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Suranne Jones has more reasons than most to be feeling the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic. Today she is confined to what she describes as ‘her digs’ in Leeds on her final day of isolation as she shoots the second series of the BBC’s ground-breaking costume drama Gentleman Jack.
Although we are talking on Zoom rather than in person, she looks smaller than her television presence suggests. Wearing a brilliant-blue silk tie-dye shirt, a Tabitha Webb x Angie Smith collaboration, there is no sign of the elaborate curls pinned over her ears (the make-up artists call them her ‘croquettes’) that she wears when she is playing Anne Lister in the hit TV show. Critics have raved about her performance as ‘the first modern lesbian’, who defied the conventions of the Victorian age by running the family estate in Halifax, and living there with her partner.
‘Oh no, I look terrible,’ she says when I compliment her. ‘I can’t have my nails done or get the grey out of my hair, because of course in Anne’s time you couldn’t dye your hair, and I have these huge bushy eyebrows…’ she continues.
The fact that she is so self-deprecating about her appearance and describes the rather lovely room in which she is sitting as ‘digs’ is a telling insight into an actor who, despite her considerable success, has ‘somehow managed to keep my head and stay true’.
Confounding expectations, Sally Wainwright’s Gentlemen Jack has been a huge hit (over five million tuned into the first episode) and gained Suranne iconic status with the LGBTQ community. For the second series she is also executive producing, something she loves, and she is still surprised by the impact the show has made.
‘It’s incredible the response we have had from the LGBT community, given that, for starters, I am a straight woman. There is all this amazing fan art and merchandise, and there is a documentary being made involving women from 21 countries who have met through Gentleman Jack or have been able to come out because of it.’
Sarah Anne Jones (her real name; she had to change it for Equity), 42, has had an extraordinarily diverse career. It began when she was 22 and cast as the outrageous Karen McDonald in Coronation Street in 2000. ‘Corrie,’ she says, ‘was like my university – I learnt to act in front of the nation.’
Her transition from tearaway into national treasure began when she and her best friend (and Corrie co-star) Sally Lindsay devised the idea for the police drama series Scott & Bailey, which was also written by Sally Wainwright and ran from 2011 for five series. But it was Suranne’s turn as Gemma Foster, the small-town GP who turns chillingly vengeful on discovering her husband’s infidelity, in Doctor Foster that won her a Bafta in 2016, and anointed her as one of our best-loved television actors.
Today though, we’re talking about the second series of I Am, Dominic Savage’s highly acclaimed female-led anthology, in which he collaborates with actors to develop stories with personal resonance. Last time around it featured Vicky McClure, Samantha Morton and Gemma Chan.
Suranne’s story, I Am Victoria, was filmed during lockdown. Its subject, about a woman in her 40s desperately attempting to achieve a balance between her work and family life, was her way of contributing to the conversation about mental health.
‘Dominic and I had been talking about Victoria and anxiety for a while. Then when the pandemic hit he said, “We have to do it now.” People who have never previously thought about mental-health problems are now massively anxious and know what it is like to be trapped in their own life, like my character,’ Suranne says.
Her portrayal of Victoria – whose struggle for perfection in every area of her life leads to her being estranged from her husband (played by Ashley Walters), and eventually having a dramatic mental breakdown – is at times painful to watch.
It’s a situation that clearly chimes with Suranne. Today she isn’t just doing an interview. She is learning her lines ahead of a 6am start tomorrow when she’s allowed back on set, and worrying about her ‘boys’ – her husband, the screenwriter Laurence Akers, their five-year-old son and their ‘two fat sausage dogs’, who are packing up their Muswell Hill home to go to Norfolk for a week’s holiday.
Since her son (she doesn’t want to reveal his name) started school last year, Suranne has had to deal with long periods of separation from him while she is filming. She spent nine of the past 15 months away working, often having to isolate on closed sets. Although where possible the family would try to regroup at weekends, their main form of communication, many times a day, was FaceTime, something that Suranne regards as a lifesaver.
‘Oh, God! My son just sent me a video message,’ she says. ‘He has these big Harry Potter glasses on. He’s taking me around the house and showing me the dogs. He’s at that age when I can still see the baby in him. I love that,’ she says with evident emotion.
As difficult as being apart from her family can be, it’s a measure of the strength of Suranne’s marriage that she and Laurence are ‘a complete team’. He works from home on scripts so that one of them is always a constant presence in their son’s life. They work together on projects for her production company (so far they have three waiting for the green light). She admits that her romance with Laurence was a complete whirlwind. They met at the wedding of mutual friends, and while she says she didn’t immediately think, ‘I am going to marry this man,’ within two dates they were ‘inseparable’. Five months on they were engaged, and nine months later, in 2014, they married.
‘People keep telling you that you will know when it’s right, but you think, “Oh no, that is never going to happen to me,” because you have got it wrong before. And then suddenly you go, “Oh God, this is how it’s meant to be.” We fell into a life in which we totally understood each other. I just adore him and he’s a wonderful father as well.’
Suranne’s own childhood, growing up with her older brother Gary in Oldham, was ‘really happy’. Her father, Chris, was an engineer, and her mother Jenny a secretary. She left home at 16 to study a BTEC in performing arts and after an intense period in musical theatre rep at 17 (they performed eight musicals in eight weeks and she still ‘100 per cent would love to do a musical on screen’), she was cast as Karen McDonald.
The reason she has managed to ‘keep her head’, she says, has been the therapy that she started 18 years ago on Coronation Street, to deal with the stress of her sudden fame. She has continued it on and off ever since.
But in 2018 – two years after the birth of her son and the death of her mother following a long illness – Suranne collapsed during a matinee of the harrowing play Frozen in London’s West End and was forced to pull out of the final four performances. Looking back, she thinks that her breakdown was prompted by the fact that she hadn’t dealt with her grief, combined with the subject matter of the piece – she played the mother of a child abducted and killed by a paedophile.
‘Looking after your mental health is everything,’ she says. ‘It’s like going to the gym, it’s about looking after yourself, recognising changes before what happened to me during Frozen, and what happens to Victoria.
‘I am fortunate to have been in therapy for a very long time, but now and again the pressure builds up. I had another moment during the filming of Gentleman Jack when I needed to take some time off and see a doctor, to really deal with some demons in my life,’ she says.
Something of a trailblazer throughout her career, her skill is bringing a sense of relatability and authenticity to whoever she plays. As she points out, as an actor her job is to represent the fact that there are ‘lots of different women out there’. She has never wanted to play women who were ‘two-dimensional on paper’, and instead has strived to reveal the many layers of women’s lives that will connect with female viewers.
She cites Sharon Horgan’s performance opposite James McAvoy in the recent BBC Covid drama Together as an example of a time when she herself has felt ‘seen and represented’ as, like the fictional character Horgan plays, Suranne recently lost a parent to the disease.
‘Covid has affected me on a huge level in a very personal sense. My dad was in ICU for three months and we weren’t allowed to go into the hospital to see him. Throughout that terrible time we kept getting calls saying he might pass, and then he might rally. We would FaceTime him and the nurse would answer in all the PPE, put the phone towards Dad and he wasn’t awake, but we would all talk to him anyway. It’s difficult to understand how awful Covid is unless it has touched you,’ she says of her father’s death in January.
Despite contracting the disease herself last Christmas, Suranne still has fond memories of the initial lockdown, when she was at home for three months with her family. ‘It was beautiful for us to be all together, but towards the end we felt our son really needed to see friends, so we had two of his teddies as his friends and we would eat tea together. And I was so thrilled to be home, I threw myself into homeschooling. I was like, “And now it is time for drama!”’ she says with a laugh.
Aside from family and work, the most important things to her, she says, are her female friends. The list is endless and includes, along with Sally Lindsay and Sally Wainwright, Jennie McAlpine (who worked on Coronation Street) and Sophie Rundle (her wife in Gentleman Jack).
‘I love the women in my life, and I think the reason I need that is because my mum has gone. Everyone knows that life throws you curveballs as you grow and change, and my friends help fill that gap. They are like sisters to me.’
Try as she might to compartmentalise her life, she doesn’t think she does it very well.
‘I can only be a full mum and wife when I am at home, and then when I go away to work on Gentleman Jack I have to put in 14 hours a day shooting and being executive producer. But there is not a minute in my day when I am not thinking, “What are the boys doing now?” You know what, though, if I can’t be a mum at home I will be one at work. I have a real need to look after somebody, and have that pull to motherhood, so I look after the Gentleman Jack team, which I think can be a bit annoying at times.’
She was ‘mother’ again on the set of the much-anticipated forthcoming BBC thriller Vigil, co-starring Martin Compston, Shaun Evans and Rose Leslie (another new close friend). The part of DCI Amy Silva, sent in to investigate a murder on a nuclear submarine, is something of a departure for her.
‘I think when you get to 40 you get a bit braver. I had always shied away from shows that are all-out thrillers, but the script had me hanging out of helicopters and doing all my own stunts, and I thought, “Hell yeah, I am going to do that.”’
From the same team that brought us Line of Duty, Vigil’s almost certain success will only add to her fame and future opportunities. She has an LA agent now, and there have been talks about possible parts, but she is wary of finding herself in a situation where she might have to spend yet more time away from her son.
‘I think the real message of I Am Victoria is to help overcome the stigma of mental health that still lingers with my generation. I think for my son’s generation taking care of your mental health will be the norm. At his school it is part of the curriculum. They have a special place they can go if they have worries and they have a colour scheme for their feelings.
‘If my son is feeling “green” it means he is feeling good and ready to work. If he is blue he is feeling low, if he is red he is angry, and if he is yellow he is agitated or excited. Each of the four colours reflects a different feeling, which is wonderful because they understand their own feelings and those of their friends,’ she says as we part. I sense that Suranne’s future is a very bright green.
‘I Am Victoria’ airs on Thursday at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes of ‘I Am’ will also be available on All4 from Thursday