Lennie James had hit a wall. He spent months on the set of AMC’s crime drama Low Winter Sun in the skin of a character committing despicable acts. But now, episode eight had him doing something so heinous, he started to pull a Hail Mary.
He picked up the phone to call executive producer and show runner Chris Mundy. "I dialed the number to say, 'Please don’t make me do this,' " he says. "It was the first time in a long time that I was frightened by something that a character I was playing had to do. Reading, contemplating, and actually doing it—I had a physical reaction."
He never made that call. He got it together and shot the scene. "Then I phoned my mum after it. That was kind of strange," he says, with a smile. "And no, I can’t tell you what it was."
Low Winter Sun premieres August 11, in the sweet spot right after the first of Breaking Bad's final episodes. Adapted from the three-hour British mini-series of the same name, the crime drama is now reimagined over 10 episodes in Detroit instead of Edinburgh, Scotland. Mark Strong reprises his character, Frank Agnew, as an American, coerced by fellow detective, Joe Geddes, played by James, into killing a dirty colleague. Then they’re assigned to investigate the murder they’ve committed, setting off a dark, labyrinthian game of cat and mouse amid a backdrop of psychological reparation.
"It’s not a whodunit. We’re not trying to solve a case; we’re trying to un-solve it," says James, who last appeared on AMC as Morgan Jones in The Walking Dead. "As my character says to Mark’s character at one point, `We’re married—for better or for worse. This act, which we’ve committed together, has bonded us together, for life.’ Finding this character, almost more than any other I’ve played, is very much about playing to the realities of the situation we’re in."
James, also a screenwriter and playwright, sees their character’s journeys as both emotional and structural buttresses for the story.
"Most stories end at the first step of redemption—think Walk the Line, Ray, 8-Mile," says James. "It’s up here, they fall down, then they get somewhere back up there, and that’s the end of the story. What Low Winter Sun does, what our characters do, is we actually walk the road back to redemption—a long painful road littered with other acts of horribleness and depravity and corruption. We do things in order to save ourselves, both figuratively and spiritually over these 10 episodes. Any one of them could be the starting point of our story."
There’s a heavy atmosphere of past sins. "My character’s journey to redemption starts with the murder of a fellow cop," he adds. "For him, that murder is an act of salvation. For him, that murder was him trying to stop the rot and not start it. One of the main differences between the journey of my character and Mark’s character is, he’s finding out how dangerous, dark, dishonest, and dishonorable he can be, whereas I know and I’m trying to back away from actual acts of badness."
Undermining that effort is the concept of whether that’s really possible. "You meet them in that act, and then after that, you can’t get back to zero, because the world’s been undone," says Mundy. "Each of these guys do something that, certainly for Frank, is very rash, more rash than for Geddes. Once you do that, once you make that slip, then the next decision you make is a worse one, and you have to choose the best option for that.
"It’s the same kind of thing morally ," he adds. "Once you slip below a certain line, there is no going back, there is only trying to fight it out to get back to some barely even below-decent level."
It’s a theme that very much echoes current societal struggles and social mores. "There is a sense that there is redemption out there, that people are allowed to pull back from something that has caused them to fall from grace," says James, citing scandal-ridden politicians Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, and Eliot Spitzer as examples. "One way, that’s our link to Detroit. Even though Detroit has put in for Chapter 9 and in places is a desolate city, there are business people building an $18 million stadium there; businesses coming into the city at the same time as businesses leaving it; a wave of twenty- and thirty-somethings moving back into the city and trying to reclaim their neighborhoods."
The story is woven into the volatile, economically disparate fabric of Detroit, and the city’s redemptive, survivalist spirit was a deliberate choice to parallel the aspirations of the characters.
"Detroit, it doesn’t shy away from the truth about itself," says James. "It knows its dark side, and it’s trying to get everybody to understand its light side, and I think that’s what Low Winter Sun does.
"Detroit had a profound effect on me," he adds. "To a certain extent, it frightens me. I didn’t know it was possible. I grew up in South London, in what would be called the hood and dangerous. But that’s not what I’m talking about with Detroit. It wears its past and present at the same time. Because the area that most represents the decline of Detroit is its center, it’s like being in New York, in Times Square, and all the people are gone. It’s like 28 Days Later. And then half of the neighborhoods have vanished. It’s beyond derelict. They’ve just returned to grass."
Mundy was surprised by James’s aborted phone call. "I overheard him saying that," he says. "I didn’t realize that."
After coexec-producing AMC’s Hell on Wheels and CBS’s Criminal Minds, "This is darkest in terms of the humanity of your main characters," says Mundy. "You’re dealing with their bad decisions and morally ambiguous choices—darkest in that sense, but hopefully very human.
"Mark and Lennie are so empathetic that, even as these characters do bad things, you feel for them," he adds. "After watching the scene Lennie was talking about, I emailed him about how he could make the audience still feel for him, saying, 'I don’t know how you pulled that off.’ It’s an amazing balancing act."
[Images courtesy of Frank Ockenfels 3 | Alicia Gbur | AMC]