LENNIE JAMES is back in England. Having been a season regular for the past eight years on the American hit zombie show The Walking Dead, James managed to find some time between his tight shooting schedule to start writing again. His last writing credit came almost two decades ago, with the television film Storm Damage – for which he was nominated for a BAFTA TV Award. Save Me is a six-part story of Nelly Rowe, a charming chancer whose life is turned upside down when he is accused of kidnapping his estranged daughter. James stars alongside prolific actress Suranne Jones in the London set drama. This year seems to be a year of change for Lennie, not only is he finally back writing and acting on home soil, but he is making an unprecedented move from The Walking Dead to its sister show Fear The Walking Dead – which when announced, sent social media into meltdown. Lennie has just finished filming Double Play, a film adaptation of Frank Martinus Arion’s novel and recently made an appearance in the highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049.
AC: When did you first have the idea for Save Me?
LENNIE JAMES: Anne Mensah [Head of Drama at Sky] phoned me and asked if I had an idea. I had a long weekend in Detroit to myself and got into thinking about it. There was a part of another story I was thinking about that just jumped out; the story of a man, out of touch with his child, learning to be a better father to her once she had been taken away.
Was it always your intention to play Nelly?
It wasn’t my intention at all. I didn’t think I would be able to because of my commitment to The Walking Dead. Also, I didn’t want my involvement to delay or get in the way of getting the thing made. It kind of ended up being me because everyone who read the first episode assumed it would be.
What are some of the inspirations behind the story?
In my original idea, Nelly was a man of some ability – ex-police or ex-soldier ‘down on his luck’. I worked that idea for a while, but it quickly became very formulaic and familiar. I felt like whatever I came up with, I’d seen it all before. Then when I began to see Nelly as a bit of a wastrel, a man who never reached his potential, and when I housed him in the estate and sat him in his spot at The Palm Tree pub, the whole story opened up for me. It was like I had a whole new canvas to play with and a lovely bunch of characters to wrangle.
With filming The Walking Dead in the U.S, was it nice to be filming this back in England?
I love coming back to England to shoot because it’s home and it’s where I learnt to do what I do and love what I do. That said, I’m well aware of how exceptionally lucky I am that I get to mess about in both the U.S and back in the UK.
For me, the stand-out scene in the first episode was the police-interrogation. Was there a particular scene that turned out just how you envisioned it when writing?
I put a lot of work into the scripts, particularly in the way my characters talk. They have a kind of idiosyncratic phrasing that I think is vital to the way I want the story to be told. So l am a little precious about that, but it is equally as important to me that the actors, director and everyone else bring their expertise and talent to the table. So I’m not always looking for the scene to be what I thought it might be when I wrote it. More often than not I want it to be better, to be improved by what we go through to get it shot. I can’t pick out one scene, as with the cast and crew we had on this one that happened a lot.
There was a little bit of karaoke in the first episode, did you enjoy filming that scene?
I love karaoke. Love what it does to a room when everyone’s up for it. That’s why it is there on that first night that Claire, Suranne Jones’ character, comes back to the pub. It is an example of why Claire was first drawn to Nelly. He was always at the centre and life of the party. Best karaoke night is when everyone is drunk enough to sing like they’re in the shower, but without getting wet.
What’s your writing process?
Ideally I like to write in the middle of the night. I like the house to be asleep. Almost always with music, but it must be songs I know inside out. I’m easily distracted. Because of timings and my availability, I had to write and rewrite the later episodes on the run-up to production and during the early part of filming. That usually meant I wouldn’t film on fridays and would write over the first month or so of weekends. Sounds like a nightmare, but I had an office in World’s – the production company – building. It meant I had a beautiful walk to work over the Millennium Bridge and past St Paul’s to get there and actually, I loved it. The discipline of getting into the office before 9am and writing until it was time for dinner, really focused me in a way I didn’t think it would.
The scene that drew me into the story was where Nelly is having a laugh with everyone in the pub – how do you go about writing the dialogue?
Writing the pub scenes were among my favourite to write. They are, in a way, the signature scenes of this story. It’s where all the characters get to show who they are without the weight of always having to shift story. We were very lucky with our sound guy, Paul Schwartz and his team, because they let us talk over each other and overlap. That was really important for how I wanted those scenes to play. Can’t tell you where the dialogue comes from. It’s just how I hear their voices in my head.
How much input did you have in the casting?
I had some input once we got down to the contenders. Jill Trevellick, our casting lady, bust a gut to get the right cast for this. If Save Me is any good and people like it at all, a large chunk of the blame has to go to Jill.
I noticed that there were some quite surreal scenes on the streets – with the elderly people dancing at the bus stop, the woman with a burqa holding a skateboard and an Asian man performing martial arts. What were they supposed to represent?
I wish I could take responsibility for those surreal moments because I love them. All credit for them though has to go to Nick [Murphy], our director. It was something he brought in very early on. My favourite is the smoking Burqa Lady.
Is the title Save Me referring to Nelly’s daughter or Nelly?
That’s why I love the title, because it forces you to ask that question. And the whole series, in a way, is an exploration of not just Nelly and Jody and who’s saving who, but also Claire, Melon (Stevie Graham) and most of the other characters.
We don’t know how it will end yet, but could there be scope for a second series?
From the very first phone call from Anne, this was meant to be a returning series.
We’re soon going to get to see your debut in Fear The Walking Dead. What’s it like playing the same character in a very different show with different co-stars and locations?
I’m only a couple of months into shooting Fear The Walking Dead, so it’s a little early to answer that with any real certainty. Also, I only had a week between the end of one and the start of the other, so the separation is a bit of a blur at the moment. What I can say is that it is an honest to God trip. It is a rare opportunity and challenge I’ve been offered and I am really enjoying Austin, Texas and loving the new cast and crew that I get to hang out and mess about with.
Looking back at your role in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ last year, what was it like to be part of such a huge cult film franchise?
I shot all my scenes over thirteen days in Budapest during our mid-season break on The Walking Dead. I loved it. It was a proper big movie set, big movie locations and Denis [Villeneuve] and Ryan Gosling were great to work with. I truly had a blast and as I say to anyone who’ll listen, for nearly a full three minutes that entire film is about me!
Are there more projects that you’re looking to write in the near future?
I’m always coming up with ideas that I may or may never write. At the moment, any writing plans I have are centred around Save Me.
QUICK QUESTIONS WITH LENNIE JAMES
Last movie you watched?
Been wading through the pile of screeners you get around this time of year. Last one of the pile was I Tonya. I think I really liked it. The performances were really good. Kept me riveted, even though almost everyone in it were deeply unpleasant people.
Best show to binge-watch?
Doing Peaky Blinders at the moment. It’s brilliantly ludicrous and I absolutely love it. Brummie gangsters running shit!
What’s on your music playlist at the moment?
Michael Kiwanuka, Kendrick Lamar, Rag’n’Bone Man, Vulfpeck and I am having a minute where I’m back listening to The Specials, Madness and all those Ska guys that were the soundtrack to my teens. That was the first music I chose that wasn’t handed down or picked up from parents or older generations.
Best place to visit in London?
I love what the Olympics have done to London and especially the South Bank. Not sure it’s the best place but it’s definitely worth a visit.
Everyone has a cool app idea, what’s yours?
Don’t have one. Wish I did.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Come up with a cool and profitable app idea. Also, ride more motorbikes.
Is there one thing in particular that you’re really excited about for the future?
Would have to say season four of Fear The Walking Dead and people getting to see Save Me.
A sport you wish you could play?
Wish I got better at tennis before my knee went.
What was the last book you read?
I got Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spur‘ for Christmas. He’s the manager of the club I support and it’s an insight into his beliefs, plans for the club and his understanding of the game. Haven’t finished it yet, but I’m loving his brain and am so happy he’s using it to bring my team back to glory!
Would you rather be at a mountain hideaway or a beach house?
Beach, if I had to choose. I love the sea.
What is the furthest you have been from home?
It’s too long a story to go into, but the furthest I’ve ever felt from home or from getting back there, was when I was under house-arrest in Nigeria for a few days.
Do you have any goals for the year ahead?
To get cracking on the second series of Save Me.
All six episodes of Save Me will be available from Wednesday 28 February on Sky Atlantic and Now TV
PHOTOGRAPHY: MICHAEL SHELFORD
INTERVIEW: ADAM CROOKES