Meet the Makers: Lennie James
Published: Thursday 24 August, 2023
In the second part of our Meet the Makers Series, we sat down with acclaimed British Actor, screenwriter, and playwright Lennie James (The Walking Dead, The Sons of Charlie Paora).
Now sit tight, and let’s meet the maker!
Image Credit: Andi Crown
Introduce yourself and your arts practice.
Hello, my name is Lennie James, and I am an actor, writer, sometime director, and occasional producer. I wrote Half of The Sky for Massive Theatre Company.
What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
Without question, the adventure of it all. There are constantly new horizons in the job I do. New stories and experiences to explore. Characters to bring to life, truths to discover. I love when a job requires me to learn a skill that I had no use for previously or travel to a place I might never have gone to otherwise. I cherish the places my job has taken me and continues to take me. Coming to New Zealand and working with Massive is a perfect example of exactly that. It's over twenty years ago now that Sam Scott, who runs Massive, asked me if I fancied travelling halfway around the world to do some workshops that might lead to me writing a play for her theatre company. At the time, it felt like an impossible notion. So completely out there that I had to say yes. All this time later, I'm still working with Sam and Massive and it has been one of the great adventures of my life.
I love when a job requires me to learn a skill that I had no use for previously or travel to a place I might never have gone to otherwise.
What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
I'd have to say being away from home and family. I can't always do what I do from the comfort of my home. More often than not that means being away, another city, another country and often for extended periods of time. When my family could travel with me, that was great, but when that became less possible, it can be hard.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mum's favourite was, "Remember who your mother is." It was her way of saying don't forget who she brought me up to be. What values she tried to instil in me and my brother, and what she expected of us. She was also saying that if I forgot myself, she'd be there to set me straight!
The best advice I was given as a young actor was, "There is no job more important than the one you are lucky enough to be doing" That's always stuck with me and is pretty much how I get the job done.
What’s the best show you’ve seen this year?
I would have to say 'August in England' at The Bush Theatre in London. It's Lenny Henry's one-man Windrush play. It tells the story of August Henderson and his journey to England, his long life there and how it was all threatened when he got caught up in the recent scandal that saw hundreds of people who had lived legally in the UK for decades deported and threatened with deportation due to a whim of government. It is beautifully written and performed by Lenny and told as only he could tell it. It is part stand-up, and part cautionary tale of how the lives of so many are so easily disregarded by those in power.
Who are your favourite artists/theatre companies/musicians etc., and why?
The list would be too long, particularly when it comes to musicians. Here are the ones who come to mind today. Another day would see another list entirely.
- Artist - Ruth Franklin. She's a Georgia-based artist, and I love her stuff. I've managed to bag a few of them, mostly oils and charcoals. Her work is abstract but not entirely. She's one of those artists that you must stand back from her work to see it clearly. She mostly paints people, Atlanta people.
- Theatre Company - I would say Massive, but I probably shouldn't. So, I'll go for Theatre De Complicite, Simon McBurney's surreal theatre company that told their stories through extreme movement, amazing stagecraft, beautiful/quirky performances and fantastic imagery. There was a time when they were the only company whose work I wanted to see, and I was desperate to work with them. Utterly inspiring and original.
- Musician - At the moment, it's Jacob Banks. I used one of his songs in a TV show I wrote, and I've been hooked ever since. I love the tone of his voice. There's a timbre to it that's very African and deeply soulful.
Tell us about Half of The Sky.
It is set over the birthday weekend of three sisters. Nyree, Ruihi and Marika, though not the same age, have birthdays within four days of each other. They gather at the family home, at the edge of a river, to celebrate, remember and make big decisions. It is a story about family. About the memories we share about ourselves that are agreed upon and those that are disputed. It is about the weight of family, the joy and burden of remembering and the toll it all takes. It is also a love story - several love stories, actually... the love of those closest to you and those you hold close by choice.
It is about the weight of family, the joy and burden of remembering and the toll it all takes. It is also a love story - several love stories, actually... the love of those closest to you and those you hold close by choice.
What can audiences expect from Half of the Sky?
I don't like to prescribe what an audience should take away from work I'm involved in. All I'll say is that Half of The Sky is a piece I'm very proud of. I like how it makes me laugh. I like how it makes me think about my family and those I care about. I love how the characters love each other, especially when it doesn't look like or sound like love. I love how they battle over ownership of their 'shared' memories. I love how our story exists in the past, present, and future, kind of like families do.