Colin Callender has worn numerous hats in his long entertainment career.
He won an Emmy Award in 1983 as the producer of the mini-series The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and went on to produce other television programs as well as feature films.
More recently, he was executive producer of the mini-series Dancing on the Edge and series The White Queen, both for the BBC and Starz, the Starz series Magic City and the NBC series Dracula.
He’s currently enjoying Emmy buzz for two projects: the BBC/PBS Masterpiece mini-series Wolf Hall, a historical drama of the political intrigue and machinations in the court of King Henry VIII (played by Damian Lewis), as seen from the perspective of statesman-lawyer-adviser Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance); and the BBC/Starz mini-series The Missing, about a couple (James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor) whose young son disappears, and the effects of their years-long search for him.
But for more than two decades, from 1987 to 2008, Callender wore a television-executive chapeau at HBO, first as executive producer for HBO Showcase and then in 1999, as president of HBO Films.
During his tenure at HBO Films, the network’s movies and mini-series won more than 80 Emmy Awards, among them mini-series John Adams with a record-breaking 13 statuettes, Angels in America (eleven Emmys), The Pacific (eight), Band of Brothers (seven) and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (six) and the movie Miss Evers’ Boys (five).
He left to return to producing, launching his company, Playground Entertainment.
Were that not enough, Callender won a Tony Award in 2014 for producing the Broadway revival of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, then starring Neil Patrick Harris. That was his second Broadway show; his first, the previous year, was the drama Lucky Guy, starring Tom Hanks.
He is one of the producers of the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, based on a story by Potter books author J.K. Rowling and others, which will premiere next year in London.
Born and raised in England, Callender was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2003, for his services to the film and television industries.
Based primarily in New York, he also works from Playground’s offices in England. His next television project is the film The Dresser, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen, for the BBC and Starz.
Q: How does it feel, being in the midst of Emmy season and having two shows being touted as potential contenders?
A: I’m very proud. The actors, writers and producers do things on television that they simply can’t do anywhere else.
There’s a lot of talk about the golden age of television. Some of the best stories now being told are on television. People are turning to television – talent and audiences alike – for their stories.
Q: What attracts you to a particular project?
A: I think one looks for great stories that engage us emotionally and intellectually, and that shine a light on a world we think we know, but we haven’t seen before.
Q: What is your approach to producing?
A: What is particularly interesting, and fun, is being able to draw from the theater, film and television worlds, and mix and match. You have all sorts of people you can get.
The director of Wolf Hall [Peter Kosminsky] is a BAFTA winner. The writer [Peter Straughan] was nominated for an Oscar. One of the leads [Rylance] is an English stage actor[and three-time Tony Award winner].
That mixing comes from England. The work we did at HBO helped break that [prejudice against television] down here, with Angels in America – you had [playwright] Tony Kushner and [movie stars] Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. The English way and the American way are getting closer and closer together. It’s fun to embrace the two heritages.
Q: Why did you name your production company Playground?
A: Because when you’re making great drama, it’s very important that the actual process of making it is enjoyable. Kids explore the world [on a playground] – they take risks in a way that’s fun. Those ingredients make good drama. You need to take risks, hang out with like-minded people.
Q: How has your long tenure at HBO affected your producing now?
A: I think the key thing to realize is that there’s a way to entertain the audience but engage them emotionally, as well. Something can be fun to watch, but it can also be smart. This idea of addressing real-world complexities, but to navigate that as entertainment – that’s part of the legacy of HBO.
The audience wants to be respected. It’s hungry for smart, intelligent drama. That’s what Wolf Hall and The Missing aspire to. They embrace the rough edges of the real world, and have the ability to entertain at the same time.
Wolf Hall is a story about power, betrayal, infidelity. These are things that drive the very best drama. but at the same time, at the core of it is a man called Cromwell who’s trying to find a balance, who’s struggling to survive.
The Missing is ostensibly about a missing child, but it’s really about a marriage, about how a husband and wife navigate the obstacles.
Q. How did you move into producing for Broadway?
A. I was an actor as a kid, and my first job was as a stage manager. I did a lot of [programs based on plays] at HBO, culminating with Angels in America.
I read a screenplay by Nora Ephron, and I thought it should be a play. Nora and Tom Hanks were good friends, and she approached him about doing it. I knew Tom very well, as we’d done lots of things together – Band of Brothers, The Pacific.
When Nora died, Tom and I talked at length about it; we said, “We have to make this happen, as a tribute to Nora.” That was a very sad and difficult moment, but the fact that we had a prior relationship was very helpful.
As in television, theater is about finding the right material, the right stories. The things that draw me to a story are the same whether it’s for television or live on stage.
And I’ve learned that how something gets made impacts what’s on stage. It’s about creating a safe environment for talented people to do their work, to take risks to do their best work.
Q: Just as on a playground. … What was it like, receiving your CBE?
A: You get a medal on a ribbon, like the Kennedy Center Honors. You get a certificate signed by the Queen: Elizabeth R, for Regina. You go to Buckingham Palace, and there’s a whole ceremony.
And you get to meet the Queen.