Lennie James in LOW WINTER SUN - Season 1 | ©2013 AMC/Alicia Gbur

Lennie James in LOW WINTER SUN - Season 1 | ©2013 AMC/Alicia Gbur

In AMC’s LOW WINTER SUN, Sundays at 10 PM, Lennie James plays Detroit police detective Joe Geddes, who persuades fellow homicide investigator Frank Agnew (Mark Strong) to help murder Joe’s detective partner. An attempt to make the death look like a suicide backfires, and there turns out to be a second dead body in the trunk of the victim’s car. Frank is assigned to solve the murder he and Joe committed, while Joe is under the scrutiny of Internal Affairs.

While not nearly so deadly, there’s a bit of behind-the-scenes meta as well. LOW WINTER SUN was originally a three-hour drama made for British television in 2006; Chris Mundy has adapted it as a ten-hour series forU.S. television. Strong also played Frank Agnew in the original series, there an Edinburgh police detective, though Strong is English, as is James.

James has played a lot of American characters in addition to Joe Geddes, including Robert Hawkins in the CBS series JERICHO, Special Agent Ross in the film COLOMBIANA and the distraught Morgan Jones on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD. James got to use his real speaking voice in AMC’s remake of THE PRISONER, shot in South Africa. In the U.K., James has starred in the series OUT OF THE BLUE, BURIED, THE STATE WITHIN and LINE OF DUTY, among many other credits.

At a sit-down interview in the Beverly Hilton Hotel during AMC’s presentation day at the Television Critics Association press tour, James talks about playing a severely conflicted Detroit homicide detective/murderer and much more.

ASSIGNMENT X: Were you familiar with the original LOW WINTER SUN?

LENNIE JAMES: No. I didn’t know anything about it, until I came to do it.

AX: Would you say Joe Geddes is the most ferocious character you’ve played?

JAMES: I don’t know if he’s the most ferocious – I think he’s pretty close to it. I mean, usually, I end up playing good guys who do a bad thing. On this one, I’m slightly coming at that kind of person from a different angle, I should say. When we meet him, he’s certainly not a good guy and he’s not in a good situation. He’s orchestrated, to a greater or a lesser extent, the murder of his own partner, and how he deals with that in part is this story of the ten episodes.

AX: What appeals to you about Joe?

JAMES: I think what really appeals to me about him is, he’s a man with a complicated present, a really complicated past, and he’s fighting really hard for his future, in the sense that this is a man who has a really dubious moral compass and commits a vicious crime in which he may well have pulled somebody in for ulterior motives, and to a greater or lesser extent, he’s the closest to an out-and-out “baddie,” although I hate that phrase, that I’ve played. But I’m having a lot of fun trying to win the audience’s sympathy for this guy and to argue his corner and to introduce the audience to his dilemma, in the sense of – I don’t know what the worst thing you’ve ever done is, you don’t have to tell me; I won’t tell you what’s the worst thing that I’ve ever done. But we certainly find out the worst things that Joe Geddes has done. And he’s trying to make amends. And that’s what interests me about him. His journey to redemption is a hard one, like it should be, I suppose, but he’s got a lot to redeem.

AX: You’ve played British cops before. Would you say there are overall differences between British cops and American cops?

JAMES: I think the gun makes a huge difference between British police and American police, and it also makes a huge difference between the way American police stories are told and the way in which British police stories are told. A lot of the time in crime, or good-or-bad, stories in America, the gun decides. Invariably, [American] stories are, the climax is, the good guy shoots the bad guy. Because we [in Britain] don’t have that definitive moment in our psyche in the same way, we tell our stories of the police in a slightly different way. We don’t have a history of that being our climax. And so I think mostly that’s the difference. Coming from a place and a culture that isn’t dominated by the gun, I find it very odd, still. I’m playing a character who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Ira [Todd], who’s our police advisor [on LOW WINTER SUN], is always packing, and the other officers that we hang around with, they’ve always got guns. That’s strange – it does something to you. My character never draws his gun in this show. Just having it – on other things that I’ve done – I’ve done a stupid amount of gun play for a British guy who didn’t grow up around guns.

AX: There’s a scene where Frank is beating Joe with a shoe. Do you worry when you’re in a fight scene with somebody who’s got some sort of an implement like a shoe, because the shoe obviously has a little bit of life of its own?

JAMES: Not giving anything away technically, the shoe was doctored, shall I say, to make it less dangerous, for mishaps to be less injurious. There was actually one moment in the fight scene, speaking of things that go wrong and will certainly make our outtakes reel, where Mark puts a gun in my face and on one of the takes, the gun, though empty, fired in the middle of this really serious, intense fight, and Mark is right close, and the shot is very close on him and the gun is right there. It just went, “Click!” And we all just fell about laughing.

AX: You’ve been in two other projects with Mark Strong …

JAMES: We worked on a film called THE MARTINS, with Kathy Burke and Lee Evans, directed by Tony Grounds, which was a British movie. We didn’t have a scene together in that, but we did have a scene together in a film called ELEPHANT JUICE, which was directed by Sam Miller. It starred Emmanuelle Beart. And Sam actually directed two episodes of [the current] LOW WINTER SUN.

AX: So was working with Mark Strong again part of the appeal, or are you part of the AMC family now, where they say, “We’ve got this coming up, do you want to have a go at it?”

JAMES: I think me being part of the family is slightly overstated. I still have to get in line like everybody else gets in line. I might have some kind of track record with the network, but I still have to jump through the hoops. But yeah, absolutely, working with Mark was part of the appeal of this one. We have some very, very good friends in common. In our history of our careers, there are moments when we’ve crossed paths and spent time socially together, so on one level, this was a no-brainer, even though we came to the project in very different ways and from very different directions.

AX: Although you’re from different areas, you and Mark Strong are both English. When you have scenes together, do your real accents ever start to come out?

JAMES: Actually, we’ve been surprisingly good about that. The other actors and the crew have been really understanding and gentle and generous with us in that direction. If they hear something, they don’t jump all over us if we have a wrong emphasis on a word, but if we do it two or three times, then one will whisper in our ears the right way of the word. But there’s been very little of that. The crew have been very supportive, but they’ve also got an ear out, so we’re in a safe neighborhood and a safe environment, so we speak with our characters’ voices when we’re playing our characters, and we speak as ourselves when we’re ourselves.

AX: LOW WINTER SUN shoots Detroit for Detroit. How is Detroit different from other depressed areas you may have worked in/visited?

JAMES: The depressed areas are exactly that – a depressed area – and invariably, they are somewhere off to the side of the center of the city. The center of Detroit,Detroit city, the skyline that you fly in and recognize and all of that, is the area that is depressed and that is smashed. Woodward is the main thoroughfare that runs north to south through Detroit, all the way up to Royal Oak and Ferndale and all of those places. Once you get to the north side of midtown, you go up about two miles and on either side of you, the streets are desolate. And by “desolate,” I mean, burnt-out, derelict, but almost much more importantly, the abandonment has happened so long ago that the area has returned to grass and trees and bushes where once there were houses. And then in the middle of it, people are living out on the streets. They’re just walking around. It’s an aimless community and people with very little to call their own, but if you just go up and you turn on the left, there are huge mansions, a whole neighborhood of mansions that could be in any major city in the world. And it’s two hundred yards from desolation. And that’s Detroit, to a certain extent. In the mansions, there are families who, like the British aristocracy, can’t afford to heat their whole house, but they’re hanging on for better days and they’re living in one room that’s closest to the kitchen and the rest of the house is dark and cold, and that’s also Detroit. But others, people are living in them. And it comes right up close to each other, but it’s the center of Detroit that’s died.

AX: Does that dynamic inform the characters and the action?

JAMES: Yes. Chris says he very much sees LOW WINTER SUN as a story of redemption and Detroit represents the embodiment of that redemption. It’s a city that is trying to get back up on its feet and one of the guys from Detroit said, “What do you mean, get back up onto its feet? It’s just trying to get back up onto its knees.” And that’s kind of true of the way that people feel, but our characters – one of the things I think the writers’ room has done really well. Of the seven writers on our writers’ team, three of them are Detroit born and bred, and two of them are still living there. So we have a real sense that right at the beginning of our storytelling, that we’re telling Detroit stories for Detroit people.

AX: You’ve said it’s about redemption. Is Joe conscious of looking for redemption, or is he just conscious of trying to not wind up in jail or dead?

JAMES: No, he’s conscious of looking for redemption. He’s a religious man. He wears a cross proudly, he trained to be a priest at one point, and fell from that particular pulpit into the police force. So he’s a man who’s very aware of his journey of redemption. And I’d go further to say that actually, the act of murder that he commits at the beginning of our story, for him in part is an act of salvation.

AX: Is it fun to play somebody who’s that self-aware?

JAMES: Yes. Because he’s really self-aware in that area, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s any more knowledgeable about himself in other areas. We get to meet his mother and we get to meet his daughter. His relationships with both of those women show you how un-self-aware he is, particularly in his relationship with his daughter.

He’s trying to be a good parent, but he doesn’t have the first idea how to do that, and so he makes rookie mistakes. I think sometimes the definition of a bad parent is that you have expectations that you’re right simply because you’re older, you’ve been around longer and you’re the parent, but that doesn’t necessarily always equal the fact that you are right. You may well be wrong. And I think his daughter introduces a dimension to Joe that no other part of his life does.

AX: How is it playing a parent?

JAMES: I enjoyed playing a parent on this one because it’s navigating somebody working it out. And he’s a grown man, he’s my age, he’s in his mid-forties. And my daughter in the show is thirteen. And she’s come to live with him for the first time. So he really doesn’t have a clue and again, the writers handled that really cleverly, because she’s not overly precocious, the lines that we draw between them are confused. I like the fact that he’s figuring out what he feels about his child at the same time as he realizes that he’s allowed to feel something about his child other than, “She’s her mother’s daughter.”

AX: Which has annoyed him in the past?

JAMES: Oh, yeah.

AX: There had been some talk awhile back on a possible revival of JERICHO, maybe in comic book form. Any word on that?

JAMES: No. The only news I heard about JERICHO is that CBS have put it back on their website, so you can now watch JERICHO all over again at cbs.com. Somebody on set just said to me the other day, “Why is that happening?” And I had no idea that it was happening or why it is happening, but it obviously must be because of the continued interest in the show that has led CBS to put it back on their roster.

AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?

JAMES: I have a thing that just aired in Britain, that maybe will come over here. It’s called RUN, which is a four-parter telling stories that are kind of interconnected, four people inSouth London. They’re kind of snippets of life inSouth London, written by guys from my neighborhood and stories about my neighborhood. So I was very glad to be able to do that.

AX: And any chance of you reappearing on WALKING DEAD?

JAMES: We have had no conversations about that. It’s entirely up to THE WALKING DEAD. If they want me around, they certainly know where to find me.

AX: And even if you did know, if you told me, you’d have to bite me.

JAMES: Yes.

AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say at present?

JAMES: Still five-foot-ten [chuckles].

Related: Exclusive Interview with LOW WINTER SUN executive producer Chris Mundy

Related: Interview with actor Mark Strong on LOW WINTER SUN

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