The second season of PBS’s acclaimed series Mercy Street returns January 22, 2017, on KCTS 9. The story, which is set in Virginia during the Civil War, follows the lives and the difficulties faced by the people of the Mansion House Hospital.
We spoke with cast member Hannah James — who plays privileged and strong-minded Southern belle Emma Green — about her character’s growth and evolution, her personal connection to the series and more.
For those who are just finding their way to the show, can you tell us about your character, Emma Green, and what she brings to the series?
Hannah James: Emma Green is a young woman whom many would recognize as a “Southern belle.” She was brought up in a wealthy home in Alexandria, Virginia, a Southern territory that was occupied by Union soldiers during the war. The Green family owns a hotel that has been converted into a hospital for Union Soldiers. One afternoon, Emma walks into the hotel in search of her fiancé, Frank Stringfellow, and witnesses the Union soldiers being treated far better than her Confederate boys. Like so many young women during this period, a fire is lit within Emma and she is inspired to do her part in the war, to make a stand, to find her independence and purpose. Quite literally overnight Emma puts away “childish things” and vows to become a nurse and make a difference in the war, which many believed would end in only a matter of weeks. We see the war through a pair of young eyes and witness her change from a young girl to a woman as a direct effect of bloodshed, heartache and turmoil. Thus, Emma’s very long journey begins.
How has Emma grown from Season 1 to Season 2?
HJ: At the beginning of Season 1, Emma is a young girl who, like many women her age during the Civil War, is suddenly confronted with a reality that is far beyond her maturity. War is raw and it hideously affects everyone, whether soldiering in the war or working alongside those who are fighting. Emma innocently walks into her family hotel, once the pride and joy of her social standing, which has now been converted into a Union hospital, and is horrified by what she sees. Over the course of Season 2, it becomes more apparent that this war and siding with her Southern family verses her Northern brothers isn’t as black and white as she had thought. Emma begins fighting an internal battle over where her loyalty stands, who she is fighting alongside and whether she believes in the fighting at all.
How did you get involved with Mercy Street? What drew you to this project?
HJ: I still remember the day I read the first episode of Mercy Street. I was immediately entranced with the stories that were so beautifully woven together and accurately portrayed the many lives that were rocked by the Civil War. I instantly fell in love with the project and felt innately connected to Emma, despite the fact that I had no previous work to support my qualifications for the role. I’m very lucky that our producers and writers trusted me and put Emma’s story into my hands. I will be eternally grateful for this opportunity as I feel that Emma has taught me more about not only acting, but life as a whole. I often feel as though I have walked hand-in-hand with Emma through many hoops on set as well as on the street.
Your character is based on a real individual. In the beginning, was that a daunting thing to tackle? Is there a difference in approach to playing a real person compared to a fictional character?
HJ: Emma is indeed a historical figure. It was daunting to begin with, but I was quickly comforted by the fact that Emma was much closer to home than I had realized. Following the war, Emma moved to Woodberry Forest School, which is a boarding school that is only ten minutes away from my childhood farm. Through various friends of friends, I was put in contact with some of Emma’s great-great-grandchildren who had stories to share, family relics and even clothing that belonged to Emma. Somehow this created an intimacy that was incredibly helpful as I walked onto set my first day. Of course now that I have created relationships with some of Emma’s family, I am daunted by the pressure to uphold Emma’s story and make her grandchildren proud, but they have been so wonderful and supportive throughout this journey so I have been incredibly lucky there.
Did the show airing on PBS factor into why you took the role? Did you grow up watching PBS?
HJ: I was actually homeschooled when I was younger, so TV was really not a part of my everyday life, but I’m sure if I was allowed to watch any TV it would have been PBS shows. As an adult, I do enjoy the programs that PBS features and greatly respect the work that they do. There is plenty of wonderful content and many of the shows that I watched and looked up to during drama school in England are aired on PBS: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, and Poldark, to name a few. I was thrilled that my first appearance on TV would be on PBS, amongst so many other shows that I love.
Mercy Street not only provides entertainment to viewers, but it acts as a source of history lessons for many. Did you know a lot about the Civil War before joining the cast? What was something new you took away from this experience?
HJ: Growing up in Virginia, it was almost impossible not to learn about the Civil War. So much history surrounds me even on my farm in Radiant. My Mum focused a lot of her schooling on exploring and adventuring so that my sister and I could self-discover and ask questions to feed our knowledge. We explored Williamsburg at least once every year, as well as many of the surrounding battlefields in Virginia. I also studied the Civil War heavily through middle school (one of my very first projects being based on Clara Barton) as well as in high school, so coming back to the time period in my adulthood has been fascinating and eye-opening in many different ways. Exploring a time period, especially one so heavily affected by war, through the eyes of a human being living in the pain and bloodshed — rather than as a scholar looking at the facts and figures, battle formations, wins and losses — is staggering and heart-wrenching. Mercy Street also offers a closer look into the reality of a hospital during the war, where the fight was less about North vs. South and more about fighting for life vs. death, which is often overlooked in the history books.
One can only imagine how intense and heavy the shooting days can be. How do you unwind? What other ways do you express yourself creatively?
HJ: I grew up dancing many hours a week, so this certainly leant itself to the intense film schedule that we work while shooting Mercy Street. I am actually really bad at not doing something at all times of the day, but luckily I found the best yoga studio in Richmond that is just around the corner from our hotel, so that is where I unwind after shooting. Even though we are usually exhausted at the end of a day, it’s hard to get to sleep because we are often so wired, so I find that usually working out does the trick to turn my lights out. Many of us in the cast are also very musical, so you can often find us out in the courtyard singing, playing guitar, harmonica, and banjo, just to name a few.
The series films in Virginia, which also happens to be your home state. How has it been filming just an hour away from where you grew up? Do you have a different appreciation for Virginia now that you have been immersed in its history?
HJ: I have always been completely biased, believing that Virginia is the best state in the U.S. I moved to England after high school to study at a drama conservatory, and then after graduating, I moved to L.A. to experience my first pilot season, which in turn led me back home to Virginia to shoot Mercy Street. I definitely appreciate its beauty, dense history, and Southern charm more now, having been away for five years. Distance certainly does make the heart grow fonder, and I am oh-so-in-love with Virginia…. I guess Virginia is for lovers after all.
The cast is made up of some amazingly talented and diverse actors. How has the experience been working with them? Being early in your career, have some of the more veteran actors given you any advice that you found valuable?
HJ: I could gush for hours about my incredible costars, but I’ll try to keep this concise and to the point. Each and every one of my fellow castmates are beyond wonderful and became my second family at the very start of filming Season 1. The fact that this was my debut performance on TV spread quickly during the first week of costume fittings and accent coaching, so I hadn’t even stepped onto set before everyone was all eyes when the cameras were finally rolling on me. I believe my first scene was with Josh, who quietly and gently held my hand through every take. A single nod from him meant the world to me and I knew I would somehow manage to walk down this path with the strongest support from the most seasoned actors. I still lean on them all, from Norbert for advice and laughs when I’m feeling low, to Suzanne for quoting good English poetry for inspiration. I could write an essay about every one of them, but I’ll spare you. You mention any one of their names though and my heart practically explodes.