Suranne Jones on healthy living and Vigil’s return: ‘My next few characters aren’t lesbians, but I’ll be back with more’

Suranne Jones: ‘I felt like I was invited to be a true ally, which I took very seriously’  (Stuart Bailey)
Suranne Jones: ‘I felt like I was invited to be a true ally, which I took very seriously’ (Stuart Bailey)

Above the stairs in Suranne Jones’s Muswell Hill home, there is a poster branded with the words: “Half the street think you’re a slag, the other think you’re a nutter. I think you’re both.” It’s a quote from Coronation Street, the ITV soap that gave the Mancunian actor her big break in 2000. She strode onto the cobbles as Karen McDonald, described by The Guardian at the time as “a bulldog in hoop earrings”, and it was Karen’s charming husband Steve who uttered those immortal words from the poster, on the couple’s wedding day. Two decades later, after award-winning roles in Scott & Bailey, Doctor Foster and Gentleman Jack, the quote is a punchy reminder of where it all began.

Jones is reminiscing about Corrie – the show that pumped out a disproportionately high number of brilliant British actresses, from Sarah Lancashire to Julie Hesmondhalgh – over Zoom from a London hotel. She’s wearing sensible glasses; her hair is pulled back into a neat ponytail. There’s a Christmas tree in the corner of the suite. “I’m a bit overawed by it,” the 45-year-old says, sipping on a herbal tea. “Anything to do with Christmas, I f***ing love. I love it. I love it. I love it.” It’s a few hours before the premiere of series two of Vigil, the BBC One thriller starring Jones as detective Amy Silva, who almost drowned in a torpedo tube the last time we saw her. It’s no surprise she’s back, really, given how successful the show’s been, attracting almost 13 million viewers per episode in its first run.

Jones and her husband, the scriptwriter Laurence Akers, are squeezing in a date after the red carpet premiere of series two, “to make sure we go out as a couple”, she says, her Julia Roberts-smile spreading across her face. “We do daytime dates sometimes – we’ll drop my son off at school and then we’ll go to the cinema straight afterwards, or go for a big dog walk. But you have to put it in, like you put everything else in, a busy diary.”

A busy diary indeed. Jones is not only promoting a Sunday night primetime show, she’s also producing her own roster of dramas under the company she set up with Akers, and ferrying her seven-year-old son about the place, all while experiencing the symptoms of perimenopause. “Thank god to all the women who are talking about it,” she says. “It’s amazing, because you suddenly hear symptoms and go, ‘Oh, is that me?’ I’m 45 now, but I think from 43 I definitely have been experiencing it, so pretty early for me, I guess.” Jones’s symptoms included bloating and feeling uncomfortable, accentuating an issue she’s been dealing with her whole life.

“It’s always really difficult to talk about it without a headline being, you know, ‘I had difficulty pooping’,” says Jones, wincing. “The elegant way of putting it, I guess, is that right from when I was a little girl, my nana, Bertha, would always add fibre gel to stuff, or notice that I was not, erm, regular.” She had tried therapy, yoga, acupuncture, tablets, and yoghurts without success, she tells me, but for the past five months she has been taking a probiotic drink called Symprove, designed to support healthy digestion. She has become an ambassador for the brand, which she says has not only reduced her desperate craving for a nap in the afternoon, but also – she pauses for dramatic effect – “regularity has returned”.

Of course, it’s not easy being as fighting fit as Vigil’s Amy Silva or Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister, the 19th-century diarist who wrote in secret code about her liaisons with other women. “Amy Silva seems to not be affected at all, by anything,” says Jones. “You’ve got to be the rock star that your characters are sometimes. And Anne, she walked anywhere in 20 minutes, that was one of her famous lines, and I had so many clothes on and the top hat and the cane and the overcoat, and usually my note [from the director] was, ‘Can you walk faster?’”

Gentleman Jack opened up a huge fandom for Jones, with many in the queer community thrilled to see a lesbian’s hidden story coming out into the light. Despite its success, the show was cancelled after two series, but there is a huge #SaveGentlemanJack fan campaign, with a flash mob performing at Shibden Hall in Halifax, where the show is set, and viewers sending letters and artwork to the offices of the BBC and HBO. “I had played gay and bisexual characters before, but with Gentleman Jack, people started writing to me personally,” says Jones. “I felt like I was invited to be a true ally, which I took very seriously, and I absolutely loved that role and what it did for people.”

Jones as lesbian diarist Anne Lister in ‘Gentleman Jack’ (BBC/Lookout Point/HBO/Jay Brooks)
Jones as lesbian diarist Anne Lister in ‘Gentleman Jack’ (BBC/Lookout Point/HBO/Jay Brooks)

The show also did a lot for Halifax and the surrounding area. “There was the statue at the Piece Hall [the only surviving Georgian cloth hall] and the blue plaque,” she says, “and murals on the wall that are me but Anne Lister … and then you hear that a college [at the University of York] has been named the Anne Lister College. I felt very, very proud to be part of that. It was like someone was ripping back a curtain and going, ‘Hiii! Remember this lesbian? Look!’ There were lesbians in history, who knew?”

Vigil’s Amy Silva, meanwhile, is bisexual – and having a baby with her partner Kirsten Longacre (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie). “We’ve given Vigil a very real feel of two women who are defined by their careers, and the difficulty that brings to a relationship, where they have one child and they are bringing another into the mix,” says Jones. “And we do it in a big, ballsy show, where there are lots of bombs going off.” That wide smile reappears. “My next few characters are not lesbians, but I’ll be back with some more, I’m sure.”

Some TV and film creators – such as It’s a Sin’s Russell T Davies – believe gay roles should only go to gay actors, arguing for authenticity and comparing the alternative to blackface. Jones’s back catalogue is proof that she sees things differently. “I feel that those who are deeply passionate about it – writers, directors, producers, actors – I understand it,” she says. “Like, it’s not like I don’t understand it. If someone has written something and they really want someone in it to have the lived experience, then I get it. That’s what they want their character to be infused with, but my characters are infused with other people’s stories, so if people give me a role, and want me to play it, then my responsibility is to make it my mission to talk to as many people as I can. To go, ‘OK, I’ll take that part of that story, and that part of that story,’ and then I’m just the face of many people’s experiences. That’s how I feel.”

Jones and Leslie as lovers and colleagues in ‘Vigil’ (BBC / World Productions LTD)
Jones and Leslie as lovers and colleagues in ‘Vigil’ (BBC / World Productions LTD)

Something that Jones does have lived experience in is anxiety. Her performance in the shattering 2021 Channel 4 drama I Am Victoria is the most convincing portrayal of thudding, screeching angst that I’ve seen on television. Jones collaborated with writer/director Dominic Savage on the story, with most of the scenes almost entirely improvised. It was originally going to be about a woman who had just had a baby – Jones had her first child, a son, in 2016 – but the actor “felt that, actually, closer to me, easier to access, and probably more universal in a very ordinary way, was this building anxiety of a modern world that leaves you lost and stressed and on the edge and filled, up to here, with everything”. She gradually raises her hand up her neck until it reaches her jawline.

Jones has spoken at length about her anxiety in previous interviews. The past few years have been tough. She lost her mother, who’d had dementia, in 2017 just 10 months after her son was born. Then, in May 2018, she pulled out of the West End revival of Bryony Lavery’s play Frozen after collapsing on stage. “I had hallucinations, episodes where I started to see things, because my body was shutting down. I’d done 90 shows. The pressure got to me until I collapsed in front of an audience, I think it holds 1,500 to 2,000 people,” she said on a podcast. Jones had a breakdown later that year.

Then, in January 2021, her father died of Covid. She hadn’t been allowed to visit him when he was in the ICU, so she had sung his favourite songs down the phone to him. She and her brother then saw him once, in full PPE, to say goodbye. In 2022, she said in interviews that she was reconfiguring her work-life balance and slowing things down a bit. After the breakdown, she took medication for a while and returned to therapy – which she has been in and out of for 20 years.

Now, Jones is very much back to it, and looking to the future. She and her husband have set up a production company called TeamAkers, and “starting the new business has doubled the workload”, she says. “We are putting the shows together, crewing up, making the shows, editing the shows and then I’ll sell the shows. And my son’s only seven, so I want to be a big presence.”

I was singing ‘Blame It on the Boogie’ in a Kangol hat and stepping over men. It was fun. It was really fun

Producing has allowed Jones, in her words, to “have a seat at the table”. “I have to keep pinching myself,” she says. “We started small and now we’ve made two shows and we’ve got another three commissioned, which is just brilliant.” She recently joked that she was the “queen of trauma” after playing so many women falling apart at the seams, and she says now that, thanks to producing, she can try other guises, and maybe even some comedy. “Role-wise, sometimes what other people want you to do isn’t necessarily what you want to do, so you can be stuck in receiving lots of scripts that you feel like you’ve done a version of.”

Jones as Karen, Beverley Callard as Liz and Simon Gregson as Steve in ‘Corrie’ in 2003 (ITV/Shutterstock)
Jones as Karen, Beverley Callard as Liz and Simon Gregson as Steve in ‘Corrie’ in 2003 (ITV/Shutterstock)

A lot has changed about the industry since Jones’s Karen McDonald left the cobbles, in a mascara-streaked state of despair, after being dumped by Steve on Boxing Day 2004. Back then, Jones was a young woman from an Oldham suburb, the daughter of a secretary mother and engineer father, who was suddenly all over lads’ mags and glitzy entertainment shows. There were some grim experiences on those magazines – she was given alcohol before shoots and her underwear was airbrushed out to make it look like she was naked under an apron – but all she says now is, “It was 25 years ago, we all know it was a different time”. She has fond memories of that era. “I was young, I was dressed as a Christmas cracker on the front of god-knows-whatever magazine. And then I was doing Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and then I was doing a lads’ mag and then I was doing Children in Need, singing ‘Blame It on the Boogie’ in a Kangol hat and stepping over men. It was fun. It was really fun.”

But no more time for nostalgia. She’s onto the next diary appointment. I tell Jones I hope she has a blast at the Vigil premiere, and that I might need to check out Symprove to see what all the fuss is about. What follows is one of the more surreal interview sign-offs I’ve encountered. “I don’t know how your bowels are,” she laughs, “but I’d give it a go, Ellie!”

‘Vigil’ series two arrives on BBC One on Sunday, 10 December

Symprove is a water-based probiotic, meaning it doesn’t trigger digestion so more live and active bacteria can bypass the stomach acid to survive and thrive in the gut