‘I Love Building a Story’: Sally James on 'The English'

Express News Service

What was it about ‘The English’ that made you want to be a part of it?

I read the script and just found it completely heart-stopping. It’s so rare to read something that gives you the feeling of having no idea what is coming next. Things are usually contorting or conforming to some sort of ideal, but this story wasn’t, in any way.

I remember reading the part where Ciaran Hinds’s character punches me hard in the face (laughs), and I just thought, ‘Well, all bets are off now! You don’t know what’s going to happen.’ This is a story that moves like a chase-thriller but is very tender at its heart.

Tell us about your character.

I play Lady Cornelia Locke, a British aristocratic lady, who shows up in the Wild West seeking revenge for her son’s death. She is completely ill-prepared for what lies ahead but turns out, she has some strengths that even she didn’t know of. She enlists the help of a pawnee warrior (played by Chaske Spencer) and they go on this epic adventure.

(Director)Hugo Blick wrote Cornelia as a very colourful character, one that is surprising at every turn. She has suffered great loss and yet there’s a guilelessness and hopefulness to her. I think she is innocent, but not naïve.

How was it working with Hugo Blick, both as a writer and director?

Hugo is a genius. I tell him that often. He has written the most dexterous, complicated, otherworldly script and yet he is a wonderful director because he doesn’t cling too tightly to his words. He lets you do what you want. He’s curious and is interested to see what you do with the world he has created. Hugo is also an extraordinary writer, who explores things that feel elliptical, clever and unusual.

It was just endlessly exciting to see what he would do every day. I was always looking forward to see how he had set the shots up.

What was it like getting to ride a horse for this series?

Since the project got delayed due to Covid-19, it allowed me to practice horse riding longer than I would have done otherwise, especially because I needed it. Everyone thinks they can ride, but you realise that you can’t once you get on the horse. That said,  I found the experience transporting.I, sort of, was in love with my horse by the end of the shoot. It was quite sad to say goodbye to him.

What do you think it is about the Western genre that makes it so compelling?

It’s a fantastic backdrop––a world that’s built on brutality, violence, power, race and loss. So it’s potent and exciting. I had never been in one before. I remember my mum showed me Shane and Old Yeller. They are quite a nostalgic part of my childhood, so I was thrilled to do one myself.

You have also produced the project. Tell us about the experience.

I loved it. I wouldn’t say it was a burning ambition, but it was something that made sense for this particular series. ‘The English’ was brought to me as a pilot, so it was in its embryonic stages. To be able to help bring it to life and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Hugo was incredible. But I have always been interested in every aspect of a project. It’s not enough for me to just be an actor. I love building a story.I love the post-production and helping with the edit.

Do you think you will follow in your husband’s (John Krasinsky) shoes into directing one day?

I would like to believe that, but I have seen what it costs, emotionally and physically, to get through directing a film. Right now, I am still learning and absorbing. I am very interested in all facets of making a film or a series, so maybe one day.

Finally, what lessons have you learned from this or any of the various characters you have played?

I don’t know if it is always specific to the character. I just feel fortunate to get that fresh injection of people, crew, environment and story in this line of work. Subliminally and unconsciously, I think we are shaped by all of those experiences.

What was it about ‘The English’ that made you want to be a part of it?

I read the script and just found it completely heart-stopping. It’s so rare to read something that gives you the feeling of having no idea what is coming next. Things are usually contorting or conforming to some sort of ideal, but this story wasn’t, in any way.

I remember reading the part where Ciaran Hinds’s character punches me hard in the face (laughs), and I just thought, ‘Well, all bets are off now! You don’t know what’s going to happen.’ This is a story that moves like a chase-thriller but is very tender at its heart.

Tell us about your character.

I play Lady Cornelia Locke, a British aristocratic lady, who shows up in the Wild West seeking revenge for her son’s death. She is completely ill-prepared for what lies ahead but turns out, she has some strengths that even she didn’t know of. She enlists the help of a pawnee warrior (played by Chaske Spencer) and they go on this epic adventure.

(Director)Hugo Blick wrote Cornelia as a very colourful character, one that is surprising at every turn. She has suffered great loss and yet there’s a guilelessness and hopefulness to her. I think she is innocent, but not naïve.

How was it working with Hugo Blick, both as a writer and director?

Hugo is a genius. I tell him that often. He has written the most dexterous, complicated, otherworldly script and yet he is a wonderful director because he doesn’t cling too tightly to his words. He lets you do what you want. He’s curious and is interested to see what you do with the world he has created. Hugo is also an extraordinary writer, who explores things that feel elliptical, clever and unusual.

It was just endlessly exciting to see what he would do every day. I was always looking forward to see how he had set the shots up.

What was it like getting to ride a horse for this series?

Since the project got delayed due to Covid-19, it allowed me to practice horse riding longer than I would have done otherwise, especially because I needed it. Everyone thinks they can ride, but you realise that you can’t once you get on the horse. That said,  I found the experience transporting.
I, sort of, was in love with my horse by the end of the shoot. It was quite sad to say goodbye to him.

What do you think it is about the Western genre that makes it so compelling?

It’s a fantastic backdrop––a world that’s built on brutality, violence, power, race and loss. So it’s potent and exciting. I had never been in one before. I remember my mum showed me Shane and Old Yeller. They are quite a nostalgic part of my childhood, so I was thrilled to do one myself.

You have also produced the project. Tell us about the experience.

I loved it. I wouldn’t say it was a burning ambition, but it was something that made sense for this particular series. ‘The English’ was brought to me as a pilot, so it was in its embryonic stages. To be able to help bring it to life and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Hugo was incredible. But I have always been interested in every aspect of a project. It’s not enough for me to just be an actor. I love building a story.
I love the post-production and helping with the edit.

Do you think you will follow in your husband’s (John Krasinsky) shoes into directing one day?

I would like to believe that, but I have seen what it costs, emotionally and physically, to get through directing a film. Right now, I am still learning and absorbing. I am very interested in all facets of making a film or a series, so maybe one day.

Finally, what lessons have you learned from this or any of the various characters you have played?

I don’t know if it is always specific to the character. I just feel fortunate to get that fresh injection of people, crew, environment and story in this line of work. Subliminally and unconsciously, I think we are shaped by all of those experiences.