It’s fair to say that Lennie James is no stranger to the small screen and his latest project, Save Me, proves his talents don’t solely lie in acting. The Sky Atlantic series sees James not only act but also write many of the episodes.
We catch up with Lennie James to talk about Save Me, working with Snatch co-stars again and the small matter of The Walking Dead.
HeyUGuys: Save Me is your first writing credit for a while – how did you first become involved in the project?
Lennie James: You know, there was a point where I thought I’d do much more writing than acting but circumstance meant acting got in the way of writing. Consequently, I’ve always got ideas bubbling around in my head so I write them to get them out of my head.
I had a idea bubbling around and one small part of that idea was a little bit of a story that wasn’t very well formed of a man who had been absent from his child’s life but had been brought back because something unfortunate happened to the kid.
We got a telephone call from the head of drama at Sky, Anne Mensah, who had seen a film I’d written a while ago [Storm Damage] and remembered it and asked my agent whether or not I had an idea for a television series I’d like to pitch.
I was away filming on something and then had a long weekend so decided to come up with an idea. Some kernel popped in my head for an idea and I kind of let it gestate which ultimately turned into Save Me.
Were you nervous at all about pitching the idea?
I wasn’t really. Anne and the people at Sky have made the whole process relatively painless, they have been very supportive and made it all very easy.
The pitch was me getting on the phone to Anne directly, telling her the idea and sending over a two-page treatment. She said yes to the first ep straight away and after reading the first episode then said yes to the series.
And what was the writing process like for you, did it come quite easily to you or was it a bit of a nightmare until it was finished?
I wrote the first episode and that came very easy, which they often do because in this genre you are setting stuff up such as the premise of the story, your characters and who they are to each other. You just need to leave the first episode on a cliffhanger that is going to bring people back.
But it was generally quite tricky because I was writing it during filming of The Walking Dead. We then had a situation where we were going into production straight after me finishing in Atlanta.
I had Thanksgiving at my home in Los Angeles and then flew to England and at that point we had three and a half episodes written.
For the first month or so I would only work Monday to Thursday, then have the rest of the time to write and re-write episodes. We shot them in two blocks so I had to make sure we had filming scripts for the first three and then we were working on the last three when we were working on the first three.
It wasn’t an ideal way of getting the job done but luckily it was a story I knew. When I got the idea of where it started I knew where it would be after six episodes so that was very helpful as I knew what I was writing towards at that stage.
It was hard work and all-consuming but it was my baby, if I didn’t get it done it wouldn’t have got done.
With it being as dark as it is how crucial are the little moments of comic relief?
They are both equally as important as each other as far as telling the story. I wanted to write a thriller and adhere to the traditions and tropes of a thriller.
I wanted it to feel like this is something that is happening inside the real world. So it was as important for me to try and recreate that real world and the characters inside then fit the thriller around it.
One of the things about people is gallows humor, where at their moments of deepest tragedy and hurt there is always someone in the room who is trying to get people to smile. There is always those beautiful moments where everything seems like it is lost or dark and someone says something that just makes the room laugh.
That was as important as anything else in the story because it added to the realism of it.
There is also a Snatch reunion of sorts as we see you working with Jason Flemyng and Stephen Graham again…
It was just fantastic and it was one of the major joys of doing it. But I didn’t go, ‘let’s grab a couple of geezers from Snatch and get this shit done’ [laughs].
One of the many things I am genuinely proud of is that I had some small part in the performances given not just by Jason and Stephen but the entire cast.
Jason Flemyng’s performance is a revelation. It is a beautifully nuanced and perfectly pitched performance and he took on the responsibility of playing that particular character. He made it real and made it belong and made it absolutely a crucial part in how this story is taken.
I am just so glad that I had any part in making that happen. All credit goes to Jason and our director for allowing our actors onset to bring their A-Game to the job.
Now that we know your character, Morgan, is making the crossover to Fear The Walking Dead, how did Scott Gimple pitch the idea to you?
It was really simple. We have a regular gathering at the beginning of each new season where Scott tells you the story of that season, the themes they want to be covering but also then the journey your character.
Mostly you spend the time not listening to him because you are just waiting to find out whether or not he tells you your character is dead or dying [laughs].
So you don’t really listen but you get to the end of it and he doesn’t say your character is dying then you go ‘oh my god I didn’t listen to anything you were saying please tell me it all over again.’
We had that meeting with Scott then he calls me a couple of days later to say he forgot to discuss something with me. I drove back to Scott’s house and was all prepared for him to tell me that he was going to kill off Morgan.
I had a good run I thought. I’d been associated with the show on and off for eight years – I’ll take it on the chin. Lo and behold that is not what he said but told me he said he was taking a step back as showrunner of The Walking Dead.
He said he was going to be overseeing both shows and taking responsibility for the universe and that Angela was stepping up to be the showrunner for The Walking Dead.
Then he said how would like to carry on exploring Morgan but in Fear instead of The Walking Dead.
My head just started ringing and I don’t think I heard another word he said in the next half an hour. He asked me if I had any questions and didn’t have any other than does this mean I am leaving The Walking Dead but didn’t ask it at that time.
It was then a good month and a half or maybe two months of talking to people, picking their brains as well as explaining the responsibility I feel and ownership that I have and how protective I am of Morgan as a character.
I really pushed them asking what they wanted to do with him, where they wanted to take him and why.
One of the first people I spoke to about it was Andrew Lincoln. We went out for a curry and sat and talked it through. It took me months to decide and eventually said yes to the adventure – but if I said no to it then it may have been something I would have regretted.
The unique experiment of it all was enough to convince me and once all the other things I got answers to I could live with it was a decision I am glad I made.
How was your first day on set and were you subject to any pranks?
I am a guy with a big stick so no one is pulling any pranks on me [laughs]. It was very welcoming and surreal.
My first day on set wasn’t as straightforward as it might have been. There was a slight crossover from the end of filming The Walking Dead and starting on Fear, I only had six days or so in between. They actually shot most of the second episode first before we went and started shooting the first episode. So my first day wasn’t necessarily my first day as it were.
It was all a bit of a blur because it came close on the heels of filming seven months on The Walking Dead. In that six day period or so I actually had to fly back to London to do some publicity and work on Save Me after I left Atlanta and before I arrived in Austin.
It was a complete and utter blur but we got it done and I think the episodes we’ve done so far are top notch.
So will you definitely still be in The Walking Dead?
Anything is kind of possible. I am in the back half of season eight but don’t know from that point onwards. I know of some of what my journey is going to be for Fear The Walking Dead and everything else is up for grabs.
A lot has been said this season about falling ratings, do you get why fans have been frustrated at times this season?
Yeah, I don’t mind people being frustrated. I don’t think one translates into the other though.
A lot of the fans complaining and have issues with the show are still watching. I think the ratings on one level are completely consistent with television ratings across the board and also are reflecting the way in which people watch shows now.
If there are any changes in the viewing in The Walking Dead it is perhaps just in the water cooler sense, where you would have to watch it when it is on.
Also that’s just something you have to navigate when you have been around as long as we’ve been around. Even when we were hitting the top rating figures we didn’t let it affect unduly how we told the story.
We also shouldn’t at this point, when there seems to be a slight dip, let that affect how we tell the story. Ultimately we have to make the decisions based on the choices we make and for the reasons we make them.
There was always going be a point of peaks and troughs so we’ll navigate through it and continue to try to tell the story in the best way we believe it should be told.
I think it is a good thing we are having this dialogue with our fans, I don’t think it is something we should avoid or try duck from.
By the same account it is something we shouldn’t be unduly influenced by.
Save Me can currently be seen on Sky Atlantic. The series is on Now TV and Sky Box Sets