For the legions of U.S. viewers bemoaning the looming end of “Downton Abbey” — the final episode airs March 6 — PBS offers up Civil War-era miniseries “Mercy Street,” which aims to be the American answer to the soapy Brit drama. On Sunday, the network premieres the six-part show — their first American drama in more than 10 years — which is executive-produced by Ridley Scott, and explores society and the ethics of medicine in the time of war.
Poised to be the show’s Lady Mary is Hannah James, the 23-year-old Virginia native who booked “Mercy Street” fresh out of drama school.
James plays Emma Green, the eldest daughter of the Southern aristocratic family whose Alexandria, Va., hotel becomes a Union Army hospital (much against the politics of the Confederacy-supporting Green family). But, as the show’s tag line — “blood isn’t blue or gray” — suggests, the hospital couldn’t turn away sick people, as much as the Union doctors might’ve preferred to. “Emma decides she is going to stand up for Confederate men,” James says. She goes into the makeshift hospital looking for her fiancé, a Confederate spy played by “How to Get Away With Murder’s” Jack Falahee, and ends up staying on as a nurse to care to the Confederate soldiers, whom she fears won’t receive equal treatment. “That’s how she’s able to have a say,” James says.
James was raised in Madison County, Va., where she was homeschooled until the age of 10. From there she attended “regular school” in Charlottesville, Va., where she stayed until her acceptance into the Guildford School of Acting in Surrey, England. “We’re not allowed to work during drama school, so I was just doing program plays that we had, and then when I graduated [in September 2014] I moved to L.A. I came out for pilot season and I didn’t know if I was going to stay.”
But the industry took to her quickly — within three months she landed “Mercy Street,” and found herself right back in Virginia to shoot in Richmond. “Our set was an hour-and-a-half from my house,” she says. “I would go home on weekends, and sometimes I would bring some of the cast home.”
She’s about to head into her second pilot season, which she’s hoping will be easier now that she has a role under her belt (though it’s difficult to imagine how it could go better than her first). “It’s much harder when you don’t have any work out that people can see,” she says. “This time I’m not just a name, then, but a name and a face that people sort of recognize.”
When we first see Emma she is obedient, polite and entirely well-behaved; yet hardly an episode in and she’s a new character: growing up, coming into her own and rebelling a bit. “She starts out as a little girl, and by the end she’s defying her parents and is doing what she felt she needed to do,” James says. “Something like war makes people grow up a lot faster. The reality is so stark, especially because it’s her family home that is taken over by Union officers, and her family is so affected by the war.”
The show was inspired by real letters from doctors and nurses during the Civil War, and James worked with a historian who specifically studied women during this era. “I read more from diary entries from young girls during the time,” she says. “A lot of women would pour out their real emotions on paper, so I would get into the minds and hearts of them that way.” She even started her own diary, writing in character to use it to further process Emma’s trajectory.
And though the “Downton” comparisons are pouring in, James is quick to caution against their similarities. “It ticks all the boxes of being a period drama in the sense that it has the accents and beautiful clothing and the etiquette that people might enjoy of ‘Downton,’ but our show is quite dirty and gritty in comparison,” she says. “We’ve got blood and gore and cutting through bones.”