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On ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Gentleman Jack,’ Gemma Whelan Plays Two of HBO’s Best Women

As Anne Lister's killjoy sister Marian, the British actress flaunts her versatility in a far cry from the bloodlusty lothario Yara Greyjoy.

Gemma Whelan

Gemma Whelan

HBO

Just as “Game of Thrones” came to an end, HBO announced that it has renewed “Gentleman Jack” for a second season. That’s great news for fans of British actress Gemma Whelan, who essentially amounts to a Venn diagram of where the two shows’ audiences overlap.

On “GoT” Whelan built a devoted following as Yara Greyjoy, Queen of the Iron Islands and sister to Theon (Alfie Allen). Her character in “Gentleman Jack” is a far cry from the bloodthirsty lothario she plays on “Thrones,” however; as conservative Marian she antagonizes her casanova sister, the swaggering butch Anne Lister (Suranne Jones). Though Whelan herself is straight, she has endeared herself to LGBTQ audiences with one gay and one gay-adjacent role; it is a testament to her versatility as an actress that her two biggest TV roles could not be more different.

A co-production between HBO and the BBC, “Gentleman Jack” has become the BBC’s biggest new drama of the year since its April premiere, drawing an average of of 5.1 million viewers, according to Deadline. Created, written, and co-directed by Sally Wainwright (“Happy Valley,” “Last Tango in Halifax”), the lighthearted period dramedy tells the true story of Anne Lister, an early-19th century diarist and landowner who lived fairly openly as a lesbian. Wainwright had a wealth of material to draw from in Lister’s 4 million-word diary, and the relationships and characters are uncannily vibrant in their specificity.

Anne’s buttoned-up younger sister Marian heartily disapproves of Anne’s proclivity for missing dinner without sending notice but could care less about her relationships with women. Whelan ekes out plenty of comedy from the rather dry Marian, and her witty exchanges with Jones are alternatively amusing and heartfelt. A lesser actress could have made Marian fade into the background; in Whelan’s hands her cloying rule following is kind of charming.

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

“It’s light,” Whelan said of the tone of the show in a recent phone interview. “It’s got some great issues that it addresses, and it’s handled with such levity and I think that’s really why, hopefully, it will be a big success. It’s funny, but it’s very interesting to learn about this real woman called Anne Lister. And it’s very relatable. And of course Sally Wainwright’s writing is brilliant and helped enormously.”

Lesser known in the U.S. until “Happy Valley” came to Netflix, Wainwright reached iconic TV writer status in the U.K. with the “Cagney and Lacey” riff “Scott & Bailey,” her first collaboration with Jones. Whalen was “a huge fan” before landing the gig on “Gentleman Jack.” “Oh my goodness, she’s one of my favorite TV writers and I’ve watched all of her stuff, so I was very very excited when I got to go in and read for the role,” she said.

Wainwright has been writing smart, funny, complex women characters for her entire career, something she didn’t realize was rare until recently.

“I’ve become increasingly aware that what I do is quite unusual and that there aren’t that many shows that genuinely put women at the center in a way that isn’t tokenism,” Wainwright said during an interview with IndieWire in April. “And I’ve realized it’s because most people don’t get excited about writing for women. Most people seem to get excited about writing for men, even women [writers]. So it’s actually quite rare, which amazes me, but I’ve become increasingly aware that that’s true. To be genuinely excited about writing for women is a minority sport, I think.”

“Yeah, I suppose it is [rare],” Whelan said. “I suppose I’ve been lucky with ‘Game of Thrones’ as well, but I think well-written women, realistically written women are sort of top of the list now. But they have been overlooked in terms of female characters, not across the board, but occasionally a little bit two-dimensional and not fleshed out. I know one of my favorite characters, Elaine from ‘Seinfeld,’ is written from a male perspective, as a man, and sort of writing gender blind is a really exciting idea.”

For now, Whelan is well situated as she heads into the post-“Game of Thrones” chapter of her career. “Gentleman Jack” has been picked up for a second season, and she is currently filming the highly anticipated remake of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” in which she plays Emma’s beloved former governess Mrs. Weston. She most recently made headlines after posting a photo of herself breastfeeding her daughter in full “Thrones” getup.

“It had quite an impact that picture, I just put it up ‘cause I thought it was fun, but if it helps to normalize things, that’s great,” she said. “Everyone has been [supportive] on all jobs I’ve done since she was born, it’s just been absolutely fine to bring her with me. … There’s tons of down time on sets so it was never a problem, it’s just very nice to feel welcome to do it.”

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