Suranne Jones discusses her role as Ruth Slater, a woman released from prison on license after serving 15 years for the murder of two policemen, in ITV’s major three-part drama, Unforgiven.
Can you tell us about your character Ruth Slater?
Ruth’s been serving a life sentence for murdering two policemen and you follow her story after she’s released from prison. Her six-year-old sister, whom she virtually brought up, was taken into care when she was arrested and she’s been trying to make contact with her for the 15 years she was inside and had no luck. Knowing she had someone in the outside world that she adored and loved is really what kept her going. So when she’s released, not only do you see her trying to fit back into society and getting used to freedom, but you also join her in the search for her sister, which is totally driven by love.
What is Ruth like when she’s released from prison? What does she make of the outside world?
Ruth is very awkward as she’s not really got any social skills. She’s quite naïve and perhaps a bit immature. After 15 years inside, she has a defensive shell but has preserved a child-like naiveté. She was a 17-year-old girl when she went into prison and has been in a secure environment ever since so she still has that naïve quality at the age 34 because she’s had no life experience. When she’s released she just tries to keep her head down and live a low key life but it’s difficult for her and takes real strength of character. She won’t look people in the eye very often because she feels she’s being judged, even though she’s been released she doesn’t feel she’s been forgiven. It isn’t as simple as that.
How does she feel when she’s informed that she’s not allowed to contact her sister?
Ruth’s absolutely distraught. Her sister was all she had and she’s the only thing that has sustained her throughout her prison sentence. No-one told her there was a clause in the adoption which meant she wouldn’t be able to see her and she’s always held hope that they would be reunited. She’s been waiting to have that contact for so many years, so its devastating news for her.
How does she meet the Ingrams?
She goes back to her old house, Upper Hanging Stones Farm, as it’s the only place she knows. The Ingrams are the new occupants and they’re so intrigued about the history of the house they invite her in. She doesn’t go looking to involve anyone else in her situation, but John sees she’s troubled and offers to help her. Even after he discovers she’s a killer, he’s the first one who doesn’t see her as a monster. He knows there’s something about her that he likes and he continues to help her.
Ruth has never had a boyfriend before and gets romantically involved with Will Mellor’s character, Brad. Can you tell us about that?
It’s very difficult for Ruth to get close to anyone because she doesn’t know who to trust with the truth about her past. She’s also never had a boyfriend before and is trying to gain as much life experience as possible. She makes herself do the “normal” things she’s not done before, like going on a night out with her work friends and having sex with Brad. She’s never touched a naked man before so it’s all new to her and she’s awkward. It makes you realise how hard it is for someone to come out of prison after a long period of time and then try to slot back into normal life.
What attracted you to the role?
A role like this comes up once in a blue moon and I think I’ve been looking for a part like this for a long time. It sits well with me, as it’s gritty and all about the character. It’s very intense. Ruth is so fascinating, and it was a really interesting challenge because we had to get the audience to come on her emotional journey. We needed the viewer to see things from a murderer’s point of view as the drama unfolds. I really wanted it to work and for the viewers to be intrigued by her and question how they would react if someone like Ruth came into their lives.
Did you do any research for the role?
Yes, I went to the prison, where Ruth spent some of her sentence in the story, and I met two prisoners serving life sentences. They’d gone into prison at around the same time as Ruth and were due for release. I wanted to watch them and speak to them about their experiences. It was invaluable for me to get an insight into their lives. One of them was 34 years old and she’d just learnt how to catch a bus on her own. It made me realise what a huge transition it is for them, to go from being so regimented and having your every movement logged to being free. Even spending a night alone in your own flat is a big deal.
Did meeting the prisoners change the way you played Ruth?
Yes, definitely. Had I not met these prisoners I would have probably played Ruth mouthier. They really helped me to figure out how to act the part and were very forthcoming with information. The director was also brilliant in guiding me. He told me everything has to come from deep within me as Ruth is a very insular character. I was concentrating so much on the character and it was absolutely exhausting! It’s my favourite part I’ve ever played so I really wanted to make sure I got her right.
There is a great supporting cast. Did you enjoy working with the other actors?
Yes, they were absolutely brilliant. It was actually quite daunting at the read-through because everyone else was so fantastic and it put me under pressure! I chose to isolate myself whilst we were filming so I could really get into the character, so I stayed in a different hotel from the other cast members. It really helped me focus on Ruth and develop a feeling of isolation.