Academy Award-winner Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) stars with Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break, The Walking Dead) in this intense and chilling thriller about a couple’s desperate search for their child. One year after his young son disappeared during a Halloween carnival, Mike Lawford (Cage) is haunted by eerie images and terrifying messages he can’t explain. Together with his now estranged wife, Kristen (Callies), he will stop at nothing to unravel the mystery and find their son, Charlie (Jack Fulton). In so doing, he unearths a legend that refuses to remain buried in the past. Pay the Ghost is directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Baader Meinhof Complex). I talked to Sarah Wayne Callies about this terrifying film and yelled at her for ruining my family’s upcoming Halloween.
Danny Miller: Seeing what happens to your son, Charlie, in the film scared the bejeesus out of me! I have a six-year-old son named Charlie and now I may be locking him in his room on Halloween!
Sarah Wayne Callies: Oh, no, I’m so sorry! (Laughs.) Yeah, this movie is definitely not something that is going to quell anyone’s fears about Halloween!
The emotions you have to call up in this film are so incredibly primal and you do it so well. Is it hard to get to that space?
It really is the worst thing that could happen to anyone. People talk about what makes horror movies scary but the truth is there’s nothing in the world that would frighten any of us more than the idea of our children going missing. So, yeah, it’s a really uncomfortable place to stick your head into. But to be able to do it in the company of great storytellers like Nic Cage and Uli Edel makes it so much easier.
The dynamic between you and Nicolas Cage was spot-on — and what your characters go through as a couple in that awful situation.
One of the things Nic and I discovered in our research was that an overwhelming number of parents who lose children end up getting divorced. That was something very real to start with — to be talking about something so painful that has really happened to people does give you a certain sense of responsibility to do it right. You can’t nod at it when you know there are going to be people who walk into that movie theater who have gone through something like that. But Nic is such a doll. I’ve worked with wonderful, wonderful people, but I have to say that Nic is probably the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with. He showed up at the table read already off-book which I’ve never seen before. He was always the first person on set and treated everyone with respect. I’ve worked with some people who throw their weight around a little bit but Nic doesn’t do that at all. He’s really an extraordinary person to work with. It’s all about the collaboration. It always makes me happy when I see that great behavior still wins the day!
I though Jack Fulton was wonderful as Charlie — such a natural. You’ve worked your a lot of kids. Does that ever present any challenges?
What’s great about working with kids is that their imaginations are so vibrant. If you say, “Okay, imagine that you’re in a room and the room is on fire and you have to blow a balloon out of your hand to escape,” they’re like, “Okay, I can do that!” As opposed to an adult getting too much into our heads and thinking, “Let’s see, how do I connect with these emotions?” Working with children can help get you out of that head space, I love it.
So many of the things that you’ve done, this movie certainly included, have focused on very heavy, upsetting content. I always wonder what the sets are like in those cases. Do you have to keep your emotions taut all the time or do people try to compensate and go the other way?
In my experience, film crews are brilliant at reading an actor from a mile away and figuring out when they need to leave someone alone. “She’s doing her weird actor thing, I’m going to focus on my brilliant camera thing right now and back off!” I have worked on a lot of very heavy shows — I keep hoping that Chuck Lorre is going to call and offer me a crazy sitcom! Or maybe someone will ask me to do a musical? But I will say that the more intense the material is, as soon as there’s a little pocket of levity, everyone just goes for it. On this film, our crew was super kind and funny. On days when there was that kind of flexibility, we would just crack each other up which would then make it easier to go down that rabbit hole on the more difficult days. You knew that there were people you could trust to pull you back up out of it. Early in my career I thought I had to stay in character and be miserable all the time. Finally, I said, “Fuck this, I’m going to eat a sandwich and crack some jokes!” To be honest, that actually helps the work. It doesn’t do any good to stay dour all day long.