Best known for her work in projects like The Walking Dead, Prison Break, and Into The Storm, Sarah Wayne Callies’ filmography isn’t exactly straightforward. So perhaps her new show, the NBC family drama Council of Dads, is a change of pace. But if you ask me, Council offers just as much drama as any zombie apocalypse.
In the pilot episode, a father (Tom Everett Scott) diagnosed with terminal cancer calls upon three close friends (Clive Standen, Michael O’Neill, and J. August Richards) to act as the titular “Council of Dads” for the five children he leaves behind.
As Callies tells me, “The pilot fans out like a magician’s deck of cards and every episode is one card explored in depth.”
It’s hard to tell where Council is going to go in its freshman season, that’s what makes it intriguing television. So far, I can tell you that the “unconventional” family at the show’s center will capture your heart. And Callies’ performance, as the widow faced with the task of putting herself and her children back together, will have you reaching for the tissues.
After speaking with Callies (in the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine) about her own personal journey with grief and healing, I came away with an even greater appreciation for not only the show but also Callies and her work as an actor. I think you will too.
Read our interview below:
Awards Daily: First off, how are you? How are you dealing with everything going on? Hopefully, you’re doing okay.
Sarah Wayne Callies: You know, it’s up and down like it is for all of us. I think more than anything else, I feel incredibly grateful. I live in a place that feels safe. We live in a very rural area, and I’m embedded in a community of people look out for one another. We’re accustomed to being a community that supports one another.
And so far we’re healthy. Honestly, right now, that’s the brass ring, right?
AD: Absolutely. I’m glad to hear it. I’m going to take you back to a time before all of this happened, which feels like a lifetime ago.
SWC: Doesn’t it?
AD: [Laughs]. I got a chance to see the pilot for Council of Dads at the SCAD aTVfest in Atlanta. I believe that was in February.
SWC: Yeah! That was the last time the whole cast was all together. We were just talking about that on Zoom the other night!
AD: I remember the pilot so vividly! Well, I remember that whole experience vividly because the entire audience was completely hooked into the show, and also just so emotional. So, first of all, how does it feel to have the show out in the world now for a larger audience?
SWC: It feels really beautiful to have the show out there. I mean, first of all, it’s been a huge gift to have this show, to have something to focus on that I feel is positive, uplifting, and feeling. I think it’s a time where this show could potentially be of service to people.
That sounds kind of self-righteous. I don’t mean it like that. I mean, I hope this is a show where people watch it and they think, “Okay, we’re going to be okay.” [Laughs]. Like a little bit of comfort.
It’s amazing to have it out there right now. You know, the response that I’ve seen on social media has been really moving. [The show] has been moving, I think specifically, to people who maybe are having an extra hard time right now, whether it’s in the LGBTQ+ community or people who have lost folks recently.
It’s interesting, nobody knows which way is up and which way and down, and television is certainly in that place too. But I’m grateful that people have a chance to participate in a story that means so much, to all of us.
AD: The cast’s panel at aTVfest was very emotional and I remember you, specifically, had a very emotional reaction to seeing the audience experience the show for the first time.
Was that emotional attachment something that you felt right away? Can you talk about the emotional pull of the project? Because it is very emotional. [Laughs].
SWC: It is. I think many things in life are both simultaneously very personal and very mundane.
I remember when I had my first kid, everything changed in my life. My body changed, my sleep patterns changed, my emotions changed. And it’s this thunderous shift in the balance of one’s own life. But, it’s also the most mundane thing ever. Everybody has babies. [Laughs]. You’re not unique because you had a baby. The world doesn’t stop and go, “Oh my God, tell me everything about having a baby, this is so unique.”
I think similarly, this is a story that starts with grief and then becomes a show about healing. But grief and death are both, simultaneously, profound personal events and totally mundane. We all lose people, and yet when we lose them, it’s a thunderous, life-changing event despite the fact that it happens thousands of times a day across the world.
For me personally, I had this sort of trifecta of loss right before the show and before I joined the cast. I lost Scott Wilson, one of my closest friends, and my colleague on The Walking Dead. [Wilson died in 2018 at the age of 76]. He died in October and we shot the pilot in February. Right after the pilot, in June of last year, I lost my father-in-law who had been the father figure in my life for the last 20 years.
And shortly before that, I lost an uncle who had been a mentor. And so the story was very personal to me. And yet, I’m aware that that doesn’t make me special because we’re all dealing with loss.
But that’s part of why it was so intense for me, specifically. Because the last thing I ever did with my father-in-law, I crawled up in bed with him in hospice and I showed him the pilot episode. And so that was one of the last things we shared together.
And, maybe one of the interesting things about the show is that it feels incredibly personal to everybody because we’ve all experienced some kind of loss. We’ve all navigated what it means to heal; What it means to come out the other side and allow yourself to be changed by it; and then also allow yourself to be happy again and to see beauty again.
AD: That’s beautifully said. And I am so very sorry for your losses. Did you find healing in doing the show and having it mirror your personal life as closely as it did?
SWC: Yeah. You know, the show made it impossible for me to hide. Our culture doesn’t deal with loss particularly well, it doesn’t deal with grief very well. I think sometimes we’re scared of other people’s intense emotions. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it is. I think often our impulse can be, let me feel as quickly as possible to make this comfortable for other people so that they don’t have to deal with me crying or so that I don’t make people uncomfortable with my grief, or even with my joy, at a time when maybe you think I shouldn’t be feeling that.
I think we can rush ourselves through the process and act like we’re fine before we’re fine. Doing Council of Dads, it didn’t give me a chance to do that. It was like, “Nope, you’re going to stay in these feelings, you’re going to feel them honestly, and you’re going to work from that place.” And it was healing.
It was also instructive because I think if I had been imagining grief in my head, I would have had a more linear expectation of it. Like, I’m better today than I was yesterday. There would have been this thought about applying logic to it. But grief isn’t logical. There are days when I forget that Scott’s dead and I pick up the phone to call him. There are days where my feeling about having lost him is more weighted towards the gratitude that I ever had a friend like that in my life. There are days when I’m literally talking to him for half a day and laughing like a total crazy person. And because those emotions are so nonlinear and so varied, I don’t think I would have created a character like [Robin] if I hadn’t been living it from a first-person place. It’s allowed me to make more honest and interesting choices as an actor.
AD: Hearing your experiences, it’s almost like you’re describing my own. It’s crazy that death is so specific and yet universal at the same time, you know what I mean?
SWC: Oh wow, yeah!
AD: I was also really curious about the pilot because there’s a lot that goes on just in that one episode. How did you feel about that? Did you ever kind of feel concerned? Like, “Okay, where do we go from here? Because there are so many threads that are given to the audience in that first 45 minutes.
I remember reading the pilot and thinking two things: One, this is one of the best pilots I’ve ever read. And two, I have no idea what the show looks like. Because often a pilot is like, “This is what you’re going to get every week.” But that’s not our show.
What our show does is the pilot sets up this vast, depth of experience, and then every episode kind of cuts a slice of that. Like, how are Luly (Michelle Weaver) and Evan (Steven Silver) doing in this moment of these three days?
How are Anthony (Standen) and JJ (Blue Chapman) doing in this moment of these three days? How are Robin and Theo (Emjay Anthony)?
There is one other episode in the season, which I love so much, that goes through a period of time really quickly, like the pilot, but mostly the episodes are deep dives.
AD: I was actually going to ask you what you could tease for me about the rest of the season, but that sounds like a great tease!
SWC: Good! [Laughs].
AD: You’ve done a lot of what can be described as “genre” television in your career. Now you are doing a show that feels, like you said, at once mundane and also spectacular in its own right. Describe that shift and what it’s been like for you to go through.
SWC: You know, I think stupidly I thought it would be easier. Doing a genre show, first of all, there’s the physical aspect, the stunt days, there’s a certain amount of energy in that. There’s also a certain amount of energy in making it real, you know? And like you sort of lift the story up to the level of the zombie apocalypse or the alien invasion and how do you raise the stakes of everything they’re doing?
It was dumb of me, but I sort of thought going into Council of Dads that, “Oh, well this is going to be much more simple and straightforward. You show up, you invest honestly in the story, and you say your words.”
And at the end of the season, I found myself exhausted in a different way than I had ever been. I wasn’t physically tired, but my soul was tired, you know what I mean? [Laughs].
Michael O’Neill and J. [August Richards] and I spent a lot of time together, the three of us would go to have dinner and just go, “My heart is tired.”
I think part of that is because there’s nothing to hide behind. Those big operatic circumstances that make a genre show a genre show, they can also protect you a little bit from taking it too far into your personal life. There was no concept to hide behind, you just had to be honest.
AD: Last question, if somebody is reading this and they don’t know anything about Council of Dads, what is your elevator pitch for why somebody should tune in or why you hope people find it. And to that end, what do you hope the audience takes away from watching?
SWC: I think especially in a time like this, this is a show about people who find a way to come together for one another. This is a family that can make the impossible feel possible for one another.
And at the end of every episode, my hope is you come away from it and you go, “We got this, we can do this. We’re going to be okay.”
This is also the family that we all actually live in. This is not a family bound by blood, it’s a family bound by love. I’ve got kids who don’t look like me. I’ve got kids who are different races than me. I’ve got friends who are different sexualities. This is a story of a family that actually looks the way America looks now which we are very proud of.
AD: Well, I can’t wait to see where the show goes from here. Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate your honesty and your vulnerability; you don’t always get that from people and I can’t thank you enough!
Council of Dads airs Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC. Episodes of Council of Dads are available to stream on NBC.com