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Q&A: “THE WALKING DEAD’s” Sarah Wayne Callies Ventures to “THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR”

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In genre films and TV, there’s a particularly strong female life force when it comes to battling the dead, whether they be rotting zombies or vengeful, nigh unkillable spirits from the netherworld. One actress impressively rising through the horror-heroine ranks is Sarah Wayne Callies, who talks to FANGORIA about her starring turn in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR in this exclusive interview.

Callies’ career took root on such series as TARZAN, QUEENS SUPREME and PRISON BREAK before she hitting paydirt with THE WALKING DEAD. Playing Lori, the wife of Sheriff Rick Grimes, she faced off against hordes of walkers before enacting one of the show’s most moving exits while giving life to a new son. But while leaving a major show can often leave stars in limbo, Callies has done a formidable job of stepping into a bigger cinematic world, surviving the mega-tornados of INTO THE STORM and helping Nicolas Cage confront the wrath of a child-napping Celtic wraith in PAY THE GHOST. Now she brings her maternal instincts to her first true studio-horror tour de force in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR (opening Friday from 20th Century Fox), which also marks the entry into A-level fright for director Johannes Roberts (FOREST OF THE DAMNED, THE EXPELLED).

In this Indian-spiced spin on PET SEMATARY, Callies plays Maria, the wife of American expatriate businessman Michael (Jeremy Sisto). Seemingly living the good life in Mumbai, Maria is driven to near-suicidal grief by the accidental drowning of her son. Shown an act of kindness by their housekeeper, Maria is given the chance to communicate with her child through the door of a foreboding temple—under strict orders not to open it. But of course, these sorts of cinematic rules are made to be broken—but where having a character make such a grave mistake might engender exasperation, Callies (who plays another mom fighting for her family in the USA Network’s COLONY) delivers a committed performance that gives her much emotional meat to chew on, as well as ample opportunity to convince us of Maria’s growing terror as she not only realizes the cost to her family, but also is faced with a decidedly angry Kali-like spirit. It’s an intelligent, commanding performance that says much about Callies’ appeal in the land of the dead.

FANGORIA: Looking at your genre work, a lot of it involves mothers trying to protect children. Did that draw you to Maria?

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SARAH WAYNE CALLIES: Maybe. But the whole concept of “genre” doesn’t make sense to me. It feels like sometimes when people say “genre,” what they really mean is that the movie is not very well-directed or acted or written. I think that conception is starting to fall apart. I’m sure it didn’t start with THE WALKING DEAD, but that’s when the quality of genre came into my awareness. It was the idea that if Frank Darabont was going to do a series about zombies, he would approach it with the same emotional integrity as he approached THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.

I guess this is all my way of saying that I don’t approach any movie differently because it might be “scary.” To me, they’re just stories that teach me something I’m getting to explore. In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR, that was grief and madness and how close they are to one another, and how they spill over into each other. Obviously, motherhood has a lot to do with that. But just because Maria is a mother and Katie on COLONY is a mother doesn’t mean that their characters aren’t exploring two completely different ideologies within that concept.

FANG: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR gives you the opportunity to truly carry a studio film. What was that responsibility like?

CALLIES: It was new for me. Andy Lincoln and I talked about what that was like for him on THE WALKING DEAD—the sense that he was the connective tissue that linked all these stories together. Yet Andy would say all the time, “I’m not the star of the show, I just have more lines.” I learned a lot from that, and when I came to THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR, I viewed the role as allowing me to be the one who just got to talk more. What made that easier was that I was on set every day, so I had a sense of continuity of Maria’s story and the world she’s in. Sometimes the most dangerous thing for an actor is a few days off, because you move out of that world and that character, which can make it bumpy to get back in.

FANG: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR relies far more on the power of suggestion than the graphic horror of THE WALKING DEAD. Did you welcome that change?

CALLIES: To me, the common ground between the ways THE WALKING DEAD and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR tell their stories is that the things that frighten you frighten you because you care about the people involved. So whether it’s gory or more psychological, both are hopefully scary because we have built characters the audience is emotionally invested in. One of the reasons I loved the script for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR was that its first 20 minutes is a drama about a woman trying to navigate the grief that’s swallowing her up. That was very interesting to sink my teeth into, and hopefully it gives the audience something to invest their hearts in. As the movie progresses, the things that happen to Maria are legitimately frightening, because you want her to be OK.

FANG: You grew up in Hawaii and you’ve worked with refugees, so you definitely have experienced exotic locales. What do you think that the Indian setting adds to the story?

CALLIES: There’s a relationship to the world of supernatural spirituality that comes quite naturally to both the Indian and the Hawaiian culture I was raised with. In the Judeo-Christian paradigm you get in most of North America, the idea of ghosts seems scarier because they’re not really “natural” to that culture, unlike places outside of America. To us, the idea that the spirits of our ancestors and our children exist around us is terrifying.

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FANG: In horror films, there’s always the character who makes the wrong decision. Here, it’s “Don’t open the door,” and obviously, there wouldn’t be a movie if Maria didn’t. Was it hard to engender sympathy, since her actions bring on horrible results for everyone around her?

CALLIES: What Johannes and his writing partner Ernest Riera did so well was set up a situation where even though Maria does the wrong thing—the one thing she’s been told not to do—you understand exactly why she’s doing it. It shows how she’s been driven by grief and now has the opportunity to commune with her son one final time. She’s so devastated by him having to go that anything is worth the price of one more moment with her little boy. She knows immediately that she’s done the wrong thing, and she’s terrified about it, yet it’s such an understandable thing for her to do.

FANG: This is Roberts’ first major film after starting off on smaller movies like HELLBREEDER and DARKHUNTERS…

CALLIES: Johannes is a fantastic director who worked his way up doing smaller movies he paid for on a credit card. He’s self-made and self-taught in many ways, which gives me a huge amount of respect for him. The thing about Johannes is that he’s a true believer when it comes to genre films. He was raised on them, and loves them because he thinks they’re wonderful storytelling. I think sometimes directors do horror movies for other reasons, because somebody told them they were going to be financially successful and they needed a box-office win. Johannes said that this was the movie he always wanted to make. When you have a director who loves what he’s doing, it shows, and Johannes has been preparing to do this film for the last eight years. He has learned how to refine his craft to get here.

FANG: On THE WALKING DEAD, you got to watch extensive makeup being applied to other actors, but here Maria goes through some scary transformations. What was it like undergoing that kind of work?

CALLIES: One of my favorite effects is a visual one where I open my eyes, and they turn black. Seeing my own face transform that way gave me a very strong emotional reaction! It reminded me of a scene in THE WALKING DEAD, where you see Lori as a zombie in one of Rick’s delusions. I went through hours of makeup, and again, it was really emotional watching my own face transform and decay. It wasn’t just me—a lot of actors on the show, even big tough guy Jon Bernthal, found it very difficult to watch that.

FANG: Are you still keeping track of THE WALKING DEAD, and do you ever imagine ways to return Lori in nightmarish fashion?

CALLIES: I almost never watch the show, partly because I don’t watch a lot of things I’m on, and partly because it scares me. I’ve seen periodic episodes, like “The Grove” by Michael E. Satrazemis, a cameraman who’d become a director. He and I are good friends, and he asked me to watch that one. I noticed Andy wasn’t in it, and I thought maybe they had killed Rick and nobody told me! I follow the show insofar as I follow my friends. We keep in touch, and that sense of community we built is one that seems to endure, although what’s interesting is I probably don’t know about the people on the show now—all of my friends are dead!

FANG: What do you think you bring to your genre roles?

CALLIES: I don’t want to overstate my own relevance here, but I believe it’s a really interesting time for women in film, and maybe more broadly in entertainment. The idea that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR is a female-led movie is exciting, because hopefully it will be yet more evidence that movies starring women can be successful. Men can watch and enjoy them every bit as much as women. So I think things are changing, albeit very slowly. We still have huge work to do on pay equity and a whole other range of issues, diversity certainly being one of them. But to me, it’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction, and one that will hopefully improve for the next generation of actresses coming up who will have greater opportunities not only to be in films, but to play a wider range of roles.

FANG: If there’s one lesson to be learned upon walking to THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR, what is it?

CALLIES: I would say, don’t f**k with religions you know nothing about. At the end of the day, the biggest mistake Maria makes is not opening the door, but choosing to embark on a ritual embedded in Hindu mysticism when she’s a white woman from the United States. There’s a funny thing that happens that I see in American culture every now and again. Maybe it’s that Americans feel culturally bankrupt in some way, because occasionally you hear some celebrity declaring that they’re into Kabbalah. To me, again, this is how I was raised, with my understanding of Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian mythology. Yet that mythology and spiritual practice exist in a cultural, linguistic and historical context for that culture. The thing to take away from this movie is, if you yank those things out because you feel like it and think they’re going to be good for you, you might be waking up gods that don’t like you, and it might not go well.

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About the author
Daniel Schweiger
Daniel Schweiger is a writer for AssignmentX.com and the soundtrack editor of Filmmuscimag.com. He’s mishandled corpses in BUBBA HO-TEP, died in BLOODY BLOODY BIBLE CAMP and DIE-NER and will soon be seen in PHANTASM: RAVAGER and MAKE THE PRETTY GIRLS SUFFER.
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