Exclusive: The Real Story Behind That Prison Break Death
Sarah Wayne Callies by Jeremy Cowart/Fox
If you’re still in denial about the horrific turn of events on tonight’s
Prison Break, well, stop reading, ’cause a stone-cold reality check is coming
your way: That was definitely Sara Tancredi’s decapitated head staring up
at Lincoln from that box. No ifs, ands or red herrings about it. Michael
‘s long-suffering soul mate is dead and she ain’t comin’ back.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. And now prepare yourself
for another sobering piece of news. Yes, my friends, it gets worse. The
sad truth is, it didn’t have to end this way. It wasn’t supposed to end this
As Prison Break executive producer Matt Olmstead explains in this exclusive
interview, the violent nature of Sara’s death was the culmination of long
and fruitless negotiations between the show and new-mom Sarah Wayne Callies
. It’s enough to make your head spin. (Sorry. Poor taste.) Stick around after
the Q&A for Callies’ response. And then feel free to assign blame wherever
you feel it’s warranted.
Last January, after it was announced that Sarah was pregnant, your colleague
, Paul Scheuring, assured fans that he had no intention of killing off her
character. What changed?
Matt Olmstead: What changed is that our initial pitch to the network was
[rejected], so we had to go back to the drawing board. I remember we were
sitting in the room thinking, “How do we unlock Season 3, motivation-wise
?” Since we’re not a procedural, we have to keep everyone moving forward.
We have to evolve. And given what Michael’s been through, how do you keep
him going? And then it was tossed out, “What happens if Sara gets killed
as an extension of what we already had planned for Season 3?” We knew that
would work. But clearly it was a big conversation. And when we pitched the
network, they wanted to know if there was any way we could avoid that, because
everyone loved Sarah’s work. But in order to make the season work, we really
didn’t have any other motivation for Michael. We determined that this was
the right thing to do in order to really jolt the series.
Did you ever stop to consider that this might be a slap in the face to fans
who had invested two years in the Michael-Sara relationship?
Olmstead: We took everything into consideration. Our initial idea was to
have [Sarah/Sara appear in] the first 13 episodes, so she and Michael could
have a proper goodbye. There were going to be some really emotional scenes
where he tried to save her from dying, but she ultimately passed. So then
we whittled it down to 11 episodes, then 10 episodes, then nine episodes
, then four episodes…. Then we suggested flying to her — she was pregnant
[at the time] and living in a remote part of Canada — and bringing a camera
crew to her house, but that wasn’t accepted. We then whittled it down to
just a phone conversation, and that was turned down, too. We were really
looking forward to paying off that relationship. But [when] it became evident
that that wasn’t going to happen, we made lemonade out of a lemon.
So, as a result, you were forced to kill her off sooner than you had planned
Olmstead: Much sooner. We used the story to our advantage in that she was
being held hostage. [Sarah] was gracious enough to let us use her image,
which really helped. I totally get it, personally. She was, at the time,
pregnant and living in a remote part of Canada and nesting; [she] kind of
looked at the options and didn’t want to go forward. No hard feelings
. The show is an ensemble. The show moves forward. There are very few
actors on the show.
Wasn’t Sarah under contract? Didn’t she have to return?
Olmstead: That’s a business-affairs question.
[At this point, 20th Century spokesperson Chris Alexander interjects: “We
had to either pick her up for the entire season of 22, according to her
contract, or we had to make a new contract with her. We determined in May
that we didn’t plan to use her for the full 22, so we chose not to renew
our existing contract with her. And so, to get her back for the 13 or 14
that we wanted, we had to make a new deal, and she declined.”]
What was your understanding as to why she didn’t want to come back? It seems
strange that she refused to return in any capacity. Doesn’t it seem strange
Olmstead: It looked like a pretty good deal on the face of it. We definitely
came up in money. Thirteen episodes would have allowed the character to
have a proper exit. We were willing to push the start date back [to accommodate
her maternity leave], which would have meant her coming in [around] Episode
10, but that wasn’t accepted. So then we offered to come up [to Canada]
before she gave birth and film at her house. Pretty good money and she wouldn
‘t even have to leave her house. That wasn’t accepted. So it was a little
curious to me and to others why she was taking such a hard stance. [Maybe
] she felt that she was made certain assurances about being part of the show
this season. And in fairness to her, those assurances were given, because
she was such a valuable member of the show…. Also, she’s up [in Canada]
. She’s comfortable. She’s starting a family. Maybe she didn’t want to have
to fly down and have to do this stuff. Or maybe she felt like she wanted
to be part of the show [full time], not just half the season. Perhaps she
felt a little jilted. Our [original] plan was to definitely keep her for
[all of] Season 3, but after a couple of times of getting it kicked back
from the network, we had to come up with a new idea and that necessitated
her character being killed.
Did you ever get an inkling that she wasn’t happy working on the show?
Olmstead: No. I’ve worked in TV for 10 years. I’ve been around difficult
actors. I’ve definitely been around malcontents. She was none of those. Great
actress. Very smart. Good suggestions. And an asset to the show.
Sarah was recently quoted in a French magazine saying that she was “sad,”
“shocked” and felt “deceived” by the decision to kill off the character.
Presuming this is what she actually said, does this surprise you?
Olmstead: Not really. She was invested in the character and wanted to be
a part of the show. We felt the same way.
Let’s discuss the way you killed her off. Some might view it as you guys
exacting revenge on Sarah for not returning.
Olmstead: We really had no way of using her image other than the existing
images that we had. Those Polaroids we used are old wardrobe shots from
Season 1 and 2. She didn’t give us any new photos. So [we had to devise a
way to] kill her [and still] show a body…. Obviously she wasn’t going to
fly down and be a DOA for us. We just wanted to go with the most dramatic
way to do it, a way that you could do it and not need the actress. Also,
what it does is it helps put teeth into the antagonist of the show, the
Susan character. Because a lot of times with [villains], they’re constantly
wagging their finger, “You better do this, you better do that or this is
going to happen” and it becomes hollow after a while. So, this absolutely
dramatizes that when Susan issues a cautionary to Lincoln and that goes
unheeded, this is the result.
So Sarah’s refusal to return essentially limited how you could kill her?
Olmstead: Yeah, basically. Could you have seen a [body] double’s feet being
shoved into a meat grinder? Sure. Could you see a wide shot of a female
body being dumped in an ocean? Probably. But dramatically, this allowed us
to get the most out of what little we had to work with…. We used her not
coming back to our advantage. When the bomb finally drops for Michael —
and he finds out that she has been killed — it’s an unbelievable sequence
between him and Lincoln. And it really lays a huge motivation on him.
Response from Sarah Wayne Callies
Although Callies declined multiple interview requests, last Friday the actress
sent me the following statement via her spokesperson.
“As hard as we all tried, the Prison Break powers that be and I were unable
to find a way to meet both the needs of the story and the needs of my family
. We parted wishing each other well. I had a wonderful time working with
the creative team and have a world of respect for all of them; they took
great care of Dr. Sara. I’m also enormously grateful to the fans. They’ve
been so gracious and supportive, and I hope they continue to enjoy the show
So, there you have it. Michael and Sara’s love story was cut short over a
frakkin’ contract dispute. Assuming you’re already in the anger phase of
your grieving process, let the blame game begin in the comments section
below. Also, don’t forget to check out this week’s Ask Ausiello for scoop
on the next chapter in this unbelievable tale: Michael’s rebound relationship