Social Justice

Sarah Wayne Callies: "Refugees' lives are full of suffering, loss and pain"

Her films involve zombies, but Sarah Wayne Callies has more serious matters on her mind: refugee camps, immigration, and dealing with grief

We know you best from The Walking Dead, and it seems there are more dead people walking in your new film The Other Side of the Door!

Yeah, it’s more of a ghost story than a zombie story. It’s about grief and madness and how close these two things are. There’s a car crash and my character manages to save one child but not the other. She goes down this rabbit hole of grief and regret until she’s given this suggestion for a ritual to help her heal from her Hindu housekeeper. She messes it up.

Cue the arrival of a creepy evil child… Why are spooky kids so scary?

If an adult makes a mistake and bad things happen to them, they had it coming. Very few people see a child in pain or in distress and say: “Screw them!” The corruption of innocence, which children represent, might be a fundamental fear we all have.

Unlike standard horror film characters making stupid choices, the ones you make are understandable coming from a grieving mother.

Absolutely. It all feels plausible. People do go to extreme lengths to try and heal and find some kind of absolution for what they feel are their sins.

The film is set in India where life and death is thought of quite differently to how it is here. Did that inform the film?

I grew up in Hawaii. Growing up with that mythology and the pantheon of gods and goddesses makes this, for me, a story that’s less of a stretch. Once you move outside of the Judeo-Christian paradigm to one of reincarnation, it’s about life returning to life through death.

Is that more optimistic way of looking at death a healthier way to deal with grief?

It does help enormously. I just spent a week in Serbia working with refugees coming out of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These people’s lives – for no reason and through no fault of their own – are completely full of suffering and loss and pain. I can’t square that with any sense of justice, whereas if you look at it through the paradigm of reincarnation, there’s hope.

Is reincarnation something you believe in?

I’m not entirely sure. My first time in refugee camps, which was three years ago in Jordan and Iraq, I came home and had a full-on ontological crisis because I couldn’t understand how that kind of suffering could be permitted. The only person with whom I found any solace was a friend of mine who was Hindu.

You visit refugee camps with the International Rescue Committee. Why is it important to use your profile to raise awareness of humanitarian issues?

Partly because my grandfather was a refugee. He fled over the very same border Hungary saw fit to close in November. He had a really difficult time when he came to the US, an eight-year-old kid with no money in New York. He became the person who ran the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in Chicago for Fred. Everybody in our family who stayed in Hungary was killed.

Trump wants America to become more insular and close its borders, is that the attitude of normal Americans?

There is a disparity between American politicians and Americans. Short of swimming the Atlantic Ocean, there is no harder way to make it to the United States than through the refugee programme. I know Americans to be open-hearted, kind, loving people, most of whom have the good sense to know that they themselves are the descendants of people who came to the United States seeking a better life. With education and exposure to facts – rather than incendiary rhetoric designed to garner headlines – the American population will realise these aren’t just people you want to have in your country, these are people you want to have over to dinner.

The Other Side of the Door is in cinemas now

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