Lennie James talks Line of Duty BBC2

by | Jun 19, 2012 | All, Interviews

Tuesday (26th June) sees the start of a brand new and edge of the seat police corruption drama starring Lennie James. James plays DCI Tony Gates whose 100% clear up rate sees him investigated by Anti-corruption. The series also stars Vicky McClure (recently seen alongside David Tennant in improvised drama True Love) and Adrian Dunbar and is written by Jed Mercurio (Bodies). Below is an interview with Lennie James discussing more about his character and what drew him back from America to take the lead in a BBC2 drama.

Tell us about Tony Gates and his role in Line of Duty…

I play Tony Gates and he’s DCI of his own particular unit – TO-20. He’s very successful – he’s the boss – and when we first meet him he’s receiving an award for being cop of the year – he is basically the top officer in his division. He’s married with two kids and he is the guy everybody wants to be next to because he gets results.

At the very start of the drama, we see he is meeting an old friend for lunch (whom may well be a little bit more than an old friend) and he rescues a mother and baby who are being mugged on the street, in kind of dynamic fashion. Unbeknownst to himself he is also becoming the subject of an investigation by AC-12. He becomes the subject of their investigation because Adrian Dunbar’s character (Superintendent Ted Hastings) believes he’s too good to be true and so he sets up an investigation to come after Tony Gates, which is a risk; Tony is the golden boy and they know it is going to be a difficult one.

So is Gates a bit of a hero among the force?

I think other people might perceive him to be a bit of a hero – if you’ve got ambitions in this particular squad or in this particular station, the place to advance your career is to be next to Tony. He has an incredibly loyal squad and they would walk over hot coals for him. I think that’s because he’s a dynamic character; he’s got there the hard way and he has worked hard to be in his position. For all intents and purposes he is the model cop and is a good police officer. He is committed and he gets the job done – it’s just a question of whether or not he gets the job done according to the rules, or whether or not the rules, from Tony’s perspective, are getting in the way of good policing. In Tony’s opinion it’s just about getting the job done – putting bad guys behind bars, solving cases, and keeping people on the street safe. Not everybody needs to or wants to see how the sausage is made, and Tony is the sausage maker.

What made you want to be involved with this drama?

This 5-part drama begins on Tuesday.

I think what attracted me to this drama is that it had really good characters, a really interesting story and it is much more than just being a ‘police drama’. When I first spoke to Jed about the role, we said that in the end, if the final product is just a good police drama then we kind of haven’t done our jobs. This isn’t as straight forward as ‘there is a crime, so we watch police officers go about solving it’ – it’s much more complicated than that. This is the police investigating the police which means that you have all these other layers – who is lying, who is telling the truth, what are they after – and so everybody’s perspective, everybody’s point of view, everybody’s angle, what everybody is after is important in every scene. The layers we got to play were staggering and interesting and there was never a mundane or a boring scene. Everybody’s lying, everybody’s trying to protect themselves, and everybody’s trying to find out who is after them. The intrigue levels as the story progresses just rise and rise and rise.

Tony Gates is also about whether or not he is guilty or innocent; and if he is guilty, is it so much that he needs to be taken away from his job? For me playing the guy, it was kind of like a roller coaster. I never thought whether or not Tony is a good guy or a bad guy. I think that’s irrelevant, it’s about what he is prepared to do and what he’s not prepared to do – and that premise kind of stays with him all the way through the series.

You’ve played a few coppers before, what makes Tony Gates different?

I have played loads of coppers! Too many coppers! But the scripts were so good and the cast they managed to put together was so fantastic that there was no saying no to this. As an actor when you get told about a project, most scripts are at their best before you have read them, and more often than not they are not quite what you had hoped for or completely the opposite. But with Line of Duty and the work Jed did with the scripts they just got better and better. When I first received the first three scripts I read them back to back probably three times because there was so much in them and so much to explore. It was a no brainer for me in the end, even though playing cops had kind of become something I was resistant to. At one point I thought I was the poster boy for the Metropolitan Police! 

Can you tell us a bit more about what Gates’ relationship is like with Fleming and Arnott?

I think with both of them the relationship starts in one place and ends up going someplace else.

With Martin’s character Arnott, for a long time, Tony just doesn’t take him seriously. He is like a fly which keeps buzzing around and Tony doesn’t think he can have any effect because why would he? A lot of the decisions and mistakes Tony makes are partly because Tony doesn’t take Arnott seriously, but also because in the end, the mistakes he makes are because he is trying to get the right results and get Arnott off his back. At the end of it there is a strange slightly messed up begrudging kind of respect between the two of them, although they never really like each other or had any time for each other, they’ve gone on a journey which has a massive effect on both of their lives.

In Gates’ relationship with Fleming you see how Tony man manages his team, which is that everybody on his team owes him something. Neil’s character (DC Nigel Morton) was on his way out of the squad because of his disability and Tony picked him up off the floor and gave him something to work for, and on some levels, live for; Craig’s character (DS Matthew “Dot” Cottan) was in danger of losing his career before he had a chance of getting it started, and Tony took him into his squad and protected him and nurtured him; and Faraz’s character (DC Deepak Sharma), an Asian officer in the force, Tony knows the hoops that you have to jump through if you are from an ethnic minority…he’s trying to make his way through the police force and Tony is trying to make that path easier for his character and so he is beholden to him. Finally you have Vicky’s character who at the beginning is working in a division of the force that she is quite obviously over qualified for and has ambitions beyond, and Tony takes her out of a place she doesn’t want to be and brings her up to the big room. Through her you then get to see how Tony manages the squad, how he uses that loyalty, how he nurtures them and how he sometimes takes advantage of them. He expects and demands undying loyalty.

You live out in LA, how did this part come about?

I don’t quite know how I ever get the jobs but with this one my agent had been tracking the gig for a while as she knew that I wanted to come home and do some work back there – remind everybody that I still have an English accent and still do what I do! Luckily this project came up and Jed liked me so I didn’t have to audition or do any of those nerve racking things. When the scripts were sent, I sent an email straight back saying ‘I’m very interested – how do we move further?’ So I guess it came the way you hope all jobs might come to you – somebody, the creators or the masters, who are in charge, know your work and like your work and offer you a job based on your work.

Finally, could you ever be a copper in real life?

Not now…there was a time when I was deciding what I wanted to do outside of school and I had serious considerations about being a copper…one of my good good friends was a lifelong police officer and I remember wanting to be a police officer because he was, and I also have friends I went to school with who joined the force, a couple of whom are very high ranking members of the met and surrounding regions. I’d like to think I could have been a police officer too but the reality is I don’t think I could have done. I would have left like at least one of my friends did early on, because there was a time when it was, or I would argue that it was one of the most dangerous jobs to be a black police officer in Britain.

Looking at and remembering them, I don’t think in the end I have what it takes to have got to the position that they or Tony got to as a black man trying to be a senior police officer. At the time when I would have had to have go through it you had to be single minded, in a way that I couldn’t have been about that job but could be about the job that I do. For a large part of what would have been Tony’s career, he had to fight everyday just to get to the starting line, and I couldn’t have done that in order to be a police officer. There have been times when it has felt like that trying to grow the career that I want as an actor – whatever hoops I’ve had to jump through, fences I’ve had to jump over and glass ceilings I’ve had to break through – doing it as an actor and a writer was the way I was going to do it, not as a police officer.

Line of Duty begins Tuesday 26th June 9.00pm on BBC1

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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