Tai Freligh chats with Sarah Wayne Callies about her new scripted podcast Aftershock…
From iHeartMedia, Aftershock is a co-production with Nomadic Engine and Salmira Productions. Starring Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break, The Walking Dead, Colony), David Harbour (Black Widow, No Sudden Move, Stranger Things) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead, Watchmen, Supernatural), Aftershock takes place in the wake of the largest earthquake in US history. Los Angeles lies in ruins, hundreds of thousands of people are dead or unaccounted for, and a mysterious island has risen up in the quake just off the coast of the city. The 10-part series will premiere with two episodes on July 14th, with a new episode going up weekly. Flickering Myth’s Tai Freligh chatted with Sarah Wayne Callies about the new podcast, working with such amazing talent, and what the future has in store in terms of projects.
Judging by the fact that this podcast was created by you and you also direct, produce and star in it, it feels like a passion project. How did it come to you and when did you decide to take on multiple hats to make it happen?
It’s absolutely a passion project. It was brought to me as an idea by my co-producers, Ben Haber and Patrick Carman. Ben and I have a few other projects together, and they were noodling a story about an island and a mystery, and wanted my take. as someone who’s lived on islands most of my life, I loved that kernel of an idea. And then it started to grow. There were stories I’d wanted to tell for years – about women and indigenous rights among other things – that fit beautifully into the world. But when you’re doing a podcast there isn’t much in the way of budget, so if you want to make it happen you have to do a lot of it yourself – produce and direct and write and act and cast and whatever else needs to get done. in this case, that’s a joy, because it’s a level of creative input I’ve never had in my storytelling before. I loved it.
What was it like to work with Jeffrey Dean Morgan as an Executive Producer? I know Negan was on TWD long after Lori’s departure, but it must have been interesting to work with JDM on a project outside of The Walking Dead?
Yeah I got to know JDM at conventions for TWD, and he was always the sweetest guy. and he’s got this *amazing* voice – maybe it’s a testament to cigarettes and motorcycles? He’s also a marvelously versatile actor – you put Denny from Grey’s next to Negan from TWD and you get an actor who can do anything.
Tell us what the plot of Aftershock is?
In a lot of ways, Aftershock is the story of the new frontier, right? There’s new land. It’s in international waters. No one owns it, there’s no government. So who goes there? Who claims it? Who decides the rules? And set against that backdrop I wanted to explore a deeply complex relationship that I hadn’t seen before – which is where Cassie & McKayla come from. These two women are opposites in almost every way – McKayla hates Cassie, but she needs her; and Cassie needs McKayla’s forgiveness, but knows she doesn’t deserve it. And they’re stuck on this island together with no way out. That’s interesting to me. In my career I’m always looking for what I haven’t seen before – this time I got to create it.
Give us the lowdown on your character and the role she plays in the podcast series?
Cassie’s our way into the story. She’s a good person who always tries to do the right thing – we see that right away. Then – as we learn more about her, we realize she’s told some extraordinary lies and made some huge mistakes. but the island wakes something up in her – something fiercer than she’s ever known. She begins to take actions she never would have believed she was capable of – to survive out there and to take care of McKayla.
What was the experience like making a podcast, especially during a pandemic?
During a pandemic? Bananas. Total chaos. To back up: I wrote the whole season before the pandemic hit. None of us had any idea what was coming. and we’d recorded 3 or 4 episodes in proper studios in NY and LA. Actually, the last thing I did before I left LA (and still haven’t been back to the US) in early March of 2019 was get into the studio for Aftershock. But then we had to get creative to get the rest of the season recorded. We’d mail mics to the cast and they’d record in their closets under a blanket… it all had to be done remotely. That meant a lot of actors had to do all their scenes with me instead of having the full cast, so I’d, like, do my best Dave Harbour impression for his scenes with Jeff, you know? It was such an act of generosity for everyone to just be game and make it happen the hard way. It was hell on our editor – thank god Jeff Schmidt is the best in the business. Actually – one of our production heroes was Rockmond Dunbar – he and his wife were homeschooling their four kids and there was no place quiet enough in his house – this was peak pandemic in the US – so he shut himself in the trunk of his car to do his scenes. I owe him for that. Like, for life.
How did you get such great talent on board, including the likes of David Harbour and Jeffrey Dean Morgan?
Dude, I cast almost this entire thing out of my phone. we didn’t have the budget for a casting director so i just called up friends and begged. Dave I’ve known since college – we acted together back then a bit, and he was always so brilliant (He also has SUCH a distinctive voice I knew I wanted him for Wayne right off – I actually wrote the part for him from the beginning). And then you have to think about making sure all the voices sound different, you know? It’s a podcast, so the audience can’t see who’s talking – there’s no close ups. So I tried to get folks who would have voices that were distinct from each other.
Actually, I owe Hilary Burton Morgan for one great idea – we were sitting in the lunch box during ‘council of dads’ and I asked the table if anyone knew someone could do a French accent. She was like, ‘Joy. she speaks French. She’d be perfect’. I’ve adored Joy Lenz ever since Colony, but I didn’t know she spoke French. Sure enough, she agreed to do it, and she killed it. The weirdest part? For the longest time, I didn’t know Hilary and Jeff were married, until one day she said something about Aftershock and I was like, ‘did I send you a script? I totally forgot.’ and the people we were with all looked at me like I was an idiot (which I am), and Hil was like, ‘you know Jeff’s my husband, right?’ nope. Surely didn’t.
What do you want people to take away from listening to this podcast?
I’m not sure that’s up to me; I think it’s up to the listeners. Honestly, I’m just grateful for anyone who gives it a listen – this is my baby, and I want to hug anyone who takes the time to give it a shot.
Any plans for other podcasts?
I’ve got a couple of other things up my sleeve. I really like the scripted podcast space – it’s a great place to try out new ideas, and you can get such fabulous actors because they only need to spend a few hours in a studio to play the role (assuming you’re not in a pandemic). Stay tuned.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I’ve been mostly directing lately. I’ve got some episodes lined up this fall; I’m also in negotiations to sell a screenplay I wrote. We’ll see what happens. This writing and producing thing is pretty great – I get to hire folks I love: people I trust to do amazing work and be kind and no-drama. I may stay in that lane awhile. but then, I’m not really in charge – the business makes its own decisions sometimes. I’m just along for the ride.
When an earthquake levels the West Coast of the US and kills the love of CASSIE’S (Sarah Wayne Callies) life, she makes a promise to him to find and protect his daughter, McKAYLA (Tati Gabrielle), who, prior to the quake, ran away in anger, blaming Cassie for breaking up her parents’ marriage. However, the earthquake was so powerful it caused a giant island to rise 26 miles off the coast. Cassie discovers McKayla is on the island and, with the help of seemingly good Samaritan WAYNE SHARP (David Harbour), they navigate through the chaotic aftermath of Los Angeles to the island. Others have also made their way to the island, leaving behind their old lives in hopes of starting something new. As tribalism sets in and boundaries are drawn, the islanders will discover something else has risen with the island, something that threatens them all. Told from the perspective of Cassie and Wayne’s interrogation onboard a Naval cruiser three weeks later by CAPTAIN MARK DOVER (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), we will discover the story of what happened on the island, why Cassie and Wayne are the only survivors, and whatever killed everyone on the island is now starting manifest itself on the ship.
Aftershock stars and was created, directed and produced by Sarah Wayne Callies in collaboration with iHeart Media. David Harbour and Jeffrey Dean Morgan both star and serve as Executive Producers. The rest of the cast includes Tati Gabrielle, Janel Parrish, Russell Hornsby, Rockmond Dunbar, Tovah Feldshuh, Bethany Joy Lenz, Michael O’Neill, Austin Amelio, and EJ Bonilla.