In 2010 Lennie James’ pilot episode character Morgan Jones in zombie drama The Walking Dead was so compelling the showrunners kept bringing him back until he became a series regular from 2015.
James’ portfolio is varied and pioneering. He played ace trauma consultant surgeon Mr. Glen Boyle in Sky Atlantic’s Critical (2015); Joe, father to Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown in Get On Up (2014) homicide detective Joe Geddes in the US version of the British drama Low Winter Sun (2013), and DCI Anthony “Tony” Gates in the first series of the critically acclaimed Line of Duty (2012).
He also helped Wil Johnson pioneer British black men as TV detectives in the 1990s, by portraying DC Carl Tanner in a 1994 episode of A Touch of Frost; and DC Alan Oxford in a 1995 episode of Thief Takers and DC Bruce Hannaford in all 12 episodes of Out of The Blue (1995-96).
James definitely had a TBB target on his back, so badly have we been wanting a chance to talk to this BAFTA-winning, multi-nominated actor (Lucky Break, 2001) about his work. The chance finally arose when we caught up with him direct from LA, about his writer-lead actor roles in Sky Atlantic’s newest six-part, gritty thriller, Save Me. A charismatic and generous interviewee with an easy laugh, we were not disappointed…
You burst into our lives as the fantastic Sol in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000). It was the first British film in a long time with three almost-three-dimensional black characters. You, Robbie Gee as Vinny and Ade as Tyrone, did such a great job…
Thank you! And we made it all the way to the end of the film, which was rare at that time.
You were genuinely funny …
I’d known Robbie for years – we were actors coming through at the same time. But we’d never worked together until Snatch. It was a very rushed auditioning period, we got the scripts on a Wednesday; read for the part on Wednesday afternoon; we got offered the parts on the Thursday, and we were filming on the Saturday. Me and Robbie auditioned together because they paired everybody up. I think we were first or second in, and we ended up getting the gig. I’m very glad that Robbie was there and had my back. We had a lot of fun.
James was recently in the much anticipated Bladerunner 2049 (2017) as Mister Cotton, a character he actively re-worked with director Denis Villeneuve which not only affected the way the character looked and behaved, but also the shape of his scenes and the script as a whole . This really speaks to his talent as a scriptwriter, world builder, and creator of character…
Congratulations on your new Sky Atlantic drama, Save Me. It seems that there might have been a toss-up at the beginning of your career because you were cast in the first series you ever wrote for – Screenplay (“Between The Cracks”, 1988)?
Yes, I did my first play, as acting, when I was 16. I think I said at some party, “I bet I could write a play!” and someone said, “I bet you can’t!” So I wrote a play, long-hand because I couldn’t type, up in my bedroom, and then sent it to someone to type up. She kept calling me back because it was set in South London and there were lots of phrases in it that she didn’t quite understand. So I had to explain, “innit” and “blaps” and “bigboutya” and things like that, and how to spell them. That’s where I started writing.
James also has theatre experience, he wrote the play, The Sons of Charlie Paora (2004)…
I joined a theatre company called Shift Work and started acting and writing for [them]. The BBC came down and saw one of our plays and televised it. That was one of my earliest writing experiences. I thought coming out of drama school, I may write more than I would act. That’s not the way it went. But it is something I take very seriously.
James’ writing was recognised in 2001 with a BAFTA nomination for the BBC single drama Storm Damage (2000), in which he also co-starred alongside Ashley Walters, Mona Hammond and, of course, Adrian Lester. It’s been 18 years since he’s written.
Why did Save Me bring you back to writing?
Sometimes you have an idea, and it just stays with you. The only way to get rid of it is to write it. This one has been bubbling up for a while in me. I find myself attracted to redemption stories and I’ve always wanted to write a thriller. Anne Mensah, head of drama at Sky, made a phone call to my agent, asking whether or not I had an idea that I was interested in writing – Anne remembered Storm Damage, and thought she would take a punt and see whether or not, after 18 years I had another idea – would have been a little bit embarrassing if I hadn’t.
Save Me is the story of Nelson ‘Nelly’ Rowe (James) who embarks on a tireless quest to find his estranged, missing daughter Jody, Nelly will go to any length to uncover the truth and he’ll discover more about himself and those around him than he could have ever imagined.
What inspired you to write on such an emotive subject?
I was in Detroit shooting a television series, I got the telephone call then took a long weekend off work and set about putting the idea together. Once I decided who the central character was gonna to be, and where it was gonna be set, the whole story just opened up for me. It does have a dark centre but I think it’s surprisingly funny, well I hope it is. I think it’s touching; I think it’s kind of challenging, and it is what I wanted it to be – a genuine thriller, which just happens to be set in places where most thrillers aren’t. A housing estate in South-East London.
Did you feel particularly strongly about highlighting an aspect of online grooming or did it happen organically as you wrote, that Jody was going to be a 13-year-old girl?
Yes, I did. To be absolutely honest, it happened by osmosis. From the moment I had the idea, although it centres around a missing girl, and the fear that she’s been caught by some kind of online predator, the heart of the story is a father’s search for a child that he doesn’t know. That was the thing that really interested me.
This has been tackled in various ways before, but the angle from your character Nelly’s perspective was one of the most original I’ve seen in a while…
When I was pitching it to Sky, one of the things I was saying is that the worst thing that’s happened to this man’s child may well be one of the best things that’s happened to him; it may well be the making of him. It’s also the story of a man whose gonna learn, in a way, to become a better father to a child he may never meet.
The setting of Save Me feels so authentic …
One of the reasons it’s set where it’s set and why it’s populated by the people it’s populated by is, again, that usually when you see stories set around housing estates, they’re about hardship and difficulties. All of those things I took as a given, and then just wanted these people to live outside of the expected circumstance, and for Nelly to be a real representation of someone I recognise from that environment. Add the premise to it – what would happen if he had been an estranged, very distant figure in his daughter’s life, then brought back into his daughter’s life, because she’s been taken away! Then, the thing that fires him up and sets him off on this impossible journey is that someone took his child pretending to be him. At one point when Jody leaves the message for her mum, she says that she loves him, meaning Nelly. But it’s not Nelly and that just gets to him. It’s about that and how far you will go, how much you will find out about yourself, and what you’re capable of when pushed to it.
There are some great touches, like the picture of Nelly wearing a t-shirt with the logo “Legobeast” (an OMG moment for me – memories). You give a nod to Cockney rhyming slang; the middle-aged Chinese man doing Tai Chi; the young guy howling in the night from one of the balconies; and, of course, Tam. I think our introduction to her is so sensitively written, and brilliantly played by another Snatch alumnus, Jason Flemyng, whom we first meet in episode two in a handful of wonderfully wrought scenes where traditional masculinity meets queer masculinity…
I’m really glad that you mentioned Tam. Jason gives a beautiful, subtle, real, uncluttered performance. It could have gone a lot of different ways but we managed to really ground that character and create somebody that is [authentic] and recognisable, informed, exists within this world, and also adds to what this world is. Because you usually think about it as being close-knit and shut down, but, they’re the spaces where everybody who comes from somewhere else kind of ends up now. But also, they have that sense of community, look after the people who live within it, and any history or difficulty that Tam might have had in settling on this estate is way behind [her], and [she’s] now somebody who the local people know and love.
I recognise so much in this world, and I thank you for that. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a while.
Well, thank you.
There’s also your other Snatch reunion – did you have Stephen Graham in mind for this role as Melon, initially your best friend with a dark past?
To be absolutely honest, I didn’t have Stevie in mind. I didn’t think we’d get him because he is the busiest actor in showbiz (Yardie, 2018; Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, 2017, Pirates of The Caribbean V, 2017). A lot of that was down to Nick Murphy, our director, who has done a fantastic job on this. He had worked with Stevie on Occupation (2009), and when we sat down to think about casting, Nick said, “How about Stevie G for Melon?” and I was like, “We’re never gonna get him!” He goes, “Just ask!” I hope I’m quoting him correctly, but [Stevie] said to Nick on the phone, “I don’t need to read it. I’m there! Just tell me when I need to show up.” We had to do a little bit of shuffling around, but I’m glad that he came along and played that part because he does an absolutely amazing job.
We worked together once since Snatch – a short film up in Manchester a few years back, [Without You (2003, BBC)], but we’d been looking to get together and do something. Luckily, he came along and said yes to this one, as did Suranne Jones, who gives such a grounded and beautiful performance as Claire. It’s a tough part that I wrote for her, and she really nailed it. There are a number of performances that I think we absolutely lucked out with – Kerry Godliman who plays [barmaid and childhood friend] Teens; Susan Lynch who plays [frail, long-suffering, current girlfriend] Stace… Jason does an absolutely beautiful job. I’m very, very glad that he, along with a number of the others, said yes.
With time running out, I have to put you on the spot slightly. One of our general frustrations is that black women are often not portrayed in a sympathetic light. In light of Star Trek: Discovery, Luke Cage, Black Lightning and Black Panther, we are, hopefully, at the dawning of black women finding their place and their voice as the hero, the love interest, a voice of wisdom.
In Save Me, we see Jody and the ever-fantastic Nadine Marshall as the razor-sharp DS Adeshola “Shola” O’Halloran, not as the bog standard, very junior DC, which is a definite plus…
Nadine is in it all the way through. There is also Camilla [Beeput] who plays Zita, after shouting at [Nelly] across the bar, their relationship grows over the six episodes, and also Remmie [Miller], who plays [Daisy] the other half to Gos [Thomas Coombes] – she is also mixed race. I was very aware of that, and anybody who’s seen Storm Damage knows where I come down on that. I write the world I see. One of the things that was characteristic about the particular pub I based this on, is that the person I based Nelly on was one of maybe two black faces that were regularly in that pub. Part of what I was writing and wanted to create through Nelly, was that sense that that’s who he was. But, also, that’s where he started off being but giving him room to manoeuvre. So there is still a lot of this story to tell. I’m very proud of the story we’re telling and the characters that we’ve created, and the way we got the job done, which was very important to me as well, and I’ll stand by all of those things.
Thinking he had rung off, I gushed a little to his agent, not realising James was actually still on the line waiting for me to ring off. He had a good laugh.
The authentic setting of present-day Deptford, enriched by a note-perfect, recognisable past, recreated by James, will draw you in and invest in what happens next to his flawed, but determined character.
All six episodes of Save Me will be available from Wednesday 28 February on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.
 – Ghanaian Canadian Brit Anne Mensah moved to Sky in 2011 from 10 years at the BBC as Head of Independent Drama and Head of Drama for BBC Scotland. Wanting to oversee that at least 20% of the stars and writers of Sky’s UK-originated TV shows would come from a Black, Asian or other ethnic backgrounds by the end of 2015. She has overseen productions such as Penny Dreadful (2014-16), Critical (2015), Fortitude (2015-), The Five (2016) and Guerilla (2017), all of which feature BAME actors in central or central supporting roles – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/opinion/anne-mensah-why-skys-drama-supremo-worries-about-her-customers-not-her-viewers-9986531.html