‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Prison Break’ star Sarah Wayne Callies on wild tornados, working with refugees and her wondrous resurrections.
Normally it’d be a miracle if someone came back from the dead, but for Sarah Wayne Callies, it’s just another day at the office. The La Grange-born actress’s two most recognizable characters, “Prison Break’s” Dr. Sara Tancredi and “The Walking Dead’s” Lori Grimes, were both killed off — by decapitation during a failed rescue attempt and by childbirth, respectively — and, subsequently, both miraculously revived. (In the case of 2005’s “Break,” legions of loyal fans revolted, sending waves of emails to FOX until it was revealed that Tancredi’s death was faked; in “Walking Dead,” Grimes began reappearing in her husband’s visions.) “Apparently my fans have as much power as Jesus to resurrect people from the dead,” jokes Callies. “It’s amazing.”
This month, Callies steps into an equally perilous role, appearing as weather researcher Allison Stone in the new thriller “Into the Storm,” released Aug. 8. In the film, the actress finds herself in a van of storm chasers, driving into what she dramatically describes as a storm “bigger than any that’s ever been.” To prep for the role, Callies studied weather patterns and tuned into The Weather Channel before heading off to set each day. “There was a time [while we were shooting] that I could have explained all sorts of things like low pressure systems and the formation of tornadoes,” she says. “I was quite fluent in all of that.”
Now, devoted fans will get the chance to chat with Callies face-to-face about the new film and her past projects when she comes to town for Wizard World Chicago (our city’s version of ComicCon) Aug. 22-24 (weekend tickets start at $50, available at Wizardworld.com). The convention affords the 37-year-old actress a long-overdue homecoming. While she was born in La Grange, Callies left as an infant and was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was on the island where she landed her first acting gig as a child: the role of courtier in “Once Upon a Mattress” (a rendition of the classic “Princess and the Pea”). It wasn’t long before her roles were upgraded — the next year she played the titular princess in “Cinderella” in the local theater’s production.
But even after climbing to more regal roles, Callies wasn’t convinced acting was for her. “To me, it’s what [addiction] is to some people,” she says. “I kept trying to give it up. I kept going,‘[Acting] is no good for me. This is no kind of life. There’s no stability in this, there’s no money in this — I just gotta do one more play and then I promise I’ll stop.’ ” Fortunately she didn’t: After graduating from Dartmouth in 1999, Callies took the stage with the Denver National Theater Conservatory, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in 2002.
Since her days as princess Cinderella, Callies has sought progressively tougher, stronger roles. She got her big break in 2003, when she was tapped to play NYPD detective Jane Porter in the TV adaptation of “Tarzan.” Although the show only lasted eight episodes, it was enough to get her noticed and cast for “Prison Break,” which shot its first season here in Chicago. “I moved to Wicker Park and loved it so much that I bought the apartment when I left,” she says. “I still harbor hopes that [I’ll come back].”
Currently, the actress is based in British Columbia, where she lives with her husband of 12 years, Josh Winterhalt, and their 7-year-old daughter Keala on a remote corner of an island. “We’re sort of at the end of the world here,” she says. “The cable guy came at one point and was like, ‘I can’t even get you cable out here.’ ” That means that she’s stopped tuning in to “The Walking Dead” — though she occasionally gets updates from her former castmates, she insists she’s as in the dark as fans about the upcoming season.
There’s another reason she’s turned off the TV. “Walking Dead” marks the first time Callies has left a program that’s continued on without her, giving the actress understandably mixed emotions. “When I miss the show — and I do miss the show — I find that I miss the show with the gang of us who started it,” she says. “I miss that fun pocket where a bunch of artists that nobody had really heard of came together to tell this crazy story and everybody thought we were nuts. We were just holding our breath, crossing our fingers that we might get renewed for another season. That’s the show I miss.”
To Callies, “Walking Dead” was about more than an apocalypse — she saw a deeper subtext. For more than a decade, she’s been an advocate for the International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to helping refugees, and it gave her a different perspective on the series. In a video on the IRC’s website, she explains, “We started talking about the ways in which it was not a zombie show. And what we started to recognize is that it’s actually a refugee show.”
The IRC is a cause close to the actress’ heart — and one that has roots in her family tree. Her grandfather was a refugee from Transylvania during the “White Terror” of World War II and fled to Ellis Island when he was 8. “He had what could be considered a hard landing,” says Callies. Though his start might have been shaky, he eventually landed on his feet in Chicago, running an Arthur Murray Dance Center and working with famed foot tappers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Within one generation, his daughter (Callies’ mom) earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and became a Shakespeare professor. Now, Callies is out to make the path smoother for future immigrants: “There are a lot of refugees showing up in the U.S. and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I got to be part of that process?’ ” she says.
Callies hasn’t taken a passive approach to her philanthropy — in January 2013, she spent weeks at the Domiz camp, a particularly rough Syrian refugee haven in Iraq. She interviewed residents and got firsthand accounts of refugee realities, including tent cities, where 16-person families were crammed into two-bedroom tents and where contaminated water caused rampant disease.
Last year, Callies leveraged her “Walking Dead” fame and turned her experiences into a series of articles on The Huffington Post, writing about the dire situation — but approaching the serious topic with her characteristic honesty and levity. Take, for example, one article about the Domiz camp that begins, “Darfur got George Clooney. Haiti got Sean Penn. Cambodia got Angelina Jolie. The Syrian Kurds got me, Sarah Wayne Callies. That is the simplest and most direct metric I know to convey how bad it is for them right now.”
Callies applies that mix of candor, humility and charm to each of her projects, whether she’s playing a detective, doctor, storm chaser or being a real-life hero. She attributes it all to her upbringing back in Honolulu. “We have a phrase [in Hawaii], ironically, that’s ‘Don’t act,’ ” she says. “It doesn’t mean don’t become a professional actor. It means don’t act like you’re more than you are — and don’t act like you’re better than anybody else.”
The actress recalls her favorite moments from her show-stopping TV roles:
“I was playing opposite Travis Fimmel, who’d been a hugely famous model and he’d been hired to play Tarzan. His character had to be barefoot the whole time, but we were shooting in Toronto in October and it was really cold. Somebody made him these silicone foot gloves so he could run around barefoot, and then somebody else thought they should try to make them look more like feet so they added dirt and hair. Travis came out of his trailer wearing them and he looked exactly like a Hobbit. It cracked me up, seeing somebody who was arguably one of the most beautiful men in the world standing there looking like he just walked out of Middle Earth. It was the only thing you could have done to Travis that could make him not hot.”
Prison Break (2005)
“Season one, Wentworth and I were doing a scene in the infirmary and he was just waking up and coming to on this table. He says something like, ‘What happened?’ and I had to say the words, ‘We had to perform a procedure.’ But something about the way he was looking at me and because the words just sounded ridiculous — I tried not to laugh and I tried not to smile, but Wentworth could see the corners of my mouth going and then the corners of his mouth went and then we would burst out laughing. For maybe an hour we could not get this scene done because we were laughing so hard. I’d be willing to bet if you watched the video frame by frame you can probably see us trying really hard not to laugh. To this day I can’t say those words without laughing.”
Walking Dead (2010)
“For me the moment that really stands out was the last one, saying goodbye. I came off set having done the scene and the whole cast was behind the monitors and I didn’t know. It was such a painful goodbye but such a beautiful one, because it was really cathartic. I came out and everyone was there. They’re shooting an hour outside of Atlanta and none of them had to be there that day and all of them chose to come. It was amazing. I couldn’t say anything or even stop crying, but it did mean the world to me that they came to watch and be part of [my last scene].”
Ring: Erickson Beamon, $38; Ericksonbeamon.com
Dress: Forever Unique London; Foreverunique.co.uk
Photographer: Sven-Anton Svensson
Stylist: Eryka Clayton
Hair: Shalom Sharon
Makeup: Mari Shten
All for Artists by Timothy Priano
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios