more a memory of checkpoints and breadlines and curfews and people being afraid of their government. And I think Katie feels very strongly that the greatest act of love is fighting for her children’s intellectual and creative and spiritual freedom.
And we may think that would sway some people, but other people are still going to say you need to be working for your children. Was there a scene this season that you felt really articulated that point of view for Katie?
I’d have to go back. I have to spend some time with that and really go back and watch and check it out. I think everything she does is an expression of that. And I think there’s a moment between her and Bram at the end of episode nine where she all but tells him what she’s doing. And I think in that moment, to me at least, it’s pretty clear that she’s doing it for him.
I’ll also point out that I think there’s a pretty profound double standard when it comes to men and women and some people’s perception of whose job it is to stay home and take care of the kids. I don’t know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about people’s reactions to Katie. I don’t go online. I don’t engage in any of that stuff. It’s not my business. My business is to tell a story.
But male characters rarely are so, first of all, heavily defined by their identities as parents. And they’re also very rarely criticized for doing meaningful work, ideological work outside the home.
Right. I totally see what you’re saying. If Will had been fighting for the Resistance, if the roles had been switched, nobody would have argued.
No. He would be a hero. To me, that makes it even a more exciting story to tell, because it’s able to hopefully slightly move the needle on those perceptions by normalizing the idea of women and those traditions.
How would you compare “Colony” with “The Walking Dead”? I mean, both deal with society rebuilding after a major event…
With all due respect, I don’t know that I would characterize them that way. “Colony” isn’t about a society rebuilding. The society is built and it’s fully articulated and it’s a dictatorship. It’s a hyper-organized state with massive amounts of flaws and oversight.Whereas, “The Walking Dead” is a world of anarchy and of chaos and a world in which people are trying to move on. I don’t know the extent to which there’s any rebuilding insofar as I don’t know that there’s anyone who’s organizing people into like a police force. And by that, I think it seems to be more of a kind of survival thing. So I think one is a story of anarchy and the other is a story of dictatorship.
What are your thoughts on the historical aspects and the social commentary of the colony as it compares to other occupation style stories? You know, like historically with America’s Japanese internment camps or fictionally such as the original V show with its World War Two allegory.
You know, it’s been so long since I’ve seen “V” that I’m not probably real equipped to speak to that. I still have it, but I have it on like VHS, which makes it a little tricky to watch—although I think I’ve got a VHS player somewhere.
I mean, you know, I think in the great tradition of science fiction, “Colony” draws very heavily from history. When I first read it, I actually – the first thing it put me in mind of was Sinn Fein and the IRA during the trouble. And when I spoke to Ryan about it the first time, you know, he told me that it was based on the Nazi Occupation of Paris. Juan Campanella has brought wonderful insight into life under dictatorship, which you know, is how he grew up.
So I think it was really smart to bring up Executive Order. And I know about the Japanese internment camps and everything; I think there’s—you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that doesn’t have either a history of being an occupier or being occupied. And so hopefully this story becomes portable in that it feels personal to a wide audience who bring their own history and their own experience to it. I’m sure there are probably indigenous communities in North America who would watch it and feel like they’re living in a colony right now.
The characters of Katie and Lori Grimes in “The Walking Dead”, they’re sort of in a similar situation — they’re trying to hold their families together and preserve some degree of normalcy despite the society that they live in. So, can you compare and contrast those two characters a little bit? Also, can you tell us what you consider to be Katie’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Sure. You know, I think Katie and Lori feel incredibly far apart. First of all, when you start the show at the beginning of “The Walking Dead”, even before the apocalypse happened, Rick and Lori’s marriage was really in trouble. We met them at a time when even though they had a long history together and a ton of love, they weren’t – it wasn’t working between the two of them.
And when we meet Will and Katie, they’re rock solid. They’ve been through incredible challenges and they are having a very difficult time individually, but I think they’re doing a wonderful job of supporting each other and they love the shit out of each other.
So right there, the characters are sort of set off on different tracks. And then Katie has available to her what Lori never did, which is a viable alternative for the life, the circumstances of the life that they’re living right now, right? You know, there’s no like Zombie Resistance Movement. Nor is there a Collaboration Movement because zombies don’t represent an opinion. They don’t represent anything—they’re just a threat. They’re not organized and they’re not intelligent and they’re not actively oppressing people. They just sort of are predators. So, there’s no ideological attack to be mounted, right? You can’t sit there with a bunch of zombies and be like “Hey listen, we’ve got to talk about this.” Like that’s just not a part of that world. Whereas the world in which Will and Katie are living is a world where the physical manifestations are brutal and vicious, but they’re physical manifestations of ultimately an ideal, a position, which is there is an outside force saying you are only worth what we decide you’re worth. We’re going to completely control you, extract what we need, and as far as we know, we’re not going to feel bad about that.
So Katie is in a position to take on the threat And that I think does something important internally, which is when people feel that they’re able to take steps to move towards a more hopeful future, they feel better, for lack of a better, more blunt way to put it. You know, there’s something that can – I think as difficult as the Resistance work is and a compromise that it is, Katie kisses her kids when she puts them to bed at night knowing Momma’s fighting for you. As opposed to Lori, who I think was in a position of having to like, I’m doing my best but there’s not that much I can do.
What was your most memorable episode to work on and why?
Probably episode nine. There was—the big fight scene argument between Will and Katie outside was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever shot, worked on. And it became a really extraordinary experience actually because Josh and I and Ryan and Carlton all had really important things that we wanted to say and be said in the course of that scene. And in a way, that scene is the culmination of every move that Will and Katie have made in this chess game until then.
And so we came into it with so much passion and the scene went through lots and lots of revisions—both getting up to it on the day that we were shooting it and as we were shooting it. We had to go back and reshoot a few things because we changed some things.
And it was one of those creative experiences that gave me so much faith and gratitude for the people that I work with, because you know, it’s Ryan Condal, Carlton Cuse, Josh Holloway, and me. All three of them are my bosses because Josh is a VP on the show. And one of the most successful showrunners alive. Ryan—he and Carlton created the show together and at no point did anyone assert like dominance over anyone. At no point did Carlton go, “Hey fuck you guys. Just say what I wrote because I’m Carlton Cuse.” Like, never. Everyone was so respectful which allowed everybody to be heard. Everybody had a chance to work with one another.
I came away from it with such respect and gratitude for the people that I work with. And really thinking, since we’ve been through this together, we’ve now achieved a new level of trust. We can now do so much more—dangerously, creatively, collaboratively—next season. It was really meaningful, that episode.
Can you give us an update on your important work with the IRC (International Rescue Committee) and tell us how that work might influence your portrayal of Katie’s compassion on Colony?
Wow, what a cool question. Well, I actually just got back three weeks ago from Serbia. I was with the IRC there following the refugee route from—actually I started in Macedonia, so going up through Belgrade and then up to the Croatian border felt like I was kind of checking in on my friends, right? Because a few years ago, I was teaching camp back in Jordan and kind of following the route.
You know, it was a—refugee work is always surprising to me. I always go in with things in my head and they all turn out to be wrong. I can’t tell you how many people, refugees that I spoke with, at the end of our time together have said, “May God bless you and may you be safe and I hope you’re well.” There’s such a large amount of generosity of spirit. I came away from it really hopeful and positive because of work that the IRC and all of these amazing international aid agencies are doing. It’s really working.
There’s a lot of protection. There’re a lot of services. There’s a lot of information. There’s a lot of dignity and humanity being delivered to a population that has had very little of either in the last five years with this eternal war that’s been going on.
And the thing that everybody kept saying to me was as long as the borders stay open and as long as the aid keeps coming in, we can do this. There’s such smart, creative people who made up all of these amazing solutions. The day I left, Macedonia started restricting people and Austria started restricting people and borders have been slamming shut ever since.
So what breaks my heart is knowing that we had a working system in place of getting people from these terrifying, horrible war zones into safety, and the route is almost gone now. And no one’s going to go home, right? No one’s going to be like, sorry. They closed the border? All right. I’m going to go back and live in Homs in my pile of rubble with no food and bombs dropping every day. No one’s going to do that. So they’re going to try and find another way to get there. And that puts them the way of smugglers and traffickers and they’re going to end up in sex slavery. We haven’t solved the problem. We just made sure that a population that has already been suffering is going to continue to suffer. And that kind of breaks my heart.
As for how that folds into Katie—I don’t know. I think for me personally, maybe the part of it that really changed in me, I’ve never been afraid to do refugee work before. But getting on the plane, I was scared. Not scared of refugees—I’m not scared of them. But ISIS has been hard on aid workers this past trip with the Middle East. And I had a few moments of going maybe I shouldn’t go. I have children. I have a family. And the choice to me was to try and walk through the fear hoping that, on the other side, I would be able to say to people that things are ok. We can speak for compassion without it breaking us.
And I think that Katie’s really close to me and so I think Katie represents a similar kind of perspective, which is that maybe we can’t be so narrowly focused on the needs and wants of our own family that we turn our backs on needs and wants of other families that can’t provide for themselves.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with great actors such as Wentworth Miller, Josh Holloway, Andrew Lincoln. I know we were talking greater good here and global consciousness, and I almost feel this is a bit shallow. But Sarah, can you give us a little scoop on what it’s like to work with those guys?
I will say I don’t know how this happens. My career has been characterized by some of the most handsome leading men alive. I don’t know. I don’t get that. It’s certainly—like it’s not a requirement, you know. If you’re thinking that I took the job with “Colony” because I was like “Another staggeringly good-looking co-star! I’m in!” I didn’t even know Josh was playing the part when I auditioned and stuff. It’s kind of crazy.
I will say that the great part is that some of those people have become such incredibly close friends. And it’s not always that way, but you know, by and large these are men who are as kind and talented and devoted and funny as they are handsome — which is saying something.
It’s nice when you can walk away from a job with a real friendship, and some of those friendships have really endured. I’ve known Holloway for ten years. Our kids are almost the same age; we’ve both been married since the dinosaurs roamed the earth. There’s a sense of history there that’s been wonderful. Whereas like Andy Lincoln and Jon Bernthal have become really good friends. I was in the hospital when Jon’s daughter was born, and we were at Andy’s house just before Christmas this year. I didn’t know either one of them until the show started. And I think Josh and I had the great good fortune of being able to work together knowing coming into the job this is someone I like. This is someone I trust. And this is someone with whom I can really play and try and grow and learn more as an actor. That’s the cool part for me, for sure.
And I’ve also worked with a huge number of really extraordinary women, you know? I mean, Amanda, who plays my sister Maddie on the show, is just such an awesome, wonderful person. I can’t believe we haven’t had that many scenes together. We had to resort to taking our kids together to the park on the weekend because we didn’t work together much.
Kim Rhodes is absolutely amazing. And Melissa McBride, Laurie Holden—like I’ve had people who I worked with because they’ve been my love interest and they’ve been romantic stories and all of that. But there have been an absolutely equal number of powerhouse women in my career. And I’m as grateful for that as I could be.
The season finale of Colony airs on Thursday, March 17 at 10:00 pm ET/PT on USA.