Detroit Stars in Low Winter Sun
AMC’s newest drama has gritty Motown as a setting
Published: March 27, 2013
Much of the first episode’s action is set near Greektown; bad guys stroll down Randolph Street with impunity, and the timeworn Baltimore Lunch bar on that street, site of several pivotal moments, is renamed “The International” in the script.
“It was nuts in here,” says Hilga Nada, who co-owns Baltimore Lunch with her actor son, Ted. “Me and Teddy were here morning till night. We came in at around 6 in the morning and left when they got done. It took them almost three days.”
The Baltimore staff was given an extended Thanksgiving holiday so the one-time November shoot could be accomplished — not that they could have worked anyway.
“They rented the whole parking lot and they had trucks and everything inside it,” Nada marvels. “We have two bars, and the back bar is where they put all the recordings. They took out everything I have and put their own things in here, made the bar look completely different. It was really amazing.”
The gravity of star power
Lennie James made national pop culture headlines this month for his surprise return to The Walking Dead as hardened survivor Morgan Jones, a character he hadn’t played since the show’s 2010 debut.
“The Walking Dead producers really wanted to bring Morgan back and asked would I be interested,” James relates, in his neatly trimmed South London accent. “They gave us a rough idea of when it would happen and we managed to coordinate dates. The only thing they asked was that I not tell anybody I was coming back, so I had to lie to people for 11 months, for which I apologize profusely. But now the cat’s out of the bag, so I can stop lying to my friends and family.”
His joining the cast of Low Winter Sun was far more transparent. “If you get the option and the opportunity, the things that attract me to a project are the same every single time,” he says. “It’s a really good story, it’s really well told, and it’s a character I really want to play, a guy I can learn something from playing and can do something interesting with. And, it’s a rock-solid cast.”
James says one big enticement was the opportunity to work again with Strong. “Although I’ve known Mark for a very long time, I haven’t worked with him in a good few years,” he says.
They have been in two films together, one in which they shared scenes (1999’s
Elephant Juice) and one where they didn’t (The Martins, 2001).
James opted not to watch the British version of LWS until long after he completed the pilot, “because I didn’t want there to be any crossover or muddled thinking. I wanted to come at the character clear-eyed.” However, after watching the original, which is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, he understands why Detroit was a prime choice as this show’s location.
“It’s a very specific story, told in a very specific city,” James says. “The city of Edinburgh is a big character in that production in the way I think we hope Detroit will be. The characters we are dealing with, the stories we are telling, are in some way fueled by the fact that they’re happening in a city that has the characteristics of Detroit. In the sense that it is, for want of a better phrase, a desperate city, trying both to save itself and to move forward. I think that follows a lot of the themes of Low Winter Sun in that there are characters who have made mistakes, who have suffered from bad luck, who are trying to save themselves and move forward.”
The perspective of a black man from another country who makes his living through detailed observations, coming to work in this desperate city — with a population that is more than 80 percent African-American — could be compelling. However, although he previously spent time around Detroit when he played the pimp Charlie in the bygone HBO series Hung, James is prudently noncommittal. “On one level I haven’t spent enough free time in Detroit to really comment,” he submits.
“It’s the same when I’m in Atlanta where The Walking Dead shoots, a city that has a very prolific African American persona. Again, I haven’t spent a huge amount of time there, but you do feel it and it is a very different vibe than other cities. But so far my experience in Detroit has been very much about the work I’m doing there. We set up in Greektown, and although we traveled to other locations, and on days off did our best to try and see the city that we potentially will work in for a while, I can’t in all honesty say I know enough.
“What I do know is, I suppose everything I’ve read about Detroit, all the things that people are saying now, it’s kind of become the poster city for decay and the need for renewal. How a once powerful and rich city can decline over a short space of time. White flight, black middle-class flight, all those things. So far, almost everything I’ve read about Detroit is true, and that includes its passion and desire to bounce back.”
The people make the difference, James believes. “A lot of times with the Detroit actors and crew we were working with, the people in the hotel we were staying in, the people when we went to the [Eastern] Market, or to meet the cops to do research and have barbecues with them, everybody really wanted the show to come to Detroit,” he says. “In a way, to be one of a number of film and television productions that will come in and help Detroit get back on its feet. I hope that’s what Low Winter Sun is part of.
“But ask me at the end of the next nine episodes, because by then I may feel like my feet have been on the ground long enough to make an informed comment. At the moment, I’m a newbie. I’m just sucking it all up and seeing what there is. But my early experience of Detroit is that it’s a strangely exciting city and one I‘m looking forward to working in.”
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