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On Location with Hannah James

The Mercy Street star on the joys of her historical homecoming

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There were plenty of new experiences that came along with Hannah James’s role on Mercy Street, the new PBS period drama that follows two opposing volunteer nurses through the Civil War, especially considering it marked her first appearance on television. But there was at least one thing about filming the series in the Virginia countryside that felt familiar—namely that it was practically in her backyard.

“It was really exciting to be back,” says James, who grew up about 90 minutes from Richmond. “I would go home on the weekends and play with my dogs on the farm, which was lovely.”

James, who plays Emma Green, and her co-star Tara Summer were also the de facto event planners for the cast during weekends off.  “Richmond is quite interesting. It doesn’t have a huge nightlife scene, but I think we sort of brought the nightlife to Richmond,” James says. “We all had great laughs on set, but on the weekends we couldn’t get enough of each other.”

What came as an even bigger surprise to her was finding actual relatives of the real Emma Green living in her hometown.  

“The real Emma Green lived just 10 minutes down the road from my house in Madison County and I was actually able to get in touch with some of her great, great, great grandchildren,” James says. “We sat down and had tea, which was really cool.  They knew little snippets about her and showed me photographs or pieces of clothing that she had. It was a lot closer to home, genuinely, than I had anticipated.”

Though rediscovering the history of the American South wasn’t all fun and games. The actress’ costume included a 40-pound skirt and a corset, which made getting into—and out of—character a bit more difficult than James had anticipated.

“When I took the corset off finally after 14 hours, they unlaced it and I took this huge breath and all of a sudden I got so light headed and thought I might pass out,” James recalls. “It was scary at the time—and you can imagine that [historically] so many women were probably doing that as well.”

Luckily, with the help of her castmate Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Nurse Mary Phinney, James found another use for their skirts. 

“On one of the last days of shooting, Mary and I were really tired, but the kind of happy tired. We were waiting between scenes standing on top of one of the staircases on set,” she explains.  “We decided it would be a great idea to slide down the stairs on our skirts. Obviously, we have so many ruffles and different layers under our skirts; it was the perfect sliding board. So, we just kind of wrapped them around our legs and started sliding down the stairs. It was great fun!”