Sarah Smiles

Sarah Wayne Callies on food, family and a future beyond acting.

“SOMETIMES I’M AMAZED THAT THIS IS MY JOB.” Sarah Wayne Callies is sitting at the rear of a deluxe golf cart, dressed in a Thakoon gown, as she’s transported to the site of our photo shoot, at Turtle Bay Resort on O‘ahu’s North Shore.

The 35-year-old actress waxes poetic about how, on this cool, yet sunny day, she’s here, being made and dressed up—”and it’s work!”

Actually, her “day job” is playing ‘Lori Grimes,’ on one of television’s most captivating (and critically acclaimed) dramas, The Walking Dead. The Golden Globe-nominated series follows a group of survivors in an apocalyptic America teeming with zombies.

On set, make-up is minimal, and wardrobe is survival-chic, and the days can be long. However, Callies isn’t complaining.

“Andy Lincoln and Jon Bernthal are two of the most talented actors I’ve ever known, and they’re also two of my closest friends,” she says. “It’s not often that the three leads of a show have the same goals for performance …We all were interested in telling the most honest, most dangerous and ugliest version of this story that we possible could.”

And, that focus seems to be working. The Walking Dead‘s second season had barely started when AMC renewed it for a third—and called for more episodes, at that.

But, it wasn’t always about staying clear of “walkers” for Callies. Her first acting experiences came during her childhood here in Hawai‘i. She was in productions at St. Andrews Priory— first in Once Upon a Mattress and then the title role in Cinderella.

“I remember being in the audience, and she was standing there in the opening scene,” her mom, Val, a retired U.H. professor, reminisces. “I thought, ‘she’s just standing there, holding a broom, and she has the audience rapt.'”

Callies later went on to play ‘Anna’ in Punahou’s production of The King and I, and as an indication of how her desire to make people think permeates her being, she opines that the production may have missed an opportunity to discuss British Imperialism and colonization with its casting. “Looking back on it later … I don’t know, maybe it would have been way more interesting to have a hapa Anna and a haole King?”

When asked about her time spent at Punahou, she coos, “It was kind of wonderful … it was the most stability I had in my life,” she explains. “Because of the business I’m in, my 13 years at Punahou, I think, probably when I die, will be (remembered as) the period of the greatest stability in my life.”

She also has a strong connection to the land. “A lot of my favorite memories are in the mountains,” she says. “I spend a lot of time hiking all the islands. She explains that although she grew up in Manoa, life in the city can get a bit hectic and noisy. “I would always escape into the mountains … that’s the great thing about Hawai‘i; you can eat, even when you’re up there. Guava, mountain apple and strawberry guava.”

After lamenting today’s scarcity of mountain apples, she proposes a plan: “Maybe someday when I retire I’ll move back to Hawai‘i and start a mountain apple farm,” she laughs. Later on, she does reveal a real plan for her future—teaching acting, preferably here in Hawai‘i.

Other favorite places to escape from the Honolulu city lights include La‘ie and Hau‘ula. She also treasures the times spent with an aunty who lives in Miloli‘i. It’s where she learned how to dig an imu, make haupia and connect with the Hawaiian culture. It’s also a place that she wants to have her 5-year-old daughter, Keala, experience as much as possible. “I want Hawai‘i to be a second nature to her,” she says.

Like a true kama‘aina, Callies will sometimes slip into a light pidgin in her conversation, particularly when discussing a favorite island topic: food. When asked about favorite memories of Hawai‘i, she breathily replies, “malasadas. The second I get off the plane, it’s kim chee fried rice, Portuguese sausage, Spam musubi. So much of what I miss about Hawai‘i is food, it’s like I eat my way through the islands.”

She laughs and candidly discusses a common trait amongst Hawai‘i residents. “The Hawai‘i high school phenomenon (is interesting),” she says. “At Comic-Con, I was on a panel with Maggie Q… we were both so excited to be representing Hawai‘i on a panel of eight people. And yet, within five minutes of two Hawai‘i people meeting, you ask ‘what high school you went to’—it’s crazy.”

Her husband of seven years, Josh Winterhalt, points out to her that people from other locales don’t do that. “It’s a very charged question,” she adds. The fact that Josh can relate to her connection to Hawai‘i, its land—and even its food—is a special bond the two cherish. His Native American heritage and the fact that he’s had friends from Hawai‘i before meeting Callies helped with the bonding. “When we met, he was really familiar with, like, the importance of Spam in my life,” she adds, giggling.

So, how does a Hawai‘i born-and-bred actress end up fighting in a zombie apocalypse? By always looking for the next challenge.

She worked on several series including Queens Supreme and Tarzan, but it was in her role as ‘Dr. Sara Tancredi’ on Prison Break that she made her first splash. When her character was killed off, the fans revolted. At the time, Callies was a new mother, and didn’t own a television, so she didn’t find out about it until a friend told her. “I did know the fans were incredibly supportive of me while I was pregnant, because I got baby bottles … blankets and quilts that they’d made and baby clothes—it was so sweet!” she says. “Probably in my professional life, it will end up being one of the most moving things that ever happened to me because you don’t know as an actor … what your work means to people,” she says. “It moved me to tears.” The protesting worked, Dr. Tancredi returned to the series.

Callies has appeared in several movies, including The Celestine Prophecy, Lullaby for Pi and Foreverland. However, without a doubt, her work on The Walking Dead is her highest-profile role yet. Next up is a project she shot in Detroit, a tentatively untitled Steve Quale Tornado thriller.

Coming from the much-loved ‘Dr. Tancredi,’ Callies was looking to avoid being typecast. “I was actively looking for someone as different from ‘Dr. Tancredi’ as I could find … I think the way Frank (director Frank Darabont) and I imagined ‘Lori’ fit that bill perfectly,” she says. The duo decided to take ‘Lori,’ who is indeed a very controversial character, to the outer limits. “Being married and being a mom can be a very, very dark experience; but it’s dangerous to explore that darkness, because people don’t want to see it. So, we just decided to say ‘to hell with it’ and try it anyway.”

So far the plan is working. While one can never say ‘Lori Grimes’ enjoys nearly the same adoration from fans that ‘Dr. Tancredi’ did, Callies is just thrilled that people are talking about her. You see, ‘Lori’ is married to ‘Rick’ (Lincoln), but also slept with Rick’s best friend, ‘Shane’ (Bernthal).

In ‘Lori’s’ defense, she thought that ‘Rick’ was dead.

“The response to her (‘Lori’) has been fascinating for me,” she says. “Coming from an academic family, I’m all for controversy.” She finds that women, particularly married women with children, love ‘Lori Grimes,’ while men in their late teens through their 20s hate the character.

“It’s complicated, right? The first thing we see in the first couple episodes is that she’s a mom and she’s a sexual figure,” she says. “For certain demographics of people, that’s utterly more than they can handle.”

She does occasionally deal with people who can’t separate her from her character, but she takes it in stride. “It’s certainly a compliment to the storytelling, because you want to tell a complicated story,” she explains. “The version of this that’s clean and polished, slick and simple is not the version I want to be in.”

It’s that storytelling that keeps the fans coming back for more. The show broke cable records during its second season, and that fervor shows no sign of dying. However, it’s the acting that brings that script alive and Callies is quick to credit her co-stars.

“Doing those scenes with Andy and Jon—it’s just a dream, because [viewers] see whatever is cut together, but on the day, I’ll watch them do the same scenes seven different ways,” she says. “I get to play with that—respond seven different ways—and we do. We try to push each other … it’s wonderful—it hurts, you know. You go home at the end of the day, you got nothing left.”

Bernthal has the same high praise for her. “Sarah is the sharpest, bravest, and most intelligent actor I have ever worked with,” he says. “She is fiercely smart, but also very courageous. She not only makes beautiful and thoughtful choices, but she has the [guts] to abandon them, playing the moment so acutely that her performance can completely change on a dime, always crackling with a desperate honesty.”

As successful as her time with The Walking Dead has been, it almost didn’t happen. “I just thought ‘I’m not your girl,'” she says, citing the fact she’d never read a comic before (the show is based on a graphic novel) nor watched a zombie movie. “Then they brought up Frank Darabont … then Gale Anne Hurd, and I’m thinking, ‘these people are giants and they’re not going to do this unless they can do it—beautifully and brilliantly.'”

Bernthal also credits Callies for creating a collaborative atmosphere on set. “What a joy it is to work with her, she makes everyone better, both crew and cast,” he says. “The only thing that equals her on-screen talent is her off-screen grace and kindness. She is there for everyone on set, and in my opinion is the key component in creating the hardest-working, most committed and closest crews I have ever been a part of.”

As one can imagine, every Walking Dead character is at risk of getting killed off, and Callies is well aware of this, especially now that ‘Lori,’ already a mother to young ‘Carl,’ found out she was pregnant in the middle of the second season. “I think ‘Lori’ sees the pregnancy as a death sentence.” While she doesn’t know what will happen, Callies believes ‘Lori’ has been preparing to die ever since she decided to keep her baby. As for the actual acting, “I’m not prepared for that. I’ll have to wing it.” She recalls watching Bernthal in his emotional death scene. “Usually when a character dies—that’s it. You don’t have another couple hours of work (like on The Walking Dead),” she says, explaining the actors’ need to re-animate as a zombie.

The fantasy of a television series is far from the only focus in the actress’ life. Callies knows the fickle nature of the business she’s in. To this end, she has outside projects, such as the screenplay she’s written for a children’s book she enjoyed reading to Keala, Elena’s Serenade. And, there’s her long-term plans to get into teaching her craft to other actors. She also works as a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). As a tribute to her maternal grandfather, who fled religious persecution in Romania to America, she’s been contributing to the IRC for over a decade. She spent last winter working in refugee camps in Myanmar and Burma. “It’s such an honor to work with them,” she says.

It’s now late in the day, and Callies is posing for an ethereal shot with a white horse. Her hair piled high on her head and dressed in a flowing Badgley Mischka, Callies’ expression fits perfectly with the “story.” However, glance a bit over to her right, and her daughter is splashing happily in a nearby tidepool and her husband is striking up a conversation with a fisherman who’s watching his poles from the shore. Yes, Callies is in her element, but as with everything she does, it’s the bigger picture that matters most.

About the Setting

When rising star Sarah Wayne Callies suggested that we shoot on the north Shore—and that she was open to being photographed with a horse— Turtle Bay Resort instantly came to mind. Having spent her entire childhood (from age 1, until heading off to Dartmouth) on o‘ahu, Callies was eager to return to the elemental nature of her youth, with hopes that it would permeate this shoot.

Among the 12 miles of oceanfront trails and pathways, backdrops that range from lush forest to craggy, rocky shoreline, the choices were endless.

With her young daughter enjoying the critters in a nearby tidepool, Callies turned on the charm that has captivated millions of viewers through a similar lens; our resulting shots were pure perfection. In fact, the hardest part of this fashion shoot was the inevitable narrowing down of which shots to use.

For those looking to capture a little north Shore magic of their own, Turtle Bay’s Hele Huli Adventure Center (293-6024) helps guests plan their own full-throttle adventures: choose from horseback rides, helicopter or Segway tours, and surf/SUP lessons, just to name a few.


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