Lennie James: My Life in Telly

From US TV phenomenon The Walking Dead to homegrown British classics like Line of Duty and NOW TV Box Set Save Me, Lennie James looks back at his greatest TV moments.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 1 February 2020 - 5.46pm
Sky UK

Watch Save Me Too on NOW TV from April 1

Lennie James is one of the greatest British actors of his generation. From starting out in the 90s earning his spurs in series such as A Touch of Frost, Cold Feet and Out of the Blue, Lennie got a big break in Guy Ritchie's 2000 movie Snatch and later landed his first US TV lead role in the post-apocalyptic drama Jericho in 2006.

However, it was when James landed a role in the pilot of AMC's The Walking Dead, a role that he would go on to play on and off for a decade, that is fame skyrocketed.

The pilot for The Walking Dead aired in 2010 and although his character Morgan Jones was only in one episode, he would return again in 2013, before becoming a full-time character in the zombie apocalypse one year later.

In 2018 Lennie became the first Walking Dead star to crossover to companion series Fear the Walking Dead and Morgan continues to be one of the most intriguing characters in the zombie-splatting universe, bringing a peaceful and philosophical approach to survival.

Lennie James alongside David Jason in A Touch of Frost in 1994 Rex/Shutterstock
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Back in the UK, James was the lead character in series one of BBC crime drama Line of Duty, playing the shady and unforgettable DCI Tony Gates.

And in 2018 Lennie James wrote and starred in the acclaimed Sky Atlantic and NOW TV series Save Me. Bringing together an all-star British cast, including Suranne Jones and Stephen Graham, and a gripping missing child mystery, it captivated viewers and was picked as the show of the year by many critics. 

Save Me Too will start on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on 1st April.

BT TV spoke to Lennie about his biggest and best TV characters so far...

The Walking Dead - Morgan Jones

Lennie James in The Walking Dead pilot AMC

I was prepared for it to be only one episode. Because of the comics, there was always the potential for Morgan to return. But at that moment they didn't even know if the show would return, so I didn't take anything they said about the character returning down the line as a promise. I just thought, people say that some times. I was fully prepared for it to be one episode only.

I very clearly remember my first day on set. I don't remember all of it obviously, but the memory I have is of me and Andy Lincoln taking ourselves off into a corner and laughing our arses off at where we were at that moment in time. It just seemed ridiculous.

Did I know how big it would be? No, in all honesty. Nobody around us did.

I didn't know about the comic book until the show came around as a possibility. While we were shooting it, it was very exciting to work with Frank Darabont and Frank Darabont is one of my favourite directors, who directed one of my favourite films of all time and was on my bucket list to work with.

All of those things were exciting. The cast was very exciting to me, even if it was just one episode, it was a 90 minuter, Frank wanted to shoot it like a one-off movie. They were all things that would attract any actor to a role and I felt very lucky to be the actor chosen.

Lennie James with his Fear the Walking Dead co-stars Alycia Debnam Carey and Colman Domingo Rex/Shutterstock
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But anybody who says that they were confident that it would be a hit and that it would still be going 9-10 years later and have the impact and history that it has is a bald-faced liar.

Nobody at the beginning of the process was anywhere near that confident. When we started that show, it was all vampires everywhere. It was Twilight and Buffy and The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. It was all sexy vampires and we came along with a zombie show. No one had confidence."

Save Me - Nelly Rowe

Lennie James and Suranne Jones together in Save Me Sky UK Ltd
The Save Me series 1 Box Set is streaming now with the NOW TV Entertainment Pass

The weird thing about it is the success of the show is that these things never happen at one moment or a single point. There is no moment you can pinpoint any nervousness or being blown away.

I was very happy when Sky liked the first episode and commissioned it. I was blown away on the first day of filming on set, where we had 100-150 people working for us on something that I had put down on paper.

I was blown away by the cast we managed to put together and how enthusiastic they were about it. I was staggered by the number of people who watched the whole series in one day. I was in LA and by the time I woke up, somewhere near 40 to 70,000 people had watched the show. It was beyond my comprehension.

And the way these things are shown now, people are coming to Save Me every day. I’m really proud of the work we did. If half of what happened with Save Me happened, I would have been proud.

On the last day of filming, I remember saying, regardless of what happens, I'm proud of what we’ve done and achieved. And that’s the icing on the cake for me. I was proud of what we did, before anyone even saw it.

Watch the Save Me Box Set with the NOW TV Entertainment Pass.

Line of Duty

Lennie James as Tony Gates in BBC drama Line of Duty season one BBC/Worldwide Productions

I watch every single episode. From beginning to end. I’m a big fan of the show. I've still got mates in the show, Adrian, Vicky and Martin. I’m working with World Productions, the guys who produce it, so I still feel very much connected to it.

When I came back just recently to London, it coincided with a screening of season 5, so I went along and then after that we all went out for dinner. It’s still something I feel connected to and I feel part of it.

It was very weird when I came back this year, probably because of how successful it’s become and the fact BBC put all the box sets on iPlayer, but it was suddenly in the street like the first time it aired. People were stopping me and congratulating me on Line of Duty which was something I shot 6 or 7 years ago. It was all a bit surreal.

I did say to wife at the screening, I think people reckon I’m in this and that’s why I'm here. There was a moment of whispering about why Lennie was here and whether it was relevant to the show. But spoiler alert - I'm not in series 5. Just my photograph.

Lennie James returns for Save Me Too on April 1st on Sky Atlantic with NOW TV.

Fear the Walking Dead returns on AMC in the UK later this year.