Number 147 (Lennie James) and his wife, 21-16 (Renate Stuurman) in The Prisoner. Photo copyright of Granada/AMC
When some people arrive in a new city or town, one of the first things they do is jump into a taxi. After all, the person behind that wheel knows all there is to know about the local main streets and back roads, right? Nowhere is that perhaps more important than in AMC’s six-part miniseries The Prisoner. As a cab driver in The Village, Number 147 is the one to seek out when looking to go from A to B in this exclusive community. There is so much more to him, though, than just his driving skills, as actor Lennie James, who plays 147, explains.
“At the start of our story, my character is absolutely content and accepting of the rules of The Village in which he lives,” says James. “He is a guy who will gladly tell you what you can and cannot say, where you can and cannot go, and what you can and cannot do. And within the confines of The Village, this man has found complete happiness with his wife [12-16. played by Renate Stuurman] and their child. 147 can’t believe how lucky he is to not just love his wife, but have his wife love him and then bless him with a child.
“In some ways it was a challenge to play a guy who is so content, but what I enjoyed most about the role was playing someone who really has no knowledge of his potential. 147 has no sense of what he can and cannot do, and from early on in the six episodes, is a man who constantly surprises himself.”
The original 60s Prisoner series focused on an ex-Secret Service agent (Patrick McGoohan) who wakes up in a remote seaside locale called The Village. His name has been replaced by a number, Six, and those in charge are intent on finding out the truth about why he resigned from his job. This re-imagined version of the program has its own Number Six (Jim Caviezel), who, like his predecessor, has a profound impact on certain villagers that he meets, including James’ 147.
“Besides 147’s wife and child, my character’s other main relationship is with Number Six,” notes the actor. “When Six arrives in The Village, 147 acts as his guide in more ways than one, and his relationship with Six becomes, literally, life-changing. It changes everything about what he thought his life was and what he comes to realize his life could be. It’s all due to the chance meeting, really, of Six getting into 147’s taxi as opposed to 135’s as it were.”
Keeping an eye on everyone in The Village, especially Six, is Number Two (Ian McKellen). Like his fellow villagers, he makes use of the local taxis, and at one point calls upon 147’s services. “One of the scenes I really enjoyed shooting is one with myself and Ian McKellen, where his character is in the backseat of my character’s taxi,” recalls James. “The whole thing is played through the rearview mirror, and technically it was tricky because you have to look as if you’re not looking at each other. Our two characters communicate exclusively through that mirror and have quite a bit to say to one another. I loved doing that scene, not only because I loved working with Ian, but also because of what was going on in it, which was something worthwhile.”
The Italianate resort village of Portmerion in Gwynedd on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales served as the setting for the original Prisoner. Going for a very different type of look, the producers of the 2009 remake chose to have James along with the rest of the miniseries’ cast and crew shoot in South Africa.
“The location was absolutely fantastic for the story, but it did hold some challenges for us as a cast and crew,” says the actor. “We filmed all our exteriors in a place called Swakopmund, a turn of the century village where the desert meets the sea in Namibia. As Portmerion was in the original Prisoner, this place was very much an extra character that gave the miniseries a particular type of feel.
“Swakopmund is a holiday destination, mostly for Germans, but when we were there it wasn’t holiday season, so we were shooting in a sort of ghost town. There were a lot of empty houses and empty streets, all of which certainly added to our head space as far as playing the villagers. Again, though, there were times where everybody just felt like they were a long way from home.”
How familiar was the actor with Patrick McGoohan’s incarnation of The Prisoner before he began working on this version? “I’m not old enough to have seen the series when it was first broadcast, but it was on a loop, it seems, during my childhood,” he explains. “So I was very aware of it and must have seen, if not all the episodes, most of them at various times while growing up.
Number 147 finds his life of contentment in The Village turned upside-down. Photo copyright of Granada/AMC
“I didn’t go back and revisit the series for this production, though, because Bill Gallagher’s [miniseries writer] scripts were so specific as well as different and I didn’t want to put anything in the way of that.”
Born in Nottingham, England and having spent many of his younger years in South London, James once dreamt of giving a very different type of performance in front of an audience. “Like most English boys, I wanted to be a rugby player,” says the actor. “When I was growing up, rugby wasn’t a professional sport, but it was something that I wanted to play at the highest level I could. However, when I realized that I wasn’t good enough, and before acting came into my life, I wanted to at least pursue a career that was sports oriented, such as a physiotherapist or occupational therapist.
“As far as acting, I actually followed a girl who I really fancied into an audition. She wanted to be an actress and the director said I couldn’t stay in the room unless I auditioned. So I did and I got offered a role.”
A Raisin in the Sun, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Macbeth are among James’ theater credits, while on the big screen he has starred in such films as Outlaw, Sahara, Snatch and Les miserables. On TV, the actor has appeared in several made-for-TV movies as well as guest-starred in shows on both sides of the pond including A Touch of Frost, Cold Feet, Spooks, Lie to Me and Three Rivers. James is probably best known for his regular roles in the British series Out of the Blue and the apocalyptic U.S. drama Jericho.
“Out of the Blue was an ensemble cop show and I loved it,” he enthuses. “It was one of my first big jobs and the first time I worked with Bill Gallagher. We did two seasons of it and, as I’m going to go on to talk about Jericho, one of the things both shows have in common is that they ended, I think, before their time. I’m guessing that whoever made those decisions, in retrospect, probably wouldn’t have done the same thing again.
“My character in Out of the Blue was a guy called Bruce Hannaford, who was kind of an uptight detective and a perpetual bachelor who dressed well and had a rather inflated opinion of himself. It was a great part to play in amongst a terrific cast including John Hannah [D.S. Frank Drinkall], Neil Dudgeon [D.C. Marty Brazil] and John Duttine [D. I. Eric Temple]. I had a wonderful time doing the series and made some very good friends along the way. The same can be said for Jericho, which was, again, a gift of a part for me, in amongst some fantastic actors.”
Of all James’ roles, The Prisoner was one of his easiest to have booked. “The part was pretty much offered to me,” says the actor. “I met with the people I would be working with just to see whether or not we were on the same page, and we were. As I mentioned, I worked with Bill Gallagher before, so it was one of those really nice audition processes where your prior work is taken into consideration and people are gracious enough to offer you the role and not ask you to jump through too many hoops.”
With some people in the entertainment industry, making sure they are always in the public eye is the definition of having a successful career. James, however, is among those who prefer to take a more down-to-earth approach to the profession.
“For me, it’s about the job,” he says. “These days there is a generation of actors, some of whom seem to be getting into the business for the perks as opposed to the actual work. I very much enjoy the moments between the director calling, ‘Action,’ and, ‘Cut,’ when you’re making the [acting] choices. And the actors who I admire and aspire to be like are those who enjoy that, too, and for who fame and celebrity are by-products and not the aim.
“I truly love what I do and feel blessed that I’ve been allowed to continue doing it for the past 20 or so years.”
The Prisoner continues tonight, Monday, November 16th @ 8 p.m. EST/PST and concludes at the same time on Tuesday, the 17th. Watch for an interview with Jamie Campbell-Bower (11-12).
As noted above, all photos copyright of Granada TV and AMC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!