Lennie James is in lockdown. Not in London, the city he still calls home. Nor in LA, where he has lived since the early 2000s. James is in Atlanta, Georgia, where filming is currently suspended on the latest series of Fear The Walking Dead, in which he plays Morgan Jones.
Luckily, although James is not in the UK, and our interview instead takes place via Skype, his hit drama, Save Me Too, is here. And not a moment too soon. Because the show might just be the first essential, must-watch series of this new era of isolation and lockdown.
It is more than two years since Save Me – the series he created, wrote and starred in and which followed his character Nelly on a quest to find his missing teenage daughter – won critical acclaim and huge audiences for its portrayal of a tight-knit working class community keeping hope alive.
There was one point where Stephen Graham was literally commuting from the North Pole
It has taken a while to materialise, but little wonder. James and the stellar cast he assembled have been busy with other work. Was it hard to find time to get the likes of Suranne Jones, Stephen Graham, Jason Flemyng and, a new arrival for series two, Lesley Manville, in one place at the same time?
“The short answer to that is yes, it bloody well was,” says James. “The slightly longer answer to that is yes it bloody well was, but thankfully that wasn’t my job – all that navigation was done by people much smarter and cleverer than me.
“Because for whatever reason, we decided to pick four or five of the busiest bloody actors in the whole country. And to try and get them all together on the same day in the same room at the same time – I am in awe of how they pulled that off.
“There was one point where Stevie G [Stephen Graham, not ex-Liverpool and England footballer Steven Gerrard] was literally – and this is not an exaggeration – commuting from the North Pole.
“He was shooting something [BBC2’s adaptation of The North Water, with Jack O’Connell, Tom Courteney and Colin Farrell] that had him filming between Norway and the North Pole on a boat. So he would leave there, fly through I don’t know how many times zones to come and shoot with us and then head back.
“And Suranne was busy, Jason never stops, we had to navigate the fact that Susan [Lynch] was on stage at the National Theatre and some other things happened with Lesley Manville.”
Meanwhile, James was in the US, having transferred from The Walking Dead – which, aptly, follows life and death in a post-viral apocalypse world – to its companion series Fear The Walking Dead.
“If I had a long weekend off, that was a good time to tackle the blank pages on Save Me Too,” says the 54-year-old, who played Tony Gates in series one of Line of Duty, and has appeared in everything from Snatch to 24 Hour Party People and Les Miserables.
“If I was on set, I could do rewrites during my lunch hour or in between scenes of stabbing zombies in the head. So I wasn’t a particularly good social bod when I was filming. I wasn’t involved with the cast and crew in the way that I normally would be.”
The result is, once again, stunning. Save Me Too is a sharply written and beautifully acted meditation on grief and community, hope and fear, friendship and family.
The main theme of series two is what does giving up look like
It’s funny, warm, heartbreaking and smart, with series two picking up Nelly, his former partner Clare (Suranne Jones) and the disparate revellers from the Palm Tree pub in which so much of the show is set 17 months on from the dramatic end to the first series (no spoilers here – go and watch it if you haven’t already).
“The main theme of series two is what does giving up look like. What is the price? Because in the first series, you have the juice of the beginning of the chase – they are figuring out how to go about looking for Jody,” says James.
“By the time we get to the second series, we are 17 months down the road. Nelly has been at it, looking for Jody, virtually every single day of those 17 months. He wakes up every single morning going, what am I going to do about finding Jody? And Clare is waking up every morning thinking, ‘where is she, who is she, is she alive or dead – and when does my life start again?’
“So those are the two pillars of this journey. And both of them are having to face the possible end of something. The end of looking or the end of believing.”
James talks with great eloquence about his mission for the series. How he wants to depict working class lives and the estate community he knew well as a teenager and into his early 20s without making their class the sole focus of the series.
“I wanted to tell this story without the usual tropes that people use to talk about the poor and impoverished and estate communities,” says James.
“They always focused on the fact that they are poor, the fact that their communities are impoverished, the fact that they’re overlooked, the fact that employment is haphazard at best and infrequent, unhealthy living and how difficult it is for them to live their lives… and yet they do. And yet they love. And yet they laugh. And yet they find friendship – strong, real, composed friendship. And yet they support. And yet they protect and help.
“That’s what I wanted to show and that’s what I wanted to tell. That all of the things that are true about their lives are true, but in the middle of that a thriller is going on, in the middle of that a geezer is accused of grooming his kid and stealing her away from her family. And that fella decides to go looking for her. So what effect would it have on this particular community of people?”
The talk of community brings us back to the present global pandemic and its impact on the way we live. The way it is refocussing our minds on what is truly important. And the way we are rebuilding and reforming communities of care and compassion – including how our own Big Issue community is coming together to help our vendors through this enforced break in their work.
They might risk everything we have been told not to risk of this particular moment in time to be together
And the community James has so lovingly drawn in Save Me and Save Me Too – how would they be coping without their beloved pub and without seeing each other in person?
“I think they would find a way. Trying to keep the Palm Tree open would be the next thing that would bring all of those people together – they might even forget looking for Jody in order to keep the Palm open,” says James.
“And they might risk everything we have been told not to risk of this particular moment in time to be together.”
And if they couldn’t?
“Because most of them live on the estate, there will be some way of being together,” continues James.
“You know how every evening in Rome people come out on their balconies and sing or play an instrument to let everybody know that we are still together? I can imagine that happening on the towers.
“Goz coming out onto the balcony, going ‘interesting fact’ and giving them all his fact of the day, or them playing music or having an estate karaoke from Zita’s balcony. They would still find a way of being connected…”
Image: Sky UK Ltd
Save Me Too airs Wednesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. The full series is available on NowTV