One morning as he nurses his hangover at his girlfriend’s South London council flat, Nelson “Nelly” Rowe (Lennie James) is rudely interrupted by the police. They break down the front door and bundle him off to the station in handcuffs, where he is taken straight to an interrogation room so two officers can barrage him with questions. He doesn’t know why he’s there.
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This dramatic scene takes place in new Sky Atlantic drama Save Me, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen Lennie James demonstrate the art of the televised interrogation. The actor was part of the original Line of Duty cast and had his fair share of intense police interviews as DCI Tony Gates.
Six years later, James – now famous across the Atlantic for his role as Morgan in post-apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead – is back in the interrogation room. He is the creator and writer of this six-part thriller, and also stars as Nelly: a boozer and a “wastrel” (and sometime petty criminal) who is accused of kidnapping his estranged teenage daughter, Jody.
So how did it feel to return to the interrogation room?
“Oh I loved it,” he tells RadioTimes.com with a deep laugh. “Ha ha ha! I loved it, it was a lot of fun. That scene was one of the scenes I really wanted to get right.”
That first interrogation sets the tone for the series, taking something that has become a TV trope and giving it a twist.
“We’re deliberately taking scenes that people might think are scenes that they’ve seen before, and letting people know that we’re going to be doing them a little bit differently – and we’re going to be doing them in our particular way with our particular tone,” he says. “Much more tilted towards realism as opposed to another version of something you’ve already seen on television.”
The police think Nelly knows something about Jody’s disappearance and try to tease information out of him – but to their surprise, he seems completely baffled about what’s going on. Everyone is talking at cross purposes and all at the same time. The scene is pepped with fraught silences and outbursts.
“Particularly in police interrogations there’s always a game being played between the two officers and then a game being played against the person who’s being investigated, and those things are like a little dance, the silences between them and the way that they’re answered,” James tells us.
“And sometimes in those television things there’s the assumption that the character who’s being interrogated knows he’s caught, whereas that’s not necessarily how they go. Because it’s not the first time Nelly’s been in a police interview room, so he’s not freaked out or bothered by being in there, he’s freaked out or bothered because he doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
The reason Nelly doesn’t know what they’re talking about is that he’s not seen his daughter since she was three years old, much less talked to her. But she left behind a video saying she was off to meet her dad – and then disappeared.
“Save Me is the story of Nelly trying to prove his innocence, trying to find his child, and trying to find the person who’s taken his child because whoever it was took her pretending to be him,” James says.
“I wanted to create a real person which this thing was happening to. I wanted to write a story about redemption, I wanted to write not just a happy story about redemption but a complicated story about redemption and one which shows the real costs of redemption, that the mission you are on isn’t necessarily the only journey that’s happening.”
Nelly’s journey is about to collide with Claire McGory’s. Jody’s mother, played by Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones, is distraught about the disappearance of her 13-year-old daughter, who she conceived with Nelly and raised with new husband Barry McGory in a “nice” house in a “nice” part of town.
Why was Jones the perfect choice?
“There are certain people who are just at the top of their game, and at the moment Suranne is at the top of her game,” James says.
“I needed somebody who was going to be able to make Claire something other than a grieving mother, something other than a mother who is crushed by the loss of her child. Somebody who acted, somebody that developed their strength and also somebody who could straddle the two worlds of the life that she’s living now and the place where she came from.
“Also one of the difficult things that Claire has to do in this story is that she has to remind us over and over again of what was lost. She’s the one who introduces us to Jody, she’s the one who makes Jody a real person to us and Suranne was just absolutely the right person to do that, because she’s a smart actress and she’s a person of incredible emotional honesty.”