Lennie James is best known as Morgan Jones in The Walking Dead, and now sister show Fear the Walking Dead. Earlier this year, the fan favourite became the first actor in the Walking Dead universe to crossover from one show to another. But, as if starring in the hugely popular long-running franchise wasn’t enough, London-raised James was the whole time itching to get a pet project off the ground. Namely, Save Me.
Save Me is set in the actor’s old stomping ground of Lewisham, in South East London, and tells the story of womaniser, Nelly (James), who is estranged from his 13-year-old daughter, Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness). One day, Jody goes missing and Nelly finds he’s accused of involvement in her disappearance. He takes it upon himself to search for his missing daughter, becoming drawn into the dark and sleazy world that exists on his doorstep.
With the series now available on Starz in the US, and Season 2 set to start shooting next year, we chatted to the show’s writer and star Lennie James to get his take on why the show has been such a hit in the UK. Here’s what he said:
It Blends Real-Life Experience with a Dark Thriller Element
“We tried to tell the story that we wanted to tell in the way that we wanted to tell it and the rest is up to the fact that it clicked with people. They seem to have warmed to Nelly and the world he introduced them to and I’m very glad that they did. I tried to write something that I would want to watch. And I wanted to write something that I thought would be compelling, and I wanted to write about — along with [tackling] themes of redemption — I wanted to write a thriller. And I wanted to write about London [where I’m from]. Any one of those could be the reason that people [have] warmed to it.”
It Shows A Side of London Not Often Seen on Screen
“When we finally got down to shooting with Nick [Murphy], our director, Chas [Bain], our DOP, and our set designer, they really went to town in creating that two square miles of South East London that was at the heart of the story. They really wanted to make that the place that I was trying to create, which is a place that we’re all aware of: one side of it, the side of it that would typically be told if you had set something on a housing estate in South East London — you know, the obvious social injustice and hardships of life story that usually comes from the estate — and we wanted to be cognisant of those realities but also tell how people get on with it there. That was a large part of our story as well. As much as it’s about Nelly trying to find Jody, it’s also about the people that he lives with and lives around.”
It’s Both a Specific and a Universal Story
“When I was in the process of writing [Save Me] and people would ask me: ‘What are you writing?’, I would tell them it’s the story of a man who is arrested one morning and accused of encouraging his 13-year-old daughter — who he has only seen once in her life when she was three years old — to run away from home to be with him. And then he discovers [that she has gone missing]. Whoever has done it has done it pretending to be him and knows stuff about him that’s true. When you tell people that story they are intrigued, they’re hooked.
“So we were winning on the basic premise of the story, and the weird thing about it is that you can tell a universal story by being really specific about time and place and population, and that’s what we tried to do with Save Me. We tried to be true to the realities of the world that we had set it in so we could tell this thriller that has its own kind of dictates and tropes.”
We All Know a Nelly
If one person has said it to me, a million people have said to me: ‘I know someone just like Nelly’. Or you’ve heard about someone just like Nelly, or you’ve had a drink with someone just like Nelly, or you are unlucky enough to be in a relationship with someone just like Nelly. And I think that everybody has their version of him, and he was my version of him. I think that’s what makes him really relatable. Constantly when I was writing, when I was making decisions about Nelly, I wanted the audience to be right there with him going: ‘Well, if I was in that situation, I might not do what Nelly does but I would either want to or I would understand why he did’.
And as long as I could hold onto the audience in those situations I knew that I could show Nelly’s flaws without making people turn away from him and understand that at his core, he was trying to do the right thing. He was constantly trying to do the right thing and however much he affected and harmed the people around him, he did try and make up for his mistakes. He’s not necessarily a constant friend but he’s a good friend to the people that he’s a good friend to.”
You can watch Save Me in the US on Starz now. The 6-part series is available via digital download in the UK.