SINGAPORE — He might be better known for his roles in Snatch (2000) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and as one of the cast members of hit series The Walking Dead, but unbeknownst to most fans, Lennie James is also a successful screenwriter and playwright. His latest work, crime thriller Save Me Too, is the second season of the series that sees the actor playing double duty, both as the main character Nelly, as well as its writer and creator.
“The hardest part is writing it,” James said from Texas, where he had been filming for the latest season of Fear The Walking Dead before production was halted due to COVID-19. “But I have had and continue to have on this particular project some fantastic people around me who have helped me immeasurably.” Among others, he lists executive producers Jessica Sykes and Simon Heath as some of those who were with him right from the beginning, and he also gives credit to Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, Marlon Smith and Emer Kenny who each wrote an episode in Save Me Too.
James explained that the idea for Save Me might have originated with him, but he is not the only one responsible for making his vision come to fruition. “It very much is a kind of a community endeavour. It is a group effort to get it to the screens. And I'm very thankful and very aware of that.”
Could you briefly tell us about the premise of Save Me and Save Me Too?
It centres around a character called Nelly Rowe, who is a kind of ne'er do well. Back in the UK we would call him a pub geezer. He's the kind of guy who has his own spot in the pub, and he'll be there every single day and night telling stories of the day before in the pub, regaling people. Maybe 10, 15 years ago, men would come to that pub to drink with Nelly and women would come to that pub to get next to Nelly. But that was 10, 15 years ago, and he should know better and he should have moved on, but he hasn't.
Then one day he is arrested and accused of grooming and encouraging his 13-year-old estranged daughter, Jodie, to run away and be with him. He actually hasn’t seen his daughter in 10 years and hasn't thought about her in probably about that amount of time. But she left home believing that she was going to meet her father. And whoever encouraged her to do that did it pretending to be Nelly, and they knew enough about him to use facts about him to lure his daughter away.
So Nelly sets out on a mission basically to find his daughter, but also find the person who took him because they took his child in his name and he just can't have that. Save Me and Save Me Too is about Nelly’s attempts to find his daughter Jodie and the effects that his quest has on himself, as well as Jodie’s stepfather and mother and Nelly's friends in the pub and the people on the estates where he live.
What was the genesis of the idea behind the series?
I was asked by Anne Mensah, who was the head of Sky Drama, why I wasn't writing anymore. I hadn't written anything for about five or six years since I came to America, and she wanted me back writing. So she asked me if I had an idea, and this is the idea that I came up with. I mean, I did have a part of another idea, which was about a father trying to find his child. And I took that idea and I changed it around and rather than have the father being someone who had a certain set of skills, like an ex-cop or ex-army or special branch, I decided to make him useless and make him ill-equipped for the quests that he was kind of going on.
I wanted to challenge myself working with the tropes of a thriller, but I didn't want to set it in obvious places. And once I came up with Nelly as a character, the location became obvious. Then the other characters that circle Nelly and interact with him also became obvious. So that's the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell it in a place that I was familiar with, but television wasn't particularly familiar with.
How much of the plot or of Nelly himself as a character was drawn from your own life and experiences growing up in London?
Nelly’s not me, but he's an amalgamation of two or three characters that I came across in life. One was a family member and others were just guys that I knew. So he’s an amalgamation, but he is someone I feel like I've known for a long time. The number of people who have come up to me and said, I know someone just like Nelly has been really surprising and but also really heartening. His ethos and rules of engagement, of living, are based on people that I've known and know well.
The series starts off, like you said, with a father in search of his missing daughter. But then eventually it evolves to look at something quite sinister. Was it your intention at the beginning to draw more attention to the crimes that are at the centre of Save Me and Save Me Too, or was it influenced by the sorts of current affairs happening while you were writing it?
That’s a good question. It was a bit of both, but also other things. When I first set out to write Save Me, because of the process that it goes through, I didn’t realise that the whole exploitation of young women and girls was going to take up so much room in the story. I didn’t want to be flippant or exploitative with that subject matter, and the more I looked into it, the more I realised that I needed to take it seriously and explore it in a responsible way. That was because I'm making grown up television for grown up people. But at the same time, I wanted to be righteous with the subject matter.
That part of the story evolved as this story evolved and each time we got to a point where we needed to go into that world, we exercised a few rules. We only saw what the characters we cared about or were following saw. So mostly, that was with Nelly. We didn't go any place that Nelly couldn't go more often than not. We only wanted to show enough in order to make a point, and if it didn't have an emotional impact on our main characters, then it had no place in Save Me.
How did you feel after the success of the first series? When the first series ended on that cliffhanger, it seemed like there was a second series commissioned already at that point.
When I was first asked, I was asked if I had an idea for a returning television series, so it wasn't so much that it was commissioned, I think. I felt that Save Me was just the first part of an ongoing series. I was always thinking of the next season. It was to the point where there were two actors who were cast in Save Me, who you didn't see very much of in the first series, but we cast those particular actors knowing that they would have major roles in Save Me Too. They were Olive Gray and Adrian Edmondson, who played Grace and Gideon. Both of them only had one or two scenes in Save Me, but we knew that they were gonna be major roles in Save Me Too.
Nelly strikes me as someone who's a hair's breadth away from just going ballistic all the time. There's always some kind of rage simmering under his skin, and you did a marvellous job portraying him. Is the character tiring to play, and did you take any bit of him home with you at the end of the day?
I am now at a stage of my career that I know enough to take off the character when I take off the jacket, so I don't bring him home with me. Occasionally, depending on how much red wine I've had at home when I’m playing Nelly, I will slip into his voice and start calling everybody “darling” and “sweetheart”, and get a bit more colloquial than I actually am. But that’s about the limit of it.
He is tiring to play, but it’s a good tiring. I love playing Nelly. I love bringing him to life and getting into his head. The other thing about Nelly outside of the rage that simmers, is that you're unaware of what choice he's going to make. The license he gives me as an actor to make choices is really exciting and I do love playing him, I know that must sound weird because I write him as well, but I kind of manage to separate them. I work really hard with the directors when we’re filming to make sure that when I’m on set playing Nelly, I’m never Lennie the writer. So any questions any actors have about the script, I always direct them to the director to answer.
Obviously, you've been in Texas for a while now due to the COVID-19 situation. What have you been doing in quarantine?
I've been growing a beard, which I’m very proud of, and I think it’s almost a length where I'm going to need to give it a name. So if you have any names for a beard, it would be really helpful. My wife thinks I should call it Beardy McBeardface, but I don’t think I’m going to go with that one.
I've been very slowly doing some writing, seeing whether or not there is the possibility of a third series of Save Me. I don't know, but I'm trying to figure it out. I have been teaching myself guitar because it's something I've always wanted to do. I dabbled with it when I was younger. I used to play in bands, but I was much more kind of just holding the guitar rather than playing it. I'm teaching myself the guitar just by learning songs that I like to sing to myself. I will never sing them in public, but I love just sitting down and strumming on the guitar and quietly singing to myself. I've got about 12 songs now that I have in my repertoire, so an album, basically. Other than that I’ve been cooking and walking the dog.
Save Me Too premiered on Friday, 17 July on BBC First (StarHub Channel 502), and is also available for catch-up on BBC Player.