Former Brookside star Leon Lopez has established himself as a successful TV director whose credits include Emmerdale, Coronation Street and the latest series of the BBC’s Death in Paradise. Tony McDonough reports
Early in his acting career Leon Lopez became a household name, playing Jerome Johnson in the Channel 4 soap Brookside for four years until 2002.
Other TV credits included Mersey Beat, Holby City, The Bill and Eastenders. He went on to appear in a number of musical theatre productions in London’s West End and overseas including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Rent, Piaf and Tick, Tick… BOOM!.
But as far as some people are concerned, if they don’t see you on their television screens then you don’t really exist. Leon explained: “While I was working in theatre people would come up to me and ask ‘so are you still acting then?’.”
In an interview with LBN, Leon described his career as a “bit of a rollercoaster”, the famine and feast that can be the typical life of an actor. But his versatility and his willingness to learn and adapt and take on new challenges has seen the 42-year-old Liverpudlian now build a strong reputation as a TV and movie director.
Leon’s latest project has been to direct two episodes of the hit BBC crime show Death in Paradise, which has just returned to our screens for the 11th season. Set on the Carribbean island of Saint-Marie it sees a team of local officers, led by a quintessentially English detective, currently played by Ralf Little, solve a weekly murder mystery.
Its strong cast also includes French actress and singer Joséphine Jobert and Don Warrington, famous for playing Philip in the 1970s ITV comedy Rising Damp. Leon’s episodes both air in January on consecutive weeks on Friday, 21 and 28.
It is the latest in a series of new challenges for Leon whose TV directing credits so far have all been soaps. He started directing episodes of Hollyoaks, filmed in his home city of Liverpool, and then moved on to primetime shows Emmerdale and Coronation Street.
Death in Paradise is Leon’s first foray into the 60-minute drama format, a step-up and he admits caused him some nerves when he first arrived on the set. I asked him a typical amateur question… ‘how did it feel to be working with such established actors?’.
It was a daft question for two reasons. Firstly, Leon has been around successful actors his whole career and is one himself, and, more importantly, when you take on such a key role in any TV or film production then it is a lot more than the actors you need to impress.
“People have a perception of actors and project that onto them but we are just people like anyone else who want to do as good a job as possible,” he explained. “I got there a few weeks before filming so I could plan what I was going to do.
“It is not just about the cast, there is a whole team of experienced people – camera people, technicians and some of them have worked on big shows. They are the people you feel you need to make a strong impression with.
“A cameraman told me that when they saw I had been chosen to direct the episodes, they were a little surprised. They wondered whether I was just an actor trying my hand at a bit of directing. You have to overcome those preconceived ideas. They were impressed with the job that I did. And that’s all I ever want to do, the best job I can.”
Leon’s path to the director’s chair goes back to his days as an actor, although at first there was not a fully-formed ambition to go in that direction. He said: “I’m a virgo and that makes me naturally curious. So when I was on TV sets I became fascinated with how things worked and how the whole thing was put together. I built up a lot of technical know-how.
“I think the world has guided me in my career. It has always been a bit up and down and there have been lean times, but I have never really had a definite plan. Around the time DSLR cameras with video were becoming more affordable I went and got myself one.
“At the time I was appearing on stage in We Will Rock You. My character died halfway through the story so I had time to play around with the camera backstage. I do interviews with the cast, or acting tutorials, and I would post them on You Tube. It allowed me to learn how things worked and about editing and putting things together.”
Several years earlier, Leon had been a member of the Liverpool Young Writers Group. He dug out some of his old story ideas and, with the help of friends, made them into short films. This led to his first paid work as a film-maker, shooting and editing showreels for other actors.
His first feature film credit as a director was Soft Lad, a small budget feature that was picked up by Peccadillo Pictures and had a number of cinema screenings and was also aired on Netflix.
He then directed a project for Liverpool-based production company, Foot in the Door Films. Out of Time tackled transgender issues, telling the story of a former MMA champion fighter whose son is struggling with the body he was born into. The film is now available on Amazon Prime.
Then, through his contacts with Hollyoaks producer Lime Pictures, Leon started directing episodes of the popular teen soap. He added: “It was then that I really started to learn about the huge amount of work that goes into the making of a TV show. The number of people involved is just incredible.”
Leon was at a party and was speaking to fellow actor and friend Adele Silva. She has played Kelly Windsor in the ITV soap Emmerdale and she urged him to contact the show’s producers to inquire about directing some episodes.
At first he was reluctant. He said: “They told me to come in and they looked at some of my stuff and they liked it and asked me to come in and direct a few episodes. And that led me on to working on Coronation Street.”
Leon is pleased with his work on the soaps and the breakthrough drama job on Death in Paradise. He doesn’t rule out taking on other acting jobs but adds the long lead-time for directing jobs makes that trickier. His goal is to eventually be winning commissions to write, produce and direct his own projects.
He explained: “On a regular television series the lead director will set the tone for the show and you have to work within those parameters.
“For example, if I was to direct an episode of Coronation Street and decided to make it all dark and moody and focus on just one character, then the regular viewers would be really thrown by that. They just wouldn’t be used to it.
“So I really want to write and produce my own material. After I did Hollyoaks I did meet with some commissioning people but getting into drama is really difficult. The big networks will often go back to using people that are established and they have worked with before. And I can understand that.
“But that is where I want to be… in a position where I can get my own stuff made.”
Series 11 of Death in Paradise is being shown at 9pm on Friday evenings on BBC1.