Despite her three-year starring role as Nikki Wade in Bad Girls, the hit British prison drama about to begin its third season on Logo (AfterEllen.com’s parent company), actress Mandana Jones rarely received serious attention from the British media.
That was painfully evident in a rare TV appearance Jones made with cast mate Helen Fraser (who played Sylvia Hollamby) on a British variety show. The interviewer asked Jones just one direct question (negatively phrased, of course) about her character: "Did it bother you at all that your part is a lesbian part?"
Jones gave an articulate answer that opened up a rare opportunity. The interviewer could have had an intelligent exchange with an actress who was clearly willing to speak insightfully and unabashedly about playing one of the most fleshed-out lesbian characters in the history of television. Instead, without so much as a polite pause following Jones’ response, the interviewer turned to Fraser and abruptly changed the subject to footwear: "It’s quite interesting … they always say [shoes are] the key to every part. Is that true?"
As Jones proves here on AfterEllen.com in her most extensive interview to date, you can learn a lot when you don’t change the subject. Jones talked to us at length about the show’s lasting impact, her chemistry with co-star Simone Lahbib, her opinion of the show’s third season, which premieres on Logo this Thursday, Aug. 30 — and what really happened in that potting shed.
AfterEllen.com: Nikki Wade is stubborn, moody, prone to jealousy — not to mention she’s a sexual minority and killed a cop. Yet she was adored by, it seems, both a gay and straight audience. That’s quite a trick.
Mandana Jones: She was moody and this and that. But she was also very intelligent and very aware and talked most people under the table. She was forthright and brave and lots of wonderful qualities that made her, I think — I hope — a good spokeswoman, if you like, for a gay character or a gay identity to be perceived in a straight world. She was a well-turned-out, well-polished, not-bad-looking woman who was clearly very bright and could hold her own in nearly impossible circumstances.
AE: Were there any types of scenes in Bad Girls that were especially challenging for you?
MJ: Yeah, most of them really. [Laughs.] I can remember it being quite traumatic because I didn’t really have a sense of exactly who I was trying to be. The person in my head was very different from what I saw on the screen. That made that quite awkward.
AE: Because of the heavy makeup and earrings and such?
MJ: I found I’d look in the mirror and just think that’s not how I saw her. If this is a person who is so clear about what she is and what she believes, why is she wearing a mask at six o’clock in the morning? I just didn’t feel like I was being real. I didn’t feel right, especially the first series. It was a very, very insecure time. You just hate that feeling that you’re fobbing people off and you’re fobbing yourself off, and you just don’t really quite believe the whole thing knits together.
When I got to the second series, I found my stride and got more comfortable playing Nikki. I went with my gut, which is that she’s just a person and what you play is the truth. It’s just feelings. Forget about what she looks like; forget about the labels. If you want people to understand her, what makes her powerful is being somebody who breaks prejudices.
AE: By the third season, Nikki appeared to be a little less involved.
MJ: When Linda Henry’s character of Yvonne came in — who I have to say is a brilliant character — there was a blurring. Sometimes I felt that some of the lines that Yvonne had were lines that Nikki would’ve said, say in a crowd scene. Yvonne would create lots of mayhem where Nikki would have in the past. Nikki became more peaceful, basically. She was keeping her head down and keeping her nose clean, but I still think there was room for perhaps a little bit more privately, where we could have seen how difficult that was for her to swallow what she wanted to come out with. But it didn’t seem like she had the same urgency to say things; it didn’t seem like it caused her the same inner strife it had in the past.
AE: So her journey in the third season wasn’t as complex?
MJ: I felt that by the time the third series came about, she wasn’t so militant. She was essentially a lover; her identity was that she was in love with Helen. I felt in Series 1 and 2 that you saw a much more rounded picture of the woman and all her attributes, but there’s a gradual weaning away from it. I actually missed her in Series 3.
AE: The sharp-tongued, rebellious, political Nikki.
MJ: Exactly. A less sort of layered onion was presented come Series 3, and that’s what was most interesting about her.
AE: There’s one line that sticks with me from the third series. Nikki tells Helen: "You were always more than someone I just fancied. You were my hope."
MJ: I remember that. I think it’s the nature of relationships, isn’t it? When you love someone, and you really love them, they draw you out of that sense of terrible isolation that you’re actually treading around on this planet on your own and there’s nobody you really share it with. And yes, it’s all very nice, and you’ve got a nice house and a nice car, but whatever. It doesn’t mean anything unless you have someone to celebrate it with.
Perhaps it sounds like a needy line because we’re told all the time that we should be happy on our own, but I don’t think man is an island, and I think we’re born and we’re meant to meet people along the way that do give it all meaning. When you don’t have that … I think being connected to somebody makes you feel like you’re not alone; it makes you feel a lot more supported by the universe and a lot more hopeful, really. I think that’s what that was an expression of.