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A Star From the Start

By Andrew Stone
Posted On Dec 26, 2015
A Star From the Start

It’s rare for an actress to hit it big in Hollywood from the word “go.” But “rare” is a specialty for Mercy Street star Hanna James.

Meet one of the most promising young actors in the Hollywood scene, Hannah James. An articulate and absolutely lovely Virginia-born, UK-schooled actor with a lifetime of ballet training behind her, James graduated from the UK’s Guilded School of Acting in Surrey and landed a major role right out of the gate. She stars as real-life Civil War-era figure Emma Green in the PBS miniseries Mercy Street

(premiering January 17, 2016), executive-produced by Ridley Scott. The series — which also stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor, Norbert Leo Butz, Anna Sophia Robb, McKinley Belcher, L. Scott Caldwell, Shalita Grant, Luke Macfarlane, Tara Summers, Peter Gerety, and Jack Falahee — tells the story of two volunteer nurses in Alexandria, Virginia, tending to wounded soldiers at the Mansion House — a luxury hotel turned into a Union Army hospital. James is a delight to speak with and on the verge of a major career.

NEW YOU: Hannah, we’re so impressed by this casting on Mercy Street…You just began your acting career and already you’re holding your own in a major miniseries event…

HANNAH JAMES: It all came really quickly. I had been studying in England and graduated last December, then I booked Mercy Street.

in March. It was my first project, and I came onto set with a very experienced cast. I’m probably the youngest one, and definitely the only one with no credits. The first day was quite thrilling and, frankly, intimidating.

NY: Now, you play real historical figure — Emma Green, a Southern belle with a fiery personality who decides to minister to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. What can you tell us about her?

HJ: I didn’t realize until after I had booked the role how close this character, Emma Green, is to me. She was born and raised in Virginia and had gone to a boy’s boarding school — and I was born ten minutes from there. And she goes through this huge amount of growth, having started in a vulnerable place. I identified with her very much, since Mercy Street was such a new experience for me.

NY: Did your fellow cast members take you under their wings?

HJ: That is an understatement. So many of the experiences I had with the seasoned actors of Mercy Street were incredible. The presence of people like Josh Radnor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead was so inspiring… I learned from them how to deal with the 30 crew people wandering around while you’re doing an intense scene. I learned ten times more on set than I ever learned in drama school. You learn through doing, after all.

NY: This project is executive produced by Ridley Scott… How did it feel to be a part of one of his projects?

HJ: I got to meet him, and it was beyond exciting. As was every part of the experience.

NY: Now you have a very interesting background… Tell us a bit about what life before you began your professional acting career.

HJ: Well, I was home-schooled. My mom taught my sister and me until we were ten years old. We were always around adults and had to carry ourselves well. My mom is like Mary Poppins — very well spoken, and very fun.

NY: Now, you’re also a classically trained ballet dancer.

HJ: I started dancing when I was two and continued to do so, all the way through high school. As a senior, I was dancing 12 to 14 hours a week, and really going down the path of a ballerina. As much as it would be wonderful, I realized that it would be short-lived. The lifespan of a dancer’s career is just not that long. I looked at actors such as Maggie Smith and Judy Dench, acting into their 80s! I knew I wanted to give myself a lifetime of work that I’m passionate about. And I hold onto the discipline and structure from all of the dance training. I won’t take “no” for an answer.

NY: You attended the very prestigious Guilded School of Acting in Surrey. What’s been the takeaway from that?

HJ: At this drama school in England, if you’re even a minute late, you aren’t allowed into the room for the day. As hard as it was, I learned what being a professional in this industry really is about. It helps now that I am in LA, where everyone is going for the same thing.

NY: And how is this transplant life for you, now that you live in Los Angeles?

HJ: I was born and raised on a farm — a proper country girl, from a very laid-back, rural upbringing. And London is this very cultural and artsy place… which has a huge theater scene but it’s not the center of everything. So coming to LA where everyone is so focused and connected to the entertainment industry, at first I was taken aback… because you really can’t step away from it. And I adore actors, but it’s also important for me to surround myself with people from other walks of life. That’s important as an actor, since I’m hired to portray everyone — doctors, lawyers, nurses… So, I’ve learned that in order to be happy here I have to find outlets that have nothing to do with “the business.”

NY: Obviously, you’re very close with your family. How do they feel about your work and career path?

HJ: They’re very happy, although my family is still attached to the idea of my being a prima ballerina. With anything having to do with the dance world, or at any mention of Black Swan, they say, “Now that’s the kind of role you should play!”

NY: Are you interested in some of the grittier roles out there?

HJ: Oh yes, I am more excited than anything to go against type than taking on too many roles that are very close to me. I can learn more from the ones that challenge me I imagine, and draw from different facets of my life. That’s the joy of being an actor — being able to tell anybody’s story. And getting to play someone very far from my own story would be so eye-opening.

NY: Obviously, being a dancer, you must take your health and wellness and fitness very seriously. What’s your approach?

HJ: First and foremost, I definitely enjoy having free time and enjoying moments with myself. On an average day, I’m up at 7 a.m., and work out — this is about 4 to 5 times a week. The thinking there is: I have to keep my instrument in tune. Meanwhile, it’s easy to eat healthy in LA, so I try and stay on top of all of that. I know that everything I do during the day affects my energy and I always feel better if I have all my compartments checked off… When all that’s squared away, I’m definitely more up for the spontaneity in life.


Photo Credit: Kate sZatmari