Making it with her sister act

12 Jun 2019 / 10:32 H.

WHEN you have played a notable character in an iconic TV series, it is hard to shake off that image and move on to your next project.

But for Gemma Whelan, she landed a role that was similar and yet, as far removed from her Game of Thrones persona as possible.

Last seen as tough-as-nails Yara Greyjoy (sister to the ill-fated Theon) on the HBO hit series, Whelan has since appeared on HBO Original Series Gentleman Jack as Marian, sister to central character Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones).

The series was shown exclusively on HBO GO, and also starred Ann Walker, Timothy West and Gemma Jones.

Set in 1832 in Halifax, West Yorkshire, Gentleman Jack is about Lister, a landowner determined to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, by reopening the coal mines.

The show is based on the real Lister’s own diaries. It examines her relationships with her family, servants, tenants and industrial rivals, and also her scandalous love life.

The charismatic, single-minded, swashbuckling lady dresses head-to-toe in black and charms her way into high society, and has no intention of marrying, causing conflict with her sister Marian.

During a recent tele-conference call, Whelan reflected on what she took away from playing Yara in the biggest pop culture phenomenon of the decade.

“I guess gratitude and pride,” she said. “It was an acting job. So I take away the pride that I was in such an incredible show that had such high production value. I made some really good friends.

“At the end of the day, it was a job, a very high-profile job, and I was very happy to be a part of it.”

She did keep her boots from the show, and on the last day on set, she was given a framed storyboard of a significant scene featuring her character, who actually only appears in the first and last episode of the show’s final season.

Considering how Yara was a career-defining role, one would have thought Whelan would have been cast as Anne.

Whelan, on the other hand, explained: “I was only ever offered the role of Marian. She is an interesting woman in her own right, but when you put her against her sister, she suddenly looks very ordinary.

“But she holds the household together, she is very politically-minded.

“However, when her sister comes home, she looks very boring and uninteresting, so there is a lot of comedy to be had in that.”

Whelan said that she had to do her own research into playing Marian, as there was not a great deal about her other than what Anne wrote in her diaries. So she relied heavily on the script.

“There was also a fantastic Anne Lister family expert on the set all the time who would help with landmark dates and timelines.

“We did the best we could with the information from Anne’s diary, as well as utilising some creative licence.”

When asked who was easier to play – Marian or Yara – Whelan said: “They are both very different. For one, I had a heavy costume, and for the other, I had to wear a corset.

“So they are both uncomfortable characters physically for me, but they are both different and joyful to play in their own way.”

Asked what aspects of Marian and Yara she could relate to, Whelan laughed and said: “I think a strong sense of self.

“[Both women] know who they are and what their role is and how to achieve what they want to achieve.

“Also both are extremely frustrated by their siblings.”

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