Life after Hayley
JULIE HESMONDHALGH on leaving Corrie for Broadchurch
Julie Hesmondhalgh was never meant to become one of our most popular actresses. But during 16 years playing the transgender Hayley Cropper in Coronation
Street, she won six major awards, including National Television and Royal Television Society trophies. The highly controversial scenes of her assisted suicide three years ago attracted over 9.5 million viewers, despite thousands of her fans boycotting the show because they were ‘too traumatised’ to watch her die.
Since leaving the street, Julie has appeared on stage in Manchester and London, and on television in Happy Valley and the Russell T Davies drama Cucumber.
But after these less publicised roles, her latest – in ITV’s ratings titan Broadchurch, alongside Olivia Colman and David Tennant – puts her centre stage once again. She plays Trish Winterman, a middle-aged divorcée who is brutally raped, and on whom the story is based. It’s a mesmerising performance that is all the more powerful for being understated. This is a woman whose immediate worries are her daughter seeing her in a traumatised state, and whether the police believe her.
Julie arrives in a London restaurant on one of the wettest, coldest days of the year in a bundle of coats, scarves and jumpers. There is, in person, nothing of the angst you might expect from a woman who chooses extreme roles. Last year, she shaved her hair and lost two stone to play an American professor dying of ovarian cancer in the critically acclaimed Wit at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
‘If anything,’ she says with a half smile, ‘roles like that choose me rather than me choosing them. But like Meryl Streep said at [this year’s] Golden Globes, “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and make you feel what that feels like.” I was sitting at home cheering at the telly when she said that.’
Julie is funny, warm and unexpectedly normal – neither preachy nor precious about the many causes she supports, from homelessness and LGBT issues to petitioning Downing Street to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. ‘It’s what you do, isn’t it? I can never stop myself from just getting involved. My mother’s the same. You wouldn’t think it to look at her – she’s 82 and wears pastel M& S blouses – but you should hear her talk. She’s a political firebrand!’
Coronation Street’s producers initially had no big plans for Hayley Cropper. It was little more than a walk-on part, but Julie had no intention of letting go of her big break. ‘I wasn’t meant to be in Coronation
Street for any longer than two weeks,’ she says. ‘The character of Hayley was originally written as a joke. It wasn’t a politically correct one, but this was back in 1998. The joke was that Roy Cropper [David Neilson] was going to go on a series of disastrous blind dates, one of them being with a man who had transgendered to a woman. For the writers and the producers, Hayley was never meant to be anything other than a bad joke on Roy.
‘But I knew I could make it something. I signed that original two-week contract with absolute conviction that they would never be getting rid of me. I was going to give it everything I had. I could see much more in her: depth, sadness, courage, humour, truth. I knew I could make the audience fall in love with her, believe in her, root for her. That was my intention from the start. I didn’t tell anyone, I just put everything into the way I played her.’
At that time, Julie was living in a friend’s spare room in London and signing on the dole. She had spent her years since leaving drama school running a tiny independent theatre and picking up small roles in shows such as The Bill and Catherine Cookson’s The Dwelling Place.
‘I’d had years of no money, which was OK because I loved being part of the business. But I was 28 [she’s now 46]. I wanted more. I wanted people to see what I could do. Corrie was my big chance.’
When she decided to leave, the news was a ‘bombshell’ to the cast and producers. ‘I knew they’d have to kill me off because Hayley would never leave Roy unless she or he died. I never thought I’d leave because I was so happy there. But I did a play in 2012 – Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster [about a 20-year-old battered to death in 2007 by a gang just because she was a goth] – because Sophie’s mother asked me to play her. It made me want to do more. I spoke to my husband [actor and writer Ian Kershaw], my mum, and Katherine Kelly [ Coronation Street’s Becky McDonald], and everyone told me to do it. Katherine said, “You’ll never look back.” I miss everyone – particularly David – but I’m loving each new challenge.’
I ask whether she was concerned about starring in the third series of Broadchurch after the second was critically slammed. She looks shocked. ‘No, I don’t think like that. I was flattered they wanted me. It was an incredible script, a fascinating role and I’d be working with Olivia Colman and David Tennant. I was in from the word go.’
She talks about ‘trusting herself’ to play the victim of a horrific rape. She talked to women at Dorset Rape Crisis and at a Sexual Assault Referral Centre, watched documentaries and, alongside Broadchurch’s staff, worked with an independent sexual violence advisor. ‘I was glad they picked me,’ she says. ‘I’m glad they went for someone who looked like me – someone as old as me, instead of a pretty young girl. I get sick to the back teeth of the way rape is portrayed on television and in films. It’s usually someone young and attractive. Even brilliant Swedish dramas do this. It makes the audience think there’s something sexual about it. But rape is an act of violence against women. ‘The other aspect we wanted to get across was how much the police have changed their attitude to rape. The system has changed. It used to be all, “What were you wearing?” [But] many rapes still go unreported and, if this makes more women come forward, that would be huge.’ I ask about Olivia and David. She grins. ‘ You hope they are going to be as lovely as you want them to be. They were even nicer, even more brilliant. And those guys work so hard on that show. They are in practically every
‘I get sick of the way rape is portrayed. It’s usually someone young and attractive’
Right Julie as Hayley Cropper, with David Neilson as her screen husband, Roy
Above David Tennant, Olivia Colman and Julie in Broadchurch Right With husband Ian Kershaw