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."
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