Lennie James on Save Me, London life and why he’s bored of talking about diversity
The star and creator of Sky Atlantic’s new thriller says that white actors and producers, not black stars, are the “gatekeepers who are going to make the difference” in the industry
The one-take police interview sequences in thriller Line of Duty have become legendary, and viewers have one man to thank for them. “I did push for those long takes,” laughs Lennie James, referring to his epic scene in the first, 2012 series of the drama, in which he played AC-12’s antagonist, DCI Tony Gates. “But I was lucky because Martin Compston [who plays Steve Arnott] and Adrian Dunbar [Ted Hastings] embraced it. Everybody had spent a long time working out where they could break the scene, break the tension, and then I thought, ‘Why are we doing that? Let’s just keep the momentum going!’ I’m glad it’s now become a thing on the show.”
Keeping the momentum going is something James seems particularly good at. Whether he’s scripting or starring, the 52-year-old actor has been working steadily since he first wrote a play as a teenager.
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It’s not a period of his life he wishes to dwell on, but following his mother’s death when he was ten years old, James and his brother, Kester, were brought up in care. Not one to let his rough-and-tumble early years hold him back, James wrote his first play, about a mock trial in a children’s home, aged 17.
“I went to an all boys’ comprehensive school in south London,” he says. “Sport was God and to get on any team gave you status, focus, purpose. But I got into acting, after I followed a girl into an audition. I hung around because I got a part in the play and I kept doing it because I liked the people I was knocking around with. After my first play, one of the directors asked if I’d act again. I was 16 and it was like being picked for the team.”
He decided to write his own play, “because someone said I couldn’t,” he recalls. “I went to the library to see what plays were supposed to look like and wrote it in longhand. I found this lady to type it up for me, but she didn’t know a lot of the words I was using. She’d call me up going: ‘What is this “innit”? Is it “in it”?’ ‘No, it’s “innit”, you say it at the end of the sentence.’”
It translated rather better at the National Youth Theatre, where it won him a writing prize. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama beckoned. Since graduating in 1988, he has worked on everything from Snatch to Blade Runner 2049. And his turn in Line of Duty, along with his role as Morgan in American series The Walking Dead, means his career is healthier than ever.
Today, enveloped in a lurid yellow puffa jacket, he’s holding court in the manner of his latest character and creation, barfly Nelly Rowe, as he dines on chilli from the on-set catering van. As lead actor, writer and executive producer of Sky Atlantic’s new thriller Save Me, which co-stars Suranne Jones, James couldn’t be happier.
“I love the moments between action and cut,” he grins, gold tooth flashing. “But I want you to write this down in capitals,” he says. “I DID NOT write this part for myself. Genuinely! I was busy so I didn’t think I’d be able to do it anyway.”
It’s as well he relented. James is superb as Nelson “Nelly” Rowe, lovable rogue, inveterate boozer, ladies’ man and beating heart of his London high-rise community. But Nelly is also deeply flawed, with dark truths and enemies emerging after he is accused of abducting his estranged 13-year-old daughter.
London has powered much of James’s writing. “I come from a city where rich and poor share the same street and that defines you. It causes a certain way of behaving. I love that, it’s something to be celebrated, and Nelly’s pub is one of the last bastions against gentrification, now the churches and community centres have gone.”
Save Me is not unusual among his projects, both for being drawn from experience and giving a voice to the voiceless. His Royal Television Society Award-winning Storm Damage, for example, cast Adrian Lester as a teacher returning to the children’s home where he grew up, to help the teenagers there.
James works regularly in the UK, but has cult hero status in the US, thanks to The Walking Dead. James has lived in Los Angeles with his partner Giselle and their three daughters since 2005, when he joined a number of black British actors crossing the Atlantic in search of more rewarding work. Have things improved since then? He bristles.
“When we get to the point where this conversation’s no longer necessary, we’re where we should be. I don’t mind walking onto a set where everybody working behind the camera is white. I mind if that’s the case every single time.” He sighs. “I’m really bored of talking about it. Ask white actors, producers, controllers of TV and studios about diversity, because they’re the gatekeepers who are going to make the difference.”
While he waits to see if Save Me will return for another series, James is happy to get on with acting. “I’m a passion project writer,” he says. “Writing is just you on your own in a room with a wish that has to sustain you. Mostly, acting is incredibly sociable: they bring you in, dress and feed you, then take you home after you’ve had fun with people. I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be doing a job I love and still getting away with it. I don’t take that for granted.”