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'As a black man, I wore emotional 'armour' just to survive in the UK'

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Lennie James as Nelly Rowe in Save Me Too

Lennie James as Nelly Rowe in Save Me Too

Lennie James as Nelly Rowe in Save Me Too

Lennie James was on a plane when his life changed forever. It was 1990, and the actor - aged 24 at the time - was flying home to London from Dominica, where he'd been filming a miniseries called The Orchid House.

When the pilot announced the plane had left West Indian airspace, James broke down.

"I cried like I'd never cried before in my life," he says.

"I cried and cried. My wife was really worried, asking what was the matter... I suddenly thought, 'I'm back in the UK,' and I swear to God I could physically feel my body tensing.

"It felt like I was putting my armour back on - what I needed to survive as an 'ethnic minority', as they called us then."

That armour, he says, "was physical and emotional, and because I had been released from it for eight weeks, it was only putting it back on that I was aware of just how heavy it was. It was the first time I really realised what I had to do in order to live as a black man at home in the UK".

Deep

James wants to explore that profound realisation in his work. Known for playing the first bent copper in Line Of Duty and devoted father Morgan in The Walking Dead, he's got two writing credits under his belt - his Bafta-nominated 2000 TV film Storm Damage, about a teacher who returns to his London foster home, and Save Me Too, the second series of which he's on Skype to discuss - but he's yet to delve into the issue of race.

"I haven't had an idea yet that allows me to explore the damage racism does, how far deep down it goes," says James.

"How it makes you conscious of how you walk down the road and affects the decisions and the compromises you make.

"How much effort you put into explaining racism to white people and making it all right for them. How tiring it is.

"A lot of the time, racism is still seen through the lens of the white community," he adds, "and I haven't found a way that incorporates black people speaking to each other about what it is."

James was raised in London by his mother, who died following a long illness when he was 10.

"When she showed up [in England] there were literally signs on the door saying, 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs'," he says.

"My mum said to us, 'You're going to come across a lot of people who don't want you here. This is how you navigate it: you make sure you're so good they can't shut you out.'

"That's what we had to strive for. For most parents, that was about education. You get an A at school, it doesn't matter if you're black or white - you got an A. Because of this pressure, I was constantly aware of the shape I cut in the world.

"Most of my white friends when I was growing up, they just weren't, and they didn't have to be."

After James's mother died, he and his brother lived in a children's home and were later fostered. He has no memory of his father.

"I don't wish any ill on my dad but I never missed him. Perhaps that's because of the good job my mother did," he says.

"When I speak to my kids about it, they just can't understand that. It's probably because they know what they'd be missing."

Fatherhood is the central theme of Save Me Too, James's exhilarating, gritty redemption drama that finishes on Sky Atlantic next week.

He wrote the show and stars in it as Nelly Rowe, a south London geezer searching for his daughter after she's kidnapped and sold into a sex-trafficking ring. He's assembled a terrific cast for the series, with Lesley Manville joining Stephen Graham, Suranne Jones and Jason Flemyng for the new season.

It's set on an estate in Deptford, and James's attention to detail - kids riding around on supermarket trolleys; the local pub's eccentric collection of regulars; Nelly's Jack-the-lad ringtone - has marked him out as one of the UK's best chroniclers of working-class life.

Save Me Too is a searing study of grief. The events of series two take place 17 months after the disappearance of Nelly's daughter Jody, when he's facing up to the fact he might never find her.

He screams at friends in the pub who discuss lighting candles for Jody, furious at the implication that she's dead.

In one of the drama's most heart-rending scenes, Jody's mother, Claire (Suranne Jones), confides to a friend: "It's like I tripped a year-and-a-half ago. That's what it felt like when she went. Like I tripped and fell and I haven't stopped falling, hurtling, without ever landing. I just want it to stop. I just want to hit the f**king ground."

James, who has three daughters and describes himself as a "very involved" parent, says it's his experience of fatherhood that enabled him to draw Nelly and Claire's despair so convincingly.

Losing a daughter, he says, "is not something I want to spend a huge amount of my brain space thinking about, but it's not hard to get into Nelly's head".

He's hoping to write a third series of the show, and Sky is interested, but for now he is holed up in Austin, Texas, for lockdown. It's where he would have been filming Fear The Walking Dead, had it not been for the global pandemic.

He has lived in Los Angeles since the mid-2000s, witnessing the hope that swept through the country when Obama became its first black president, and later watching on in horror as he was succeeded by Trump.

He is anxious about the prejudice his children, who have grown up in America, face.

"I don't think racism is any different here to in the UK. I just think it has a different accent and a different history," he says.

Appalled

"I do worry about it, yes. I was from a generation of firsts. For everything I wanted to do, there were either very few or no people that looked like me doing it.

"My kids' generation had Obama, had people on the moon, scientists, doctors, everything. Things were supposed to be better, but I'm not sure that they are.

"We went from Obama to Trump. One minute everyone was flippantly saying that racism was over, the next minute there's a massive rise in far-right extremists and white supremacists. So, am I worried? Yes, I'm worried. Who wouldn't be?"

James is appalled by Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis, especially the president's recent musings about whether disinfectants can be injected into the body to treat Covid-19.

"He is arguably the most powerful man in the world. The level of irresponsibility is staggering," says James.

He laments that medical experts around Trump appear "too frightened" to contradict his "utterly idiotic" remarks.

"Everybody joins the dance," says James. "No one is saying, 'By the way, the emperor has no clothes on'."

Save Me Too concludes on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday at 9pm