Page last updated at 08:41 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

Talking Shop: Suranne Jones

Suranne Jones in Unforgiven
Suranne Jones as Ruth Slater finds the world outside prison lonely and tough

Former Coronation Street star Suranne Jones stars in Unforgiven, a new three-part drama about a woman released back into society after serving 15 years in prison for a double murder.

Jones's character Ruth Slater struggles to comes to terms with building a new life for herself whilst also having to deal with the prejudice of others.

Unforgiven also boasts an impressive supporting cast, including Peter Davison, Jemma Redgrave and Douglas Hodge.

Jones talks about how nervous she was to play the lead in a drama, being a sex symbol and why Guy Ritchie should have cast her in Sherlock Holmes.

Unforgiven is a very different role for you, isn't it?

It's a role that doesn't come along very often for women, certainly not other than in Bad Girls. Mainstream TV hasn't really explored the subject of women prisoners and that's certainly what attracted me first and foremost. Women are supposed to be nurturing and maternal so it's got a big pull just from that. It was certainly not a job I hesitated about doing. It was one which I did a big belly flop into and enjoyed.

Ruth is an odd character. She is not necessarily likeable and it's a hard task to get an audience to come on your journey with you when you're playing someone with that background. But that was the intriguing part.

Were you apprehensive at all?

Not so much apprehensive as excited. I've played glamorous roles or roles as a glamorous assistant to a male lead but that was never me, it doesn't sit well with me. I've never looked at myself as a sex symbol in that kind of way.

When I first joined Corrie I did a few lads' mags but I wasn't very comfortable with it so it didn't last long. I suppose there are certain roles you can go for because of your look but Unforgiven shows that if you just lay yourself bare it's all about the acting and not the look.

To have a character as raw as Ruth is what my heart tells me I should be doing. I knew that with the right research I would be capable.

What did the research involve?

I went to an open prison and met two lifers which I think was quite necessary. It was really interesting to see an open prison and it was the one Ruth would have gone to, which played a huge part in preparing for the role. I also read a lot of books including ones the girls I met told me to read.

Suranne Jones
Suranne Jones is back in Manchester so gets to see her Coronation Street friends

Were you nervous about going into a prison?

It's definitely stepping into the unknown. The prison was the one where Ruth would have spent her final two years and the girls I met were getting ready to go back into society. They were working at different places or studying so I don't think you can ever really know what it's like to be in a closed prison unless you experience it yourself. But you can imagine how frightening it is for a 16-year-old girl to go into those circumstances.

How did the prisoners react to you?

Coronation Street is shown quite a lot there so they knew me from there and other dramas I've done so I think at first they were thinking, 'Oh, my God, Karen McDonald is coming to the prison'.

Then as the day went on they were really open and showed me their rooms and took me all around campus, telling me their fears, that they were getting used to using money and using public transport. They talked about religion and about the little things such as going from having very little to being able to buy things like shampoo and nail varnish.

Their rooms were quite student-like. There was one girl who had just had a random drugs test and they took me to the open toilet where they have to do it and the guards can see. It struck me that having served a long sentence, it is still very minimalistic and they never really get their freedom.

Did you find your attitude to crime and the prison service changed?

I don't want to make a sweeping statement about criminals in general. But it certainly made me think that it's all about whether a person can reform themselves and take all the help they are offered. It takes a very strong person to have done something wrong, serve a sentence - to give your flesh, as Ruth says in Unforgiven - and then go back into society. It's a huge thing to do and it really made me feel something for the girls.

Obviously they had done something horrific but at the same time, it's a part of Unforgiven to ask if we believe in redemption. Ruth herself finds herself at the door of two family lawyers who should know the system and know better but when it directly involves them they question it. It made me understand Ruth and the story a lot better and hopefully that all comes across.

What was it like working with big names like Peter Davison?

When they are your cast and you are the lead, you feel a lot of pressure because you have a lot adulation for these people. I panicked a bit and the director had to tell me to breathe. I am just so lucky to have all these opportunities because it's not everyone who gets to do what I've done in the last five years and even if it stops tomorrow I can look back at my CV and my parents' tape collection of me and think that I have done what I set out to do.

Did you find it emotionally draining and difficult to switch off?

The rest of the cast were staying in a hotel and I asked if I could stay in an apartment away from them because I'm quite gobby - as you might be able to tell - and a sociable person. I love life and people and would probably always go out for a drink if asked. So I thought if I was with everyone I could quite easily have lost who Ruth was so I went home on my own, cooked my tea then made dinner for the next day and put it in Tupperware dishes in a regimented way, which isn't me at all.

But it all helped for the character because she doesn't smile, she has that inner torment that you can only get if you really concentrate, well certainly me. It takes very little to distract me.

You don't wear any make-up in Unforgiven. Did that make you feel exposed?

Honest to God it was awful. I saw it with my parents in HD on a big cinema screen and my Dad told me I looked really rough. One of my spots really stood out at one point, which wasn't great. But Ruth wouldn't have worn any make-up, I don't think. It makes you feel quite exposed and it's quite good to feel like that if you want to get that nervous energy about you.

My hair was dyed tobacco yellow and had to go to Gordon Ramsay's restaurant on my 30th birthday with that hair and big roots - I really should have worn a wig.

As Ruth, you work in a meat factory. What was that like?

I thought I would be one of those actresses who says, 'I just can't do this!' or end up becoming vegetarian. But it was fine. It was really clean and really interesting. The freezers were huge with all the meat hanging up and it was good to see what your food goes through before you put it in your mouth. I was surprised with myself.

Do you ever miss Coronation Street?

I've moved back to Manchester and now get to see all the friends that I made there, which is great. I tune in now that I am back in Manchester and think Simon Gregson is brilliant. Steve and Becky getting together in the show is great.

Was it strange to suddenly not be in it anymore and start doing other things like theatre?

I've been acting since I was eight-years-old so I knew what life outside Coronation Street would be like, not getting jobs and so on. Stepping out of the limelight was quite nice because being in Corrie is quite a big thing and you do get a lot of hassle as well.

But I was given a great opportunity when I was cast for Vincent within six months of leaving. But it's hard to keep up a good body of work and a good standard of work because you've got to make the right decisions and I have found that quite hard. But I've got no plans to go back.

The drama series you were in Harley Street wasn't a hit and was axed. How did that make you feel?

Lots of dramas get made but are never aired so the fact it went out and I got the part, one I wasn't going to turn down as it gave me the opportunity to play someone very different, was still good. I had a great time filming it but some dramas get picked up and others don't and that's really how it goes. People can't like everything or every actor so I am not surprised there were people out there that didn't like me in that role. But I continue to try to find roles that do suit me and life goes on.

I think we got a bit of a raw deal from the critics who said it was all soap stars and was like Footballers Wives or Hotel Babylon and never gave it a chance - but these things happen.

Do you enjoy theatre?

With theatre you go on stage and you get a chance to see if things work and if they don't then you can change it and you get a reaction straight away so I love it. I've just been involved in pitching new musical ideas for UK talent called Perfect Pitch.

A group of actors get together and learn their parts in five days and then go and put it on in front of people so I love all that and being creative. I do a lot of work with kids in Belfast where we all get together and we put on plays and excerpts of musicals and I direct, all in the space of three or four days. But this time I wanted to be on the other end and perform.

Do you have a role you'd really like to do?

I love all the old musicals and whenever I see Julie Walters or Judi Dench I think it would be fab to work with real legends from the UK. But I am happy to be doing what I am doing at the moment and to be offered roles and get the chance to audition, even if I don't always get them.

But as long as you keep your feet on the ground, you'll be okay. I would love to do a feature film, it's just finding the right one. I believe Sherlock Holmes was filming in Manchester and Liverpool and that would have been great but they've moved on now. I should have just gatecrashed the set!

Unforgiven is on ITV1 on Mondays at 2100 GMT. Suranne Jones was talking to BBC News entertainment reporter Rebecca Thomas.

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