'Council of Dads' Star Sarah Wayne Callies on Importance of Feel-Good Stories

"The world is frightening and we need a reminder that we can be there for each other," she tells The Hollywood Reporter of her new NBC family drama.
Jeff Lipsky/NBC
Sarah Wayne Callies

For better part of the last decade and a half, Sarah Wayne Callies has played a gun-toting, butt-kicking, tank top-wearing Strong Female Character on TV. But after stints on Prison Break, The Walking Dead and Syfy's alien invasion drama Colony, she was looking for something different when it came time to pick a new project — particularly a project that didn't have as much violence as her previous work.

"It was the criteria for me in deciding what story to tell next," the actress told The Hollywood Reporter. "I took a moment in my career after Colony ended and I thought maybe I'm done acting, maybe I should be focusing on writing, directing and producing. And part of that came from a feeling that I would love to have a greater voice in what stories are told. Actors don't get to decide that — they're brought in at the last minute after they've hired a writer and a director, a casting director and production designer and the whole thing's financed. But I spent about six months just really trying to figure out what stories do I want to tell? Because I kept getting sent scripts and I went, 'No, no, I don't want to put this into the world.' When you've had a career like mine, every show with a gun, or an alien or a zombie or a dragon gets sent your way. I just kept thinking, 'This isn't what I want to put into the world.'"

Her newest show, NBC's Council of Dads, has much more in common with its lead-in, This Is Us, than The Walking Dead. Based on a real-life story and book of the same name, Callies plays Robin, a woman whose husband gets a terminal cancer diagnosis. But in order to ensure his large, blended family is taken care of after his passing, he recruits three very different friends to help Robin, a doctor, raise their children.

Callies spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of feel-good TV, creating her own projects and the value of a cathartic cry.

How much will people cry watching this show every week? Will they just be emotionally wrecked after every episode?

Two different answers to those questions. You will probably cry on a weekly basis. But I do not believe you will be wrecked because I think this is a show that has as much humor and uplift as it does heartbreak and emotionally challenging moments. I think those things are sort of natural friends, which is to say that as somebody who lost three of the most important people in my life in the last year and a half, there is something about grief that makes you need to laugh and need to find something to lighten up what you're feeling. I think it's a very human thing.

Sure, everyone has their coping mechanisms, and for a lot of people, it's humor and levity.

Absolutely. There's a moment in the pilot where he's talking about this Council of Dads. He's pitching this idea to his wife and rather than take on board the possibility that her husband may actually die, she goes, "Oh, that's great. So you make shirts and a secret handshake? I think this whole thing is ridiculous." And I think that's a natural human reflex. But I also think that there is something to be said for the fact that in times like these — politically, coronavirus, environmentally, economically, whatever — I've kind of felt like I'm on the verge of tears for about two years, and there's something nice about this show that's like, bring it. Bring the Kleenex, let it go, let's cry this out together. And at the end of it, we're all gonna feel a little better.

You'd said you wanted to be on a show with less violence — why was that important to you?

I went for like a year where all I could watch was stand-up comedy. I would come home at the end of the day, and I was like, "For the love of God, somebody make me laugh." And when I read this, I felt like this is exactly what I want to put into the world because this is a story about a group of people who are by and large not biologically related and who do not look or act like The Waltons, as much as I love them. We are less white. We are more gay. We are less DNA-dependent than most of those sort of traditional family shows, and I thought, "Well, yeah, this is what family looks like now to me," at least in my family — I think increasingly we are creating community and family out of people that we choose, not people that we have stumbled into with biology. And I think it's those choices, it's those families and those communities that are going to get us through this unholy mess that we are in right now globally.

It's probably fun to play the ass-kicking woman, but there's another side to that.

There absolutely is. And playing that sort of ass-kicking, bleak storytelling, post-apocalyptic thing, that all made sense when the world felt safer. Under certain administrations when the economy is stronger and we don't feel like we're gonna die at any second, exploring the limitations of human depravity and weakness is a really important thing to do because it reminds us that we might not always be so safe and we have to bear in mind that there are dark sides to humanity. I feel like we got that now. Message received. Now we're in the photo negative space, which is that the world is frightening and we need a reminder that we can do this. We can get there. We can be there for each other. We can dig deeper for the best of ourselves, because the people that we love deserve that. We can fight down the demons in our own hearts and become better people for one another. I think that's important. We can even love people who aren't like us, we can invite people into our families with whom we do not share gender, race, biology, or culture. We can do that. That's important.

This is a little bit of a soapbox moment, but the ways in which female strength have been articulated, I think periodically it needs a bit of a reexamination. We had a really, really important movement, and continue to, of reminding ourselves that women are every bit as strong as men, but I look around at certain content now and I feel like sometimes we decide that female strength is the same as male strength, and I'll be honest, I'm pretty tired of watching female characters get up in the face of male characters, and like swell and step to them as though they're gonna set them off. First of all, that's a lie. There really just aren't many women who can win a fight with a man. I say that as a feminist, but it's just absolutely true. We're not all Ronda Rousey. But also women are strong in different ways. I think our strength so often does not come from being physically intimidating, being a badass and kicking people's butts, it comes from other things. It can come from our ability to build community, it can come from our ability to inspire people not to fight in the first place. It can come from our ability to have a vision of what the world looks like that is maybe less aggressive and less divisive than others. And obviously, that's not meant to be an exhaustive list. But this is a show that expresses female strength and male strength in ways that I feel pretty good about.

Have you been able to write or direct or create projects on this show, or is that in the cards for a potential second season?

In a potential second season I would love to get into the directing side of things. So far the people on the show have been incredibly supportive of working with me to try and make that happen. I sold a podcast right before we went into production, actually. It's a narrative podcast so it's like an old time radio drama, and my weekends on the show I was writing the whole thing and every now and again I'd fly into New York and we'd record some of it. I'm actually in L.A. and tomorrow I'm going to be working on a pitch that I'm taking out with a really cool producer. I'm still very much interested in trying to tell stories that I'm generating myself. I think the world that I grew up in, growing up in Hawaii, still looks and feels very different than the world that I see reflected around me often in storytelling, and I'm interested in exploring some of that.

The pilot is focused on the duration of Scott's illness, but what will subsequent episodes look like?

Part of what's exciting about it is this is not a show with a set formula. Which I like. There are certain episodes that have a breadth that are similar to the pilot, which is we cover a fair amount of time in one hour and we chart the way that people change through that time. Then there are other episodes that take place over the course of a single day because there's one issue or one challenge or one thing that's going on in people's lives that is so concussive that we really need to stay with everybody and see exactly what's going on on an hour-to-hour basis.

What's beautiful about this show is what we learned shooting the pilot, which is that we've got a lot of really wonderful actors, and that includes the children — they wouldn't want me calling them children — that includes the younger members of the cast. We've got full episodes that focus on Charlotte and the way all of these things have landed in her heart, and we have episodes and storylines that land very heavily with each of the dads. I think it's very much a show that takes a look at this beautiful gemstone of a family and week to week we look at it through a different facet. It's not a formulaic, like, every week we'll have 20 percent of those and 80 percent of this. It flows with the narrative, I think. I think they allow the story to dictate the format more than anything else.

There's one storyline involving Scott and Robin's very young trans son, which is a storyline that hasn't been explored on network TV much.

Yeah, you know, one of the things that I think about the JJ storyline — [creators] Tony [Phelan] and Joan [Ratner] have a transgender son who was an actor, and they've become pretty powerful advocates in the community. I'm grateful this story is being told by people for whom it's a first-person experience. I think that's important given that this is going to be one of the first representations of trans youth at that age that's really out there, certainly on a network. I think the other thing that they do that's kind of brilliant is they just take it for granted that JJ is JJ and JJ gets to be JJ. It's not a show about that any more than it's a show about two black men in a relationship. I think maybe one of the assertions of show is that characters and storylines that exist in the LGBTQ space don't need to prove that they belong there. They're just there because they deserve to be there because for crying out fucking loud it's 2020. That's one of the things that I love — that JJ is who he is and the family takes that for granted because there are real issues that need dealing with and JJ is not an issue. He's a kid. He's a great little kid, but the primary thing going on in his life right now is "my father died." Not "I'm a boy get on board with that." I think that's its own quiet revelation, revolution.

Are there any episodes in particular that really moved you?

There's a pocket of episodes four, five and six that I think are kind of extraordinary for me in that they're all very, very different. Episode five is kind of a holiday movie, it's self-contained in some ways almost like the pilot. It's so ambitious and it was directed brilliantly. And then episode six, there's a couple of really breathtaking moments that are so profound and heartfelt. What was exciting to me about episode four, without spoiling too much, is I realized as I read it that buried in my assumptions about Robin would be that as a 40-year-old mother-of-five widow on a TV drama on a network I wouldn't have a sex life. It never really occurred to me to have an opinion about that. I just took it for granted. And I read episode four and I went, "Oh, holy shit, we're doing that. Okay, great." And that was a trip. It was really wonderful. Becky Ann Baker, every time Becky comes back she's just she's a wonder, that one. I love her so much. Episode six I love for a million reasons, but definitely one of them is that I think Thalia Trian, who plays Charlotte, is a really extraordinary important young actor with just a luminous talent and she does some really phenomenal work in that episode.

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Council of Dads premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT following This Is Us' season four finale, and moves to its regular Tuesdays at 8 p.m. time slot on April 30.