PBS’ new Civil War drama MERCY STREET explores life of a wealthy Virginian family caught up in the crossfire of the war between Yankees and Confederate soldiers after their hotel is converted into a make-shift hospital. One of the elder daughters takes it upon herself to help out in the hospital in any way she can, much to the dismay of her family. Playing Emma Green, a gentile Southern belle with a bit of a strong-willed spirit, Hannah James has her hands full as Emma finds herself embroiled in more than just hospital politics.
In an exclusive interview, star Hannah James talked about the intriguing times to portray a woman in the midst of the Civil War who is desperately trying to cling to the ways of the past.
What initially drew you to the role of Emma and MERCY STREET?
HANNAH: In my initial read of the script, I just really connected to the role. I didn’t actually know how similar she was to my real life until I took the role. But I think the writing alone was so beautifully done and how all of the stories that interweave into one. I just wanted to be a part of it immediately. To bring these characters to life was really a treat.
How would you describe who Emma is and her role in the MERCY STREET world?
HANNAH: She starts out as one of your typical Southern Belles. She has been brought up in quite an aristocratic family and she has a lot given to her. She had quite an easy life growing up and she upholds the Southern Belle image. She is very genteel. But to contradict that, she’s very strong-minded and strong-willed. So when the Civil War comes about and her family is faced with Union soldiers in her family’s home, as well as the territory, that strong-willed nature definitely comes to life a bit more. When she first goes into the hospital and seeing these men and how dramatically affected people can be by a war, it is probably the first time that she is confronted by that sort of imagery. So her pursuit of her own individuality and to have her voice be heard comes right to the forefront. She even defies her father and goes into the hospital and begins to have a purpose and an independence and a life-path, which is really wonderful as an actress to have such a quick journey. From one stage where we set her up as a beautiful Southern Belle who is very naive and then all of a sudden to have that switch and take her on this journey was a real treat.
What is Emma’s role or journey this season? What is she aspiring to do?
HANNAH: Like a lot of girls during the time period, she has that internal conflict with wanting to be a proper Southern Belle, but also feeling very strongly about where they stood on the topic of war and why they were fighting for it. Emma’s loyalty very strongly lies in the South. So we not only see her battling with trying to maintain her ladylike values and respect her parents and be the woman that she is brought up to be, but she is also struggling to understand the war and understand how much it effects people around her and wanting to have a say in that. So we definitely see her starting as a young girl wanting to mature very quickly and wanting to be an adult. In the first episode, Emma asks Mary how to become a nurse and Mary tells her that it will take her awhile to put away childish things and to get to the maturity point that she needs in order to do that. But, instead, she defies Mary and does it overnight and goes into the hospital and starts making tasks for herself and standing up for what she believes in. She not only defies her parents, she also defies her beau, Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee), because his journey is so different to hers, and although she respects him and loves him and wants to be a dutiful fiancé to him, she also knows that her beliefs and what she has to say and bring to the forefront are very important to her. So we definitely see her take that journey and really go for it, which is great.
Emma clearly sympathizes with the Confederacy, but does she have an inkling how strongly her father sympathizes with the Yankees?
HANNAH: I think she knows her father is caught between a rock and a hard place. She was brought up in the South and that is her home and I think when she was growing up she didn’t really understand what the South was fighting for. She sides with the South because that is where she was born and raised and that is what she learned to love. But I think during the series she has to come to terms with what the North and South are fighting over and learning right from wrong, and having to dissect that and internalize that is a really big struggle and quite a journey for a young woman to undertake. The amazing thing is her journey is similar to so many young woman, although on a somehow different level, to what girls go through today. The hospital is kind of a traditional territory of men, all the doctors. But then we have these female characters start to have a really strong voice and their opinions are being heard and they are being valued. It is incredible to see in 1862. But Emma understands that her father is loyal to the South because that is where he raised his children and his family. Yet he understands that the things they are fighting for does not all add up. So Emma understands her father’s struggle and she struggles to stand by him and support him, and as you can imagine, it is quite a whirlwind of emotions and events taking place.
For you, what have you learned from portraying Emma?
HANNAH: I learned so much from Emma. I think the most wonderful thing for me was I thought my journey was so similar to Emma. I was fresh out of drama school and I came to L.A. and the industry was completely new to me. I had never been on a film set before and I had never worked with such incredible actors before. So I stepped onto the film set very naive and sort of wide-eyed, which was like Emma stepping into the hospital. I had to take a very quick journey. We shot in three months, so I was taking in things around me and learning very quickly and trying to adapt and stand up for myself and try to have a voice. It felt very similar to Emma’s. So I felt like I walked sort of hand-in-hand with this character, which is incredible for a first time job.
It also seems like Emma’s story is paralleling what we see of Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Is that where the story goes or is that a coincidence?
HANNAH: Emma very much looks up to Mary. They have an interesting relationship because Emma does look up to Mary in that Mary is a strong female individual who is in a man’s world and making a way for herself. Emma absolutely respects that, but she also has very different views — and they are fighting on different sides. Even though Emma is younger than Mary, both teach each other different things. In the first episode, we saw that scene between Mary and Emma where they are fighting over the Confederate man and it definitely sets in with Mary that a young child is telling Mary something that she knows full well is true and she tries to come to terms with that because her loyalty lies so strongly with the North. So we see their relationship sort of unfold, although they contradict one another and don’t agree on some different areas and different points of views. We see them pull each other up and support each other because they do look up to each other, and know that they have to rely on one another because of the male environment.
Another female voice on the show is Alice (AnnaSophia Robb). Does Alice have a part to play in Emma’s journey or is she on the sidelines?
HANNAH: She does. Emma likes to think of Alice as her younger sister, but Emma has taken this very fast journey to womanhood and she sort of wants to protect Alice a little bit. She hides Alice away from what Tom (Cameron Monaghan) is going through and she wants Alice to remain a child and not have to see the atrocities of war. But as the series goes on, we will definitely see that Alice has to come to terms with what is going on. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it draws her in immediately and she is going to become another strong female character. It is wonderful to be a show where we have really strong female voices, and Alice definitely joins Emma and Mary in that as well.
What would you like to tease for the fans as to what is upcoming for the rest of the season?
HANNAH: [Laughs] I am sure everyone is just dying for Jack Falahee to show up! He’s coming. Everyone on Twitter is just waiting for him to show up. They are like to him, “Are you even in the series?” He absolutely is. And we’ve got horseback riding and shooting off of guns. One of the things I like about the show is that we are not delicate or polite. We definitely show the Civil War and how it was, as best as we can. It is gritty. It is bloody. For a lot of people, that is hard to watch, but I appreciate that we don’t shy away from it. And in the next episode, we have an amputation coming up, which is not thrilling exactly, but that was a cool scene to do. We also have some interesting romances that bubble-up around the corners and hallways of the hospital.
To see what will come from Emma’s life-changing decision and what romances are brewing, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of MERCY STREET on Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. on PBS.