Suranne Jones: “I’ve always been ballsy… I just kind of steam ahead”

The Doctor Foster star on mad roles, motherhood and making it to the big time

suranne jones

The bafta-winner Suranne Jones may well be the best female actor on British television, but if that’s the case it’s not the fortuitous result of family connections or a privileged education. The 39-year-old star of Doctor Foster, Scott & Bailey and Unforgiven, award-winning performer on the West End stage and producer of her own television shows has worked every inch of the way.

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While other kids in 1980s Oldham played, Jones, the daughter of an engineer and a secretary, practised. “I went to tap class, jazz class, ballet class, this class, that class, recorder class, band bloody practice,” she says, when we meet in London before the new series of dark domestic drama Doctor Foster (Jones won a Bafta last year for her performance as GP Gemma Foster, whose marriage proves disastrously dysfunctional). “And then I went to drama class. My dad would take me on the bus, he’d go home and have his tea, then come back and pick me up. Then he’d take me to a singing lesson while my mum was at work cleaning – she had a day job and a night job.”

By the time she was 17, Jones was a professional, doing “eight musicals in eight weeks at the Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man”. But she had one ambition above all: Jones would look up at the sign above the Granada TV studios in Manchester and say to herself, “One day.” Granada was the home of Coronation Street. “I always wanted to be in Corrie,” she says. “It was always the job to get.” When Jones was 22 she landed the part of Karen Phillips. “My grandparents were like, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re in Coronation Street?’ I could have been in ET and they would have been like, ‘Yeah, whatever’, but Coronation Street!”

Jones’s character married and became Karen McDonald, a part often scripted by Sally Wainwright, who careened through the Street. “Karen’d go through a mad stage; all the makeup would come off and she’d be playing Scrabble with Roy and Hayley,” Jones says. “Then the next minute she was back in miniskirts and going on the lash.”

suranne jones coronation street

As Karen in Corrie

And then, in 2004, Jones left Corrie. “When you’re younger, you’re still finding things out. I couldn’t have continued to do it, Karen was so extreme. It wouldn’t have made me happy to stay, and as you get older you just know what makes you happy and you try to strive for that. Though I’m certainly not Mrs Sunshine all the time.”

Like Sarah Lancashire, Jones owes much of her success to Wainwright’s writing, both in Coronation Street and later. In 2007 Jones starred in Wainwright’s Yorkshire-set murder comedy Dead Clever: the Life and Crimes of Julie Bottomley. “When I got the script I wondered, how am I going to do it? Do people talk like this? You know, like Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, everyone’s talking over each other. But of course, people do talk like that. It’s how they really are.”

Dead Clever suffered, says Jones, because “it was up against The Vicar of Dibley,” but Wainwright’s Royal Television Society-winning three-part drama Unforgiven (2009), in which Jones played released murderer Ruth Slater, gripped much of the country. “Unforgiven gave me the opportunity to be a complete changeling. The blonde hair, the research that I did at the prison. It changed the perception of me.”

She has done much else to change it, coming up with the idea for the 2011–16 police procedural Scott & Bailey with former Coronation Street actor Sally Lindsay. It was the only time, Jones says, she encountered sexism. “When I did Scott & Bailey people said, ‘This is amazing, two policewomen!’ No one would ever say, ‘This is a great new series, it’s about two policemen!’”

suranne jones scott bailey

With Lesley Sharp in Scott & Bailey

Undaunted, Jones also took a hand in producing Scott & Bailey. “I wanted to learn everything about making a television show. I still take any opportunity because I wasn’t very good at school, I didn’t engage academically and now I have the chance to do all the learning that I didn’t do then. I love that.”

For most people it would be enough to be a very good actor, but Jones is not entirely convinced that she is a very good actor. “Some people are in their bones talented, but I’m not,” she says. “I’ve had to learn my craft, hone it.” But there must be a moment where you thought: ‘Ah right, I’ve got it now’? “No,” she says. “God, no, no, no.”

Many thought that moment had come with series one of Doctor Foster. Her performance was measured, intense and, when she walked into the sea, utterly convincing. “It was so, so cold, I had to wave for them to get me out,” she says. “I turned blue.” Initially Jones wasn’t going to do the second series. “Then I went for dinner with [writer] Mike Bartlett, and he said, ‘What about the story of the divorce, when two people hate each other and they’ve got a kid to look after?’ And I was hooked.”

Jones credits Bartlett for “a brilliant, messed-up, intricate, dark story that manages to be shocking, sexy and heart-breaking, all at the same time. It’s all the dark thoughts that we’d have about our ex that we hate.”

Doctor Foster series 2 Gemma and Simon

Jones is still surprised by the drama’s success. “I didn’t think it would be so huge, because I thought infidelity might be quite niche, but clearly not. People want to know about infidelity. I’ve friends that have been in relationships like Gemma Foster. People use the word ‘mental’ when women get upset about these things, about men going off with younger women. ‘She’s mental’, ‘she’s lost it’. No. Her heart’s broken, and her world has been turned upside-down, and actually I think Doctor Foster makes people feel like their deep feelings are understood, at the same time as it being entertainment.”

Since filming the first series, Jones has had a baby boy with her husband of two years, 47-year-old magazine editor Laurence Akers, whom she met at a wedding in 2014. “Our son’s only 18 months, so he’s tiny,” Jones says. “When I’m not working, you’ll find me down the play park or on the Tube with my Converse [sneakers] on and a muslin cloth in my hand, wiping my boy’s snotty nose. As much as I possibly can be, I’m round Tesco’s with my backpack, no make-up and sunglasses.”

The filming schedule for Doctor Foster meant Jones had to take her baby on set. “I love being a mum too much to not be around,” she says. “Everyone digs in, someone holds your bag while someone helps you with the baby, and you just get on with it. That’s why working with good people is really important to me. Otherwise why are you doing it? It’s horrible when you go to work and you’re not happy.”

She says the couple chose not to reveal their son’s name in an attempt to protect his privacy, though the paparazzi have already been following Jones to get a photograph of her baby. “It was awful,” she says. “There was a guy sat outside our house so we got the police.” Did having a baby make it harder to go back into Gemma Foster’s world?

“People ask me, ‘What did you draw on – were you thinking of [an actual] infidelity?’” says Jones. “But clearly, I wasn’t thinking like that because by series two we had a baby, we were really happy.”

Even without direct experience of the pain of betrayal, Jones does reveal that motherhood helped her to appreciate the emotional cost of broken relationships. “I can really understand how the powerful love that creates a child can turn into something so bitter. It’s really helped me because this series is about when two people get divorced, and because everyone else is looking the other way and getting on with their lives, they think everything is plastered over. That’s when the real s*** hits the fan because no one’s got their eye on the two people that f****** hate each other. I’m sorry about my potty mouth!”

I must look a little abashed, because she says. “I’ve always been ballsy. My dad is a blunt northerner and maybe I’ve got a bit of that in me, I just kind of steam ahead. The characters that I played, certainly in my early years, all had a gutsiness about them. They were all a bit mad.”

The next character Jones will play is Anne Lister, the remarkable lesbian landowner in Victorian West Yorkshire, in Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack. “What amazes me is that in the 19th century someone refused to marry someone of the opposite sex because they didn’t want a show marriage,” says Jones. “They didn’t want to live a sham life. She loved and wanted to marry a woman. She was so ahead of her time. Civil partnerships and gay marriage, she wanted that when no one else had even thought about it as an option.” Previously, Jones has played a bisexual sex therapist from Leeds in Kate Mellor’s crime thriller Strictly Confidential (2006). “It doesn’t strike me that I should be nervous about playing a lesbian,” she says. “Whoever I’m kissing, I’m telling the story of this amazing woman that not many people know about. Anne Lister didn’t want to be f***** around by other landowners because she was a woman, so she dug her own coal mines. That’s as much a part of the story as the fact that she was a lesbian.”

Jones, whose West End theatre work includes Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, says it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you “absolutely inherit the character”. But the unvanquishable Anne Lister is in a line with Jones’s original “loud-mouthed northerner”, Karen McDonald, a character who – wherever Jones goes – will still be looking on, white wine in hand.

“People say they still like what I did in Coronation Street,” she says. “And I feel lots of love and support. But now I’m being offered work with great people and it just blows my mind. If the ten-year-old me could see this, she’d say, like, ‘Are you kidding? You really did it?’”

Interview by Michael Hodges

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Doctor Foster returns on Tuesday 5th September at 9pm on BBC1