British thriller puts cops on trial

By Guy Davies

Lead actor says show investigating right and wrong is more than a whodunnit.

Lennie James said yes to playing the role of Tony Gates almost immediately. Photo / Supplied
Lennie James said yes to playing the role of Tony Gates almost immediately. Photo / Supplied

How far over the line can a good cop step before going too far? And who has the right to make that decision in the first place?

The five-part UK police drama Line of Duty asks such questions, and many more, in weaving its complex and compelling yarn of police corruption among the best and brightest of London's law-enforcement agencies.

The primary target of an internal affairs investigation is Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates, one of the most decorated and honoured police officers on the force. But is the arrest record of Gates' team the result of clever manipulation and deception?

Unknown to everyone else, however, is a darker secret involving Gates, one that could truly take him over the line from cop to criminal.

Lennie James, whose extensive list of credits in the UK and US includes Spooks, Jericho, The Walking Dead and Hung, gives a riveting performance as Gates, and he discusses what drew him to Line of Duty here.

Q: How did you come to be involved in Line Of Duty and what attracted you to it?

I did not audition for it, it was a straight offer. I had been out in the States for a while, working out here, and I was looking for a project back in Britain to remind people I was still around, and that was something that would bring me home. At the same time Jed Mercurio, who wrote it and produced it, had me in mind for this part. They sent me the first three scripts and I was pretty much sold by the time I'd read the first episode. By the time I got to the third episode all I wanted to do was read the next two, not just to find out about the character I was going to be playing but how the whole story resolved itself. And I have to say they were some of the tightest scripts I've ever read at that stage of the proceedings, so I said yes almost immediately.

Q: Did you empathise with Tony Gates when playing him, or even understand where he was coming from?

I try as much as possible to not have any kind of external eye on the character. You can look anywhere around the world and see people justifying all manner of things within themselves in ways we like to think we couldn't and wouldn't. And I don't always think people, certainly when they're doing whatever they're doing, whether it's something good or bad or mundane, feel any means to justify what they're doing. One of the things I liked about playing Tony Gates in Line of Duty was I don't think he gave much thought to justifying his actions until he was under investigation. Certainly at the beginning of that investigation, his overriding response to it is, "Why would you be investigating me? That doesn't make any sense. Why are you going after me and not somebody who's actually doing something wrong? You're wasting my time, you're wasting your time, and you're getting in the way of the work I'm trying to do." He subsequently moves on from that position but that's where we meet him. He's somebody who has no need to justify who he is or what he's done because he's a very, very successful man, when we meet him.

Q: While much of the focus is on Tony Gates, it seems like each character could be the focus of their own show?

Yes. Because we don't have the same kind of pressures American television has with sustaining characters over long periods of time, you can make brazen, bold and surprising decisions about the characters. And also blur the lines. In Line of Duty that's certainly what they set out to do. It sets itself up as being a programme about police corruption and the organisation that pursues that area of policing - and one particular target that they go after - but that doesn't even begin to really tell the story. That was one of the things I found very exciting about it. It's not just a whodunnit, it's much more of a thriller than that. I remember saying to Jed, when we first spoke about the project once I was on board, if at the end of it we end up with someone describing it as just a cop show, then we haven't done our job because it's much more than that. It's a thriller, it's a cat-and-mouse game, it's a whodunnit, and it's "is he or isn't he?" but it's also a fascinating investigation of right and wrong.

Tv profile

Who: Lennie James as Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates
What: Line of Duty
When and where: SoHo, Tuesdays, 8.30pm

-AAP

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