Prison Break's Sarah Wayne Callies is on a Mission to Change Stereotypical Women's Roles
Sarah Wayne Callies is not your average television star. Yes, she's appeared in TheWalking Dead, Prison Break (currently revived for its fifth season), and ABC's Colony, but the Dartmouth alumna has even bigger goals. One of those is serving as the voice of the International Rescue Committee (the IRC), a humanitarian aid NGO that the actress has worked with for the last decade. In an exclusive interview with T&C, TV's leading rebel dishes on her upcoming roles, meeting Elon Musk and breaking her nose in a martial arts class.
What was your initial reaction when you heard Prison Break would be making a comeback?
You know, it was the last thing I expected to hear. I think our job as actors is often to take a role, pour your whole heart into it, and not really look back. But as I heard more about what they had in store, it sounded like a story worth telling.
From Lori Grimes on The Walking Dead to Katie on Colony, you play a slew of badass characters. Would you ever consider doing a comedy?
I would love to do a comedy. Partly for my mother’s blood pressure. She’s getting a little bit older, and I don’t want her to have to watch her daughter almost die on television.
Does your mom watch every episode of your shows?
Yes, she’s a hugely supportive part of my life. She’s a professor of English, and growing up I was surrounded by great plays, but I was introduced to them by somebody who was always asking questions.
Are there any historical characters you'd want to play on television?
I’ve always wanted to tell the story of Amy Temple McPherson. She basically created Echo Park. The time when she was alive, she was one of the most famous people in the world.
What do you look for in a new role or storyline before taking on the part?
I’ve accidentally started developing my own Bechdel test. (It's the incredibly low bar for a female role, which asks: is there more than one woman in the project with a name, and does she ever talk about anything more than a man? It’s remarkable how many projects don’t tap it.) So, I’ve sort of evolved my own rubric: I’m looking for roles where women have their own fully articulated independence and philosophical dilemmas, and, the second part, if they solve them using the participation of other women. Colony ticked all of those boxes so beautifully — and I’m a sci-fi junkie.
Is there a character that you've played that you associate with most?
I think probably Katie from Colony. Katie and I are both driven by a combination of passion and reckless indignation that is both admirable, obnoxious, and dangerous.
Speaking of admirable, you've been working with the IRC for over a decade now — how did you get involved?
When I moved to New York, I remember there was a lecture on Darfur, and I thought, he’s got to be exaggerating because if it were really that bad, everyone would be talking about it. And six months later, everyone was.
So you gradually took on more of a role in the committee?
When they developed a spokesperson project, it was a natural fit. I’ve gone all around the world with them — Serbia, Myanmar, Iraq. And it’s been an incredibly moving experience for me; my grandfather was a refugee, and so, I’m very aware that my place in this country started out in a place where a lot of families are right now. There's a quote that Jack Lemmon said to Kevin Spacey: when you get to the top floor, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.
And you also work with the Huffington Post to get the word out about this.
I defy anybody to spend time in these refugee camps (or even urban refugee camps) and then not want to tell people about what you’ve seen and the conversations they’ve had. So I just started writing, and by the time we were done, I had a handful of blogs, and somebody suggested the Huffington Post.
Since the recent election, have more people reached out to you?
It's crazy, in the first month of the new presidency, probably 100 people I knew reached out to me, and asked what they could do.
Your husband's a martial arts teacher — have you ever taken any of his classes?
Preparing for a role years ago. But they don’t train actors, and they also train full contact—no gloves and no pads. So I broke my nose. It just wasn’t for me. I’m not a badass; I just play one on tv.
Being a sci-fi junkie, have you been staying up-to-date with the recent space exploration missions or any of Elon Musks's projects?
Oh my gosh, yes. I had this amazing experience, where a friend of mine knew Elon, and called me up on a Friday night and asked me to meet her after I was done shooting. It was almost out of a double 007 movie. I pull up and see her in a private airport that I didn’t know existed, and I asked where we were going. And she said we were going to the opening of the Gigafactory in Nevada. And I was like, yes we are!
That's incredible. Did you get to meet him?
Yes! So we took the smallest plane; it was like flying in a hairdryer. And as we’re walking in, Elon is like, “oh hey,” and gives her a huge hug. I shake his hand. This guy is like JFK to me. He’s the vision of the future. We toured the factory, and we drove in the car. It was awesome.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.