'Gentleman Jack's Suranne Jones on the real Anne Lister and acting with 'Game of Thrones' Yara Greyjoy
BAFTA winner Suranne Jones speaks to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) about her latest show and everything that went into bringing the iconic Anne Lister to life
As far as period dramas go, HBO's latest offering 'Gentleman Jack' may just be the finest we've seen in a long time and a huge reason why it's so good is because of its protagonist Suranne Jones. Always clad in black sans a petticoat or bows, Jones plays the character of Anne Lister, an English landowner who is often considered the first modern lesbian. To say Jones is gut-wrenchingly real in the shoes of Lister is an understatement — she will make your eyes well up, your heart swell with pride and awe at her courage and will keep you very entertained with her witty remarks.
As it turns out, Jones did her fair share of research to play the 19th-Century lesbian and it involved more than your average light reading. "Once I got the role I asked for all the research that I could possibly have," she told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). "So they sent me four books on Anne Lister that cover different areas of her life. Then I went over to Shibden Hall where she lived and we looked at all the maps. I actually held one of her diaries and we got to read it and it was quite an emotional experience," she said.
Lister's diaries contain more than 4 million words and about a sixth of them — those that have the details of her romance and relationships — were written in code.
"She obviously did an extraordinary thing by marrying a woman," she said, pointing out that even though the marriage was a secret one, to be doing something that unorthodox in 1834 is an achievement in itself. "She is a lesson in being authentic, knowing you have a voice and speaking," she said. We meet Lister at 41 on screen and she leaves quite an impression. Jones, who is 40 years old remarked, "I certainly would like to be more like Anne Lister."
Playing a historical figure is never easy, especially someone with a story as complex as Lister. "I had the luxury of rehearsal," she remarked gratefully. "We thought it was very important that we could work together closely and really discover the text together." Jones, who is a straight actor sought advice from the show's historical advisor, Anne Choma, to help her understand the emotional side of the woman she is playing. "I was able to really pick her brain about the more emotional and delicate aspects of the script."
The only thing left for her to do was meet her onscreen flame Ann Walker, played by 'Bodyguard' actor Sophie Rundle and that went splendidly too. "By the time I was ready to meet the cast, the only thing left to do was chemistry read with Sophie Rundle who plays Walker. It took off straight away and the rest is history," she recalled.
Along with Rundle, Jones stars on the show with 'Game of Thrones' actor Gemma Whelan who plays her sister Marianne. Her character is a stark opposite to Lister and they do not get along at all. Offscreen is a different story. "Gemma is a really supportive, very funny and a very caring person. She's a great actress and I loved all my scenes with her," she said. But, she's never seen her be the badass lesbian princess Yara Greyjoy on 'Game of Thrones'.
"I've never been more proud of a role I've played and me and Sally, really found a rhythm in there," she said, speaking about Sally Wainwright, who has written, created and co-directed 'Gentleman Jack'.
The first queer costume drama created, written, and co-directed by a woman, this show is iconic and Jones thinks Wainwright was the perfect person to do it. "I think that there's just one person who could have written the show the way it has been written and that's Sally. She brings out the humanity in the character and has made it a really modern period drama," she said. And she has indeed — if you strip away the costumes from the period, it is, at the end, a relatable story about a woman making her way in a man's world.