Save Me

Interview with Lennie James

The idea behind this is all yours. Tell us about it.

I like telling stories about redemption and about people who are trying to find a balance between who they’ve been and who they want to be. That was the basis of the story. When I decided on the character of Nelly, the rest of the world opened up for me. He is an unlikely hero and a difficult and complicated fella who, on the surface, seems very simple. I wanted to write about someone who doesn’t just take everybody else by surprise but also takes himself by surprise.

Can you tell us a bit more about Nelly?

He’s the geezer in the bar who, 10 or 15 years ago, all the men wanted to drink with and all the women wanted to get next to. But now it’s all hanging a little bit ugly. A part of who he used to be comes back to haunt him. He has to then figure out if he’s going to continue being himself or if he is going to try and be someone different.

You mentioned redemption. What’s Nelly looking to redeem himself for?

I think he’s not fulfilled his own potential. When he was that geezer in the pub, he was arguably something to behold. But he didn’t do anything with it. Now, he lives with whoever he happens to be bedding down with, he works on the door at a club and he does karaoke nights every now and then, which is enough to keep him in booze and yellow puffer jackets. He is smart, resourceful and loyal but he is also a bully, a liar and a drinker. He’s flawed. Over the course of the story, all of those things both help him and hinder him.

How autobiographical is the story?

It’s not really. I never lived in south-east London, I’m a south-west London boy and, although that’s just a matter of miles, they are very different places. It’s a world that I didn’t grow up in but that I came to know through family members. It’s a place that, at one point in my life, I hung around in quite a lot. It’s somewhere that fascinates me because it’s part of London that isn’t going to be gentrified too easily. It’s going to hang around simply because it’s a neighbourhood that nobody else wants.

Is there anyone in particular that Nelly was based on?

Nelly is an amalgamation of different people I know, have heard about and made up.

Will the people he’s based on recognise themselves in him?

Yeah, there are a couple of bits that happen that are going to scream across south-east London. I’m going to get a couple of phone calls.

How does Nelly react when he learns his daughter has gone missing?

The first thing Nelly does is go to see Claire. He can’t believe that she would think that he could do such a thing. It is Claire that wakes him up to how absent he has been and how that absence could be interpreted in many different ways.

Given that Nelly hasn’t seen Jody for a long time why does he set out to find her?

Out of shame. This has all happened because Nelly wasn’t in her life. The fact whoever has led Jody away did so pretending to be Nelly hurts him to his core. The version they created of Nelly had Jody loving him. He couldn’t articulate it, but Nelly knows he isn’t worthy of and couldn’t live up to that love, but he needs to know how it was achieved.

How does Claire fit into the story?

Claire is the love of Nelly’s life but it is an impossible love. They met at a time when he was dazzling and smart and the cock of The Towers. He should have held on to her, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. He let her go and now she’s gone on to be who she was meant to be, while he hasn’t.

How has it been working with the rest of the cast, including Suranne Jones, Stephen Graham, Jason Flemyng and Susan Lynch?

It’s been great. I am so proud of the cast we have assembled. Me and Stevie and Flemyng have known each other since Snatch and we’ve wanted to work together for years so being able to do that has been an absolutely joy. I have known Sue Lynch since we did a play at The National years ago and her fella Craig [Parkinson] is a good mate of mine. Sue completely surprised us and completely and utterly demanded that part was hers. She got it and now she kicked the s * * t out of it.

Having never met Suranne, did you try to get to know her a little beforehand?

Yes, we met up and chatted about the show. She’s a fantastic actress so there wasn’t much of a conversation to have to be honest. I just wanted to make sure that she was tall enough and her breath didn’t smell. She was and it didn’t so we were on.

Is there much action in the series?

There is. There’s all the typical stuff that happens in thrillers – people getting their fingers broken for strange reasons. I enjoy it. This doesn’t necessarily hold for when you are doing Shakespeare, for example, but on some levels when this job is at its best, it’s like you are nine years old and in the back garden playing with your best mates. There have been days like that on this.

Does the series have any big watercooler moments?

If it doesn’t, I will be really surprised. There are a couple of moments where people are going to push back in their chair or jump out of their skins.

Is it real booze in the pub? Do you get to have a swift half?

No, how would we get the job done? We’d get maybe three takes and that would be it. I don’t drink beer so it’s an absolute nightmare. My body does weird things on it. An amount directly proportional to the amount I take in has to come out immediately. I don’t know why I wrote that Nelly drinks pints because on filming days when I had to, I spent quite a lot of time in the gents’. That’s Hollywood.

Does it feel like an honour to be asked to write something like this and then to star in it?

The first day on set is incredible. You walk on, you see the cast and crew and you see all those people are working because of what you have written down. That’s an honour.

What makes Save Me different from other dramas about missing children?

I don’t know how to answer that question. In my head this isn’t a drama about a missing child. Though it is a major catalyst in the story, that is not what it’s about. Save Me is a drama about redemption, salvation and life catching up with you. It’s about finding out who you are by being forced to go beyond yourself.

Is it nice to have the contrast between working on shows or films in America and coming back and working in London?

Yes, in the sense that I like being back home and filming in London. But out of all the stuff I have been doing over the recent years, Blade Runner was the first time in a long while when I’ve walked on to set and thought, wow, this is a big eff-off movie. Usually with films and television, because of budget and practicality, everybody is using the same cameras and everything kind of looks the same. So, there isn’t really a big comparison between here and there – other than accents, weather and food.

Is it The Walking Dead that people constantly want to ask you about?

It’s strange, I try and have a very clear demarcation line between the work I do and the person that I am but it’s tough with The Walking Dead, because it is so huge worldwide. I went to Rome with the family and we went to the Vatican. We walked down the wrong way and a Vatican guard came running after us shouting. I thought we were in real trouble but then he said, "Are you Lennie James?" I said, "Yeah", and he said, "Would you like to have a look around?" I thought, this is weird – you should kick me out to show an example to my kids! I think it’s wrong you get to go where nobody else does because you are on this strange TV show. I don’t think of myself as the geezer from the telly so when it happens it takes me by surprise.

What have been the high and lowlights of your career so far?

I have been lucky. There are only two jobs in my entire career that I wish I had never done. There are only two people that I wish I had never worked with. There have also been a disproportionate number of jobs that I would have done for nothing. I don’t see the point in doing what I am doing if I’m not having a good time. The mantra I have for work is, let’s have a really good time, taking it seriously.

Are there any roles you wish you’d played?

Blade. I was a Marvel fanatic growing up and I loved that character when he first came into the comics. Wesley Snipes was utterly brilliant in it, and I still contend it’s arguably the best transformation from comic to film of all of the Marvel movies. I deeply wished it was me.

By BBC Australia