Brow Beat

Lennie James on Acting in England and the U.S.

Lennie James in Line of Duty
Lennie James plays DCI Tony Gates in Line of Duty.

Publicity still by Ed Miller/BBC/World Productions.

Over the course of his career, British actor Lennie James has appeared in films such as Snatch and 24 Hour Party People and in TV series on both sides of the Atlantic. Now based in Los Angeles, where he has worked on shows like CBS’s Jericho and HBO’s Hung, he recently returned to Britain to star in the BBC drama Line of Duty, which is available here on Hulu.

Slate recently talked with him about accents, the contrast between U.S. and U.K. television, and his favorite TV show.

Slate: Line of Duty was a return to Britain after working in the States for several years. Is it easier to work on a show where you can use your “real” accent?

Lennie James: It can be, but you don’t always want the character’s voice to be too much like your own. When I’m playing an American, I don’t play Lennie with an American accent. They’re American characters who look like me, but they have different voices.  For Tony [Gates] the voice was closer to mine, but I still tried to be aware of certain things that he would say in a way that I wouldn’t.

Slate: Line of Duty was five one-hour episodes. A short-run like that is less of a commitment than a U.S. show—you did 29 episodes of Jericho—but going back to England is a lot of disruption for what could potentially be a short run. Do you consider those things when you’re offered an acting job?

James: I don’t think about it in exactly that way. I’ve worked in the theater, television, and films. A five-hour TV series is certainly more time than a character I’d be playing in a film. We did four months on Line of Duty from beginning to end, and that would be a long theater run. Also, a BBC hour is longer than an American television hour.

I will say that when I first came out to the States to work on Jericho, that was the only time that I’ve ever been frightened about a job, because in America they tell stories over such a long time, and I was petrified that I’d get bored. I spent a lot of time in the writers’ room trying to make sure that whatever stuff they came up with would keep me interested.

Slate: You’ve worked in television in both Britain and the States—and over here on both network and HBO series. Are there ways they do things in one country that you wish happened on the other side of the Atlantic?

James: At times I wish that stuff we do in Britain had the money and the infrastructure that you have out here. But having said that, in the U.K. you can tell a story that has dark and adult themes, like Line of Duty, but you can still reach a wide audience on the BBC. Still, with the explosion of cable channels, there’s more grown-up and adult-themed entertainment coming out over here.

Slate: What’s your favorite TV show?

James: My favorite television show of all time is Hill Street Blues. I think it’s the show that is to television what Pele was to football or Muhammad Ali was to boxing. All the great shows owe a lot to Hill Street Blues. The show that I can’t miss watching at the moment is both the Israeli and the American versions of HomelandPrisoners of War and Homeland. In both cases, they give really good actors an opportunity to show just how good they are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.