Boyd Hilton: Hello everyone, I’m Boyd Hilton. Welcome to this very special BAFTA Masterclass with actor and writer extraordinaire Lennie James.
Lennie James: How you doing Boyd?
BH: Good thanks! This virtual session is part of BAFTA’s learning work, which provides craft insights from the best minds in film, TV and games. I’m going ask Lennie lots of questions about his craft and about his work in the industry, but please do ask your questions via the Q&A function and I’ll try to get to as many as possible towards the end. I might even throw some in the middle, you never know. Closed captioning is available and there’s also a live transcript happening and a link to that in the chat bit of Zoom. But without further ado, he’s already said hello, let’s welcome the magnificent Lennie James.
LJ: Hello, hello, hello.
BH: Hello. So I was looking back at your magnificent career, and in one interview you talked about how you hadn’t wanted to become an actor until you started acting. Was that at the National Youth Theatre where you want, or was it at Guildhall? At what point did you think actually yeah this is what I want to do?
LJ: I had said to my family that I wanted to be an actor just before auditioning to drama school. I don’t think I really took it seriously until my second year at drama school. There was just a moment where I was like actually not only do I want to do this, I want to do this for as long as is humanly possible and I want to be good at it. That would have been my second year at drama school; my first year at drama school I felt really kind of exposed and kind of like a fish out of water. I didn’t know nearly enough to be there and felt like a bit of a phoney. I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, spent quite a lot of time hiding down in the basement where the musicians were, the guys on the jazz course, the guys who were part of the reggae philharmonic and all that kind of stuff. I kind of hid with them for a bit. In my second year I kind of went back up onto the actors’ floor and got on with it.
BH: So presumably there were like two or three other black people in the acting part of Guildhall at the time, in your year?
LJ: To be honest, I’ve got to give them credit, when I auditioned for drama school I auditioned for Central, RADA and The Guildhall and I got into RADA and The Guildhall and I felt whether—I don’t know rightly or wrongly though I do kind of know—that when I didn’t go to RADA that they gave my place to another black actor but when I was offered a place at Guildhall they offered places to three other black people, two guys and one girl, and that influenced my choice really and I didn’t want to be the token, for want of a better phrase. I have to give Guildhall credit that back in ’85 it wasn’t great diversity but it was more diverse than most.
BH: Do you think the experience you had from maybe the second year, as you say more than the first, do you think that’s key to how you’ve shaped your career? Do you think it would have been very different—do you think now, for example if people are thinking of not going to drama school, maybe they think it’s not the place—particularly for working class people, I don’t know, that you would say they should because of what you learned there?
LJ: I think on one level everybody has to make the decision for themselves, but when people ask me do you have any advice for my kid or my friend or me who wants to get into acting I always say study. How you go about that study is entirely up to you. I think it would have been much harder for me now to go to drama school in the way I went to drama school and get from it what I got from it. it would be much harder for me to do that now than it was then. For me, and I’ve said this before, I went to drama school to find out the things everyone else knew and the things that I felt kind of lacking in. I would make the same choice again, and particularly for working class actors. I think if there’s not enough opportunity or not enough room at drama schools for working class actors or people from black and ethnic minority communities then drama schools are failing.
BH: Absolutely. You were writing in that period as well, I believe? I remember listening to you on Craig Parkinson’s brilliant podcast, the epic podcast you did, where you talked about how you wrote theatre reviews, you did theatre reviews for Capital radio. You wrote an episode of The Bill, you wrote a play when you were at National Youth Theatre, so that must have been something you were interested in right from the start? Was that as of interest to you as the acting?
LJ: Do you know what, every single thing I did ended up being on Capital Radio, winning a playwriting competition, writing a play, everything I did out of ignorance. I’ve always been my most successful out of ignorance, when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or what I was on about seems to be how it’s worked out best for me. But yes I did my first play at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone when I was sixteen and I wrote my first play when I was seventeen because a friend I’d made at the Cockpit Theatre bet me that I couldn’t. I didn’t have a burning ambition to write, pretty much like I didn’t really feel like I had a burning ambition to act but then when I started acting I loved it and it was what I wanted to do. When I wrote my first play, I had no idea what to do with it so I entered it into the National Youth Theatre playwriting competition and I won. Me and I shared Most Promising Playwright Under Twenty-One, that kind of award. Then I joined the Lyric Youth Theatre in Hammersmith and working there with the Youth Theatre with Lucy Parker, and that was as much my training as kind of anything because I wrote and acted with that theatre company and that solidified what it was that I wanted to do in this industry.
BH: You talked about teachers being important to you. Do you think mentoring; do you see that as a key part of your development? Did you have people, other people, who gave you a particular insight and paid particularly close attention to you?
LJ: I think mentoring is really important and I try to do my fair share of it, as much as I can. I think it’s a two-fold thing. As much as there is not necessarily a responsibility, but as much as if it’s something you want to do you should pass on your knowledge, I think it’s really important for young actors, young artists, to seek advice and mentorship from artists who have gone before. If I credit myself with anything, I was quite good at taking advice or thoughtfully realising why that advice wasn’t helpful for me. I was lucky right from the beginning, I think somebody had asked me many interviews ago who were the people who were most influential in my career for whatever that amounts to, and I would have to put Lucy Parker as one of those people who ran the Youth Theatre at the Lyric in Hammersmith. A lot of what she thought was good acting or good writing is still what I try to strive for in finding truth in things that I do. She would certainly be on my list along with Horace Ové and a good few others really.
BH: Looking at your career, the early days, I’m interested in the build-up to Buried, your first big juicy lead role on TV. First of all it’s very interesting when you talk about making the right decision and turning down certain roles. Was that as important to you, turning down the wrong things for you as finding the right things for you?
LJ: It was unavoidable to be absolutely honest Boyd. I was a—I was part of arguably the first generation of drama school graduates coming into the industry. As a black actor you are immediately, whether you like it or not, in a political environment and you are—you have to become a political being, whether you focus on it or you don’t focus on it you have to navigate it. One way in which you navigate it is by saying there are certain roles, certain types of roles because we are so easily stereotyped that I am not going to do. And I did that. I think it’s part of the reason I’ve stayed with my agent for a long time is it took me a long time to train her up to know things I would do and wouldn’t do, and I don’t want to have to start all over again with that. So yeah, it wasn’t always—it wasn’t as kind of clear cut as it was about ambition and getting to be a leading actor, I wasn’t thinking in those terms at that particular time, I just didn’t want to play muggers if all that was going on about that part was that it was a mugger. I didn’t want to play pimps if the only thing that distinguished that character from any other character was that it was the black pimp. I didn’t want to play any parts where the only way it was described was that it was the black fill in the gap. Luckily I had options, so there wasn’t lots of periods where I was choosing between working and not working, there were situations where I was picking between jobs and when I had those options I tried to pick the choice I could live with.
BH: I believe it was Stephen Graham, your friend Stephen Graham, who first alerted you to Buried. I was watching some of it back in preparation, and first of all it has not dated it still holds up.
BH: Yeah, it’s incredible. Large part of that I think is the naturalistic acting of everyone, the whole cast seems absolutely on it and it feels very documentary style and all of that. Can you pinpoint why that role was perfect for you?
LJ: Because at its heart I absolutely understood that character, I absolutely understood his impetus to kind of step up and protect his sister. At the heart of the story is a man who acts impulsively and ends up some place he is not equipped to be. And I am not equipped to be in prison. But the rules by which Kingsley operated his life were not dissimilar to the way I was trying to operate mine. I just got him. It’s basically the story of a regular fellow who ends up in a place he’s not equipped for. He just made sense to me and I was talking to someone else about it the other day, that I put myself out there to get Buried in a way that I certainly hadn’t up until that point and I haven’t really since put myself out there. They wouldn’t see me for a very, very long time in part because they thought I was too familiar to television and they were going for this gritty kind of realism. And they didn’t think I was up to it, or one particular director didn’t, and he was wrong and I just wanted to kind of prove him wrong so I drove myself to Manchester and sat outside for about two and a half hours before they saw me for five minutes and then drove back with my tails between my legs and then they called me back about three weeks later and I sat around waiting again and they saw me and then I auditioned and I convinced them that I was the right person for the job and to this day I believe I was and it’s one of the jobs I’m most proud of.
BH: Do you think the fact you did arrive and get the lead role in that show, do you think that changed everything from then on, what followed? First of all it was a World production wasn’t it, the people who did Line of Duty and Save Me, so presumably relationships were formed and just people saw you in this great role?
LJ: I remember Tony Garnett who ran World at that time or was actually just leaving World at that time but was still very much the figurehead of the company, he took me out to dinner and I thought it was going to be one of those where everyone is around the table but it wasn’t, it was just me and him, and one of the things he said to me at that dinner was that things could be different after Buried. One of the things he said was you have to be very circumspect about the next job you say yes to. He was absolutely right. I wasn’t, again, partly because I try as much as I can to live in ignorance of myself I didn’t overthink it. But I was aware that I was on the billboards, it was my face selling Buried and I was aware that wasn’t typical or usual. It wasn’t unheard of in any shape or form but it wasn’t kind of typical. I was aware because of there being other points; I remember coming out of drama school one of my early jobs out of drama school was a thing called Civvies that Linda LaPlante wrote, and when I did Civvies there was another thing Linda wrote called Comics that she put me in and I remember very clearly walking into meetings and auditions after Comics and things were different. People were reacting to you differently; they had a different perception of you. That happened after Buried and I had to navigate it.
I would also say that part of navigating life after Buried or after my first lead role in a television series was followed by my longest period of unemployment. I don’t know what that says but that’s what happened.
BH: Has your approach to acting changed from that period to now? When you were playing that role in Buried do you have any particular way of preparing for it? As I say it seems incredibly naturalistic and authentic, as does, if you think right up to this day your work on Save Me, do you do things differently now at all?
LJ: I don’t fundamentally do things differently. I can move through the gears a little bit easier, it takes not a little bit less effort when you kind of get there but you know getting to the place I need to get I kind of know the routes which, you know, just comes with experience and exercising those particular muscles. My thing is just to not to put too much stuff in the way, and I don’t particularly like talking too much about the process of acting because I think it’s—I can’t remember who it was, I think it’s Paul Bettany who has this phrase—if it’s not Paul Bettany and it’s someone else’s I apologise, but he has this phrase that acting’s a bit like sex, it’s really fun to do but it’s a bit embarrassing to talk about. I very much am in that school, I don’t want to get too precious about it but I read the scripts, that’s my thing. I read the scripts and read the scripts and read the scripts and read the scripts and I mark down things other characters say about my character and mark down things that my character says about himself. I use those fundamentally to create an internal and external sense of myself and I get on with it and that’s pretty much in the kind of bare bones kind of how I get it done. I try not to, like I said, put anything in the way, I try not to get in my own way. I try and be as truthful as I possibly can. The actors I most admire are the actors who play moment to moment and I try and be one of those.
BH: A few years before Buried you wrote Storm Damage a one-off drama, which was nominated for and won some awards, it won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama. Was that an example, you know, that was a success and highly acclaimed, but A) Why did you feel you had to tell that particular story? And also why after that did you concentrate mostly on acting and it was a long time after that since you went back to writing?
LJ: Erm. That’s a big old question. I’m not sure you know just how big it is really. I wrote Storm Damage, and at the end of Storm Damage there’s a funeral, and it’s the funeral of a sixteen year-old boy. I wrote Storm Damage because I went—my family went to that funeral. At that funeral an elder started speaking about his experience of being a black man in Britain and how that was different from this sixteen year old boy’s generation that was living in Britain and he made a plea to the young people who were at this funeral not to make the mistake this young man made, not to get into the situation that might lead to the end of you life at only sixteen years old. Experiencing that, the only way I could react to it was to try and write it down and give it life and give it force. That’s what I tried to do with Storm Damage. I was writing for The Bill right before I was writing for Storm Damage and one of the producers from The Bill took me to the BBC and asked me if I had an idea and I said I’ve got two ideas, one was one that was rooted in, it was a historical drama and one ended up, in today’s terms you would say it was about knife crime. It wasn’t, but you would say that it was. And they were keen on the one about knife crime so I set about writing it, but it took a really long time. It took six and a half years and a lot of the delay was to do with the fact I was trying to write a universal story told with black faces. The people in charge at the BBC at that particular point found that difficult, found that complicated, didn’t have enough examples that had gone before it to believe it could be successful. So it slightly got in the way. Again, in the sense of me trying to be ignorant of myself, I didn’t really know the effect that that journey from commission to it getting made and then it going out and getting figures that impress the people who care about figures and it getting nominated for awards—I wasn’t really aware of what that journey took out of me.
I forgot loads of things about it until someone was asking me about it the other day, and I remember—it’s very weird but I’m only saying it because I forgot it, but it was part of the journey and it did have an effect on me, I remember being at a BAFTA, not a BAFTA, a BBC Writers party that you got invited to. There was quite a few things that had gone on before but I remember going to this BBC writers party after we were nominated for a BAFTA for Storm Damage and coming across a writer who had already been nominated like four times for a BAFTA and won it I believe twice. I thought he was going to walk up to me and congratulate me because I kind of knew him, I was a young writer, I was in my mid-twenties I believe or something like that, and he said to me ‘you only got nominated because you’re black.’ I was like—I was stunned and I walked away and again I didn’t really know how to react to it. I was pretty much the only black face in the room that wasn’t serving and I remember saying to Tony Marchant and Tony Grounds who I knew and was talking to, saying what this writer had said, and both of them wanted to go over and smack him. And I was like, is that the reaction I was supposed to have? And Tony Marchant back in the day used to be a bit of a boxer and knows his way around throwing a punch, and it became the topic of whether or not we should go over and give him a slap. It was part of, you know, all that went into getting Storm Damage made and all that. And it did have an effect on me as a writer. Because I had acting and the acting was going quite well thank you very much, it made it easier to put the writing on the back burner I suppose.
Although in my head I was always writing something, I just wasn’t putting it down on paper really.
BH: You don’t want to name that horrendous man who said you only won because you were black? I’m not encouraging.
LJ: No, no. Actually I just on two levels really. I don’t want to do that to him and I don’t want people to know his name.
BH: Fair enough. You went to America, as they say, and made a pretty incredible success of it. You were in Jericho, which went on for a few seasons didn’t it? Was the decision to go to America a conscious big decision for you, or was it just something that kind of ended up making sense and there were opportunities out there and you tried it and it worked and you stayed for a while?
LJ: It was a little bit of both really. I had the opportunity to go to America a number of times before over the ten years before I went. To be honest I was working well and often in the UK, didn’t really see the need to leave. My ambition at that particular point was in the UK, I had young kids and wanted them to grow up in London, I wanted them to be Londoners and America particularly LA and Hollywood if I’m honest scared me. It all seemed a bit big. It all seemed a bit grand. All I really knew of it was ghost stories or fantastical stories and all that. I was living in ignorance of the place. Ultimately in the end two things happened: Buried on one level and the period of unemployment that followed and also I had a really bad accident and damaged my knee greatly and was out of action for most of the year really trying to rebuild my leg and learn how to walk again and suddenly realised you know how precarious the life of an actor was in the UK and I just needed to open up the horizons. So I took the opportunity of going to America with a film that I did. When it premiered in America, a film called Sahara, from then on it was pretty conventional. I got an agent, I went back to the UK, my agent phoned up and said would you come over and let me show what we could do for you and I went for, we agreed again because of the rules we had about how long we could be away from our kids, he asked for six weeks I said I’ll do it in two three week jumps so that I could get home to see my kids in between, but as luck would have it I was pretty much done and dusted and signed up to a television series after two weeks, so I came home. Then I went back to shoot the pilot of the show which was Jericho, then went back to shoot the television, the series of it, and then when it got picked up for a second season the time spent away from wife and kids was a bit long so we decided to move to the states for a couple of years. So you move and your kids go to school and make friends and their ambitions then are to go to American colleges so we stayed. We kept putting back the point at which we would leave and come back to the UK—we’ll do it after the eldest has done her A-Levels, we’ll do it once they’ve done their O-Levels, oh no we’ll do it after they’ve graduated high school because like I said American colleges, and then before you know it you’ve been here twelve years. That’s the way it kind of worked out.
BH: How did you find the experience of being in a big American show, in terms of the number of episodes they make per season and the way that everyone is aware of every show that goes out primetime on every network. It’s a whole unique situation isn’t it? Did you enjoy that or did you find it difficult?
LJ: I found it difficult, there were bits of it I enjoyed there were bits of it that got on my nerves and there were bits of it you just had to navigate really and it was a learning experience. I’ll tell you one of the things I remember before I came to America a mate of mine had gone over there and he was, you know, is quite a popular actor in the UK and he went over there and he went I didn’t like it, no one knew who I was. I was walking in the room and it was like starting all over again. He hated it. I loved that. I have to say that one of the things I most enjoyed about coming to America was it was a clean slate. They kind of knew me from Snatch, they kind of knew me from 24 Hour Party People, but outside of that they had no idea who I was. I went when I was forty, forty-one or whatever I was, and I dropped in front of them fully formed and alright at my job. I just went at it. I’d never told so many lies in my life as when I first arrived in LA. If I was going up for a part to play a soldier I told them all I was a soldier. What were they going to do, call me a liar? They didn’t know me! I relished it and took it as a way of reinvigorating myself and challenging myself all over again.
The rest of it, again I just—I’m kind of saying this over and over again but it works for me, I just remained in ignorance of loads of things. When they were talking about doing the first thirteen episodes then getting the back nine for network television, I was petrified of playing a character for that amount of time so I just found a way of working my way through it. I’d go into the writers’ room and I’d go to the show writers and the show runners and go ‘you’ve got to do something interesting with my character or I’m going to get bored and get into trouble so come on.’ And you know, I just took a punt because on one level I had nothing to lose. I didn’t go to America with a sense of it’s make or break for me, I thought I’d give it a go and if it works out it works out and if it doesn’t I’ll go home and work there like I worked there before. I just went for it, I just didn’t—I got on with it in the best way that I could really and so far, touch wood, it’s kind of working out for me. A lot of the stuff around it, the thing that mostly surprised me, most of the stuff around it, the stuff that frightened me initially going to LA and it being a one industry town, quite a lot of it I could blow off. I made good friends and had good friends in LA and we looked out for each other and we looked after each other. I know I never could have got through it without them, particularly before my family arrived. There were people who had done the trip before, people like Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Trevor Etty and Gary McDonald and Raz Adoti and Sabra Williams. They had all gone before and were there when I went and they looked after me literally gave me their couch, let me stay in their spare room, encouraged me, supported me. I genuinely couldn’t have done it if they weren’t there to help me.
BH: You talked about playing the same character for a few years, you’ve been playing Morgan in The Walking Dead universe for ten years now. Can you quite believe that? Is it still fulfilling for you? I’ve just watched the second episode of the new season that you’ve directed, is that an important turning point in this, or just an important way of keeping you interested in and excited by the character in the world?
LJ: It’s weird and I always have to say to people when they say you’ve been playing Morgan for ten years that it’s both true and not true. In the first five years of the franchise I only did three episodes, so I’m not… I don’t know why I feel the need to say that, I think it’s more for me than it is for anyone else, but no I never would have believed that I’d be associated or still playing a character after all this time. Part of that is testament to the character they’ve created, and part of it is how they’ve navigated and nurtured that character. I’m really surprised that I’m saying this out loud but it’s a character that still interests me, it’s a character that still challenges me, it’s a character that I’m still finding out about. I know that could sound ridiculous—just when I thought it was over and was ready for it to be over, you know they moved the character, offered the chance of moving the character over to the spin-off show and at that particular point I couldn’t think of another actor who had been offered that opportunity in a television show, to do what they were asking me to do, so I couldn’t say no to it so I said yes. So yeah, it’s very unusual doing that.
Directing in a certain sense is a bit like going to America. In that people have been asking me are you interested in being a director for years, easily fifteen nearly twenty years people have been asking me either are you interested in being a director or I’ve had a number of first assistant directors who have gone ‘when you direct your first film I’d love to be the first AD on it,’ or DoPs saying to me ‘when you direct your first film I’d love to be considered as a DoP, I’d like to help you with it.’ It’s something that’s been bubbling around and I’ve been putting it aside, again partly out of fear, partly out of ignorance. We were in between seasons of, we’d just come out of the second season of Save Me and I was going back to the show and I knew I was clear and all I was doing was focusing on the show and didn’t have an outstanding writing project at the time, so I took the show runners up on their offer of if you fancy directing an episode at any point we would be open to that. I said at the beginning of the season I’d like to take you up on it and they gave me the second episode. They didn’t even wait around and give me any time to ease myself into it, they went bang here it is. I’m really glad I did it. I don’t know entirely what I’ve learned from it, I know I want to do it again, that I probably should do it again on this show just because of the environment and figuring out what I learned and what I didn’t learn and what more I need to know, but it is something I enjoyed and will probably do again.
BH: How much creative freedom do you have on a show like that when you’re directing it? Is it, could you express yourself creatively in that role?
LJ: There are places you can. One of the things—I don’t know if it’s true because I haven’t directed on any other show. I do know that in the scripts that I write in order to give to directors I’m not as prescriptive and descriptive as scripts are on The Walking Dead. The show runners, I think because you have such a limited time to film these things, the scripts on The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead are almost like a shot sheet. They are telling you what you need to see, they’re telling you what size you need to see it in, they’re telling you when you’re going wide, when you’re close, when you’re mid. It’s really, really detailed in that way which kind of freaks you out. When you suddenly realise you’ve got eight days to do this massive show that has stunts and walkers and prosthetics and CGI, at times you’re kind of thankful for it. But there are moments where it’s up to you, so they have a teaser, the bit before the titles, and on my episode the story we were telling in the teaser was also an introduction to a group of actors and characters you’d never met before in a location you’d never met before, so I got to create what that was and shoot it in the way I wanted to shoot it along with Adam Shashinski who was my DoP and was my wingman or I was his wingman depending on what day it was. We got to work it out and shoot it in the way we wanted to work it out and shoot it, and that part of the episode feels all ours. It’s one of the parts I’m most proud of. There are periods, but you are—the role of a director on American television, on most American television, is very different than it is back home in the UK.
BH: What was the key element factor in getting Save Me commissioned—you exec produced it, you starred in it, you wrote it all the while you’re still in The Walking Dead universe as well. Was there one key factor in getting that show made?
LJ: There was one key factor and two people, and that was Anne Mensah and Jessica Sykes. Anne Mensah was head of drama at the time at Sky, and Jess Sykes is my literary editor or literary manager and when on to be co-exec producer of Save Me. If it wasn’t for Anne making a phone call to Jess and saying why isn’t Lennie writing and how do we get him writing again and my agent calling her on it and saying commission him and he will, and supporting me through it and navigating me through it, Save Me never would have happened. It’s without question down to the two of them, and particularly because I was, as we went through the process Anne chaperoned it and nurtured it and protected it all the way along the process while it was at Sky. It was her suggestion that myself and Jess became exec producers, it was her suggestion—it was under her control that Sky commissioned us directly so we already had a network and it was our option of who was the production company that we worked with which put us in a very powerful position as far as protecting our idea. But also because I was in America Jess had to be my surrogate and my representative in many rooms that I couldn’t be in and had to both speak for herself and speak for me. it wouldn’t have happened without the two of them.
BH: Did you arrive at the tone of Save Me quite easily? It’s quite—on the one hand it could be a genre piece, a thriller, someone finding their lost daughter or trying to find their lost daughter, but on the other it’s very poetic and lyrical and kind of beautiful visually, the way it depicts this world, the state in London. Is that what you were going for and how easily did you find it to arrive at that?
LJ: Again this is a really big but interesting question. In the main, it was just what was in my head. I’m not blowing it off or making it a simple answer. It was just in my head. The way people speak is the way I hear them speaking in my head. The tone of it, I never sat at any point or with anybody until we were making it where we had a conversation about the tone. For me if we got the pub right everything else would look after itself, if we got the estate right everything else would look after itself. If I got the pub and the estate the way I saw it in my head, all the other stuff would take care of itself because that was our home, our precinct, the heart of Save Me. Considering where we are now, the research we did and what we ended up depicting, the story of the missing child wasn’t the focus for me, that wasn’t the story I was trying to tell, I was trying to tell this other story through the story of the missing child. I was trying to tell this other story through the genre of a thriller. It was about how people care about each other, about how people live next door to each other, what community looks like in the 2000s and how it’s changed but ultimately stayed the same, and what it looks like at this stage of the twenty first century in a small part of south east London. My focus more than anything was trying to be true to that neck of the woods really, as far as I saw it and it was in my head. That very much was what I was after. I did and do spend a huge amount of the writing time honing down the words my characters speak. It’s not about—for me it’s not about artifice and I just want them to be kind of poetic—it’s not, it’s trying to explain the inner dialogue they’re having and the choices they’re choosing to speak out loud. There is a code to that because they are speaking to people they are connected to because despite the things that might separate them—race, gender, sexuality, all of those things, they have a commonality. It’s about them communicating in that which they share, not that which they don’t.
BH: Nick Murphy directed series one, Jim Loach and Coky Giedroyc directed series two. What did they have in common, what are you looking for in a director of Save Me?
LJ: They understood what was going on in my head even though it was worlds they weren’t necessarily familiar with. They are—they all have the ability to tell big stories in small places. They understand character. They understand subtlety and they know how to move the camera and when not to move the camera. They know when to call cut and when not to call cut and when to let things breathe. Also, they love actors and a large part of Save Me are the actors and how they have made the characters that myself and Marlon and Daniel and Emer have brought to life by writing them, they grabbed them by the short and curlies and really inhabited them and they were allowed to and they were encouraged to. A lot of that came from Nick initially but certainly from Coky and Jim later on.
BH: Did it in the end come out as what was in your head? Did what was in your head end up on screen for you pretty much?
LJ: Large parts of it yeah. But also large parts of it were more than I thought it could be, I have to be absolutely honest. There were large parts of it where I was like wow that’s much more. I know it wasn’t always easy for production and I know it wasn’t always easy for the actors and the crew because sometimes they were waiting around, well not waiting around but the scripts weren’t always delivered as they would conventionally be delivered if the person writing them wasn’t filming in a show in another country and wasn’t also acting in the show that he was writing. One of the things it did give me, even on the first season, was that as I was writing the scripts they were more populated and the characters more well rounded than they were when I was writing the first episode. When I was writing the first episode you know all the characters were characters of my invention. When I was writing four, five and six, they were Suranne Jones and Jason Flemyng and Tom Coombes and Susan Lynch. They were people and they were fully rounded characters and it really helped me as a writer but yeah, the actors and the way that they went for the role and the way that they invested in creating the world. Also the supporting artists, I have to say, particularly those in the pub and those in the estate, they really invested in what we were trying to do and took ownership of it. They made a huge difference, they really did.
BH: Well it turned out pretty well I think..
LJ: Yeah we did alright!
BH: I’ve got, I should go to our viewers’ questions instead. I forgot to ask, Save Me three, is that a goer? Have you got another in your head?
LJ: The kind of lockdown and shutdown has had an effect of not being incredibly creative for me and also changing the dynamics of how we can do a season three, but season three is still something we’re thinking about, working on and trying to navigate.
BH: I didn’t even mention Line of Duty, I skipped over that but did you learn much from Jed Murcurio particularly on that show? Or was it just a great job, acting job, great character.
LJ: It was a great job, it was a great acting job, it was a great character and I did learn loads from Jed Mercurio. I mean I’ve said this a number of times, I think Jed puts together an hour of television better than anybody else in the business virtually. I’ve tried to follow his lead to a certain extent. We’re very different writers and we focus on it in very different ways. Jed is very kind of—he gets into the minutiae of worlds, it’s the police, it’s hospitals, it’s you know different areas of healthcare and he finds dark stories in those places. I don’t do institutions nearly as well as Jed does. But he knows how to end an episode and he knows how to make you come back for another and I tried to steal that from him and I’m unashamed about that.
BH: Absolutely. I’ve got a question from Joy Coker who has asked what have you taken away from this year with COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and the entertainment industry shutting down that will influence you going forward?
LJ: I have a—Jesus that’s a big question. I’ll tell you what I’ve taken away from Black Lives Matter: I don’t understand why that phrase is so frightening to white people. I don’t understand in any way, shape or form why a statement that says by the way black lives matter somehow is a huge threat. I was listening to a podcast that I listen to out here called This American Life and one of the reporters was following a white militia around Detroit and Michigan on election day. They were walking around and they were hoping to come into contact with two groups, who were Antifa, whoever the hell they are but they had decided they would be able to notice them because they’d all be dressed in black and the other group they were trying to find is a Black Lives Matter group. I genuinely can’t understand why that’s so threatening to people, why a group that is basically just saying your policies and actions are threatening our lives and could you please pay attention to that somehow has made them into, depending on where you are, a violent group. I don’t understand that at all.
As far as Corona is concerned, the thing I’ve taken most away from it as I think a number of us have is just how connected we all are. This incident was happening in every single country across the world and we were all experiencing it at the same time and we were affected by it at the same time and infected by it at the same time. It was just about how connected we are. We don’t stand on our own islands, we are one and we should use that going forward. I hope the stories my industry takes on board and the way my industry gets its job done—when we went back filming, we’re back filming now on Fear the Walking Dead, one of the things I said on the first day of filming is we are community. Wearing a mask is an act of community—I do it to protect you. I don’t do it to protect me. we have to remember as a world that we are a community.
BH: Connor Porter asks what’s your process if you find yourself getting blocked in a scene, where it needs a big emotional moment i.e. tears or despair, etc. Does that happen? Do you get blocked?
LJ: It does but I don’t—I mean I’m never trying to produce tears because that’s a weird situation to be in. If I’m getting blocked it’s because I’m not thinking right, so I try and figure out what’s blocking my thoughts. It’s like you know, an actor said to me once and he’s absolutely right, you don’t—when you’re forgetting your lines it’s not that you’re forgetting your lines because you’ve learned them. It’s that you’re forgetting the thoughts, and that’s what’s blocking you because you don’t know what you’re thinking next and therefore you don’t know what you’re saying next. So if I do find myself getting blocked I try and find time to figure out what’s going on in my head. What am I thinking at that point that’s getting in the way? More often than not if you start that way you can navigate.
BH: Sydney Edwards asked: Do you struggle with self-confidence at all? How did you learn to believe in yourself and overcome the knockbacks?
LJ: I was an incredibly shy kid and at heart I’m a very shy man. I find it strangely considering the job I do, difficult going into new situations or meeting new people. the way that I navigate it is I hold tight to my family and hold tight to my friends. I don’t have a huge circle of friends, I have a small circle of close friends that would walk through fire for me and I would walk through fire for them. The same as with my family and that’s where I find confidence, that’s where I find solace and that’s where I navigate from. If I’m on set and finding it difficult or about to enter into a situation that I find a little bit overwhelming like first days of filming, first day of read-throughs or first day of rehearsals, things like that, I listen to music as I can and just try and settle myself down. I listen to a little bit of Otis or a little Aretha, or jump up and down to The Specials and that kind of settles my soul, I know who I am then.
BH: Brilliant. Leanna Benjamin asks: Thank you so much, this has been incredibly useful. Is there a part that you would love to play or a story that you would love to write?
LJ: At some point when I get old enough I’d like to play Lear. I’d quite like to do that. Are there stories I’d like to tell? Yeah there are. I mean there’s—I’d like to do my version of a period drama populated by a more realistic sense of what people, certainly in London, might have looked like in times gone by. Not by way of making an overt political statement, but by way of trying to tell the truth of the situation and finding a story that enables that. That’s one of the things I’m working on. There’s a boxing story that I’ve got in my head that I just can’t shake that I want to tell. I’m lucky in that sense that the stories I want to tell I want the possibilities of being able to tell them, it’s just a matter of time really. As for parts that I want to play, I’m open to whatever’s on offer really. if it’s a part that’s gone before, there are a couple of classic roles that I’d like to test myself against.
BH: Your King Lear, I want to see your King Lear.
LJ: Yeah well you know, I’m a father of three daughters, I think I’ve got a connection with the fella
BH: Luis Aduana asks: I’m really interested in hearing more about your writing process. Do you set yourself disciplined time to do it, or do you just write when you get the ideas in your head?
LJ: I used to write in the middle of the night when everyone had gone to bed and there was nothing on television that I wanted to watch. I’ve now got a bit more—I’ve had to get a bit more grown up about it. I write during the day, I see it very much as a kind of nine to five and kind of force myself to do it. I remember seeing an interview with I think it was Ben Elton, and he just had this really simple phrase when somebody said—the interviewer asked him what advice would you give to writers who are finding it difficult, and he said writers write. That’s what you do. That’s what I try to do. If I write a page, if I write a line, if I write a scene, if I write half an act, I try on days that I have writing to do I’ll sit down and write and not put too much pressure on myself about how much I write, just that I write. That’s what I mostly try to do. A successful day for me is a day that I’ve written anything.
BH: Fair enough! I think probably this will be the last one we’ve got time for, Cameron Robertson asked: As an experienced writer and actor, have you found that acting has helped with writing or vice versa?
LJ: Erm, I don’t write as an actor and I don’t act as a writer. I don’t go on the set of Walking Dead or Fear and if I have issues with a scene I’m not doing that as a writer. I think that would be hugely disrespectful and stuff. There’s enough stuff I have to work on as an actor in that situation. So I don’t do it that way around, but having said that when I was writing Save Me and when I was writing Storm Damage and any of the things I have written, particularly with Save Me because that’s the most recent one, I did have the sense that I wanted to create parts that really excite actors, regardless of size or involvement. I wanted to write parts that actors would feel that what they were contributing had value, that it was something they could invest in, something they could strive for, something they could match themselves against. So I was kind of aware of that but you know I’ve said this to you before, Boyd, that when we were filming Save Me, once I was on the set playing Nellie I was no longer the writer of the show. If the other cast members had questions about the scene they would direct it to the directors and the answers were given by the directors, and if there was an issue that needed the writers or needed my input, we would leave set, go away, talk in a corner and then come back and the director would give the answer because it was important to have a clear separation because otherwise you end up being the jack of all and master of none.
BH: Yep. I want to fit this question in actually hopefully we have a few minutes. Conan Morais asks: Were there any black actors or influencers—I guess they wouldn’t have been called influencers back then—who you looked up to when you first entered the game?
LJ: Yeah. I was lucky there were loads and they quite liked me. There was a long list: Guy Gregory, when I did my first play at The Man in the Moon I had come up from the National Youth Theatre, someone actually a mate of mine, Gary McDonald, had dropped out of a play at The Man in the Moon and they gave me a part there and one of the actors was a guy called Guy Gregory who was an African American actor working in London who took me under his wing and looked after me even at times I didn’t know he was looking after me. Norman Beaton, as I said before Horace Ové, Tony Armatrading, Stefan Khalifa, Oscar James, Hugh Quarshie, George Harris—there were loads of actors and actresses who were there and who were… Seemed happy I was around and took time to look out for me and look after me to varying different degrees. Mona Hammond, Corinne Skinner-Carter, Isabelle Lucas—there were a few who were there and had gone before and on whose shoulders certainly my generation and generations since that we stand on.
The last play—I’ll just say this, I did Norman Beaton’s last play, a play called The Coup at the National Theatre. It was a play about a coup in Trinidad, my family are from Trinidad, and it centred around the deposed president of the country who was in a prison cell being guarded over by a young soldier. I played the young soldier and Norman played the ex-prime minister. Between us, mostly Norman, carried that play all the way through, and it was the point where my family up until that point, even though I was doing a play at the National, up until that point my family were still worried about me and my foster mother would regularly ask me are you going to get a proper job? And it wasn’t until that play and because my foster mother’s generation knew Norman because he was of their generation and that he took her to the side and said that he thought Lennie was going to be alright that it put my family’s mind at rest and they stopped asking for me to go out and get a proper job.
BH: Well that is a fantastic place to end I think. That’s a brilliant story. Thanks so much for answering all my questions and thanks to everyone for answering their questions Lennie. Congratulations on everything you’ve done and everything that’s coming up.
LJ: Thank you so much and thanks for doing this. Thanks for being the other half of it.
BH: Absolute pleasure. And thanks to BAFTA for organising.
LJ: Yes, thank you BAFTA.
BH: Cheers, bye bye.