Lennie James: ‘I wasn’t willing to let somebody else decide what my ambition should be’

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Lennie James has missed being on stage. It is where he started out and it’s still how he measures himself as an actor. But now that he is back in a rehearsal room, he’s got the jitters. “I’m petrified,” he says, a bearded head-and-shoulders on Zoom in a back room of the Old Vic theatre, London, in preparation for his part in Caryl Churchill’s two-hander A Number.

The play, revived from 2002, is set in a near-future world where cloning is widespread and is structured round a series of confrontations 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 to Paapa Essiedu’s son. “I’m more scared than I have ever been in my life … I don’t know what made me think it was a good idea but I was very much looking to be challenged, and this play certainly does that.”

Now 56, James has come to be better known for his TV work, from Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (he played the fatally flawed DCI Tony Gates in the first series, which some still consider to be the best) to Morgan Jones in the post-apocalyptic dramas The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, and Nelly Rowe, another flawed hero, in Save Me.

I was being told that I should be satisfied. I wasn’t willing to let somebody else decide my ambition

But the old muscle memory is twitching back to life, he says, and the pace of theatre affords him more thinking time, compared with the riptides of episodic TV drama where rehearsals are a luxury – “If you’re doing 16 episodes a season you’re getting a new script every eight days or so.”

He was asked to be in A Number twice by two different directors, both times opposite Essiedu, so there is a certain serendipity to this theatre comeback after a 15-year gap. “One [director] came through me saying: ‘It should be you and Paapa.’ Another came through Paapa saying: ‘It should be you and Lennie.’ It makes it hard to say no because, whatever the experience turns out to be, the universe is trying to put the two of us together.”

What does it mean, if anything, that both characters in Lyndsey Turner’s production are men of colour? “As far as I’m concerned, it is the story of all the things it’s about but it’s also the story of two Black men and the story of a Black father and a Black son. That’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 on it in 2000 when he wrote the Bafta-nominated drama Storm Damage, about a teacher returning to the children’s home in which he grew up. James’s mother died when he was 10 years old after a long-term illness. He was taken into a children’s home in Tooting, south London, with his older brother, and later placed with a foster mother and siblings. He wrote the drama to “pay homage to my foster mother”, who set up a home after discovering that some children were getting lost within the system. “I was trying to tell the story of the first two years of my foster mother’s kids’ home and what it did to us as a family as well as what it did to the kids that came through.”

The acting has always run in tandem with the writing. He performed in his first play at 16 but wrote a play just a year later that won a National Youth Theatre competition and was published by Faber. He has, in the past, talked whimsically of catching the acting bug after following a girl he liked into an audition. Was that really what set him off? It was more a search for belonging, he suggests, which he found on stage: “I went to an all-boys school, 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 that was the chess club.

“When I did my first play [Just Good Friends] at the Cockpit theatre in Marylebone, central London, I got stopped walking across the road by the show’s choreographer, Karen Rabinowitz, who said: ‘Are you going to do this again, Lennie? … I think you can do it and I think you can do it professionally.’” So you were picked for the team? “That’s exactly what it felt like to me. That’s all I needed.”

He saved up to pay for his auditions and got into two drama schools – the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Rada – but decided to go to the former when he realised he would be the only Black student in his year at Rada compared with three others at Guildhall.

Still, he felt adrift at first. “Yes, it was lonely and I felt very vulnerable, very out of my depth. I had gone to drama school because I felt like I knew nothing about the profession and I went there to learn.”

Lennie James
Lennie James in A Raisin in the Sun at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith, 2005. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

He felt pigeonholed as the “working-class Black guy” but luckily, because the school had a jazz course, he found 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’d go for a drink with him … I spent quite a lot of time hanging out with them all in the basement.”

He was a jobbing actor for the next two decades, but just before he turned 40 he left for LA. Why? “I had done at least one lead in a television show and a number of leads on stage. I was being told that I should be satisfied with that because that was a definition of success over here for someone who – as I took it – looked like me. I just wasn’t willing to let somebody 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 grownup and I seemed to arrive at the right time; it went stupidly well for me immediately.”

Does he think an actor of colour would need to leave Britain for better parts today? “I don’t think we’ve got there but I do think the options for actors of colour are broader than they were. The UK has opened itself up a little bit to the possibility of us. I was part of a generation where it was accepted, particularly in television, that we weren’t necessarily representative of universal stories. I remember a friend who was on a long-running television show. He’s a Black actor and his character had had a number of love interests who had been exclusively white. He went to producers and said: ‘Why don’t we have someone who is Black next time?’ He was told: ‘We can’t have a Black-on-Black relationship because audiences won’t identify.’ That statement, I don’t believe, would be made by anybody in British television in 2022.”

James has three daughters with his wife, Giselle Glasman, whom he met in youth theatre back in the day. Given that he has successfully hammered down the doors but knows the strain of it all too well, how would he feel if they wanted to go into the business?

In my family there's not much allowance made for me being the fella off the telly. After a minute, it's: the bins need taking out

“Two of them are in it, behind the scenes, and one of them isn’t. I’m fine with that. I work in a profession that, ultimately, you do because your heart can’t let you do something else. So if my girls want to work in this industry, it’s got to be because they really want to and they can sustain themselves through the ups and the downs. So far, they’re managing that, and I’m exceptionally proud of all of them.”

There is also the significant but absent influence of his mother in his life. Was she a natural performer? It’s hard to say because he knew her only as a child knows their mother, but there are some clues to the woman she might have been that he recounts tenderly. “She used to sing at church on her own and I had a photograph of her on the boat, coming from Trinidad to England, where she is in the middle of the dancefloor. No one else is on it and she’s just dancing up a storm.”

Would she be surprised at how her youngest son turned out? “She would be shocked. I was a shy, quiet kid. I’d spend a lot of time curled up behind her legs on the couch. There wasn’t any real sense that Lennie then was going to end up being an actor. She’d be less shocked if it was my brother because he was much less shy then.”

He has stayed close to his brother, who works on building sites and DJs at the weekends. “He’s like one of those old roving DJs of our youth, who sets up in a pub and plays Barry White.” He must be immensely proud of his famous sibling. “The thing about my family is that there’s not a huge allowance made for the fact that I’m the fella on the telly. There’s a minute of: ‘Oh look, you’re back [from LA],’ and then: ‘The bins need taking out.’”

A Number is at the Old Vic, London, 24 January to 19 March.