'Save Me' star Lennie James gets candid on how he created the drama and what audiences can expect in Season 2
Lennie James explains how he came up with the idea for 'Save Me,' what it was like working alongside former co-stars, and what fans can expect from the drama's second season
Most fans may recognize British actor Lennie James from his role as Morgan Jones on AMC's flagship post-apocalyptic series' 'The Walking Dead' and 'Fear the Walking Dead.' Not too surprisingly, his character took on an almost cult status among fans of the shows and proved central to numerous theories that speculated on his importance in the larger scheme of things, despite him appearing in all of three episodes in the first five seasons.
Those that have followed the 52-year-old's career a little more closely will recall his roles in the 2000 crime comedy 'Snatch' and more recently, critically-acclaimed neo-noir science fiction film 'Blade Runner 2049'. But forget the past. What he will be lauded for in the coming months will be his portrayal of Nelson 'Nelly' Rowe in drama/thriller 'Save Me'.
Set in the backdrop of working-class, inner-city London, the series follows Nelly, a man who is incredibly charismatic and yet a prisoner to his vices, namely alcohol. A serial womanizer, life trudges along for Nelly at the same pedestrian pace it does for everyone else. However, one day, he finds that a child he had fathered 13 years ago and had all but forgotten, Jody, has gone missing.
As the initial suspicion around him being the kidnapper lifts, Nelly finds himself in a complex territory: one where he's forced to acknowledge all the feelings he's tried to suppress in the last decade, but with the added caveat that his daughter's life could very well be on the line. Revealing the plot further would be depriving you of six hours of a well-paced, well-directed series that captures a thematic, gritty darkness like few others, and leaves you yearning for more.
And while Lennie stars in the intriguing series, it also happens to be the brainchild of his prodigious imagination. The actor not only penned the script for 'Save Me,' but also served as producer, so when we got the opportunity to pick his brain on his ideation process and how he explores themes like kidnapping, trafficking, and abuse, it was not one to miss.
Lennie, however, insists the show evolved from his base desire to create a thriller, and that everything else came later. "[Kidnapping and Trafficking] aren't really the themes that drew me to the story. I had a phone call asking me whether or not I had an idea for a television series and this one kind of just popped into my head. It was very much a desire to write a thriller and, as with most of the themes I write, I wanted to pen a story of redemption."
"The other themes of the missing child and exploration of places that Nelly's search for Jody takes him just came in with the storytelling," he continues. "It wasn't so much that I wanted to write about trafficking and exploitation of children. It was more of wanting to write a thriller and I wanted to set it in a real place with real themes and a realistic lead character with all of his flaws, who goes on a real journey to find things about himself that he didn't know when he started off."
Born in Nottingham to Afro-Trinidadian parents, Lennie spent much of his formative years in South London. To him, the city is home, so it's not surprising to see him set 'Save Me' within its boundaries. But to satisfy our curiosity, we ask whether it was something he had in mind while writing the series and he replies in the affirmative. "I always write about London and it's the first place where my story is set because it's my hometown. It's the place I know best, and it's a place I feel comfortable with and know the dynamics of," he says.
He also believes that the setting is paramount to the story. "It's not by accident that I set 'Save Me' in London. Our main location is three miles square of Southeast London and I found, very strangely, that you can tell a universal story by being very specific about the location. That area of Southeast London in the housing estate and those people in the pub are as important to the story as any of the characters or what happens to them."
However, 'Save Me' isn't the actor's first rodeo. He and his brother had spent eight years in foster care after the death of their mother when he was 10-years-old, and back in 2000, he wrote an autobiographical television film called 'Storm Damage' based on some of his experiences with the system. It depicts a teacher who tries to go back to the foster home he left and help the teenagers there, as James did himself and was nominated for a British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Series. He also wrote a play, 'The Sons of Charlie Paora,' which opened at London's prestigious Royal Court Theatre in 2004.
How did these past experiences shape his thoughts when working on 'Save Me'? "At one level, 'Save Me' happened because the head of drama was a big fan of 'Storm Damage,'" he says. "So, when she phoned my agent asking me whether I had an idea, it was because she wanted me writing again and was a fan of my previous work. So, I suppose it helped that way. But 'Storm Damage' was a one-off 92-minute film for the BBC and 'Save Me' is six hours of television, so it's a very different writing experience. I know some of the experiences from 'Storm Damage' must have rubbed off when I was writing 'Save Me,' but I couldn't tell you at this particular point, no."
But both 'Storm Damage' and 'The Sons of Charlie Paora' were written over a decade-and-a-half ago, so despite their success, why the long hiatus from writing? "I did some other writing but it was never stuff that made it through," he explains. "I was busy acting and it kind of got in the way. Then in 2007, I relocated to America and got busy establishing myself as an actor over there and taking on that challenge."
"I didn't quite feel like I was in a position to write an American story," he adds. "And at that point, I felt a little neither here nor there as to where I was in my head, so I didn't feel comfortable writing a story about London while I was trying to introduce myself to Los Angeles. That was my main reason, really. Acting. And then, the change in circumstances as well."
Lennie was in one of those unique positions where he happened to star in a series he created. It was entirely possible that taking on multiple responsibilities could have proven a chaotic and tumultuous experience, but the actor credits director Nick Murphy for the smooth sailing and how 'Save Me' eventually turned out. "Nick is an utterly fantastic director and he's done a remarkable job and a lot of the success and what we got right was down to Nick," he says.
Coming back to what it was like being both behind and in front of the camera, he states, "I did write five out of the six episodes — one of them was written by two other writers — and I did produce it, create it, and play the main character. So, the good thing about it is that in most situations when you're going to have all those hats on, you have to know at any point which hat you're wearing and not try to do too many things at the same time."
"So, when I was acting in it, I was acting in it. And that's the hat I had on," he continues. "When I was writing it, I was writing it. If any of the actors, when we were shooting had questions, I would direct them to ask the questions to Nick. We would try to present a united front, and if there was an issue that needed me to take my actor hat off for a minute and put my writer hat on, we would go to a corner and figure it out. It was then Nick's responsibility to implement it. We wanted to keep the lines clean and not blur them."
The 52-year-old is supported on the show by a talented ensemble of actors, each with their own lengthy list of acclaims and achievements. The likes of Suranne Jones, Barry Ward, Susan Lynch, and Kerry Godliman all play significant roles, but its names like Stephen Graham and Jason Flemyng that catch the eye. Because Lennie worked alongside the pair in 'Snatch,' we wonder aloud what how envisioned them for the roles of Melon and Tam while writing the script.
"I didn't!" he laughs. "It's a very strange thing because at the moment I'm writing for the second season and now the characters of Tam and Melon have the heads of Stevie Graham and Jason Flemyng. When I was first writing them, they were figments of imagination and in all honesty, I didn't think we would get either of those actors. When their names were suggested, I said I would love them to do it and that they would be absolutely fantastic for it, but I wasn't sure if they would take the roles. They did and they absolutely jumped on it and we got very, very lucky with them."
But Lennie doesn't forget to give a shoutout to the others as well. "For all the casting on 'Save Me,' I feel very blessed and privileged that all those actors said yes," he says. "Getting Stevie and Jason was completely coincidental, even though we worked together on 'Snatch,' but I was very happy to have them on onboard, their energy on the sets and their commitment to the project was just so fantastic."
The impeccable acting and direction aside, 'Save Me' boasts of a haunting and almost ethereal musical score. As you are introduced to Nelly and the other characters, the music manages to seep into every crack and crevice, blending and complementing the storytelling. It elicits pangs of love and of compassion without becoming too intrusive, and Lennie says that's yet another aspect one can thank director Nick Murphy for.
"Nick listened to the submissions of all the different composers and landed on Dustin O’Halloran score because it blended perfectly," he discloses. "He had read the script and understood it even though, strangely, he lives up here in Los Angeles. But O'Halloran loved the script, understood it, and wanted to be a part of it. His music didn't sound like it was written for TV music."
Lennie continues: "It added to the story and lifted it. It wasn't there by coincidence and it wasn't telling you what to feel. It was giving you that little bit of room to understand the different layers of the story and it was utterly brilliant. When I heard his music, I was completely and utterly onboard."
'Save Me' first premiered in the UK on Sky Atlantic on February 28, breaking numerous records and earning a rave critical reception. Following its success, a second season has already been commisioned and is expected to enter production in 2019.
To hear it from Lennie, it will be even more thrilling than the first. "The next season is a continuation of Nelly's search for Jody and it's going to see him walk through walls, sometimes get it right, often get it wrong," he reveals.
"It's a massive 'Who's done it' in season two and it's going to take Nelly into a different aspect of the world from the one he's already in. It's quite a time jump when we meet back up with them and now that time has passed, there aren't many people who are still cognizant of Jody's absence. Most have gone back to their lives and the only real people still aware of her absence are Claire and Barry on one side, and Nelly on the other."
"So when we pick it back up, it's after a certain time that for most people, they're not waking up thinking, 'There's no child,' but for those that still are, it's still as raw and painful as it has been for all of the time we've been with them."
'Save Me' will premiere on US premium cable network STARZ on Thursday, September 6, over three nights on STARZ, the STARZ App and STARZ on Demand.