LEnnie James missed being on stage. That’s where he started and that’s still how he measures himself as an actor. But now that he’s back in a rehearsal room, he’s got stage fright. “I’m petrified,” he says, bearded head-and-shoulders on Zoom in a back room at the Old Vic theatre, London, in preparation for his role in Caryl Churchill’s A Number.
The play, picked up from 2002, is set in the near future where cloning is rampant and revolves around a series of clashes between a father and a series of clones of his son. Exploring identity and what it means to be human, James will play the father of Paapa Essiedu’s son. “I’m more scared than ever in my life… I don’t know what made me think it was a good idea, but I was really looking to be challenged, and this piece certainly does that.”
Now 56, James has become best known for his TV work, from Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (he played fatally flawed DCI Tony Gates in the first series, which some still consider the best) to Morgan Jones in the post – the apocalyptic dramas The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, and Nelly Rowe, another flawed hero, in Save Me.
But old muscle memory comes to life, he says, and the pace of the theater gives him more time to think, compared to the riptides of episodic TV series where rehearsals are a luxury – “If you do 16 episodes a season , you receive a new script approximately every eight days.
He was invited to play twice in A Number by two different directors, both times opposite Essiedu, so there is a certain chance in this return to the theater after a 15-year gap. “One [director] came through me saying, ‘It should be you and Paapa.’ Another passed by Paapa saying, “It should be you and Lennie. It’s hard to say no because, regardless of the experience, the universe is trying to bring the two of us together.
What does it mean, if anything, that the two characters in Lyndsey Turner’s production are men of color? “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the story of everything it’s all about, but it’s also the story of two black men and the story of a black father and a black son. It’s only because it can’t be anything else – it’s me and Paapa.
James’s background in foster care has been well-documented and he drew inspiration from it in 2000 when he wrote the Bafta-nominated drama Storm Damage about a teacher returning to the children’s home he grew up in. James’ mother died when he was 10 after a long illness. He was taken to a children’s home in Tooting, south London, with his older brother, then placed with a foster mother and siblings. He wrote the drama to “pay tribute to my adoptive mother,” who created a home after discovering that some children were getting lost in the system. “I was trying to tell the story of the first two years of my adoptive mother’s children’s home and what it did to us as a family as well as what it did to the children who went through it.”
The acting has always accompanied the writing. He starred in his first play at age 16, but wrote a play just a year later which won a national youth theater competition and was published by Faber. He has, in the past, spoken fancifully of catching the acting bug after following a girl he liked into an audition. Was that really what had triggered it? It was more a search for belonging, he suggests, that he found on stage: “I went to a school for boys, and if you could name a sport, we had a team for it. You didn’t have an identity unless you were picked for a team, even if it was the chess club.
“When I made my first play [Just Good Friends] At the Cockpit Theater in Marylebone, central London, I was stopped crossing the road by the show’s choreographer, Karen Rabinowitz, who said, “Are you going to do it again, Lennie?” …I think you can do it and I think you can do it professionally.’ So you got picked for the team? “That’s exactly how I felt. That’s all I needed.
He saved up to pay for his auditions and entered two acting schools – the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Rada – but decided to go to the first when he realized he would be the only student black of his year in Rada against three. others at Guildhall.
Still, he felt adrift at first. “Yeah, it was lonely and I felt very vulnerable, very overwhelmed. I had gone to drama school because I felt like I didn’t know anything about the business and I went there to to learn.
He felt branded as the “working class black guy,” but luckily, because the school had a jazz class, he found an affinity with some of the musicians. “There was the Reggae Philharmonic, the Jazz Warriors, Steve Williamson and the girls who played the violin in Soul II Soul. Bryn Terfel was there and we were going for a drink with him…I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with them all in the basement.
He was a working actor for the next two decades, but just before he turned 40, he left for Los Angeles. Why? “I had done at least one starring role in a TV show and a number of starring roles on stage. I was told I should be content with that because that was a definition of success here for someone. one that – in my opinion – looked like me. I just wasn’t ready to let anyone else decide what my ambition should be. I wanted to challenge myself as an actor, to see what was possible. I landed there when I was a relative adult and seemed to arrive at the right time; it went stupidly well for me immediately.
Does he think an actor of color would need to leave Britain for better roles today? “I don’t think we’ve gotten there, but I think the options for actors of color are wider than they were. The UK opened up a bit to our possibility. I was one of a generation where it was admitted, especially on television, that we were not necessarily representative of universal stories. I remember a friend who participated in a long television program. He is a black actor and his character had had a number of love interests that were exclusively white. He went to the producers and said, ‘Why don’t we have someone black next time?’ “We can’t have a Black-on-Black relationship because the audience won’t identify with it.” This statement, I do not believe, would be made by anyone on UK television in 2022.”
James has three daughters with his wife, Giselle Glasman, whom he met in youth theater at the time. Considering he successfully kicked down the doors but knows the tension all too well, how would he feel if they wanted to go into the business?
“Two of them are inside, backstage, and one of them is not there. That suits me. I work in a job that, ultimately, you do because your heart can’t let you do anything else. So if my daughters want to work in this industry, it must be because they really want to and can support themselves through the ups and downs. So far they are succeeding and I am exceptionally proud of them all.
There is also the important but absent influence of his mother in his life. Has been she a natural performer? It’s hard to tell because he only knew her like a child knows his mother, but there are some clues about the woman she might have been that he fondly recounts. “She used to sing alone in church and I had a picture of her on the boat, coming from Trinidad in England, where she’s in the middle of the dance floor. No one else is on it and it just dances like a storm.
Would she be surprised at the turn of her youngest son? “She would be shocked. I was a shy and quiet child. I spent a lot of time curled up behind her legs on the couch. It didn’t really make sense this Lennie would then go on to end up being an actor. She would be less shocked if it was my brother because he was a lot less shy back then.
He has remained close to his brother, who works on construction sites and DJs on weekends. “He’s like one of those old traveling DJs from our youth, who moves into a pub and plays Barry White.” He must be immensely proud of his famous brother. “The problem with my family is that there’s not a huge allowance for me being the guy on TV. There’s a minute of, ‘Oh look, you’re back [from LA],’ and then: ‘Trash cans must be taken out.’ »
A number is at the Old Vic, London, 24 January to March 19.