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Playwright James: “I get to measure myself and see where I’m at as a writer.” Photo/Getty Images

British TV star’s Massive writing job in NZ

As his latest work with Auckland’s Massive Company hits the stage, Lennie James tells Russell Baillie why he’s remained a regular playwright for the ensemble.

English actor-writer Lennie James has spent much of the past decade in television dramas on both sides of the Atlantic: US zombie franchise The Walking Dead and spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, his own UK kidnap drama Save Me, and the first season of Line of Duty, among many others. But he’s also had a commitment as playwright for Auckland’s Massive Company, coming to New Zealand to work with its actors and director, Sam Scott, to formulate new work. The new Half of the Sky is James’ third script for Massive, following The Sons of Charlie Paora (2002) and Havoc in the Garden (2011).

Charlie Paora took place largely in a garage in Māngere and Havoc was in suburbia. You spent time in Rotorua with the actors before writing this one. Is Rotorua itself an influence?

Yes, it is. It’s not set in Rotorua but it is speaking of something there. The house that everybody gathers at over this particular weekend is a house that their family went to when they were kids growing up when the sun was shining. It’s a house of memories of when they were all together.

And Half of the Sky is centred on three sisters. How do you find writing for female characters?

That’s a weird question, only because the answers can sound odd. I don’t have a problem writing for women. I grew up in a family that was most definitely a matriarchy. I grew up in a family where me and my brother, among our generation of cousins and friends, were very few boys among lots of girls. And I have three daughters, so I am used to being around women. Hearing how women speak, listening to what women think and I write women as I write men – I write the character.

Is it a coincidence that you have three daughters and the play features three sisters?

Almost certainly not, but let’s not get into that. Probably. I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence. It just works for me. I know the dynamic and it was part of that dynamic I wanted to explore.

Which was what?

I wanted to talk about love, and not necessarily sentimental romantic love but who you love. When is it that you know you’re loved? When is it when you know you’re not loved? What is the right kind of love? What is the wrong kind of love? Who do you call family and do they have to be blood-related for you to feel about them as family and what happens when the family you have doesn’t necessarily engender feelings of love from you?

What do you get out of the ongoing work with Massive?

It’s a weird thing. It’s just a continuation of my work as a writer and of a relationship that started nearly 20 years ago when Sam invited me over to write my first play for them, which I thought was a ridiculous notion but we found a way of working with each other. Much in the same way as television has become really international – you can switch on your television and see something from anywhere in the world – I think theatre is a bit like that. I’m not coming to New Zealand to write stories about New Zealand and tell New Zealanders about New Zealand. That would be ludicrous and it would be a presumption. I would rightly get kicked in my arse if I even attempted to do that.

What happens is we find the place where we connect and that’s where our stories exist and that’s been the relationship. I just enjoy it. I love it. I get as much if not more out of it than anybody else participating in it. I get to challenge myself and test myself and measure myself and see where I’m at as a writer.

Half of the Sky, by Massive Company, Q Theatre, Auckland, October 16-26.

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.