How 'Walking Dead' (and Nicolas Cage) Helped Sarah Wayne Callies Book 'Colony'

The actress also talks with THR about reprising her role as Sara Tancredi on Fox's 'Prison Break' and 'Walking Dead' duo "Richonne."
Courtesy of Justin Stephens/USA Network

Sarah Wayne Callies escaped the apocalypse the same way most people on The Walking Dead do: in a rush of drama and gore. Her character, Lori Grimes, died during childbirth, and was subsequently put down by son Carl and eaten up by flesh-hungry zombies. 

It was a brutal demise even by Walking Dead standards. For Callies, however, it was business as usual.

"I die in season three of everything," she tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh. Callies is referring not just to the AMC ratings monster, but also to Prison Break, the Fox drama she starred on for four years as Sara Tancredi, a doctor at the center of a complicated government conspiracy. In the case of Prison Break, at least, Callies' demise — a head-in-a-box twist straight out of Se7en — was ultimately reversed in season four. For Walking Dead, however, her fate was definitive, leaving Callies free to explore new opportunities, far away from television, and far away from the end of the world. 

And yet, here she is, back on the small screen and in apocalyptic waters via Colony, USA Network's science fiction series about an alien occupation in modern day Los Angeles. Callies was as surprised as anyone to find herself drawn to these circumstances. "I'd been really resistant to going back to television because Walking Dead was such an extraordinary experience, and I wasn't interested in going back to TV just for a job," she says. "I wanted to be careful and only go back if there was a story I was dying to tell."

Callies with former on-screen husband Andrew Lincoln (Rick) on The Walking Dead.

Callies found that story in Colony, from the minds of Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Ryan J. Condal (Hercules), and in the character of Katie Bowman, a wife, mother of three and rebel with a cause. Throughout the first 10-episode season, Katie keeps her allegiance to the human resistance a secret from everyone, especially her husband Will (Lost's Josh Holloway), a federal agent reluctantly working for the occupation in an attempt to reunite with his missing son — but it's not a secret that can stay buried forever.

"There's a part of me that really resonates with Katie's rebel heart," Callies says. "We're both people who are willing to jump off a cliff shouting 'Geronimo!' without any real sense of what's underneath them."

For the actress, Colony scratches a creative itch she's harbored ever since she watched the first season of Syfy's Battlestar Galactica. "It was brilliant entertainment and absolutely incisive politics," she says, adding that she found those same ingredients in the pilot script for Colony. "This is what science fiction can do when it's at its best. It can entertain us, and while it's entertaining us, it raises super sensitive issues that we really ought to be talking about, but are too difficult to talk about straight on sometimes."

It took some work for Colony to reciprocate Callies' interest, thanks to her time on Walking Dead. "They not only didn't want me on the show, they didn't even want me to audition," she recalls. "They wanted to separate the shows." Callies was in Toronto at the time, filming a thriller called Pay the Ghost alongside Nicolas Cage. Indeed, Callies credits Cage with pushing her through the rejection and encouraging her to send an audition on tape.

"I asked if he would tape with me," she recalls. "And he said, 'If I tape the audition with you, I guarantee you won't get the job. I have the most recognizable voice in Hollywood. No one will pay attention to your work. But I guarantee you, if you send in a tape, you're going to book it.'"

Sure enough, Callies followed Cage's advice, sent in an audition, and received an offer shortly thereafter. In fact, while Walking Dead almost killed her shot at Colony, the zombie drama ultimately contributed to her casting. 

"They called the Walking Dead crew as a character reference, which I thought was really smart," she says. "We're increasingly in a climate where no one wants to hire a monster, and people check in on each other. You can hide bad behavior from executives and producers, but not from camera men, and not from a script supervisor — so those are the two people they called on the Walking Dead crew, and they happened to be super close friends of mine.

"The success of the show almost stood in the way of Colony, but the crew — which was always the heart of the job — landed me the gig … with a little bit of Nicolas Cage thrown in for good measure," she adds. "That's Hollywood!"

Callies continues to keep in touch with friends from the Walking Dead cast and crew, though she no longer keeps up with the story. She's aware that her on-screen husband Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has moved on, pursuing a romance with sword-slinging warrior Michonne (Danai Gurira). For those wondering, the erstwhile Lori approves of the relationship.

"Andy used to describe Rick like a shark: unable to sit still, always in motion. That was his explanation for constantly leaving his wife and son," Callies says. "In a non-apocalyptic world, you would say, 'Until you can sit in one place and be with the people you love and the people who love you, you're never going to be happy.' But the world is an apocalypse. I don't know much about Michonne's character, but it seems to me that she's a warrior. Maybe what Rick needs is the idea that he doesn't have to constantly run away from a family that needs him too much. Instead, he can trust somebody who is every bit as capable as he is. Maybe there's peace in that.

"I will say that whoever it is in terms of who Rick is hooked up with, I think Lori only wants him to be happy," she continues. "They went through so much together. And they'll always be connected, because they have children together. If Rick's happy, then Lori's happy. That's what matters."

Although Callies has no designs to revisit Walking Dead, she does have an eye on Fox's upcoming Prison Break revival. There's no deal in place yet, but Callies is optimistic. "I know the Colony people and Prison Break people are trying to work out the scheduling so we can make it happen," she says. "There's a lot of good will and a lot of hard work on both sides." 

Callies never expected to reprise the role of Sara Tancredi ("Not in a million years," she says), but the actress is nonetheless fascinated by the prospect. "For me, creatively, it's very interesting to return to a character that you completely put to bed and walked away from," she says. "And Sara Tancredi has got to be a world record for characters. Fans have had to say goodbye to, and then it turns out, just kidding! If she comes back, this would be the third time, which is pretty crazy."

Of course, there are thousands of questions about Prison Break, beyond scheduling — like how on Earth Sara's lover and series lead Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) survived death by electrocution at the end of the series, for one. 

"The only thing I have to go on is that we never saw him die, and my Prison Break head tells me that if you don't see a body ..." she speculates. "Michael Scofield is capable of anything. Theoretically, if anyone can survive an electrocution, it's an engineer, right?"

However, his possible survival would bring about other questions. "The question for me would be, why?" she says. "Why would he leave behind his brother, wife and unborn baby?"

Those questions will be answered when Prison Break returns. For now, while Callies hopes to meet those answers herself, she's focused fully on Colony, which wraps its first season this month, and begins shooting its second season in the summer. 

As for the third season death trap? That's a post-apocalyptic problem for another day. Colony airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on USA.

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