Lennie James is best known for playing peaceable warrior Morgan Jones on The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. But he has a lot going on outside of the AMC franchise, too; namely, his crime drama Save Me, which he created, wrote and stars in, and which is now streaming on the Starz app.
On Save Me, James plays Nelson "Nelly" Rowe, a womanizing Southeast London deadbeat — "His day starts with his first can and ends with his last pint," James tells TV Guide — who turns amateur detective when his estranged teenage daughter goes missing. In addition to being a gripping crime thriller, though, it's also a character-driven portrait of a downwardly mobile London life with an immersive sense of realism. It's the story of a man who never did anything for anyone who gets pushed to finally do something. The dialogue isn't improvised, but it feels like it is. The series showcases James' skill as a writer as well as an actor.
Walking Dead fans don't necessarily know him as a writer, but he's been writing TV and plays for decades, as long as he's been acting. Save Me feels like a personal story due to its very specific sense of place, but James says it's not autobiographical. He knows the neighborhood well, but he grew up in a different part of London. His main impetus was to challenge himself to write a thriller, something he hadn't done before. "I wanted to write a thriller set in a real place and have the realness of the place challenge the rules and tropes of the thriller genre," he says. But it's clearly a personal show in the sense that it's James' particular vision.
Save Me aired in the UK earlier this year and was a hit for the British broadcaster Sky, which has ordered a second season, but it is a distinctly English show that James can only hope connects with American viewers. "It's a story that's very specific to time and place, but I still think that even if you're being as specific as we are you can still tell a universal story," he says. And Walking Dead fans may feel like they're looking at a man who physically resembles someone they know but is otherwise unrecognizable. "The character of Nelly is very different from Morgan," James says. "They are not even opposite sides of the same coin. They are two very, very different coins." Morgan speaks in koans. Nelly speaks in slang.
Save Me was filmed in late 2016 and early 2017 during the hiatus between Seasons 7 and 8 of The Walking Dead, and James says he hadn't worked as hard as he did making Save Me in a long time. Due to his commitment to The Walking Dead, he hadn't finished writing all the scripts by the time they started filming, so for the first five weeks he filmed Monday through Thursday and wrote Friday through Sunday. But it was a labor of love. "I loved the hard work," he says. "It was a circus of people determined to get this thing done in the way that we wanted it done."
He's writing Season 2 of Save Me now during Fear the Walking Dead's hiatus. He'll go back to work on Fear in November and then shoot Save Me after Season 5 wraps next June. So it'll be awhile before it's back. But he's already thinking about how he can include his old Walking Dead friend Andrew Lincoln in Season 2, since Lincoln has left The Walking Dead and returned home to England with an open schedule.
"I'm thinking about creating a character that no one will know that it's Andy, I'm just trying to figure out what that character will be. My vote at the moment is a pony," James jokes. "I'm not sure who will play the back end."
Ultimately, Lincoln's presence would feel out of place, because Save Me doesn't feel like a show James got to do because of his success on The Walking Dead. This isn't Jon Bernthal and The Punisher, where there's a straight line between Shane Walsh and Frank Castle. It's so far removed from Walking Dead world that it feels like he got to make it because it was good on its own terms. It's entirely its own thing in a really compelling way.
Save Me premieres Thursday, Sept. 6 at 9:30/8:30c on Starz In Black, with the first two episodes of the six-episode season airing that night. The next two air Friday at the same time and the final two on Saturday. All six episodes are currently available to stream via Starz on Demand and Starz's apps, including the Amazon Prime add-on.