You may know Lennie James today for his misadventures across the zombie wasteland as Morgan Jones in The Walking Dead, or starring alongside Suranne Jones in Sky Atlantic's Save Me. But before making it in Hollywood, Lennie starred in some of Britain's most critically acclaimed TV dramas
His most critically acclaimed performance has been in Channel 4's Buried out now on DVD for the first time. Lennie plays Lee Kingly, a man sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was charged with GBH and firearms possession, while trying to protect his family. After his appeal is rejected, he is transferred to HMP Mandrake, where he faces battles with fellow inmates and prison staff while fighting to prove his innocence.
We caught up with Lennie to talk about this role, his acting career to date and what's next for one of Britain's best actors.
Simply Media: Buried made headlines when it was first broadcast and went on to win the BAFTA for Best Drama Series. Why do you think it had such an impact?
Lennie James: I think it was down to an originality of storytelling, and a distinctive take. There wasn't anything like Buried, series wise, that year. The decision to never leave the prison when telling the story just drew the audience in. It was like they were locked in the prison with us. Also the filming style was a bit vérité. The camera was positioned to make the audience feel like they were eavesdropping on the action. It gave the whole thing a bit of a documentary feel.
SM: How did you come to be involved in Buried and what was it that particularly appealed to you about the story, and the central role?
LJ: I have never worked as hard in my whole career as I did for the part of Lee Kingley. I got a call from Stevie Graham one morning asking if I'd read Buried. He had, and was saying he immediately thought of me for Lee. I hadn't even heard the script was around so phoned my agent. She told me she'd been trying to get me in for it, but the makers thought I was too familiar on TV and wanted someone more unknown for the part. That was fair enough, but I asked to read the script.
Once I read it I had to agree with Stevie, that part felt written for me. I got my agent to pester them, but they still weren't that keen. So I jumped in my car and drove up to Manchester, from London, where they were casting.
The audition process they were going through was gruelling for everyone, so I had to hang about over two hours before I got in the room, and was then only in there for about 15 minutes. Then, I had the long drive home.
It was about two weeks after that I got a call to come back in. That time it was an all-day audition thing. We went through different combinations of guys and improv situations and readings, and then again the long ride home.
In the meantime I'd been offered a biggish American film. So when, about a month after my second meeting for Buried, I got offered it I had a big decision to make. In the end it was a no brainer. I don't regret saying no to the Hollywood film, and the director was very understanding. I know I would have regretted not playing Lee.
SM: Buried was celebrated for its convincing portrait of prison life. Was it a shocking experience for you?
LJ: Shocking? No, not really, but it was intense. When you're in it you're not always aware of the affect that the process of making it is having on you. It was brought home to me when I was home in London one weekend from filming in Manchester. My wife suggested that it might be an idea for me not to come home again until we'd finished filming. She just thought there was a darkness/shadow around me that wasn't lovely to be around. It might've been good for Buried, but it wasn't much fun to bring home.
SM: How did you research for the part. Did you visit prisons across the UK, and meet inmates?
LJ: I remember doing a lot of reading - testimonies and books of life behind bars. I didn't visit any prisons. I had done a film a few years earlier called Lucky Break and had visited and filmed in a few prisons during that time. Also, I didn't think it would help me in playing my character. He was a man who wasn't expecting to go to prison. He was a 'good man' living an honest life and one moment of madness saw him sentenced to prison for 10 years.
SM: Can you remember what the filming process was like? Was there on-set camaraderie, and have you stayed in touch with any of the cast and crew?
LJ: Our 'prison' was actually a set, so we had real control of our environment. I remember the filming being very male. That many men in an enclosed space for 10 hours every day, how was it going to be anything else? Especially with the subject matter. There was a lot of piss-taking and 'dick-swinging', but a real focus on the job in hand. We shot a lot of minutes a day, as I remember. It was hard work but really fun and rewarding.
I'm still in touch with Robbie Gee, who's an old mate and Danny Lestuzzi, who played Crop Kid. I had a gathering when I was back home in London last year and got to catch up with Jane Hazelgrove, which was a blast, and I worked with Robert Jones, one of our writers. Also I've worked with World Productions, who produced Buried, since then.
SM: What impact did starring Buried have on you, and on your career?
LJ: You can never really know about things like that. Sometimes there's an immediate and noticeable change, and sometimes it's a slow burn. It was my first big lead on TV, so I suppose it did prove I could do that. It's quoted as a performance that people noticed and one of the reasons why people want to work with me. More than anything, it's something I'm very proud to have been a part of.
SM: With recent controversies surrounding the UK’s prison system, releasing Buried on DVD is rather timely! Why is it important for us to understand the truth of what goes on behind bars?
LJ: I think where Buried has anything to say about life in our prisons at the moment, it's in Lee's journey into his life behind bars. He is our 'guide' into the rules and regulations when you're banged-up. We enter the world with him, and we see it, to a greater or lesser extent, through his eyes.
I think we did a really good job at showing the mundane/monotony of prison life and the importance of the best mindset needed not only to survive your time inside, but also make sure you don't return.
SM: You’ve had many roles across film and television. Which roles have stood out for you, and why?
LJ: I'm lucky, I've had a good few parts on screen that I can hang my hat on and say I'm glad I got to play them. I'm not going to list them, because I'd feel like I was being unfair to the ones I don't mention. I will say though the Lee Kingley was definitely one of them.
SM: Many of our audience will have watched you play Morgan Jones in The Walking Dead (TWD). Can you tell us about the development of your role in the show?
LJ: Obviously Morgan would be on the list from the previous question. Morgan Jones was a character from the first comic book and was therefore a character from the first episode of TWD.
I played him in that first episode, and there was some mention of maybe coming back should the show win a second series. Well it did come back and turned into the behemoth that it is now.
I came back in the third series in an episode written by Scott Gimple. Pretty much from that point on my character's development has been in his hands. When he got the top job of show runner he set about bringing me back as a permanent member of the cast, even after Morgan was killed off in the comic books.
I love playing him and I'm really looking forward to his next adventure in Fear The Walking Dead.
SM: And now you’re moving from The Walking Dead and joining the cast of Fear the Walking Dead. How did that come about?
LJ: It came down to Scott (Gimple) asking me if I would be interested in exploring who Morgan is and who he could be in a new environment, with a new group of survivors. I couldn't think of many, if any, actors who had been offered such a unique opportunity, so I said yes.
I want to find out what the way back to some kind of normality might look like for Morgan.
SM: How does working in America compare with working in British TV?
LJ: Apart from craft services and overtime, your working day is pretty much the same in the UK as it is in the US. Film sets/TV sets anywhere in the word are always a bit much of a muchness.
SM: We are soon to be releasing the DVD of Lynda La Plante’s Comics, another Channel 4 series in which you starred. Can you tell us a bit about your time working on this show and why you wanted to be part of it?
LJ: Comics and Delroy would also be on my list of favourite parts. My first real TV gig out of drama school was a six-parter for the Beeb called Civvies, that Lynda created and wrote.
Toward the end of that Lynda took me to the side and told me she'd written this thing called Comics - about an American comedian who comes to London and witnesses a murder on his first night. Lynda said there was a part in it that she thought I'd be good for, and luckily I got the part. It was a real giggle hanging out and working with Danny Web, Michelle Fairley, Chris Fulford and Tim Guinee. I remember Eddie Kid did a big motor cycle stunt at the end of it and he was seriously cool and fun.
Lynda was a big influence on me. She's an amazing person. Really funny and fierce and smart, prolific and kind. I owe her a lot.
SM: Do you think we’re living through the Golden Age of Television? Why do you think that is?
LJ: Everybody's saying it, so there’s probably some truth to it. I don't think we'll really know how golden it is until things change or we lose interest in TV. There's a lot of opportunities to get scripted TV made at the moment, and that has led to some fantastic programmes and some brave and exciting explorations of the way television is made and distributed.
SM: What’s the last DVD you watched that you’d particularly recommend to our audience?
LJ: Last DVD I watched was The Six Million Dollar Man. I was a massive fan when I was a kid. I found a DVD copy at a comic book convention in LA. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who wasn't utterly a big fan of it first time around. The nostalgia of it all is the only thing that makes it work. It's very dated.
SM: Finally, what are you working on next? new roles on the horizon?
LJ: Well I've got Fear The Walking Dead going on. I've also written and am in a new series for Sky Atlantic called Save Me. It is about a father who is arrested and accused of abducting his estranged 13 year old daughter. He sets out to prove his innocence, to find his kid and to find the person who took her pretending to be him.
All six episodes of Save Me will be available from Wednesday 28 February on Sky Atlantic and Now TV. I'm very proud of it and can't wait for people to get to see it.
Buried is a BAFTA-winning drama about the daily struggle for survival in HMP Mandrake, a men's prison, created by Jimmy Gardener, Robert Jones and Kath Mattock, who collaborated on BAFTA-winning BBC drama series The Cops.
You can view our collection of Lennie James' greatest performances and other hit crime dramas Here