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Suranne Jones opens up about how her own experience of a breakdown inspired I Am Victoria

·6-min read
Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

Suranne Jones is one of the most recognisable faces of British drama, fronting a stellar crop of gripping series, from nail-biters such as Doctor Foster, to boundary-pushers like Gentleman Jack.

With a mesmerising ability to bring to life strong and complex characters, Suranne has a knack for revealing the many layers and raw edges of the fascinating women she plays.

Now, her latest role is in the return of Dominic Savage’s BAFTA-nominated series, I Am, on Channel 4. The three-part series follows a different story in each episode, created in collaboration with the lead actor on a theme of personal significance to them.

Suranne leads in I Am Victoria as the title character. She portrays a woman who appears to have the perfect life and is so desperate to cling to this veneer, that she doesn’t see how rapidly it has already begun to crumble.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

Here, Suranne Jones speaks to Good Housekeeping about the deeply personal inspiration behind the character of Victoria, how collaboration and improvisation brought the story to life and why she hopes the episode will reveal a different face of mental health.

Each episode of I Am is created around a subject which has a deeply personal resonance with the actor. What made you want to get involved with the series?

I heard that Dominic [Savage] wanted to meet me and I, of course, said absolutely, I knew of his work. By the end of our first meeting, we were both crying. We opened up to each other so much that we were like, we have to work together.

Over the course of two years we were talking and during those two years I had a small breakdown myself. I ended up seeing a doctor about anxiety and depression, and then the pandemic hit. I think the whole world became much more aware of the claustrophobia and anxiety of modern life.

So we began with telling the story about what mental health actually looks like; the different levels of mental health and what mental health looks like to someone who perhaps doesn't recognise it. And then Victoria was born.

How did your own experiences and ideas evolve into the separate, fully rounded character of Victoria?

What you do is you take something that is so personal to you and then you have to detach yourself. So, Dominic then takes it from you, gives it a name, gives it a home and then bounces it back to you. It's detached enough that you're not actually putting your heart on the television, because I think that would be too painful.

Dominic Savage works in a collaborative style with improvised dialogue. What was it like working in this unusual and creative way?

Really scary because the first day Dominic said, “okay, so we've got about an hour where we can film without stopping”. I was like, “what, an hour?” He said, “yeah, I just want you to get up, do your exercise, put your make up on, go for a shower.” He said just do what you would normally do as Victoria in the morning, and I'll just follow you. And that was the first thing we did.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

She's trying to control herself with the exercise, with the makeup, with the perfect breakfast, with the perfect children. She's trapped in a cycle of expectations of who she should be.

She's completely lost herself within that and I think that's my take on modern life that gets too much for somebody. You lose yourself completely to it, and you don't know who you are.

You explained that I Am Victoria draws on your own experience of mental health. What was it like to explore those feelings through the character of Victoria?

It was very therapeutic. I was re-living some things that actually happened to me. I was wearing my own clothes at times, some of my own jewellery, I had my own wedding ring on. There are certain aspects of Victoria that are me and certain aspects that are my friends or that are just stories I've read about, or that that Dominic has helped me understand.

I got in touch with Samantha [Morton] about the story she did [I Am Kirsty] that she was up for BAFTA for in the previous series. She said, "hold on tight, it'll be wonderful, but it's hard." And it was, it was really hard. But I definitely came out of it feeling like I've exorcised a few demons, and I hope I've done that for the people watching as well.

Why was it important to you to tell this story in the more authentic, collaborative style of I Am Victoria?

It’s a love letter to people who may not understand that they are struggling. I'm saying, have a look at this woman because she doesn't think she is either. Actually, these small things can build up to a place where they can tip and we just need to keep our eye on [them].

I just wanted to say that I see you and I understand you and Dominic does too. I think that we've made it a show that hopefully will get people talking or understanding a different face of mental health.

You filmed the episode on-set at Victoria’s house during the pandemic. Were there any moments when the stresses of the outside world seeped in?

The screaming match between me and Ashley [Walters, who plays on-screen husband Chris] was much needed, because it was the height of summer, everyone was in a testing regime, just come out of lockdown and we were filming in the house day after day. I think by the time we got to that screaming match, we really needed it. We were like, “argh!” at the world, not just at each other.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

The past 18 months have been turbulent and challenging for everyone. Has lockdown changed your perspective on life in any way?

Family has always been important to me and, unfortunately, I've been away from my family for a long time because the pandemic has stretched my job. My dad passed away from a COVID related illness. He was in ICU [Intensive Care Unit] for three months, so I've learned an awful lot and I've been in therapy the whole time.

You never can stop learning or checking in on yourself and I think that's what Victoria is at the start of. She's at the start of the journey [to better mental health]. I've been on my journey for a long, long time.

What's next for you?

Vigil comes out [as well as] I Am, which we filmed, again, over the pandemic. There’s Gentleman Jack season two, then my production company has quite a lot of things in development. So I'm busy and it's great. I've got a lot of projects that I'm really proud of that are due out, which is a nice place to be.

I Am Series 2 airs weekly from Thursday 5 August at 9pm on Channel 4 opening with I Am Victoria, starring Suranne Jones. All episodes will be available to watch on All4 from 5 August.


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