HitFix Interview: Lennie James of AMC's 'The Prisoner'
'Jericho' veteran discusses overcoming his trepidation to play 147 for AMC's miniseries
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As one of the stars of CBS' "Jericho," Lennie James knows a thing or two about shows with obsessive fanbases, so he also knows what he's getting himself into on AMC's reimagining of "The Prisoner."
In "The Prisoner," James plays 147, a helpful cabbie who welcomes Jim Caviezel's 6 into The Village. 147 is one of many characters in AMC's "Prisoner" who didn't feature in Patrick McGoohan's original, which ran from 1967-68 and is considered one of the small screen's pinnacles.
147 has a beautiful wife, a precocious daughter and the perfect life in The Village. Of course, nothing is as it seems in The Village or on "The Prisoner" or with James, a London-born actor and writer who is, as on "Jericho," playing an inscrutable American.
HitFix caught up with James last week to discuss how he was able to overcome his initial reservations toward redoing "The Prisoner" and why this new "Prisoner" is 2009-ready.
HitFix: So what was your familiarity with the original "Prisoner"?
Lennie James: I think my familiarity was the same as most people who grew up in England when I grew up in England, which was we weren't necessarily there when it first went out on television, but it was repeated so often that it felt like it was always on television when I was growing up. So it was a constant in my childhood, so I was familiar with it and with Patrick McGoohan's role in it.
HitFix: Because of that familiarity, what was your initial reaction when you heard about the upcoming remake?
LJ: My initial reaction, to be absolutely honest, was trepidation. I wasn't somebody who went, "That's a very good idea. And you should absolutely do it." I approached the project with a little bit of fear and reticence. But once I'd read the first three episodes of Bill Gallagher's script, that went away. His reworking and reimagining of the project was too good to say "No" to.
HitFix: Was there a specific point in reading the script where you knew this was its own thing and something you wanted to be involved with?
LJ: I can't point to a specific point, but yes, almost after the first episode, with the themes that Bill was taking on and with the new knowledge and perspective from which we're telling the story. It was certainly after the first episode that I knew that Bill was in command of this version and it was very much going to be his version and not just a retelling of the old story.
HitFix: Did you get all six scripts initially or just the first, like you would a pilot?
LJ: I was sent the first four.
HitFix: And what was your initial read on the character of 147?
LJ: I liked him, really, which is neither here nor there, since I don't necessarily have to like the characters I play, but I did like him. I liked that I thought he was perfectly placed in the story, in the sense that he is the epitome of Village life in our story. He's the guy who is absolutely content with his job and his whole world revolves around the wife and child he loves. He knows what questions to ask and knows what questions not to ask. He knows where to go and where not to go. And that is all manageable for him and he's created a life out of it. I enjoyed the challenge of, on one level, of creating a happy, simple man who, through the six episodes of our story, becomes anything but.
HitFix: With a story like this, we assume up-front that nobody is who they start out being. How much were you told in the beginning about the full arc for 147?
LJ: All of us were pretty much aware of it right from the beginning. Bill had an absolutely grasp on where he wanted the six episodes to go. There wasn't a huge amount of change. Although the last two episodes came later, we were made pretty aware of where our character was going.
HitFix: Your character doesn't exactly have an equivalent, or at least not a pure equivalent, in the original, right?
LJ: Well, he does and he doesn't. In the original, in either the first or the second episode, and this is one of the nods to the original, when McGoohan first arrives in the original Village, he's met by a cab driver. But one of the things that's different about our version as opposed to the original version is that in the original, McGoohan is kind of the only constant through the entire series. Everybody changes and there are very few characters who recur from one episode to the next. But in our version, there are a number of characters you see throughout all six episode. There was a taxi driver in the original version who came in roundabout the same time, but I think in that case it was Chinese woman and in this case, it's not.
HitFix: The new Village is an international place, but you're still playing 147 as an American. What was behind the choice?
LJ: On one level, I can't tell you. And, on the other level, it was because of the world in which 6 finds himself in in the Village and because we wanted it to be an international place and because, at the time, I was based in the States. There were a number of characters and some they wanted American and some they wanted English, from different places, and they hemmed-and-hawed about 147 and ultimately they came down on wanting him to be American and I was absolutely fine with that, because in the end, it completely works with the story.
HitFix: Since I've made it to the end, I know what you can't tell me. It definitely feels as if there were calculated decisions made on which characters hail from which parts of the world.
LJ: Yeah. And along with a lot of the other decisions that were made about the project, it was something that ultimately pays off when you find out different things about the story and different things about the characters. So it wasn't in any way an arbitrary choice. It was quite deliberate.
HitFix: The location for the miniseries is remarkable. Namibia, right?
LJ: It was a small town called Swakopmund in Namibia, yes.
HitFix: How long were you all there?
LJ: We were in Swakopmund for two-and-a-half months and we were in Cape Town, South Africa for two months.
HitFix: What was your first reaction to seeing this utterly remarkable looking town?
LJ: To be absolutely honest, I thought we had built the town. And I wasn't the only person who did this, but there were a number of times where we would see part of the town location and say, "Oh, the art department did a very good job there" and somebody would say "They didn't do anything." It was as it was. It is a turn-of-the-century kind of Bavarian-German town in the middle of Africa where the desert meets the sea and our location scout just did an absolutely fantastic job. In Patrick McGoohan's first telling of the story, the location of Portmeirion as being The Village was very much a strong character in the production and Swakopmund, Namibia is a very strong character in our retelling of the story.
HitFix: Is it easier for you as an actor to be able to operate in this sort of real environment, rather than just working on sound stages?
LJ: It was invaluable, because we weren't imagining those great huge sand dunes and wild sea and a 360 degree panorama that just went on forever. We were filming in the middle of it, so it was huge gift to us as the actors to envision a world and a Village that you just couldn't escape from and that was at the heart of the story.
HitFix: Did having that kind of isolation help to instantly bond the cast and crew?
LJ: It did. It drove some people, who will remain nameless, crazy. We were filming in a surreal place and telling the story of a surreal place. Of course it was a gift to us and it was also a tricky navigation, because we were there for so long.
HitFix: Keeping those people nameless, in what way did madness manifest itself?
LJ: It is a turn-of-the-century small, Bavarian-German town in the middle of Africa and now its main source of survival is that it's a kind of holiday town for German ex-pats and when we were there, it wasn't holiday time, so there was a lot of sense of isolation and there wasn't a huge amount to do there once you were done, in the sense of the time that we were there. If we were there for two weeks, it would have been great and you could have taken on everything that there was to do in that particular town. We were there for two months, so there was a sense of isolation, there was a sense of not being able to escape and just everybody being very close together. It was all of the things that location shooting are and can be, but it was a little focused on this one, because we were ultimately in the middle of nowhere. On one side was the sea and on the other side with the desert.
HitFix: You were at Comic-Con with this. Did that help you get a sense of what the hopes and expectations and fears are for fans of the original?
LJ: From being at Comic-Con, I think that one of the things that I felt was that there was a real good feeling amongst the fans of the original about this production. Almost unlike any other project that might be a retelling or a new version of the story, there's a real sense that the fans have been waiting for someone to tell the story in a new way. And when we showed our trailer at Comic-Con, there seemed to be a good feeling about it and the people liked the direction that we've taken it in and I hope that they continue to do so through the six episodes.
HitFix: How would you describe the 2009-ness of this "Prisoner"? What's thematically makes it "today"?
LJ: I think very much the 1960s version was about the power and the strength and the importance of the individual. From "The Prisoner" there have been any number of shows that owe something to the story of "The Prisoner," whether it be "Lost" or "The Twilight Zone." The list is endless. I think in our version, there is that sense that it's about free will, it's about surveillance, it's a thriller. Much more than the original, it's a love story. As the politics from the '60s to the '00s has changed, so our version has.
HitFix: The surveillance aspect was the one I personally found most resonant. You come from London, which may be the world's most surveilled city. Is the sense of paranoia just built in or do you learn to ignore it?
LJ: The weird thing about it is that you learn to ignore it unless you're doing something wrong, in the sense that people don't run lights in London in the way that they might do in the States, for example. Every single traffic light in London has a camera on it. If you walked from one side of the city of London to the other side, you would be hit by over 300 cameras. The notion of surveillance and the notion of Big Brother and the notion of being watched actually does have an effect on the way that you behave. Most crimes that happen outside of the house in London are most likely to be done with a major investigation through CCTV. It does have an effect on you. And I think in our version of "The Prisoner," we take that on in full force, where you're living in an environment where it's impossible to hide.
HitFix: When you're in London, does that surveillance make you feel like you're safer?
LJ: I don't. You don't feel safer. You just think that if anything happens, they'll be able to either find the person who did it to you or at least be able to investigate after the fact. I don't know the figures to see whether or not it has pulled down crime or personal behavior or anything like that. But it's there. As a tool. But no, it doesn't necessarily make me feel safer.
HitFix: This "Prisoner" really does end with a significant resolution. What's the thought for the potential for doing another one of these if this is successful?
LJ: I think at the moment we have told a very good and enjoyable self-contained miniseries. As with this version, if Bill Gallagher or somebody else came up with a version that was as exciting as this one, people would consider it. But it would need to start, as this one did, with the writer's vision and if the writer's vision took us in the direction or had the effect that this one did, I think people would consider it. Other than that, I think we've told our story in this miniseries.
HitFix: So it would have to reprove itself to you?
LJ: Yes. It would have to make itself worthwhile.
"The Prisoner" premieres with two hours on Sunday, Nov. 15 on AMC and airs an additional two hours on Monday, Nov. 16 and Tuesday, Nov. 17.