Lennie James on the origins of Save Me, fish and chips and why he was wrong about Donald Trump

Photo credit: Alan Clarke/AMC

From Digital Spy

Lennie James, like many of us, is at home. Well, not "home" home, but he's staying inside and sticking to the lockdown rules as he waits for the storm to blow over, whenever that will be.

"It's a bit of a weird situation because I'm not home," he tells me. "I'm not in my LA home, and I'm not in my London home. I'm in this kind of in-between place which I'm familiar with, but I've only got so much of a connection here.

"For the last couple of years, I've come here for seven months of the year to work."

The "here" he's speaking of is Austin, Texas, the backdrop for post-apocalyptic zombie drama Fear the Walking Dead, which he should be filming right now.

Photo credit: Gene Page - AMC

"We have no official restart time," he says when I ask him what the production status is.

"But everything is still moving as if we will be back. AMC are in consultation with experts to find the safest and best way, and the most functional way, of not just restarting, but restarting safely, and finding a way to remain safe.

"Social distancing, it's really not possible [on the show]."

Photo credit: AMC

Lennie moved to the States when he was 40 with his wife, actor and publicist Giselle Glasman, and their kids after a lot of back and forth.

His three daughters are now "grown" but a couple "moved home, as it were, once isolation became the thing that we were kind of doing", and he's been relishing hanging out with them over the past few weeks.

But America wasn't always on the cards:

"I had had friends who had gone over years before I did, who were going, 'You should come over, Len. I think it could work for you out here.'

"I put it off, partly through fear, and partly because I was raising my kids in London. I very much wanted them to be Londoners like me, and London was home. I didn't want to leave the UK. I didn't want to do that at all."

It was after 2005's Sahara with Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz that he landed himself an agent. Several months later, he was working on a new project and that was when his wife suggested that they give it a go, if only temporarily, and they made the leap:

"But then it just turned into more, and before you know it you've been here for 10 years." But again he assures me: "It was never a sense of that I wanted to leave the UK."

Photo credit: Jeff Spicer - Getty Images

For Lennie, England is still a prominent feature in his life.

It's where he was born and raised, and he jets back to catch up with family and friends, as well as for work, most recently Save Me Too, a Sky Atlantic drama which he co-wrote and stars in.

But those aren't the only reasons:

"I miss fish and chips like crazy. But I miss my specific fish and chip shop in Fortune Green.

"I miss good West Indian food. I miss good Indian food. I obviously miss the football."

Chatting previously to The Guardian about his greatest love, he joked: "My wife said that I am allowed to say Tottenham [Hotspur] and her, in that order."

He can still easily get his hands on his favourite teabags and hot pepper sauce, but there's one big home comfort that can't be ordered from Amazon.

"The humour is different," he says diplomatically. "I do particularly miss people taking the piss out of each other in the way that we take the piss out of each other."

Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy - Getty Images

Lennie isn't the only person in his family who upped sticks.

His mum, who died when he was ten, came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation when she was 18 years old.

Listening to him talk about the sacrifices that she made to support her family, you can see where his get-up-and-go comes from. "[She] lived and worked here on her own, and saved up the money after she had paid back the National Health Service for her boat ride ticket over.

"She saved up to send for my dad, and they did their best to make a life in the UK for themselves and their kids."

Photo credit: Jason LaVeris - Getty Images

I ask Lennie whether the recent Windrush scandal left him feeling at odds with his relationship with the UK and in turn, his own own identity.

It was reported in 2018 that people who had moved to the UK from the Caribbean after World War II were being treated as illegal immigrants. Many had arrived when they were just children on a parent's passport, so had never needed travel documents or applied for immigration papers.

The Home Office took advantage of that loophole in an attempt to meet its deportation targets.

Lennie's quick to remind me that he's seen it all before.

"It isn't a surprise to me," he sighs. "It isn't new to me. It isn't something that's just happened to me. The most recent stuff is just another example of it to me."

Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC

For Lennie and so many others, it was groundhog day, and hammered home a very unsettling and depressing message: racism is alive and well in the UK:

"The pisser this time around was that… I think mostly, certainly people of my generation and my parents' generation, they were actually throwing their hands up to the sky and their eyes to the top of their heads, and going, 'Really? Still? Are we still having this conversation?'

"'Are we still having conversations about whether we belong or we don't belong?'

"Our blood is spilt in the ground alongside all of the other people, in all of the World Wars that the UK have had. There were black and brown soldiers fighting alongside white soldiers. We've earned our right to our piece of the land.

"The fact that we're still having to justify that is more exasperation than it is anger. It's pathetic."

Photo credit: AMC

His irritation turns to bewilderment then unease when we get onto Donald Trump. Lennie criticises himself for initially trivialising the threat of the reality TV personality-turned-US president:

"I don't understand Trump at all. I think for a long time we laughed at him and didn't take him seriously. I don't laugh at him anymore. I think that he is something to be frightened of, and about – and not just because of who he is, but also who he brings along with him.

"The voices and the people and the opinions and the ideologies that he gives light to, and that he gives power to, I think, are very dangerous, and it's going to take America quite a long time to recover from."

We move onto the situation here in the UK:

"I think Boris [Johnson] is a very good example of his kind, really."

But while his attitude towards the state of play in America is somewhat downbeat, he's more hopeful about the power of the British electorate:

"I have a little bit more faith in the strength of the ballot in the UK, and the effect it might have on Boris and his party, than I do at this particular moment of the ballot in America and what it might do to this presidency."

Photo credit: World Productions/Ed Miller

Lennie's IMDB page stretches all the way back to 1988, which means he's not only done a lot, but witnessed some big changes to the industry itself:

"I think that the #MeToo movement has been seismic in the sense of it seemed to happen in a matter of months.

"There was a different awareness of the treatment of particularly women, but not exclusively women. You know, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and black and brown people. The #MeToo movement has had a seismic effect on the way that our industry operates and, to a certain extent, what it looks like."

He adds: "One of the things that I think the #MeToo movement did around Harvey Weinstein was putting it into a context of: that thing you were slightly taking lightly is really f**king serious, and it should be dealt with."

Photo credit: Theo Wargo - Getty Images

Was he ever aware of any predatory behaviour?

"There were rumours," he says. "Everybody has a Harvey Weinstein story. Everybody has a story that they'd heard, or that they'd heard from somebody else, or that they had witnessed.

"But I was not directly aware of it. And if I was ever in any situation where I felt that somebody was abusing their power on a number of levels – and as a black actor, one of the things you have to do is set the tone in… Well, not so much now. But there was a time when you had to set the tone of what you would allow to be said around you, and wouldn't allow to be said around you.

"I wasn't shy in that direction. I never, you know, if anything was around me or made aware to me, I hope that I didn't let it slide."

Photo credit: Albert L. Ortega - Getty Images

With a lot more time on his hands to think, Lennie has been "mulling over" where Save Me, his critically-acclaimed drama, could go next.

In it he plays Nelly Rowe, a big-drinking, womanising drifter with an unusual, almost Shakespearean, turn of phrase. There are moments when you like him and moments when you don't, which makes him as flesh and blood as it gets.

His estranged daughter Jody goes missing, and the reason behind her disappearance is one of the most harrowing tales that has played out on TV of late.

Photo credit: Sky UK Ltd

The finale of Save Me Too, the season one followup, left the narrative wide open for another chapter, and its long-time followers are desperate for more:

"I'm being asked about a series three quite a lot, and I’m trying to be as honest as I possibly can with everybody, which is: yes, I'm thinking about it."

But don't get too excited:

"I haven't landed on the idea that will propel me into writing just yet. That's not to say that I won't, but it's also not to say that I will. But I'm certainly thinking about it, and the powers that be are interested in there being more – if it's the right kind of "more". If it continues the story in the way that we continued it in the second season.

"I don't want to do it for the sake of doing it."

It's both refreshing and comforting to hear that if it does return, it'll be for all the right reasons.

Photo credit: Sky UK Ltd

The seed for Save Me had taken root in Lennie's head before Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness, the actor who plays his daughter, was even born:

"It was 20 years ago, but it wasn't an idea for Save Me [as it is now]. I had an idea which was to do with the millennium. It was an idea about kids.

"Part of that story – not the main part of the story, but the peripheral part of that story – was a retired police officer whose child had run away from home. His older daughter set out to find his younger daughter.

"It wasn’t anything like what it is now. And when years later I got a telephone call from my agent saying that Sky – Anne Mensah at Sky – was asking: did I have an idea for a returning television series – for whatever reason, that part of that idea popped into my head. And over a long weekend, I started exploring that idea. And that is how I came up with Save Me."

Photo credit: Sky UK Ltd

The series is incredibly multifaceted. On a base level, it's a crime thriller. But it's also about family, and not just Nelly's relationship – or lack of – with Jody and her mother Claire, played by Suranne Jones, but his adopted family, so to speak.

The characters who live on the south London estate where it's set aren't just a colourful addition to the story. They are both an homage to a world that Lennie knows well, and a truthful depiction of people who are so often written off by those who have never stepped foot inside their lives:

"I wanted to tell what I felt was my experience of council estate life. Yes, it is all of the things that sometimes people who live on those estates and come from those estates are demonised for. It is all of the things that sometimes when people tell stories set on the estates, are things that they focus on – whether it will be drugs or gangs or deprivation or racism or whatever. All of those things, I don't ignore, and I don't pretend it doesn't exist.

"But I also wanted to focus on my experience of it, having family members who live on those estates, and friends. I have at different times lived on those estates, and people get on with it. People will raise their kids there. People fall in love there. People have a giggle. People – yes – go through hardship there. But they also forge a life there. And I wanted to write about what I thought that life looked like, and what those connections are."

Photo credit: Sky Atlantic

He adds: "The focus was about how these people— it's partly why it's set around a pub, because a pub is, you know, you can go there to drown your sorrows. But what you mostly do in those kind of pubs is, you go there looking for a giggle. You go there looking for some kind of relief.

"And that's what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about the relief, and the community, and how they love each other."

Watching Stace (Susan Lynch) bolt the doors of The Palm Tree for a lock-in until the wee hours is surreal in the times we're living in. Lennie got me thinking about how integral the pub is, not just to the beating heart of Save Me and countless other TV shows, but to so many people up and down the land who are being kept apart right now.

I leave our chat craving a pint and a bag of dry roasted in the warm glow of my own local and the many faces that make it what it is.

Every day is a step closer, and until then there's always The Palm Tree.

Save Me and Save Me Too are available to stream now on Sky and Now TV.

Save Me Too is available on digital now (from 5th June) and on DVD alongside Save Me 1 & 2 Box Set from 15th June.

Digital Spy now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.

Looking for more TV recommendations and discussion? Head over to our Facebook Group to see new picks every day, and chat with other readers about what they're watching right now.

You Might Also Like