IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sarah Wayne Callies Talks 'Black November'

Wednesday, 21 January 2015 01:04 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sarah Wayne Callies Talks 'Black November'

Actress Sarah Wayne Callies is no stranger to playing strong female characters on screen. 

Television audiences first became aware of Callies for playing Dr. Sara Tancredi on the Fox series Prison Break and the direct-to-DVD spinoff movie Prison Break: The Final Break. But her best role to date was as the doomed Lori Grimes on AMC’s breakout hit The Walking Dead. She also appeared on the big screen as Meteorologist Allison Stone in last summer’s Into the Storm. But now Callies can be seen playing another strong female character in the new film Black November, which opens in theaters, and on VOD and iTunes January 9th. 

Inspired by true events, Black November follows an oil-rich Nigerian community that wages war against an oil corporation to protect their land from being destroyed. When a Nigerian woman named Ebiere (Mbong Amata) is sentenced to death for leading her community in peaceful protest, rebels kidnap an American oil executive (Academy Award-nominee Mickey Rourke) and demand his corporation in stopping Ebiere’s execution. Callies plays Kate Summers, a journalist that befriends Ebiere and joins her fight against injustice. In addition to Amata, Rourke, and Callies, the cast also includes Hakeem Kae-Kazim (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Vivica A. Fox (Jackie Brown), Anne Heche (That’s What She Said), musicians Wyclef Jean and Akon, and Academy Award-winners William Goldman (All the President’s Men) and Kim Basinger (Batman). Interestingly, the film was originally released in 2011 under the title Black Gold, but writer/director Jeta Amata (The Amazing Grace) decided to reshoot 60% of the movie and rerelease it now as Black November.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah Wayne Callies about her work on Black November. The talented actress discussed her new movie, appearing in an entertaining and educational film, the affect its had on audiences, how Black Gold became Black November, filming in Nigeria, dealing with the country’s government, playing a journalist, and the meaning of the film’s ambiguous ending. 

Here is what Sarah Wayne Callies had to say about Black November:

IAR: To begin with, Black November is not only entertaining, but also educational. Is it nice to be part of a project that can do both?

Sarah Wayne Callies: I think (writer/director) Jeta Amata has done something pretty amazing, which is to tell a compelling story that never sounds pretty. At the same time I didn't know anything about this, the situation on the Niger Delta and with oil in Nigeria. I didn't know anything about it until he approached me for the film. I knew this was going to be new territory for a lot of people so thank you for taking the time to watch it and check it out.

I understand that the film was screened at the Kennedy Center and several Congressmen were so moved by it that they invited writer/director Jeta Amata to the White House to discuss the issues in Nigeria. How does it feel to be part of a film that has that kind of a social impact?

Callies: It's a huge part of why I wanted to be involved with the movie. It was such a labor of love for everyone involved. I was involved with it very early on. 

The film was originally released in 2011 as Black Gold, but director Jeta Amata decided to reshoot 60% of the movie and rerelease it as Black November. Can you talk about the differences between the two films?

Callies: They’re the same film. My understanding is it went though a couple of different names. We shot originally the movie in Nigeria in 2008 or 2009. We did that work, and then Jeta developed it and edited it. Over the years the film evolved and they then added Mickey Rourke, and Kim Basinger. It crushed me! My agent called me up at a certain point. He said, “You're in a movie with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger.” I said, really? What is it? He said, “You've already shot it.” I'm like, what? I think it was a movie that a lot of people really wanted to be involved in because it's such an amazing story. It's a story that so many of us are really ignorant about and when Jeta came to me he basically said, “Look this is the story of my home and what's happening to my home.” All I thought was, I'm from Hawaii and that land means the world to me. If somebody came and destroyed half of that land, if that was happening to my homeland I would be mad as hell and want to do something about it. I remember Jeta saying that his greatest goal was to raise awareness at the level of world leadership. When the UN general council agreed to screen it, it was such a huge success for Jeta. I think that really stands as a testament to what he was able to achieve. 

Were you involved in the reshoots for Black November, or was all of your work filmed during the initial shoot for Black Gold?

Callies: No, I wasn't available for any of the reshoots. By the time the reshoots happened I was involved with The Walking Dead. I was in Atlanta and I couldn’t leave. So everything that I did, every time you see me on screen, I’m in Nigeria. I’m on location. That was the first shoot and I really wish I’d been able to be there for the second shoot, but I just couldn’t get away. 

What was it like filming in Nigeria? Did you have to deal with any interference from the local government? 

Callies: Yeah. Working a project like this is really wonderful because it pairs it down to what minimally do you need to make a film? I did all my own hair and makeup. I showed up in Nigeria and the guy who had been hired to do my makeup and hair said, “Listen, I’ve worked on a white lady before. I seriously suggest you do this yourself.” I brought most of my own wardrobe over and kind of did it myself. It was really great as an actor because first of all, I’ve only done Hollywood projects where you got this huge hair, makeup and wardrobe department. We’re so pampered. It was great to be in a situation that’s so much like the kind of student films and student theater projects that I started in. It was really amazing. There was definitely some dodging of the government. I remember being told where we would film. Then I got off the plane in Nigeria and said when are we going to set? I was told that they moved our location because the government found out we were going to be shooting there. They thought we’d be in a lot of trouble.  Apparently some people found out I was going to be down there and some producers had concerns about kidnapping. So we changed our entire shooting location. If you do that in Hollywood, it takes six weeks and costs ten million dollars. When you do it in Nigeria, you just point the hand in another direction and drive until you get out. It was really beautiful to see how minimal a production can be. 

While the film is fictional, it’s based on real events. Did you have a chance to speak with any of the journalists that originally covered the story?

Callies: You know, I don’t think any journalists had been over there. But I did reach out to somebody through a friend of a friend who had been a journalist for years in overseas areas. I think he spent some time in Southeast Asia and Africa, although not in Nigeria because most news bureaus don’t have a Nigeria office where they share a correspondence. I spent quite a lot of time on the phone talking to him about how involved you get, and what kinds of questions are you willing to ask and not willing to ask. Where’s the line between professional ethics and that kind of thing? The script was different back then too, because it all took place in Nigeria. There was a lot more interaction between Ebiere and Kate. So those questions were a little bit more relevant at the time.

Finally, at the end of the film it seems like Kate might adopt Ebiere’s infant son. Was that the impression that the director wanted to leave the audience with?

Callies: Well, you know it’s a tricky scene to have a white lady in Africa holding a black baby. I remember bringing that to Jeta and I said, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this. It was right around the time of Madonna’s adoption. I didn’t know how I felt about that. He said something really interesting. He said, “Those are understandable hang-ups for somebody who’s coming from America. I’m not African American. I’m African! I have my own relationship to being black. I have my own relationship to white people. I don’t have the same functions as you do. This is my movie and I’m telling you to hold the baby.” I thought that was interesting. I came from a very American perspective, and it’s not an American film. It’s a Nigerian film! The movie changed a little bit between when I was filming and the cut we have now. I think at a certain point Jeta threw out the professional distance that journalism requires. She eventually throws her lot in with the struggle and particularly with her friend who’s heading the peaceful arm of this struggle. She sort of commits herself to doing whatever she can. I don’t know that anybody’s made formal arrangements for adoption of the baby, but I don’t think she’s going to let anything happen to that little kid.    

Black November opens in theaters, and on VOD and iTunes January 9th. 

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