Lennie James

Lennie James is a British actor and regular on US TV. We grabbed him for a chat about his time in America and find out why he returned to appear in the recent Channel 4 series Run.
boom interviews - Lennie James
Lennie James starring as Richard in the Channel 4 drama Run.

If you were sitting at home in front of your TV today, you wouldn't bat an eyelid at the amount of British talent that is currently enjoying success acting in US TV shows. For example, Stephen Moyers is currently vamping it up in True Blood; Andrew Lincoln is dodging zombies in The Walking Dead; whilst his fellow This Life star Jack Davenport is putting on a show in Smash.

But this wave isn't the first to stick a flag for old Blighty in the US TV schedules. Lennie James may not be a name that jumps out at you immediately, but if you know your US TV onions, he'll certainly be a familiar face.

He got his first taste of US drama in 2006 starring in Jericho followed by stints in the mini-series revival of The Prisoner, the HBO comedy Hung and significant appearances in the critically acclaimed The Walking Dead. It also looks like he won't be back, permanently at least, anytime soon, as he's currently shooting the US version of Channel 4's Low Winter Sun alongside fellow Brit Mark Strong.

With such a consistent body of work Stateside, Lennie James is the quietest of trail blazers for UK actors. Not that his modesty would allow him to admit to it. "If we're really going to go into the trail blazers then there's Joe Marcell, who was doing the Fresh Prince of Bel Air for god knows how many years before anyone noticed; Eammon Walker, who was in Oz more than ten/fifteen years ago [and is now currently in Chicago Fire]; Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who was out here doing Without a Trace; so I wouldn't for a second claim myself to be a trail blazer".

It was for the 2005 Matthew McConaughey vehicle Sahara that James got to head over to the other side of the pond initially. "Then months later my rep in America convinced me to come over and it just so happened that I landed at the right time." It was at this point that he was offered a part in a new US drama series called Jericho.

Set during the aftermath of nuclear attacks on US soil, Jericho struggled with ratings from the off and was cancelled after only one season. It may not have had a huge audience but its fan base was certainly loyal. So much so that they began a campaign to revive it, which involved not only sending its network CBS their disapproval at the cancellation, but also nuts. Lots of them. Twenty tons of them, to be exact.

boom interviews - Lennie James
Lennie James starring in the cult US show Jericho as Robert Hawkins.

"That whole peanut campaign was firstly staggering and was incredibly flattering and a testament to the show we did," recalls James. The nuts came about from one of the characters in the show who used the word in one of the scenes in the last episode of season one. "It's one thing when you get plaudits or awards from people within your own industry, when they pat themselves and each other on the back; it's a very different thing when your fanbase go out of their way in the way that the fanbase for Jericho did for that show, it's never less than staggering."

The studio was so impressed with the fans' reaction that a second season – albeit shorter in length – was made. Sadly no amount of nuts could save the show, and it was cancelled for a second time. But as recent developments in TV have shown - with the resurrection of Veronica Mars thanks to crowd sourcing - a show can be dead, but not officially buried. Although some time has passed since his appearance in Jericho, James isn't entirely ruling out the possibility of a return to the show. "If the chance came along to be with those guys again I would have to seriously consider it because of the good time I had the first time around. I still have very close friends, who were my first American friendship base, because I was very much the outsider on Jericho; there was one other actor who lived out of state, but I was the only one from another country. The cast, crew and production team really looked after me when I was here without my family, so I made a lot of friends for life on that one."

Luckily for James, he doesn't have to rely solely on working in the US. Over the years he has managed to return, despite now living in the States, for UK-based projects. His latest role, in the Channel 4 drama Run, saw him back on very familiar ground indeed: his old neighbourhood of South London.

His role as Richard, with his down-on-his-luck appearance, allowed him a different experience to home than he was used to. "I put on his clothes and I wasn't looking much like myself and I just walked around the streets of Brixton, Clapham and Stockwell, just to see if I could find him to a certain extent, if that doesn't sound too poncey. I tried to find a look for him, and a walk for him, and a centre for him, kind of so people either would do their best to ignore me, or walk around me. And that's how I found him."

And once he did find him, he was a little surprised how others reacted to him. "There was one point when one of the security guards for our production when we were filming on Atlantic Road in Brixton tried to move me on, so I took that as compliment."

And there was another time he found himself in an interesting scenario, this time driven by his love for home-made Caribbean food. "We were filming on the street all day and at lunchtime I just decided that I wanted to go across the road to Brixton market and get some West Indian food for lunch, because there isn't good West Indian food in LA, so I was craving some. I happened to be filming this when Line of Duty was on TV [playing bent copper DCI Tony Gates], and I went into the takeaway shop, and the lady behind the counter said to me, "do I have a brother?" and I said, "yes I do," and she replied, "is that him off of the television?" And before I could say either yes or no, she said "he needs to fucking look after you!" So I took that also as a compliment. I felt a little guilty for not telling the lady that even though I do have a brother, that the one on the TV was actually me. I didn't want to make her feel silly, so just left it at that."

How he got the role in Run is a fine example of how creatives shouldn't be dismissed from aiming high when it comes to casting. "The three guys who are the main guys behind it, Darren, Marlon and JP, they just wrote me a letter," James admits. "I haven't said this to them really, but they just name-checked the right things; they hadn't even written my episode so it was a real wing and a prayer, but they let me know that I was the guy that they wanted for the show, and they name-checked the right jobs I had done in the past and just so happened to pick the ones that I'm most proud of."

But it wasn't purely a case of getting the right man for the job. James was keen to explore a type of character that he hasn't had the opportunity to in a while. "It was a character I liked because he wasn't a geezer in a suit, he wasn't a police officer, FBI agent or CIA or any of those kind of things. It was a challenge for me, I wanted to show a different side, or at least a side I hadn't shown back home for a while, and it was a story told in the neighbourhood I grew up in."

Already back on US soil working on Low Winter Sun, James can get a lot of recognition, mostly it seems for his two appearances in a certain zombie drama. "It's happening a lot with the popularity of The Walking Dead; sometimes you go blissfully unnoticed, and the other days you walk twenty feet and you're stopped seven times. It depends on the day and the face I've got on, I suppose."

The fact that the British-born actor is now living full-time with his family in the US suggests he's doing something right over there, and it's a situation he hopes doesn't change any time soon. "The American acting fraternity have been stupendously generous to us, so I'm happy about it for as long as it remains. I hope they continue not to notice!"

The Channel 4 series Run is now available to own on DVD.