Actor Hannah James on the Real Person Behind Her "Mercy Street" Character
If you’ve been watching “Mercy Street” on PBS the last two weeks, you’ve seen Hannah James in action as the Southern belle Emma Green. Based on a real individual, Green is the daughter of the family whose home in Alexandria, Virginia, is taken over by the Union Army for a hospital during the Civil War.
Like her character, Hannah James grew up in Virginia and was excited that this role landed her a mere hour away from her childhood home. I recently interviewed James to learn her thoughts about how her Virginian background influenced her performance as Emma Green.
What drew you to the role of Emma Green? What is your favorite thing about playing her?
Emma is a feisty, courageous young woman, eager to make an impact and have her voice heard. She speaks for many young women of the time period who struggled with upholding their Southern belle values while wanting to do their part for the cause. Emma can be seen as an idol for girls of her time period as well as today, standing up for what she believes in a man’s world.
How did growing up in Virginia inform your performance in “Mercy Street?”
While I was born and raised in Virginia, I wasn’t necessarily raised as a “Southern girl” per se. My mother is British and my paternal grandfather is British also, so most people would consider my upbringing of English heritage. I was, however, surrounded by Southern culture and other very Southern families who still uphold the Southern traditions that were so well preserved during Emma’s life. I believe my understanding of this way of life certainly informed my performance and helped me to sympathize with Emma’s story and journey.
We know that for some time Emma Green lived near where you grew up in Culpeper, Virginia. Was that a surprise to you, or did you know that before you received the role?
I did not know just how close Emma and my paths were prior to receiving the role. I knew she was born and raised in Alexandria, just two hours from my childhood home, but it wasn’t until after being cast and beginning my research that I discovered Emma’s time spent at Woodberry Forest School, an all-boys preparatory school located just three miles away from my farmhouse in Madison, Virginia.
While I know the show filmed primarily in Richmond and Petersburg, what were some of your reactions to visiting Alexandria and the real locations?
Visiting Alexandria is like stepping back in time. The cobblestone streets, still lined with old shops and quaint Southern restaurants, take you back into the past and give you a taste of what life might have been like for Alexandrian townsfolk. Visiting Carlyle House (Mansion House on the show) was also a real treat [for me] as the actress telling Emma Green’s story. Seeing the staircase that Emma walked down every day and the rooms she must have spent time in was something very unique and special.
Do you know of any differences from her real-life story and what we are watching on the screen?
The creators of “Mercy Street” used Emma’s life as a more of a template for the story created for her in the TV show. We do not follow specific facts other than the fact that she was the daughter of the Greens who lived in Mansion House just behind the hospital in which the series takes place and that indeed she was engaged to Frank Stringfellow, whom she married after the war, although we do not cover their marriage during the series. However, Emma does serve as a character whose sentiments and response to the war echoes that of many young girls during the time.
The Civil War is a period of history that has incredible resonance in the modern American psyche. Was there anything in particular that resonated with you during production about this period of history?
Playing Emma made me understand how devastating the Civil War truly was to not only the soldiers on the battlefields, but absolutely everyone living in Northern and Southern territories. It is impossible to comprehend the vastness of destruction caused during the Civil War simply by reading the facts and figures that litter history books today. But recreating the lives of these Americans and telling their stories brings to light the horrific reality in which they were struggling to survive.
Alexandria (considered Confederate territory) became the longest-occupied Confederate city over the course of the war. How did you connect that wider context to your character?
Emma, along with many young women during the time period, struggles with the inner conflict between maintaining and upholding her Southern-belle values while wanting to have a strong voice in the [Confederate] cause. Living in a Union-occupied Southern territory poses an even greater struggle for Emma as she is surrounded by the enemy who is causing destruction and turmoil in and around her home. Her hatred for the enemy only grows and feeds her fight against the Union men who have uprooted her family and [ruined] everything she once knew and loved.