Importing a 'Low Winter Sun'
Lennie James and Mark Strong on being British actors in a US show
By Richard Whittaker, 1:00PM, Sun. Aug. 11
Two Englishmen walk into a American police station. That's not the setup to a joke, it's the casting of Low Winter Sun, the new police procedural from AMC debuting tonight after Breaking Bad.
While the show is set in Detroit, the two lead actors are both British ex-pats. In fact, the show itself is a British migrant, an adaptation of a 2006 British mini-series of the same name. Mark Strong returns to the centtral role of FRank Agnew, the morally compromised cop falling deeper into corruption, while Lennie James plays Iago to his Othello as bad influence and partner Joe Geddes. So there’s an AMC series, set in Detroit, headlined by two English actors. "There’s never a question of 'why are they doing that?'" said James but, he added, "For me, it's been a complete mind fuck."
American TV audiences may know James best as the duplicituous Robert Hawkins from Jericho or Charlie the pimp from HBO's Hung. But scrape away the American accent, and James still speaks in the South London twang of his youth. By odd coincidence, just before flying to Detroit to shoot the pilot of Low Winter Sun, James was reprising his role as Morgan Jones, the first living human Officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) meets in The Walking Dead. "A lot of people on the set don't know Andy's British," James said, "so I left me and him pretending to be Southern Americans to go join up with Mark to pretend be Detroit Americans."
As for the London-born Strong, he is similarly no stranger to adopting an accent: When he originated the part of Agnew in the original Channel 4 version of Low Winter Sun, he rolled with the low soft burr of an Edinburgh copper. Now he's joining James in the US, swapping the Athens of the north for the motor city. "We’ve discussed it among ourselves," said Strong. "Every show that's on, you can find a Brit that's on. But think of it in another way. If you roll a dice five times, every single time the odds start from zero. If you roll three threes, the fourth time it doesn't mean there's less chance of getting a three. Same goes with this show. They cast it, and I'm in it because I'm in the original, and Lennie's in it because he's living over here and he's a damn fine actor."
The geography has been less of an issue for Strong than the format. This is the first time he has worked in an episodic TV drama, and that's a big change for an actor who made his international reputation in films like Zero Dark Thirty, Sherlock Holmes, and Kick-Ass. "I'm on a learning curve," he said. "I've never done where you don't know what's coming up, and I've never done anything this long. I realized as I go along that you have to have the confidence in some scenes to let them go by in as real and as normal a way as possible, because the join-the-dots elements of the hiatus moments of each episode, you save yourself for them."
By contrast, James is a veteran of British TV cop shows ("I though of myself as the poster boy for the Metropolitan Police"), but there's a key difference between UK and US shows. In the UK, a season is six to 10 episodes, and most shows rarely run more than a few seasons. In the US, the norm is closer to 22 episodes per season, and shows aim for at least four seasons, so they can hit the magic numbers required for syndication. James admitted that the idea of the US long season was "exciting and daunting." He said, "When I first came to the States, the notion of playing the same part for 24 episodes just scared the hell out of me."
That means the pair are getting used to delivering a scene that means little at the time, but with hindsight become incredibly significant (watch out for a throwaway line early in the season about Agnew sending a package in the mail.) Some times, that pay-off may not come for years: Case in point, during the filming of episode four, James was talking with series creator Chris Mundy. He recalled, "chris said to me, 'they're having an argument in the writers' room about something that's going to happen in season four.' Really? 'Yeah, I'm going to start of in season 2, but it's not really coming to fruition until season four.'"
There's no sign that international actors will suddenly disappear from American screens, and for James it's just part of show business. He said "It's the same international market that Hollywood has always been, right from way back in that day with Charlie Chaplin. You think about Bob Hope and Cary Grant and Stan Laurel, but unless you were told, Bob Hope is about as American as American can be. We're just the next generation of that."
AMC's Low Winter Sun debuts 9pm Central. For more on how James and Strong have taken to their new adopted home, read Detroit's Rising 'Sun' in this week's issue.