The British cop drama Line of Duty, which was BBC2’s most popular drama in eight years, shows what happens when the city’s top detective, DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James), is scrutinized under investigation for being too “successful.” Soon, his career and his life, along with the lives of those he loves, are put at risk, and he’s left wondering who he can trust and how he will survive. The show also stars Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar, Neil Morrissey and Gina McKee.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Lennie James, who always turns in memorable, intriguing and unexpected performances, talked about what attracted him to Line of Duty and his sometimes questionable character, why he’s drawn to characters that live in the grey area, how he tries not to have an external eye on the roles that he plays, and the advantages of running the series’ five episodes, uncut and unedited, on Hulu. He also talked about the appeal of his role in the upcoming AMC drama series Low Winter Sun, based on a 2006 British mini-series of the same name, the possibility that he could still return to The Walking Dead, but that he has no real sense of if or when that might happen, the special place that Jericho still holds in his heart, and how he’d love to do some more comedy. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
LENNIE JAMES: I did not audition for it. It was a straight offer. I had been out in the States for awhile and working out here, and I was looking for a project back in Britain, to remind people that I was still around, and that was something that would bring me home. It just so happened that, when I asked for that, Jed Mercurio, who wrote it and produced it, had me in mind for this part. They sent me the first three scripts, and I was pretty much sold, by the time I’d read the first episode. By the time I got to the third episode, all I wanted to do was read the next two, not just to find out about the character that I was going to be playing, but how the whole story resolved itself. And I have to say that they were some of the tightest scripts I’ve ever read, at that stage of the proceedings, so I said yes, almost immediately.
Were you attracted to this because of the fearlessness in its storytelling?
JAMES: Yes. Because we don’t have the same kind of pressures that American television has with sustaining characters over long periods of time, you can make brazen, bold and surprising decisions about the characters, and also blur the lines. In Line of Duty, that’s what they certainly set out to do, really. It sets itself up as being a program about police corruption and the organization that pursues that area of policing, and one particular target that they go after, but that doesn’t even begin to really tell the story. That was one of the things that I found very exciting about it. It’s not just a whodunit. It’s much more of a thriller than that. I remember saying to Jed, when we first spoke about the project once I was on board, that if, at the end of it, we end up with someone describing it as just a cop show, then we haven’t done our job because it’s much more than that. It’s a thriller, it’s a cat-and-mouse, it’s a whodunit, and it’s a, “Is he or isn’t he?,” but it’s also a fascinating investigation of right and wrong.
JAMES: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that the reason why it’s yes is because I find that those characters just have more going on inside. I think that, if you’re very clearly good or you’re very clearly bad, then there isn’t that much internal dilemma going on, and that’s not necessarily as interesting to play. I like playing guys where it’s as important what they’re thinking as what they’re saying. Those are the people I like playing, and the actor that I strive to be. I like actors who work in that area and I like parts that allow me to work in that area. So, yeah, I am attracted to that grey area, but only because there’s just lots more there to mine, really.
As an actor, do you have to justify a character’s motives to play them, or do you just need to understand where he’s coming from, in order to play him?
JAMES: I try, as much as possible, to not have any kind of external eye on the character, at all. You can look anywhere around the world and see people justifying all manner of things within themselves, and being able to sleep at night and look themselves in the mirror, in ways we like to think we couldn’t and wouldn’t. And I don’t always think that people, certainly when they’re doing whatever they’re doing, whether it’s something good or bad or mundane, feel any means to justify what they’re doing. One of the things I liked about playing Tony Gates in Line of Duty was that I don’t think he gave much thought to justifying his actions until he was under investigation. Certainly at the beginning of that investigation, his overriding response to it is, “Why would you be investigating me? That doesn’t make any sense. Why are you going after me and not somebody who’s actually doing something wrong? You’re wasting my time, you’re wasting your time, and you’re getting in the way of the work I’m trying to do.” Subsequently, he moves on from that position, but that’s where we meet him. He’s somebody who has no need to justify who he is or what he’s done because he’s a very, very successful man, when we meet him.
JAMES: I think so, yeah. It’s a good medium to show it on, and there’s very little that gets in the way. People can choose to watch it when they want to watch it. I like the fact that it comes out every Tuesday, and then, at a certain point, you might be able to watch them in a different way. As far as I know, it’s a good medium to watch in. There’s been a bit of buzz about Line of Duty. When I got back to America, people had heard of it because it did so well in Britain. On BBC2, where it was shown, it was the most successful show in about 10 years. I got asked, quite a lot, by people who wanted to know, “When are we going to get a chance to see it?” And now people are going to get a chance to see it, and I’m happy about that. Sometimes when you bleep stuff out or edit it, it leaves the impression that what’s being cut out or edited is terrible, and that certainly isn’t the case with Line of Duty. It’s authentic. It’s not over-the-top. With BBC programming, you can’t go too far down the line because there are strict measures. Everybody has given everything that’s shown in it a lot of thought and consideration before it was put out there, and it was put out there in what I believe to be a very reasonable and true form. And it’s good that it’s going to be seen, in that way.
You’re going to be back on American television, doing Low Winter Sun, which is based on a British mini-series, for AMC. What was the appeal of that project, and had you been familiar with the original mini-series, at all?
JAMES: I was not aware of the original series that it was adapted from. I think that I was already out in America when it came out and, for whatever reason, I just didn’t know about it. Although, one other strange coincidence is that Brian McCardie, who played Tommy in Line of Duty, played the part in the original British version that I’m playing. But, as to what attracted me to it, it’s the same thing that attracted me to Line of Duty, to a certain extent. It’s a really good script. It’s a really good story. And the character that I’m playing lives bang smack in that grey area. He’s a man with secrets, he’s a man who walks the line very precariously, and he’s a man who has a lot to think about before he speaks.
When I spoke to Robert Kirkman about the possibility of your character returning on The Walking Dead, he said that he didn’t want to leave that character dangling for too long, but that it has to make sense for the story, for him to return. Is that how you’ve felt about it, since your appearance on the show? Have you been given any indication that your character could come back?
JAMES: The possibility has always been there, but I haven’t had any firm sense of it. I knew, going in there, that it was entirely up to them, and I absolutely agree completely with Robert. It has to be right. You can’t just come back for the sake of coming back. I am very flattered and it’s also a strange testament because it persists in being a question that people are asking, and not just journalists, but wherever I go. One of the questions that members of my family, friends, people in shops, and anywhere that I’m stopped, at any point, will ask, “When is your character coming back to The Walking Dead?” I’m very touched by that, but it’s also a testament to the show that people are that invested in it. But, as of yet, I am none the wiser.
Are you also surprised that fans of Jericho are still rooting for a reunion, in some form, even with as long as it’s been since it went off the air? Does that show still hold a special place in your heart?
JAMES: It does, yeah. I don’t know how we’d be able to navigate it because there are so many things that would have to fall into place for it to come back. I owe Jericho my whole time in America, really. It was a fantastic group of people to work with. The writers and producers and casting people for Jericho have shown an immense loyal and support of me, over the years. I made friends for life, on that job. I made friends that I speak to still, and will always. I had a really fun time and it introduced me to a whole new chapter of work, in my life. And the fans of that show just gave us what I perceive to be the highest accolade that you can get, which is that they spent their own money and they took time out of their own busy, complicated lives to fight for a television show, for Christ’s sake, and they won because they organized and persisted, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They made history, and they gave me the chance to work longer on a character that I loved playing, that I learned a lot about while I was playing him, and worked with a group of people that I would go back to work with, any day of the week. So, yeah, I loved that experience that I had with the people that I met and the fans who watched it. I am slightly bemused, but nonetheless have a fond respect and admiration for the fans of that show.
Is there a dream role that you’d love to do, or a genre that you’d love the opportunity to work in?
JAMES: It’s weird, really, because I just went and watched the fourth Bourne film (The Bourne Legacy). My daughters are now of an age – they just turned 18 – where we can go and see those films together, so we just had a marathon of the Bourne films. We watched all three of them before we went to the cinema and watched the Jeremy Renner one. And I have to say, of parts that somebody else has played, given the chance, I would love to have played Jason Bourne. Having said that, before I came out to America, a lot of the times, when I was doing films – I did Snatch, 24 Hour Party People and Lucky Break – they were slightly more in the comedic area, and that’s certainly one area that I’d like to play a little bit more in, certainly in the way that I would do it. I’m not a broad comic, but I think I can be funny and I think I make people laugh. It’s one of the more popular noises in my house. There’s always people laughing. I’d quite like to have a bit more of a go at that. But, having said that, I’m having a lot of fun, doing what I’m doing, at the moment. As long as it’s not an either/or, I’d quite like to have a go at some more comedy.
Line of Duty airs every Tuesday on Hulu.