I Am No Celebrity: An Interview with the Walking Dead's Lennie James

Domenique Fragale chats to The Walking Dead's Lennie James about working in the US, realising your own projects, and his views on celebrity... 

“Mr James?” I ask into the phone.

“Mr James? Please call me Lennie, I don’t know who this Mr James is that you talk of.”

I’m immediately at ease with the down-to-earth actor, who has an extensive theatre, screen and writing career. With credits including Snatch, The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and Save Me.

Here James took time from his filming schedule for the latest series of Fear the Walking Dead in Austin, Texas, to speak to me, on behalf of Spotlight, on how he approaches auditions, keeping positive in an unpredictable industry and keeping his private life just that – private.

Did you ever think you would wake up going to a job you love, as an actor, every day?

Not at all. As a kid growing up in South London, I didn’t even know it was possible to dream of this; I didn’t know the possibilities out there. Discovering acting was life-changing. It really broadened my understanding of what could be possible.

When you’re preparing for an audition, is there a particular method you like to follow?

If I get a script, I always read the whole thing. That would, hopefully, give me a beginning, middle and end for my character. Even if I’m only doing one scene in the audition, it really helps me to feel fully prepared. If I only get one scene though, then I ask questions to the people I’m auditioning for; who the character is, where they’re from, what they do. If that isn’t available, then I make decisions about the character and answer my own questions.

Auditions are weird things. Recently I’ve been on the other side of them, auditioning actors for the second series of Sky’s Save Me, which I wrote and am producing. It was a real eye-opener. When people audition, particularly younger actors, they can tend to think it’s a case of ‘whether you do or don’t get the job.’ If you don’t get the job, you tend to think that that’s a comment on you as an actor and invariably it’s not.

When I was looking for actors, we saw terrific actors – some of whom I knew, some I didn’t – but when you’re looking for a particular character, some actors just aren’t quite right for the role and that’s all. No reflection on the individual at all. It wasn’t a case if they were good or bad, they just weren’t right.

Whenever I next go into an audition now, I’m definitely going in with the recognition of how nervous I might be or how I’ll feel about the outcome, should I not get it, and put that to the back of my mind.

In your opinion, is there a difference working as an actor in the UK, compared to the US?

The lengths of the working day are different. It’s what money does, really. In the US, I can range from working a 15-hour day, to a 14-hour, then an 18-hour one. That’s almost unheard of in the UK.

In the UK, we usually finish on set at 6, after our [standard] 10-hour day and any overtime was an absolute luxury. In America, that’s never typically the case, especially in television. Aside from that, it’s pretty much the same. I think television sets all over the worlds are very similar.

It’s no illusion that being an actor in the industry can be disheartening. Do you have any advice for actors who are starting to lose hope in themselves?

The best piece of advice I was ever given was ‘do the job.’ It’s a difficult thing to do, though, because a lot of actors go into a job already thinking, ‘what could this job do for me?’ That’s not a helpful or healthy way to look at a role. Just do the job that’s in front of you, to the best of your availability, and another job will come.

Also don’t look at other actors and say, ‘that’s not fair, that that’s not me!’ Because that’s not the way this industry works. We use our art form, work with our craft and an actor should take that for what it is; it’s arbitrary, but what you also have to do is enjoy the journey you’re on. It will take you somewhere eventually yes, but take pleasure and take pride in the job you do. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on the thing you’re doing right in front of you. In the end, what you remember from your career is the sum of the things you enjoyed as much as anything else. Take the time to do that.

You play the notable character Morgan Jones in the series The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. Did you feel a lot of pressure to live up to the character that already had a large fan base? How did you go about creating a three-dimensional version of the character for television?

I didn’t know The Walking Dead from the comic books. When I was researching for Morgan, I looked him up, but I didn’t take on any of the weight from transferring Morgan from the comic book to Morgan in the television series. It wouldn’t have helped me. I was playing the guy they wrote in the first episode. That was all I went on.

Production mentioned to me that, ‘Morgan, in the comic books, comes back later on, so there’s a possibility that your character would come back with an appearance’, but I’d heard that before, so I didn’t put any anticipation or weight into it. I didn’t go in with a sense of foreboding or feeling of that responsibility to make it happen, I just enjoyed the process and did the job.

I was far more nervous about working with Frank Darabont, who directed greats like Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, than bringing Morgan to life. I did have a lot of fun and freedom with Morgan and that transpired. When we started on The Walking Dead, nobody knew it would become what it is today and this is why I say just do the job, all the way along the line; the progression and the journey of Morgan, as far as the television series is concerned, all happened because of the way the fans reacted. I remember one of the first phone calls I had with Scott Gimple (writer and producer on The Walking Dead) was to ask me if I would come back as a regular. No one planned that, no one knew, no one forced it. It all grew from a progression and a journey. Circling back to when I say just do the job, enjoy it. You never know what’s to come.

You're grounded, aren't a part of the stereotype of being photographed everywhere and your social media isn't active. Was this deliberate, to avoid ‘celebrity’?

I am not a celebrity. I know that in the world that it is now, it is the easiest label to put on someone who is seen in television, in films or on stage, but I have no ownership over that word, whatsoever. I think it’s the antithesis of what an actor should be. If I shoved myself out there, that would make it harder for me to do that for an audience. I don’t buy into the notion that because I’m on TV, it gives a right for everyone to know about my life, it doesn’t. It just gives you a right to my life on the television, not a right to my personal life. It’s not healthy for my kids and it’s annoying for my wife. You can know me for who I am through my work, it doesn’t help anyone to know what type of underpants I’m wearing, what I’m drinking or who I’m married to. My job is to make you believe in the characters.

You interviewed with The Big Issue (February, 2013) and in it you said you would tell anyone to "spread your net further". Can you tell us more about that? What does it mean?

I grew up, along with my brother and cousins, as the first generation of my family to be born in the UK; my family are from the West Indies. My parents were a part of the Windrush generation. We called ourselves the ‘Twice as Good Generation’ - in this country you have to be twice as good to get half as far.

This was always pressured upon us from our parents. There were times that as a black person you were shut out of or felt pushed away from certain things. There was an underlying saying that we would say to ourselves; “black people don’t do that, we don’t do this” and I wish that I had challenged that. Challenged things we were deemed not to be able to be a part of or couldn’t do more of.

When I was young, I remember a couple of my mates, who were white, had come back from their summer holidays at Butlins and telling me how fantastic it was. I went back home and asked my mum if we could go to Butlins, but she just replied, “Black people don’t go to Butlins.” I said, “Really? That’s annoying.” But that was that. I didn’t question it anymore. That’s just a small example. There were choices about things that I restricted myself about and if I had my time again, I would have challenged those things and taken more risks.

What’s been a highlight of your career so far? 

One that comes to mind straight away and was the biggest ‘wow’ moment for me, was for the film Storm Damage, I wrote in 1999 for the BBC. The first day I walked onto set for that was probably about as proud of myself as I’ve ever been in my career. I’ve walked onto sets before, but I’d never walked onto a set where everyone is working because of something I created.

To have all these people come into work on that day because of an idea I worked on in my bedroom just blew me away. It was a very private moment that only I felt, I couldn’t even put words on it at that particular point, but that feeling of ‘look what I did’ was incredible.

I had it on Save Me as well, when we started filming the initial scenes. As an actor, it’s very weird that one of my biggest highlights was as a writer, but it was. They’re moments where I keep remembering over and over again. Another one, because of it being one of the hardest performance roles I’d ever taken on, was A Raisin in The Sun at the Young Vic in 2001. The character I played was like the Hamlet for black actors - it was a challenge and I loved every minute.

Catch Lennie next on Fear the Walking Dead and the upcoming second series of Save Me.

Dual citizenship actress Domenique Fragale attended the Arts Educational School, London, with further training at the Theatre of Arts, UCB and The Groundlings in Los Angeles.

As well as having performed professionally in TV, film and theatre, Domenique was awarded the Princess Diana Award Against Bullying at BAFTA for her work on an internationally shown anti-bullying short film. She has since become an ambassador for the notable cause, presenting and giving talks on awareness at press coverings such as with the BBC and 10 Downing Street. Domenique has worked professionally as a freelance Content Contributor for Spotlight, as well as published work with The Diana Award and MQ Mental Health organisation. 

Image credits: header image courtesy of Sky; headshot by Michael Shelford.