How Sarah Wayne Callies’ Sci-Fi Obsession Led to Her Fighting to Star In USA’s ‘Colony’

How Sarah Wayne Callies' Sci-Fi Obsession Led to Her Fighting to Star In USA's 'Colony'


[Mild spoilers for the pilot episode of “Colony” below.]

When you first watch the pilot for USA’s “Colony,” it’s not clear until the final minutes just what kind of person Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies) is, beyond a wife, mother and bar-owner. But once you find out that in this near-future Los Angeles overruled by an unseen but clearly deadly force, Katie has chosen to fight with the resistance, it becomes clear that she’s a lot more than that.

READ MORE: USA’s ‘Colony’ Brings the Fight to the Streets With Exclusive Posters

The highly allegorical but remarkably relevant series, created by Carlton Cuse and Ryan Condal, is just the latest drama from the network that launched “Mr. Robot” to critical acclaim. And as Callies explained to Indiewire via phone, it has the same potential to take over television because of the passion of the people involved.

Below, she reveals how “Friday Night Lights” inspired her and co-star Josh Holloway (familiar to “Lost” fans as the irascible Sawyer) as they built their fictional marriage on the foundation of a decades-long friendship, why she thinks she’ll be killed off in Season 3 and how her love of “Battlestar Galactica” drove her to go after the “Colony” role — even after she was told no. An edited transcript is below.

I wanted to start off by saying, I’ve seen the first three episodes of “Colony.”

Oh. That makes one of us. [laughs]

I’d imagine you have an idea of what happens.

I have an idea of what happens, but I don’t know how it translated. Cool.

I wanted to tell you that because whenever this runs, it will be when the show is already on the air.

Okay, so we don’t have to worry about the spoiler at the end of the first episode.

No, we don’t. But from your perspective, how seismic is that, for the series?

Well in a way, I mean, I don’t want to sound like a self-aggrandizing asshole. [laughs] But I think that’s the moment where we figure out what the show is. Which is to say, while I was reading the pilot, up until the last few pages, I was thinking, “Well, this is interesting, this is a very well-written woman who is trying to help her husband navigate some tricky philosophical waters, and clearly a devoted mother and an interesting former business owner in her own right.” And in the last four or five pages, I went, “Okay, now I have to play this character. Now I understand what we’re doing here. And the ways in which this is anything but another wife and mother.”

When you read it, did you immediately go to the creators and ask for more backstory?

Um, no. [laughs] I didn’t. When it comes to people, with masters of story like Carlton Cruse and Juan Campanella, I didn’t question it. I saw all of the pieces laid out on the table, and I thought well, “We just doubled the size of the world in this story.”

I’ve been obsessed with science fiction my whole life. And always wanted to do something in that vein. Once I’d been cast, Ryan Condal, the co-creator and head writer, he and I had a long talk about what the specific paradigm was. Specific paradigms that we each had in our heads and what he and Carlton were modeling the show after.

But the conversation quickly became, “Well, it could just as easily be Paul Revere and George Washington taking arms against England.” There are people who would make an argument that this is the Taliban taking arms against us. That’s what makes this show interesting. That there’s a pretty wide open field of interpretation for whether these people are terrorists or freedom fighters.

It’s something that being sci-fi really opens up the show in an exciting way because we don’t have our current political state to apply to it.

Exactly. It reminds me of a world that can be more lyrical than it is literal. From my experience and my perspective, that’s the great thing about science fiction. It allows us to take a look, for example, “Battlestar Galactica” was the best commentary on the Patriot Act I’ve ever read or seen. And they never mention it, but the entire first season of that show is about freedom. And I think we’re due for another conversation right now about what is the role of government in the lives of the citizens, and what is the responsibility of the citizens in protecting their own liberty.

It’s a useful conversation to have. If you have that conversation on CNN, there are a lot of people who won’t watch. You know? But understandably. We have the news shouting at us 24 hours a day. But when you embed them in a beautiful family that deeply care for each other and their son, that they’re desperately trying to get back to without jeopardizing their other children, then it’s a conversation that becomes palatable. Because it means something beyond academics and politics and becomes personal, because hopefully you’re invested in who these people are.

What’s so great about what you said is how rooted it is in your relationship with Josh Holloway’s character.

Yeah, I just read something recently about Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton talking about their work together in “Friday Night Lights,” which I just thought was sensational — one of my favorite TV marriages ever. And they said, “There’s a myth that a working marriage isn’t interesting, and we wanted to create a marriage of people who really belong together.” I’m not quoting that correctly at all. They said it better. [laughs] But, I think that was something that resonated with me. I’ve known Josh for such a long time. We worked together 10 years ago. We’ve been in each other’s lives through first children, through second children, early stages of careers finally starting to work. And that history really helps in creating a couple who look at each other and see each other’s faces and go, “You didn’t use to have lines there. You used to look younger.”

There’s something fascinating about looking at him and going, “You are as handsome as you’ve ever been. But you no longer look like a 20-year-old model. You look like a man in his 40s who has lived a life.” And it’s amazing to have that history together. And to remember, this is what you look like before, this is what you look like now, and what a privilege to be with you on that journey. That’s a nice thing to have in our back pockets.

Absolutely. Did they know about your shared past before they cast you?

I don’t think so, no. When Josh became attached to the project, I was not attached to it. And at the time I auditioned, I didn’t know he was attached. So neither of us found out until after we had committed to being a part of it. It was an enormous relief. Because sometimes your first week on set can be figuring out whether or not your leading man is an asshole. And most of the time, actors are wonderful human beings and it’s completely fine. But you never know if you’re going to have a partner and a collaborator, one who is 100 percent there for you and will not judge you and will get your back. And I knew all of that about Josh before I even showed up on set. That was a big time-saver. [laughs] It was a real relief.

What was the audition process like?

It was interesting. The script actually wasn’t sent for me, it was sent for someone else. And somebody sent me the script and said, “Listen, you gotta read this, you’re going to love it.” And I did. And so I went through the proper channels, and apparently the answer they came back with was, “We don’t want her. We want to go in a different direction. We don’t want to see a tape, we don’t want to read her, we don’t want to talk to her. Tell her to go away.”

I was shooting in Toronto [and went to] a casting director, a friend of mine, and I said, “If I bring you two bottles of wine, will you put me on tape?” [laughs] I wrote a long letter to all the creative people on the show, and I explained what I saw in the character, and how I thought I could best articulate what they’re trying to achieve. I sent a tape along with it, asked them to do me a favor and take the eight minutes to watch it.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from a cameraman on “The Walking Dead,” the show that I’d been off for two years at the time. And he said, “I think you’re about to get a job. I just got a call from the director of the ‘Colony’ pilot asking me what you were like to work with.” [The cameraman] happens to be a dear friend of mine. They just happened to call him. He started out as a cameraman and now he’s a director on the show. He’s an absolute doll. He taught me how to operate a camera. But it was fascinating because I thought, “How smart of them to call a cameraman.” Not to call a producer or a director, because if you’re trying to build a company of actors who are kind and collaborative and work well together, you can hide bad behavior from directors and producers, but you can’t hide it from a cameraman.

So, I hung up with Mike and an hour later, I got a phone call that said, “You’re in.” I tried to act cool, and then I hung up the phone and cried. [laughs]

That’s fantastic. It feels like there’s a kind of energy to this project, where everyone is really committed to making it as good as possible.

It was fascinating to me, down to actors who are only in a couple of episodes in a couple of scenes, there was a real passion for the material on many levels. And I think part of that was Carlton and Juan have a reputation for doing really interesting, meaningful work. Part of it, I think for people who read these stories, it feels personal in some way. But everybody, it’s such a cheerful set. Everyone was so happy to be there. The actor who played Skinny Pete on “Breaking Bad” [Charles Baker] is in the pilot. And we were heartbroken to see him go. I didn’t even have a scene with the guy, he was there for two days, but he was leaving and we were like bro-hugging in the parking lot.

It is interesting. It does have an energy. I think maybe it’s as simple as, everybody got into this business because they want to tell great stories. And this is a great story. And it’s being told with wonderful directors and terrific world-class writers, and fantastic set designers and costume designers. And cameramen and crew and everybody. And that’s as much luck as it is good planning. I think when that happens, everybody shows up to the party and kind of starts giggling.

It’s funny, I’ve heard that the most intense shows tend to have the most cheerful sets.

“The Walking Dead” was certainly like that. That was an absolute family while I was there. And it was certainly one of the most intense shooting experiences I’ve ever had.

Of course. By the way, I love the fact that, with opening the bar, your character kind of falls into a Rick from “Casablanca” type role.

Oh my God! Ryan Condal is going to be so happy that you figured that out. That’s what he said from the beginning: “This is Rick’s bar in ‘Casablanca,’ but no one is going to get that.” So, gold star.

Thanks! I’m really glad I picked up on that. And the thing about the bar is that it does add such liveliness and fun.

Yeah. It’s a place– I think what happens in the course of the season, I think Katie begins to see what’s important not only for her little nuclear family. But maybe to her community in a broader sense. And those responsibilities kind of conflict with one another and they kind of tear her up inside. Where they are at their most simple and pure is at the bar. Because it’s opportunity to give people a chance to forget how painful their lives are and to come together and celebrate.

So is it second nature now to be cautious about spoilers?

Oh, my God. I mean it’s– I don’t know if every acting career is like this, but certainly going from “Prison Break” to “Walking Dead” to “Colony,” they are three shows where I want to tell people everything because it’s so cool, but if I tell it to them it ruins it, and it won’t be cool anymore. I have to spend half my interviews being like, “No, trust me, it’s going to be great.” [laughs] But the show is certainly one part espionage. And I think it’s remarkable what Ryan and Carlton have managed to write in there. Not the least of which is that there are no small characters. Which I think is fascinating. Everybody who shows up, shows up in a way that has an interesting payoff, which I think is cool.

I don’t know if it’s something that Carlton brought over from “Lost,” but we have people show up for an episode or a scene. And they do great work, and then a couple of weeks later, I read the script where I realize this whole plan to have them do something so much more dangerous or interesting that I had originally thought. And I’ll tell you, more than anything else, to know you’re in the hands of brilliant writers, all you have to do is make sure you don’t fuck up your part of it. Someone else is steering the ship and will get to where we need to go. It’s a great gift. I guess I’m just hugely grateful for this job. [laughs] Maybe that’s the bottom line.

Well, you worked hard to get it.

Yeah! I did.

In terms of the future, I’d imagine you are wrapped for Season 1. Do you know anything about Season 2 right now?

I don’t! I’m working on a film right now, and so mercifully, my head isn’t involved with the show right now, running around in circles, trying to figure out if we get to play some more. I imagine that will be determined by the numbers of Season 1 —if people watch. Certainly there’s a lot of great television, and it’s impossible to predict what an audience is going to respond to. I hope there’s a second season, but God knows that’s out of my hands.

If there is a second season, have you been told anything about what would happen with your character? Or in general?

No, talking to Carlton about what’s going to happen next is something that you really only ever do once. Because he’s so good and so charming at basically just telling you to shut up and mind your own business. [laughs] I don’t know. I know that Carlton and Ryan have three seasons of this thing mapped out. I keep joking with them is that the only thing I know for sure is that I’m going to die in Season 3 because it happened in “Prison Break” and it happened in “The Walking Dead.” And so, I figure, whatever mysteries they have in store, I gotta end up dead sometime during Season 3.

But they refuse to confirm or deny that death. So who knows.

“Colony” airs Thursday nights on USA.

READ MORE: How ‘Lost,’ ‘The Wire’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ Paved The Way for USA’s ‘Colony’

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