What happens when the television network that brought you “Downton Abbey” takes on one of the most seismic time periods in American history? You get “Mercy Street,” a Civil War drama that weaves together the tales of real-life historical figures with the help of rich writing, lavish costumes and sleek cinematography. Set in Alexandria, Virginia, and filmed in the Richmond area, the show takes place at Mansion House Hospital, a luxury hotel owned by the wealthy Green family that has been converted into a hospital for Union soldiers. Premiering last January, season one kicked off in 1862, when two new nurses join the staff of Mansion House. One is the eldest daughter of the Green family, Emma, who is portrayed by Madison County native Hannah James.
“Emma starts out in season one as a very young, naive girl,” says James. “She’s a Southern belle and from a wealthy background, so she’s very privileged and obviously has been brought up with Southern values. And she’s never really questioned what she’s been told until now.
“So she decides to become a nurse and do her part in the war, which was what a lot of women were able to do and sort of have an independence of their own and feel like they had a purpose. And so for a woman, especially of that time period and of that age, that was a really exciting and big step to take, and these women were growing up very quickly, which is what you see Emma do pretty much overnight.”
Emma’s outlook shifts as she takes in the bloody sights of the hospital and is touched by the stories of others. James says Emma continues to find strength in her own convictions throughout season two, which premieres on Sunday, January 22, on PBS.
“[Emma] starts to understand that maybe this war and what her family supports is not actually what she’s aligning with,” James says. “And she sees that maybe she doesn’t necessarily believe in what the South stands for; and yes her loyalty lies to the South because that’s her home and that’s her soil and those are her brothers, but what the South is fighting for might not be what she thinks is right as a human being.”
James grew up on a farm in Madison County, not far from where the real-life Emma Green spent her time. She was home-schooled until the age of 10 and then attended Charlottesville’s Village School for fifth and sixth grade before transferring to Tandem Friends School. Although she was working toward a career as a ballerina (she began ballet at the age of 2), she decided around age 15 that acting was what she wanted to do long-term.
“I was really focused on ballet and pointe …but I was really upset by the idea that my career would be very short-lived, that I would end at maybe 30, 35, and then that’s sort of it,” she says. “And I love performing and telling stories, and I knew I wanted to be on stage and reflecting society.”
She studied dance and musical theater at the Orange School of Performing Arts for 15 years with Ricardo Porter and Lydia Horan, who is also Tandem’s middle school drama teacher. After graduating from Tandem, James attended the Guildford School of Acting in England. Fresh out of drama school, she signed with an agent, moved to L.A. and landed a lead role in “Mercy Street” within a few months.
“I’d never even been on a TV show, and oftentimes I’ll tell people that it felt like I was walking hand-in-hand with Emma,” James says. “So me, as the actress, walked onto set very young and naive and I didn’t even know where to look on the camera lens or what my marks were or the different shadows that come in on the different shots. And so I felt like Emma going into this hospital where it’s this totally unknown world and she has to just pick up things as she goes…so it was really incredible to take that journey with my character.”
James’ ability to tap into her character brings a refreshing accessibility to the screen.
“I think it’s really interesting when your life aligns with a character and even when it’s in a different time period, it’s a way of understanding a character so much more and realizing that so often in period drama, it seems quite distant or estranged from us as modern society,” she says. “But when you get down to it, a human is a human and so actually there are a lot of parallels that you can draw.”
But the parallels for James extend beyond her character. “Mercy Street”’s themes, she says, still resonate today.
“We’re still really struggling with the issues that we were struggling with during the Civil War,” she says. “It’s relevant and I’m hoping people are seeing that and taking away from it and understanding how far we have to go.”