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Interview: Lennie James


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British actor Lennie James is likely best known for his role as Morgan in The Walking Dead but boasts credits in over thirty television shows and over twenty films. Now, he has written and stars in a new show for Sky called Save Me. 

Save Me is “set in an unlikely place, with an unlikely hero setting off on an impossible journey, and the story is about what he finds out about himself, what he finds out about those close to him, and what he finds out about what it means to be a dad,” James explains of the premise. “And it’s all set across a thriller.”

It’s hardly James’ first venture into the world of screenwriting, and it was thanks to one of his past writing endeavours that Sky commissioned this new show. “I got a telephone call from Anne Mensah, who is the Head of Drama at Sky, and she had seen a film that I wrote a few years ago… [and wanted to] find out if I had any other ideas that I might like to write for Sky”.

“One part of an idea that I had, of a story I was trying to tell, that kinda jumped out at me, was a story of a man who was distant and separated from his daughter’s life and was brought back into it because that child had been taken away. And that just kept bubbling, and bubbling, and bubbling to me, and in the end, that turned into Save Me,” he explains.  

One of the show’s defining features, and one that renders it so arresting amongst others in the thriller genre, is its setting; the story is based on a council estate in Lewisham, south-east London, and the characters involved are very much products of their environments. It’s an unusual premise, and one that works.

When asked why he had decided to set his show in a housing estate, James’ answer is very straightforward: “Because thrillers aren’t set there”. “It’s a place where, although I didn’t directly grow up there (I grew up in south-west London), it’s a place I knew well because I had family members who lived there, and I hung out there a lot.”

“It was an area I was familiar with and that kind of sense of a community that exists around a housing estate that used to have churches, and used to have community centres, and had clubs and all those kinds of things, and everything [then is] whittled away, and the last thing left standing is a communal place, this pub. I wanted to write about that”.

Nelly, the show’s protagonist and James’ character, is wholeheartedly a product of this pub, a last-standing remnant of the community. The character of Nelly grew out personal experience and out of Save Me’s premise, in equal parts, as James explains that “he’s kind of based on an amalgamation of a couple people that I know, and part homage, part seeing the only other black face there (speaking on his experience living in a similar environment), and thinking ‘Well, what is that guy’s story?’, and him looking at me thinking, ‘What is that guy’s story?’.”

“And at the beginning that’s where Nelly came from, but as the story and its thriller aspect developed, Nelly because a kind of person on his own”.

Opposite Lennie James stars Suranne Jones, a BAFTA award-winner for her lead role in Doctor Foster, who here stars as Claire, the mother of Nelly’s missing child. “She does an utterly fantastic job. I mean, she always does, but… and she herself will say that this one was a bit of a departure for her, as it’s not usually where she comes out to play.”

“And she does a fantastic job, as do Steve (Graham) and Jason (Flemyng). And I have to say, if there’s anything we really, really got right and that made the biggest difference on what Save Me has turned out to be, it was in the casting. We got a really cracking cast and I feel absolutely no shame in saying that out loud, as often as is humanly possible. We put together a shit-hot cast, and I’m very glad and proud that they all said yes.”

Having only previewed the first two episodes, I was curious as to whether James had a specific scene or moment that he was particularly excited for audiences to see. “There is a moment in one of the later episodes where Nelly discovers who might have set up everything to has happened to him and to Jodie… I think we’ve got it right because the clue is chucked up and no one will notice until Nelly notices it. Everybody who’s seen that so far has been taken by surprise, and the realisation only lands with them when it lands with Nelly.”

“With how sophisticated television audiences are at the moment, if we get away with beating even half the people, then I think we’ll have scored a major point.” He laughs, “It’s impossible to talk about it without giving stuff away! In episode four or five there is a moment that I think is a genuine moment of surprise”.

Finally, Lennie James, with his three decades of experience in the film and television industries, has some parting words of wisdom for future and aspiring actors or screenwriters.

“I think if you want to go into acting, and translating to writing, you have to be really, really clear about what it is you love about it. If you don’t love the moments between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’, if you can’t love or grow to love the moments of solitude where it’s just you and a blank computer screen, or a blank piece of paper, and if you don’t really enjoy writing and putting that down, but rather what you really enjoy is the other stuff that comes with it, the premieres and the after-parties, and the people giving you a pat on the back, then there are other things you can do that will do that for you.”

“Because with acting and writing, you’ve really got to love it to sustain it, because it’s not nearly as glamorous as people make it out. And if you are going to do it, then study, and read, and travel, because ultimately in the end, both for acting and writing, the only things you have to go on are your knowledge of the world, your emotional breadth, and your ability to translate”.

Save Me starts on Sky Atlantic on Friday 28th February.

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