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BWW Interview: Hannah James on Creating an Authentic Southern Belle on PBS's MERCY STREET

BWW Interview: Hannah James on Creating an Authentic Southern Belle on PBS's MERCY STREET

Last Sunday, PBS debuted its first scripted drama in over a decade with the star-studded Civil War hospital drama, MERCY STREET. Despite the fact that most Civil War stories focus on the men leading the charge on the battlefield, MERCY STREET instead endeavors to tell the stories of a collection of women fighting to find their own sense of self in a world that no longer subscribes to the rules that they were raised on.

The two women at the center of most of the show's stories are nurses at Alexandria, Virginia's Union hospital, Mansion House. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays head nurse Mary Phinney, and newcomer Hannah James plays Emma Green, a debutante inexplicably drawn to caring for the injured Confederate soldiers being held at the hospital, despite having no medical background.

Throughout the course of the season's six episodes, Emma encounters death and danger that her Southern belle upbringing hasn't prepared her for. However, these experiences force her to mature and decide in what she truly believes.

"I think she starts out as a very good symbol for a lot of young women during that time period. She was brought up in a very high social class," she said. "She would have just finished her formal education, but she is actually still very young and very naïve. She goes into the hospital thinking that it's going to be easy, and she can just go in there and be a nurse and stand up for these Confederate men. She doesn't really think through the consequences and the reality that's going to face her when she's actually around all of these events."

The realities of war quickly hit home for Emma, and the pain and death have an almost immediate impact on her. The fact that this war story focuses more on the people left behind than it does on those doing the fighting is an important part of the series. As James explains, the impact that war can have on the people at home, especially women, is equally as compelling and important as what is happening on the battlefield itself.

BWW Interview: Hannah James on Creating an Authentic Southern Belle on PBS's MERCY STREET
Hannah James and Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Photo Credit: Antony Platt | PBS

"It's really wonderful that we get to portray the women's point-of-view. A lot of times when you study war," she said, "you're on the battlefront, and you want to know what was going on with the men that were on the field and witnessing the bloodshed and all of the action. But, we forget how much the civilians back at home are dramatically affected by war and how savage it is and how destructive it can be.

"Obviously being in a hospital, we get some of the wounded men and we see the bloodshed and some of the destruction the war can cause," James continued, "but the women having to deal with that is really brought (into focus), and we're also able to see how much the women wanted to fight for the cause, and nursing was a way that they could do that."

Despite being an untrained, volunteer Confederate nurse in an otherwise Union hospital, Emma develops a begrudging respect with Phinney, a fact that the series creators picked up on as shooting began. While James and Winstead shared a handful of scenes in the initial drafts of the script, when series co-creator David Zabel saw the relationship developing on screen, he decided to add more between the two as the series progressed.

"It was wonderful. Even though Emma doesn't agree with Mary, she definitely looks up to her," James said. "She sees a very prominent and independent and strong female character, and she wants to have that power and independence. I think she does really value Mary, even though she doesn't necessarily agree with her point-of-view."

James grew up in Madison County, Va., just an hour and a half from where MERCY STREET filmed in Richmond and Petersburg. She was home-schooled and grew up on a farm, so she came to the project with a tremendous amount of first-hand knowledge of the area and her character. As co-star Donna Murphy discussed in our discussion about the show, Zabel's co-creator Lisa Q. Wolfinger gave each member of the cast large, detailed historical character-specific packets to help with their research. James also relied heavily on Anya Jabour, a University of Montana professor who was on set during filming, whose work focuses on young women of the time period.

"She's the one who really helped me with Emma and her coming of age, and her journey, and how much the war affected these young women of the time period," James said. "They were very much young Southern belles, and they were taught to uphold their Southern traditions and their hospitality and to be very kind and soft-spoken and gentle, but with the war coming, that was so contradicted. They wanted to express their loyalty towards the South, but they weren't able to, because that wasn't what being a young lady was."

James landed her role on MERCY STREET soon after moving to Los Angeles after graduating from England's Guilford School of Acting. Despite being her first time on set, James said that her castmates were vital in helping her feel at ease during the filming of MERCY STREET.

"They were just really, really supportive, and I think the reason why I was able to get acclimated to set life so quickly was because I felt so comfortable with the people I was working with," she said. "I learned more on my three months of MERCY STREET than I did in the rest of my life to that point. I garnered so much knowledge from these incredible actors that I was working with. I feel so lucky to be able to learn from some of the best."

BWW Interview: Hannah James on Creating an Authentic Southern Belle on PBS's MERCY STREET
Hannah James and Josh Radnor
Photo Credit: Antony Platt | PBS

In addition to Winstead, the cast features a myriad of stars of stage and screen, including Josh Radnor, two-time Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz, Cameron Monaghan (SHAMELESS), Jack Falahee (HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER), Anna SophiaRobb (THE CARRIE DIARIES), and more. Gary Cole and two-time Tony-winner Donna Murphy play her James' parents.

"Donna Murphy and Gary Cole hadn't officially signed on to do the roles until after I was on set, so I was intrigued to see who my parents would be," James said. "Then discovering who had signed on to these roles and playing opposite them, I could never have imagined doing anything like it. It was wonderful having little chats with them, or simple conversations over tea, or in the hair and makeup ward, where we were able to discuss their careers and their career paths and little words of wisdom was amazing."

With its blend of drama, authenticity, and romance, James believes that the show has something for every type of viewer.

"I think MERCY STREET harkens on a lot of different aspects of what people might be looking for, and what people might love in, a TV series," she said. "It definitely gives you that wonderful feel of a period drama, with a bit of history and the beautiful costumes, and the old Southern accents, but what I really love about it is that it doesn't skirt around the realities of the Civil War, and it doesn't pretend like it wasn't as bloody as it was. It's very gritty, it's very dirty, and it's real. We don't try to be polite about it, which I really appreciate, and I hope that other people might see that or appreciate that."

What did you think of the first episode of MERCY STREET? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter.

Banner Image: Hannah James. Photo Credit: Antony Platt | PBS

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