Lennie’s charity work is payback for the generosity strangers have shown him
Lennie was just 10 years old when his beloved mum Phyllis died, and he was sent to live in a south London children’s home with his older brother Kester. That sudden and devastating change, he admits, had a profound effect. But the years that followed, and the upbringing he received, he says, have led him to conclude that the “generosity of strangers” helped make him the person he is now. “The fear and vulnerability of going into care is etched in my memory,” says Lennie, 54, who has signed up as a Barnardo’s ambassador for children in and leaving care.
“But I owe such a debt of gratitude to the staff who looked after us and then to my foster family for taking responsibility for who I was going to be.
“I benefited from the generosity of strangers. We were not blood related but they looked after me in the best way they could. These were people who had no obligation to do any of the things they did and I’m very lucky they did.
“They helped shape who I am today and they showed how a child’s future doesn’t have to be defined by their past.”
By his own admission, life at the children’s home in Tooting was highly regimented, but also chaotic. Staff did their best in what were tough circumstances for all the young people.
“I was 10 at the time and we had spent short periods of time in a children’s home when we were growing up,” recalls Lennie.
“If Mum needed respite or needed to go to hospital we would go and so I wasn’t totally unused to them when she died. There were 18 children who lived there, three members of staff who lived permanently, and eight other members who worked alongside them. As you can imagine, it was a wrangle to get 18 kids all up for school and college.
“Every other day was a boys’ washday or a girls’ washday. Everything was regimented. We all went on holiday together, raced our bikes around the back garden, fought like mad men, and we got up to all sorts of shenanigans!
“But we were lucky. All of us there had had some breakdown in our families but the members of staff stuck around and watched us grow up.”
Lennie helps out at Barnardo’s project in south London
Recalling Christmas at the children’s home, Lennie says he still remembers fondly how staff dipped into their own pockets to make sure the children didn’t feel left out.
“Some went above and beyond,” he confides. “The council gave five pounds per child to be spent on presents. But at ours, they allocated one or two gifts and each member of staff added their own money so we all had a big bag to come down to when we woke up on Christmas morning.”
Yet understandably, it wasn’t always a bed of roses and Lennie talks openly about how the feeling of fear and a sense of being alone never left him.
“I was, for want of a better phrase, in the good part of the care system,” he says. “It didn’t mean you didn’t feel vulnerable, scared and alone – you had all those feelings. But for me, it is a case of what was being done by people around you.”
Readily admitting he was a bit of a handful in his teens, Lennie moved to live with a foster family at the age of 15. His foster mum Pam is still alive today and remains, he says, simply “formidable”.
“I was a pretty troubled teenager and it was difficult to foster someone who is 15 or 16,” he admits.
“Your natural instincts are to slightly move away from your family and define yourself.
“I was asked to bond with a new family and I would be lying if I said it was easy for me. I would also be lying if I said I was easy to have around for my foster family but they stuck in there and helped me a lot.
“My foster mum, Pam, is now grandmother to my kids and my foster brother and sister are their aunt and uncles, as I am to their kids. Pam is formidable.
“I was her first foster child and she went on to foster others. At her 80th birthday we counted up that she had looked after over 200 kids.”
The kindness shown by Pam and those who worked in the children’s home is what prompted Lennie to sign up to work alongside Barnardo’s.
Together with his wife, Giselle, he has set up the “Phyllis and Pam” fund (named after his mum and foster mum) and pledged to raise £50,000 over the next 12 months to support young people leaving care.
Dad-of-three Lennie, who is now based in Los Angeles, explains: “My own daughters have left home and you start to look around for projects that occupy the space they used to take up. I wanted to take on something where there is no running away and this definitely is it!
“I hope it is going to be an ongoing thing. The work Barnardo’s is doing is vital.”
Lennie with Martin Compston and Vicky McClure in Line Of Duty
Does he feel it is harder now for children living in care than when he was growing up?
“I think on some levels it is just as tough but on others, it is much worse,” he replies.
“There is less money being spent but there are more kids crying out for help. The figures are frightening. And it is no wonder a disproportionate number are ending up homeless, unemployed and in prison.”
He says he still finds it “despicable” that children living in care do face prejudice – something he regularly experienced himself first-hand too.
“The worst prejudice is a lack of expectation,” he admits. “I think the worst thing that I felt when I was growing up was if I did something and people said, ‘Oh you are doing that because you grew up in care’ – well, they were mostly saying that you had messed up in some way. The fact that there is an expectation of being in care I find despicable.”
Lennie, hero of the smash-hit TV series Fear The Walking Dead, and star of movies Snatch and Blade Runner 2049, attended the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But the unfair prejudice surrounding kids from the care system made him decide to not tell any of his fellow students about his upbringing. “The guys at drama school never found out I grew up in a kids’ home until I wrote my first film in 2000,” he reveals. “I didn’t want to be prejudged. If you say it out loud, it is difficult as everyone then attributes things to that. They would have gone, ‘That is absolutely amazing you did this considering’.”
But he has stayed in touch with some of the children and staff he grew up with.
So has his own upbringing affected the way he raised his own three daughters? He says he doesn’t truly know the answer. But he emphasises: “I made a big effort when raising my girls to never use the phrase, ‘You are lucky, you didn’t grow up the way I did.’ I felt it would be wholly unfair.”
Leading a quiet life in LA, Lennie is currently in the UK filming drama Save Me 2. He says he still has lots of ambitions to fulfil including starring in more films, writing new projects and going back on the stage.
“I am very lucky to have got the options I do have,” he adds. And what advice would he give to children in care hoping to fulfil their own ambitions?
“I’d say chase the dream you can dream now and chase the dream you can dream after that,” he replies. “Things can be knocked out of you but it’s important to go in the direction of your dream and see where it takes you.”
As for whether his mum would be proud of everything he has achieved, he roars with laughter as he declares: “My mum was a very religious woman. She would be probably thinking I was doing the Devil’s work!”
He pauses, smiles, and then adds: “I don’t know whether she would be proud of me, but I hope so.”
If you would like to donate or find out more about Lennie’s fundraising campaign, go to barnardos.org.uk