Faced with a furious two-mile wide tornado coming at you destroying everything in its path, most people would hunker down or run for their lives, unless they’re crazy enough to want to chase it. In Steve Quale’s cli-fi disaster thriller, Into the Storm, Sarah Wayne Callies and Arlen Escarpeta play professional storm chasers whose job is to get as close as possible to capture that once-in-a-lifetime shot. Allison (Callies) is a meteorologist tracking the path of the storm front while Daryl’s (Escarpeta) camera crew documents the dangerous, wildly erratic ride. Opening August 8th, the film also stars Richard Armitage, Matt Walsh, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress and Jeremy Sumpter.
At the film’s recent press day, Callies and Escarpeta discussed what attracted them to the project, their preparation for the roles, working with Armitage, the balance between practical and CG, bracing themselves against 100 mph wind and rain, how Callie’s aerial training came in handy, having her real-life daughter play her daughter in the movie, Escarpeta’s camera class with the Steadicam guys, how much Callies keeps up with her Walking Dead and Prison Break castmembers, her upcoming horror film, The Other Side of the Door, and Escarpeta’s role as Bobby Brown in the Lifetime biopic, I Will Always Love You: The Whitney Houston Story directed by Angela Bassett. Hit the jump to read the interview.
ARLEN ESCARPETA: I had the pleasure to work with Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema two times before this. We met Walter Hamada and Dave Neustadter on Friday the 13th. I was able to work with them on Final Destination 5, which is where I met and got the opportunity to work with Steve Quale when Into the Storm came about. I had just had a meeting not too long before that with Walter and Dave. They told me a little bit about this movie, and they said they weren’t sure exactly when it was going to happen, but there might be something there for me and they would see. Once Steve came on board, they pitched him, “Hey, we’d like to bring Arlen on if you would like to work with him again,” and Steve was like, “Absolutely. Let’s make it happen.” So that’s how I was able to come on board. Once I read the script, I was like, “Yeah! Absolutely! Please. Sure. Thank you.” It was a pleasure.
SARAH WAYNE CALLIES: That’s cool. I did the traditional route of auditioning. I was doing The Walking Dead at the time, and we were just filming my last scenes. This project came up, and we were in the awkward position of not allowing anybody to know about it. We were trying to find a way of keeping this secret, but still being involved in this project, because we thought it was very cool. Melissa McBride, who plays Carol on The Walking Dead, taped me in her trailer (laughs), and we sent the audition in. I jokingly said something like, “If I get this, I’m going to get you a bottle of wine.” I saw her last week at Comic-Con, and she’s like, “Where’s my wine?” (Laughs) So I’m going to send her a nice bottle of wine soon. Then I was in the interesting position of having to lie to everybody on the set, because of course you get there and they’re like, “Oh my God! Is Lori dead?” I was like, “No, there’s like a three-episode hiatus for me and we’re all taking time off this season.” Then the episode aired and I got a lot of phone calls from people going, “You lied to me.” “I didn’t lie to you. I’m an actor.”
ESCARPETA: I didn’t know yet. I would have called you, too.
CALLIES: What? You knew me.
CALLIES: Well, those episodes aired after we shot our movie.
ESCARPETA: But right in the moment I didn’t know.
CALLIES: Yeah. Plus you would have gotten it. You would have gone, “Hey, you’re doing your job.” You’re mellow like that. That’s cool. You don’t call people up and get mad.
ESCARPETA: (Laughs) Yes, I do. I’m mad now.
CALLIES: This is the end of our friendship that you’re witnessing right here.
Your character is a meteorologist with a Ph.D. and you had to use so many technical terms, was that difficult for you?
CALLIES: That’s a lot of acting, isn’t it? I love that you’re gently trying to ask the question if it’s hard for me to seem smart. It’s really, really sweet. It’s adorable. My parents are professors, so I grew up in an academic household. My first impulse when I got this part was to call a professor. So I did. I just cold called a guy at the University of Michigan Department of Meteorology and Climatology and said, “I need to sound like I know everything you know, but I don’t have time to do a Ph.D. So let’s sit down.” And he was very, very generous with his time. We met halfway between Ann Arbor where he was an emeritus professor, so where he is on campus and where we shot in Detroit. I walked him down a list of the stuff I didn’t understand. He drew pictures on napkins, and I took the napkins into Steve (Quale, director) and went, “Okay, so vorticity — a word I hadn’t heard of before — this is what this means and this is how we leverage it.” Because I think in a movie like this, we’re trying to present something that’s very raw and very grounded. And so, if any of us don’t know what we’re saying and it sounds like Hollywood filler, we get into trouble. So we did everything we could. Arlen and I were in the weather van batting back and forth these new phrases and addicted to the Weather Channel and watching storm chaser documentaries and stuff. We did our best. That said, we were at Comic-Con last week, and a meteorologist stood up and she said, “So this is what I do for a living.” And I said, “How’d we do?” And she just kind of went [gestures]. I was like, “Oh, I really tried. I’m sorry.” Our hearts were a little sad. We really did our best. We’re just actors.
ESCARPETA: Did she say why?
And we have to remember it is a movie.
CALLIES: It is a movie.
The scene where you are hanging from the truck, how was that shot and was that you?
CALLIES: Yeah, that’s me. The one thing they didn’t let me do was hit the pavement. That was the one thing. I was up for it, but the insurance company just stepped in. “You’re not dropping your actress 30 feet.” That was so much fun. I studied aerial arts in grad school. I did three years of trapeze training. At a certain point, if I had been good enough, I probably would have run away and joined Cirque du Soleil. So this is my shot to do that kind of thing. It’s surprising how technical the work was. There were some very specific things about what parts of your body to move to sell the action and things. I watched the stunt woman rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, and we worked on it for a long time. But, I mean, it just makes you feel like a kid. You’re on a playground, and you’re flying through the air, and that’s your job for a day. It was a ball. It was absolutely a ball. Richard (Armitage) was great about it too because of his experience from The Hobbit movies of that kind of prosthetic and wire work and all the effects and stuff. He’s such a pro. He literally held my hand (laughs) in that scene and was lovely about it.
How realistic did they make it on set in terms of wind machines and rain? How was the balance between practical and CG?
ESCARPETA: It was practically really real and wet. It was cold. We had leaves and twigs flying at us at 100 mph. We talked about this. Every morning there was that look of okay, we get wet now. Somewhere midway through filming, Steve would try to get them to warm up the water for us.
CALLIES: Yeah, he tried.
ESCARPETA: But, you warm it once and then it gets cold again. You would forget because you’re filming. “Okay. We’ve got to wet them down again.” And it was almost like starting over. But at least for me – I don’t know about for you – if we ever got to that place where I went, “Oh my God, I’m a little exhausted,” that water would hit you and you’re up.
ESCARPETA: You’re up. You’re in the moment. You’re ready to go. Then, the wind hits you, and it’s cold, and it felt like you were really there in the moment, and even though you couldn’t necessarily see the tornado yet, you could feel it coming. Sarah and I weren’t covered all the way. I mean, at one point, you lose your jacket, I think. I have shorts on. So, there are parts of your body that are exposed to the debris and stuff like that so you feel it. You definitely felt it.
CALLIES: The first time they turned the 100 mph fan on me, it blew me 20 feet off my mark. And the cameraman, he’s like, “You’re supposed to be there.” I was like, “I tried. I aimed for that and I vectored off.” It’s a really fun experience and it’s exhausting, but I’m also very grateful to Steve for it, because without that, you suffer the indignities of trying to act a tornado. That’s not going to work. What are you going to do? It’s never going to be good.
ESCARPETA: You could try to moonwalk forward.
CALLIES: (Laughs) Exactly. That’s your department. I can’t get down with that.
Were there any injuries?
CALLIES: I went down hard in the middle of one scene and nobody noticed (laughs). Evacuating the school, there were maybe 500 extras, the rain, and the sirens, and it was just a wet leaf. I put my foot on it and we went “Whing.” And I went down.
Did they get it on camera?
CALLIES: Yes, they did. I fall straight out of frame. It looks like I just walked off a cliff. And Todd Garner (producer), bless him, was the only one that noticed. Everybody came up. They’re like, “Good job, everybody. Back to one.” And I was like, “I’m good, I’m good, I’m good.” Steve was like, “Good job.” Todd comes running up. He’s like, “Are you all right?” I was like, “I’m fine,” and then I look down and my pants are split and there’s blood coming out. I’m like, “Now I need new pants.” It’s a movie. You change your pants, you put a band aid on and you shoot it again. But it could have been bad. With everything going on, it could have been bad. The stunt team was fantastic. They made sure that everybody was very safe.
ESCARPETA: You naturally protected yourself. At no point did we just walk into wind and debris coming at us. You’re shielding yourself. You naturally protect yourself as you would in the real moment. So, I think that’s part of Steve doing his job helping us get to that place where we’re naturally going into these scenes protecting ourselves and dodging, looking, and trying to get to safety, whether that’s off camera or in an imaginary building that we’re running into.
As a mom in real life, what was the most surprising discovery you made while playing a mom on screen?
CALLIES: Part of what I liked about this role is she’s a working mom and I haven’t done that before as a character. It’s something I really relate to, that constant feeling that you are either letting down your family or your career, that you are trying to achieve excellence in both worlds. You’re trying to raise courageous, creative kids, and sometimes those kids are not going to see you for weeks at a time. Every working mom I know is constantly walking some kind of a tightrope of guilt. So that was one of the biggest discoveries for me, and it was what kind of drew me to playing this character because it’s a place to explore that. And that’s very central to what’s going on for Allison, the sense that this is an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of this group of storm chasers, to try and find this research, to do what we can to enter intelligently into the climate conversation. But it means that every night, you’re Skyping a little kid, going, “I wish you were here,” and going, “Yeah, I wish I was there too.” I don’t think it’s going to change. But I also think it’s worthwhile to model for my children a balance between your devotion to your family and your commitment to your career.
Did you bring your family to the set?
CALLIES: The actress who plays my daughter is actually my daughter. So yeah, she was there. And she will continue to be an actress over my dead body (laughs). But she wanted to do it and so I put her through her paces. We’ve got different last names. She auditioned all by herself. Nobody knew who she was. She got the part all by herself. She showed up on set and they were like, “Wait! Okay.” It was great working with her. It was a lot of fun. But my mother’s protective instincts want to make sure that she does something respectable with her life like work in a factory or collect garbage — like anything other than act for a living.
CALLIES: Ooh, bite your tongue. Have you seen this movie?! (Laughs) C’mon, man!
What a great way for her to be a part of the process and see what you do for a living.
CALLIES: Exactly that. What’s mama doing when she’s not here?
Arlen, how much photography have you done in real life that helped before the film?
ESCARPETA: Before I got the film, I wasn’t that good. I was not that good at all.
CALLIES: You got good though.
ESCARPETA: Steve put me through my paces. His eye is like a machine. I feel like he has somewhere back there something that he looks in and he sees the lines and the angle that’s northwest. I feel like he’s that good with his eyes. So, as far as for myself and for Jeremy (Sumpter) in the film, we had camera class where we met with Steadicam guys. They had us with these little, tiny cups of water that were filled up right to the brim, and we had to walk and balance and pace and dip down, and the goal was not to drip any of this water. Once we got past that, they showed us how to hold the cameras, how to work and use them and things like that. There were moments in the film where I told Sarah I felt good. I’m really getting this. I’m looking at my lens and I’m dipping down. This looks great. This is a Dutch angle. I’m learning all of these things.
CALLIES: You’ve got shots in the movie, too. I think there’s stuff you filmed in the final cut.
CALLIES: Until you learn otherwise, this movie was shot by Arlen Escarpeta.
Sarah, do you still keep in touch with Wentworth Miller?
CALLIES: We’ve lost touch over the years, I think. I don’t live in Los Angeles anymore so it’s difficult. But I’ve kept tabs on him, and I think he’s done some brilliant work with his writing career. I wept I was so happy for him the day he came out. That was something that requires a tremendous amount of courage. I am so proud of him. I’m happy for him. That’s got to be one heck of a struggle to go from being the guy on the cover of everything, this enormous international sex symbol, to having the courage to stand up and say, “This is who I am and this is who I’m going to be and I’m going to be that publically.” I think the courage of that example probably saved more than a few lives for young men and young women around the world. And I’m proud to have worked with him.
Have you kept up with your former TV family?
CALLIES: They’re some of my closest friends actually. We were all together at Comic-Con which was a trip. Jon (Bernthal) was there promoting Fury which looks amazing, and I was there for this, and they were there for the The Walking Dead extravaganza. We all got together and had dinner, and there’s a lot of love there. I see Norman (Reedus) quite a bit and Andy’s (Andrew Lincoln) family and my family are really close. I think those are bonds that will hopefully last for quite a while. They’re good people.
What’s next for you?
ESCARPETA: I had the pleasure of playing Bobby Brown in the new Whitney Houston biopic (I Will Always Love You: The Whitney Houston Story) that’s being directed by Angela Bassett for Lifetime. It was tremendous. It was an absolute pleasure. Yaya DaCosta plays Whitney. I had a ball. I’ve grown. I’ve learned a lot about myself and it was a challenge. It was a master class of working underneath Angela and really being pushed and twisted and turned into these places that I didn’t know I could get to. So, I look forward to the film. I’m excited, and I’m grateful, and I’m very, very thankful. I don’t think they have a set release date just yet, but I think that we’re looking towards early 2015.
CALLIES: I just finished a movie in India called The Other Side of the Door that’s one of the coolest creative experiences I’ve ever had. Acting-wise, I ran off of the set and I did a play at the Kennedy Center for a couple of months and that was good fun. Then I’ve been writing. I’ve got two screenplays in development, one actually with Gale Anne Hurd at Valhalla. We had such a great time together on The Walking Dead that I wanted to keep the band together. So again, as a working mom, I can write from home, so I’m trying to find a balance between the work away and the work on camera.