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'Gentleman Jack' Swaggers Off The Page And Onto The Screen

Apr 21, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 11:54 am

HBO's new period drama, Gentleman Jack, is set in the 1830s and tells the extraordinary story of Anne Lister: landowner, businesswoman, mountaineer, and sometimes called "the first modern lesbian." Lister came from a wealthy family in Halifax, England, and began recording her love affairs with women in coded entries in her diary. Eventually she would live openly with her neighbor Ann Walker as a couple. Those explicit diaries remained a secret until the 1980s — and in 2011 they were named by UNESCO as a pivotal document in British history. The HBO adaptation looks at Lister's relationship Ann Walker and her defiant embrace of her sexual orientation. Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister — she says it's become possible to tell Lister's story now, because we finally have the language to discuss gender and sexuality more openly. "So I just feel like this is the right time to tell her story in the full-bodied way that it needs to be told."


Interview Highlights

On preparing to play Anne's complexities

Sometimes when you get a part, you're almost cooked, you're ready to go ... but with this, both me and [writer and director Sally Wainwright] felt like I was a work in progress, and I was going to have to put a lot of work in ... I was able to visit Halifax library and actually take out one of Anne Lister's original diaries and read that for myself, which was a real emotional experience, because I'm touching the paper which she had her hands all over, and Sally was able to read the code to me, over my shoulder, which was again extraordinary ... the code itself, parts of the diary still hadn't been decoded, so it was being decoded especially for us as we filmed, which was really exciting. We'd get an email, and it was kind of like live, as we were filming scenes in the end, where we were getting pieces of information that had never been seen before ... we got to film in Shibden Hall, which was her actual house, so the whole experience was magical; I felt like she was with us every step of the way. But the experience of that really allowed her to get into my bones every single day on set.

On Anne's physicality

She never wavered from wanting to, in her words again, 'love, and only love the fairer sex.' She felt like it was her god-given nature to do that. - Suranne Jones

A lot of the work that Sally's done over the eight episodes are direct from the diaries. A lot of the words that I speak, Sally has used, not verbatim but she's really worked them into the way she writes her dialogue. And there's pieces of information that we have — she walked fast, and she walked upright. She was mistaken for her masculinity. She had a low voice, she looked like an oddity. She was very striking. She always wore black, in mourning for an ex-girlfriend that she lost to a man, to a marriage. So by the time we meet her, she's been wearing black for 16 years. And she was fiercely intelligent, so we wanted to tell the story of her intelligence through her physicality as well, which is kind of the big hand gestures and the tapping; she checks out of scenes before other people do, because she's already on to the next thing ... and she had to be larger than life, she had to be a presence that anyone who knows the diaries can feel it when they read it off the page, and I really wanted to encapsulate that on screen.

On Anne's self-certainty

Sally described her to me as having a very healthy opinion of herself, a very healthy opinion of life, excited by life, wanted to live life to the full. And she was true to her nature. She never wavered from wanting to, in her words again, "love, and only love the fairer sex." She felt like it was her god-given nature to do that. She was authentic in that way, and she had no blueprint, there were no communities. Lesbian wasn't a word then. But she just was striking in the way that she knew exactly who she wanted to be, and pushed on and lived in that way.

On what we should take from her story today

I think whether you're part of the LGBTQIA community or not, Anne Lister is trail-blazing, she's life-affirming, she's uplifting, she's courageous. And she believes that everyone has a voice and deserves to be themselves and to speak. And I think in this climate, we need more stories like that.

This story was edited for radio by Hiba Ahmad and Lynn Kim, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

HBO's new period drama "Gentleman Jack" is set in the 1830s. And it tells the extraordinary story of Anne Lister - landowner, businesswoman, mountaineer and also called the first modern lesbian. Lister came from a wealthy family in Halifax, England, and began recording her love affairs with women in coded entries in her diary. Eventually, she would live openly with her neighbor Ann Walker as a couple.

Her explicit diaries remained a secret until the 1980s. And in 2011, the journals were named by UNESCO as a pivotal document in British history. The HBO adaptation looks at her relationship with Ann Walker and her defiant embrace of her sexual orientation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENTLEMAN JACK")

SURANNE JONES: (As Anne Lister) Then you do know that I could never marry a man - not for any reason, under any circumstance. It would be perverse. I thoroughly intend to spend my evening out with someone who loves me, someone who is there all of the time to share everything with, not someone who just drops in every now and then whenever her irritable husband permits it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anne Lister is played by Suranne Jones, who joins us now from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

JONES: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about how you approached this character because she is so complex. She's strong. She's poised. She's unwavering. She is this real trailblazer. And yet, of course, she has a lot of other things inside of her, as all people do. How did you maneuver the complexities of Anne Lister?

JONES: So when I got the part, I said, I need all the information that I could possibly get. I think sometimes when you get a part, you're almost cooked. You're ready to go, and you know that you can start spinning plates and put your stamp on things. But with this, I was a work in progress. And I was going to have to put a lot of work in. First, with the research - there are about four books that are very comprehensive texts about Anne Lister, so I kind of pored through them. I was able to visit Halifax library and actually take out one of Anne Lister's original diaries...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

JONES: ...And read that for myself, which was a real emotional experience because I'm touching the paper that she had her hands all over.

And then the code itself and parts of the diary still hadn't been decoded. So it was being decoded especially for us as we filmed, which was really exciting. We'd get an email, and it was kind of, like, live as we were filming scenes in the end, that - where we were getting pieces of information that had never been seen before, which felt really raw and exciting and fresh. The experience of that really allowed her to get into my bones every single day on set.

And then of course, we worked on my physicalities, which are quite unique (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, they are. I mean, you embody her with this kind of physical push forward. I mean, she sort of is this huge larger-than-life figure that, every time she's on the screen, kind of takes it over just by her presence. Did - was that something that you deliberately tried to sort of encapsulate? How did - I mean, how did you know that that was how she might have been?

JONES: From the diaries - there's pieces of information that we had that she walked fast and she walked up right. She was mistaken for her masculinity. She had a low voice. She looked like an oddity. She was very striking. She always wore black in mourning for an ex-girlfriend that she lost to a man - to a marriage. So by the time we meet her, she's been wearing black for 16 years.

And she was fiercely intelligent. And she had to be larger than life. She had to be a presence that - anyone who knows the diaries can feel it when they read it off the page. And I really wanted to encapsulate that on screen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to play a clip now from a scene in the third episode where Anne is talking to her aunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENTLEMAN JACK")

JONES: (As Anne Lister) Nature played a challenging trick on me, didn't she - putting a bold spirit like mine in this vessel in which I'm obliged to wear frills and petticoats. Well, I refuse to be cowed by it.

GEMMA JONES: (As Aunt Anne Lister) People can be very cruel.

JONES: (As Anne Lister) Shame on them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She is very certain of who she is and unashamed despite the censure of the time.

JONES: She was true to her nature. She never wavered from wanting to, in her words again, love and only love the fairer sex. She felt like it was her God-given nature to do that. She was authentic in that way, and she had no blueprint. There was no communities. Lesbian wasn't a word then.

But she just was striking in the way that she knew exactly who she wanted to be and kind of hid in plain sight because she was able to dress the way she dressed, and she was able to conduct her love affairs - albeit usually away from home. And Ann Walker was on her doorstep, which is - makes the telling of this story quite different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think we should take away from Anne Lister's story in this day and age?

JONES: I think whether you're part of the LGBTQIA community or not, I think that Anne Lister is trailblazing. She's uplifting. She's life-affirming. She's courageous. And she believes that everyone has a voice and deserves to be themselves and to speak it. And I think in this climate that we need more stories like that and also that a younger audience - or just our audience - can look to and say - well, that's me; that's how I feel; I'd like to be like that. And I think there's not quite enough stories like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like playing her was a profound experience for you.

JONES: I think. My husband bought me a T-shirt that says - what would Anne Lister do? And there was another actress that spoke to me - said, you should be more like her. You know, it really suits you. And I wish I was because it's really changed me, and I think it might - albeit quietly - change quite a few other people's lives as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in the new HBO TV series "Gentleman Jack."

Thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.