Suranne Jones has become one of our most versatile actresses, popping up all over the box and in challenging theatre roles. She talks to Sheena Hastings.
TELEVISION writers might be asked the question out of courtesy, but they don’t necessarily have much of a say in who gets to play the characters they create.
Of course they still fantasise about who they think would best inhabit a leading role they’ve spent months crafting into virtual skin and bone.
At least two top screenwriters have said that Suranne Jones was their number one choice to bring to life one of their female leads. When she’d been signed up for the project they reported that they were beyond thrilled.
That’s some vote of confidence. In the nine years since she left Coronation Street, where she played the unforgettable Karen McDonald - a role that earned her the tag “bulldog in hoop earrings” – Jones hasn’t put a foot wrong, building up a flawless CV of strong and complex female roles on both ITV and the BBC.
She has also trodden the boards in well-received theatre pieces opposite big-name male leads like Rob Lowe. In almost everything she has shone. Her latest stage role brings her to Yorkshire next week.
Some former soap stars walk away from The Rovers, The Queen Vic or The Woolpack only to find themselves trying to resuscitate their career via a reality TV show a few years later.
But Jones (and her “fantastic agent”) have chosen well, taking her from the rage, bitchery and rivers of tears shed by Karen, the wannabe Posh to Steve McDonald’s Becks, onward to projects that have incrementally introduced us to new aspects of her talent.
Since she left Corrie following the towering final row with love rival Tracy Barlow atop the roof of the knicker factory, Suranne Jones has been, if not exactly ubiquitous, then certainly a regular fixture somewhere in the schedules.
Yet the taste buds aren’t registering any staleness. Maybe it’s because, even when she’s playing the grimmest of roles – like that of the newly released prisoner who had killed two policemen in the 2009 drama Unforgiven – there’s a glimmer of credible humanity brought to the part that evokes empathy.
Jones, born in Chadderton, Greater Manchester, and now 34, calls Manchester home but mostly lives in London.
She served an early apprenticeship in theatre, after her parents (a secretary and an engineer) and primary school teacher Mrs Clare discussed how to channel the little girl’s restless energy.
“I tried violin, recorder, tap dancing, ballroom... all sorts,” says Jones. “Nothing captured my imagination really until, when I was eight, I was taken to Oldham Theatre Workshop and I loved it, partly because I really had to concentrate.
“The greatest thing it taught, though, was discipline. You had to turn up on time, know your stuff, work hard – or someone else would get your part. They were tough on us, but it was a fantastic grounding.”
A large part of her success now must surely this work ethic and discipline, instilled early and practiced daily. At 16 she had an agent and toured in Rita, Sue and Bob, Too.
Eschewing drama school, she was a seasoned performer in rep, touring pro-am musicals and straight theatre, long before she set foot in Granada’s studios and won a small part in Corrie.
After that brief foray, various recalls led on to the colourful and notorious harridan she would be contracted to play so spectacularly for four years from the age of 20. These days she walks a fine line between wanting to acknowledge what Corrie did for her, and obvious irritation that she is still so often described as ‘ex-soap star Suranne Jones’.
“I was thrilled to get a contract for three months that then turned into six months, then a year,” she says. “I was one of the gobby girls in the knicker factory Underworld, and while we had a ball on the show, it was extremely hard work. I had no idea at first about the plans they might have had for Steve and me.
“For a young actor learning how to work in television, it was a daily masterclass in technique. I don’t think soaps get the credit they deserve for how technically amazing they are, or for the high standard of writing.
“The media are far too dismissive of soaps, using the words ‘former soap star’ as some sort of put-down. I don’t see it like that at all, and will always be so grateful.
“I left when I did because I felt I was starting to repeat myself and wanted to widen my scope. It wasn’t that hard to leave because I’d been a jobbing actor for many years, moving around a lot.”
By that time Jones says she’d also had enough of the partying and awards, not to mention the odd bikini photo shoot, that were part and parcel of being a young female soap star.
Suranne Jones (the name is borrowed from her great-grandmother) has barely ever been out of work. Her many theatre credits include Top Girls at Chichester and in the West End, A Few Good Men, for which she received the Theatregoers’ Choice Best Supporting Actress gong, Blithe Spirit and Terms of Endearment.
TV appearance in one-offs and series run from Five Days, The Secret of Crickley Hall, Vincent with Ray Winstone, Dead Clever, Strictly Confidential, Single Father opposite David Tennant and Scott and Bailey – the detective series which Jones and former Corrie colleague Sally Lindsay dreamed up in the pub.
It’s now in its third series on ITV, and has proved to be a winner both critically and in the ratings. Jones clearly loves playing the commitment-phobic DC Rachel Bailey. “A lot of male characters are flawed, hard drinking or philandering and we accept it,” she says. “Female characters are often the butt of male characters’ jokes or somehow hidden behind the men – too often you don’t see the whole of their personality.
“We wanted to create 3D female characters, showing them not just being cops but also in their private lives. Sally Wainwright (the writer) completely saw what we wanted to do, having a hormonal woman occasionally saying: ‘I’m not feeling great, it’s that time of the month.’
“It’s also good to include women of different stages of life, one with the problems of bringing up children and one who hasn’t done all of that yet.
“People seem to have taken the show to their hearts, and reaction has been great. People in the street make a lot of comments about it.” Her credibility and kudos as an actor and viewers’ favourite moved up a notch when when she put in a successful one-off turn as Idris, the human embodiment of the Tardis in Doctor Who.
When it comes to reviews Jones says she doesn’t go looking for them. “I hear about them, obviously, and you can learn something from comments that are made, but I see them as one person’s opinion and try to focus instead on whether I enjoyed the rehearsals and whether I am giving my best.”
She’s been lucky in having regularly and apparently seamlessly switched between TV and meaty stage roles. “What I love about theatre is that you get to tell a whole story from beginning to end to a different audience every night. It’s very special.”
Suranne Jones is about to appear at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Nikolai Foster’s production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, the acclaimed 20th anniversary revival from the West End.
“It’s an urban love story about two young boys on a council estate who fall for each other. It’s a slice of life thing, with a plot that sort of sneaks up on you – quite visceral, animalistic and raw.”
Jones is cast as the 35-year-old mother of a 15-year-old – a new experience for her.
“My role is Sandra Gangel, mum of Jamie, one of the two boys. She is forward thinking and ambitious, and knows there’s more to life than what they’ve got. She loves her son and all she wants is for him to be happy. The play has a magical ending. “
When Beautiful Thing was first produced it played to a more challenging environment. Does she think it has the same impact today?
Jones says many gay men felt the original production changed their lives, but maybe now its impact is in the simple enjoyment of how the boys’ love story unfolds. “Regardless of the sex of the characters, it’s a story that’s told in a very special way.”
How does she relax? “Seeing family, including my two nephews. Massages and facials are my go-to remedies for stress. To be honest I was brought up with a great work ethic and have been lucky that I enjoy my work so much I don’t have to look for loads of ways to relax.”
Her ever-expanding horizons include recent adventures in comedy, with series such as Sky’s detective spoof A Touch of Cloth. “People might think I only do intense parts, but I like comedy and enjoy taking the mickey out of myself.”
She spends time teaching when her busy schedule allows, and her advice to young actors is this very simple mantra: “Work hard and treat everyone well.”
It’s a worthy philosophy that seems to have worked out beautifully so far for Suranne Jones. Before she runs off to a meeting about a new project, she adds: “I’d rather challenge myself and fall over than repeat myself.”
Beautiful Thing is at West Yorkshire Playhouse June 3-8. To book tickets call 0113 213 7700 or online at www.wyp.org.uk.