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Julie Hesmondhalgh: ‘Having something to say about the world seems to be my shtick’

Julie Hesmondhalgh in rehearsals for Wit. Photo: Jonathan Keenan Julie Hesmondhalgh in rehearsals for Wit. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Surely one of the most recognisable voices in the UK belongs to Julie Hesmondhalgh. Her warm, deep, almost musical Lancashire accent became one with Hayley Cropper – the character she played in Coronation Street for 16 years – and has since been well wielded in two plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

For her latest role at the theatre, though, it is out the window – and not before time, according to Hesmondhalgh. “It’s very hard for me to break out of this one, because it’s so distinctive,” she explains, “so it’s great to be doing summit else. Bit weird for people I imagine, at first.”

Perhaps. But then the play she’s in, Wit, is a bit weird. The drama, written by Margaret Edson and first performed in 1995, follows the final hours of Vivian, a cancer-stricken university professor. Vivian, however, disapproves of the play being staged about her, and continually tries to subvert it.

There are a few ways I expected Hesmondhalgh to describe Wit, which she started rehearsing in the run-up to Christmas: a Pulitzer prize-winning drama seen only in the UK once before, a searching look at life, death, companionship and loneliness. Those were my notes, anyway.

I did not expect her to compare it to A Christmas Carol.

“This keeps coming up in rehearsals,” she laughs. “It’s a little bit of a morality tale. She’s being shown scenes from her life, and lessons that she should have learned that she didn’t.”

Julie Hesmondhalgh in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster. Photo:  Jonathan Keenan
Julie Hesmondhalgh in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

The play is a hard sell, she concedes, and not helped by a hesitation among theatregoers when it comes to watching plays about death. “You say it’s a play about someone dying of cancer and people go” – she breathes in sharply through her teeth – “but nobody’s put off by films that are about that. It’s almost seen as therapeutic to see something [at the cinema] that’s universal and upsetting and dark.”

Helming the production is director Raz Shaw, himself a cancer survivor.

“He has a lot to say about his own experiences of that and his way of dealing with it, because he had stage four…you know…” Hesmondhalgh stops for a second, and starts a few different sentences, each trying to sensitively word what ‘stage four’ means – an effort both endearing and pointless. We both know.

“You know, it was a bit of a near miss, really,” she continues. “So we talked a lot about that, and what we wanted to say with the play and what we wanted people to leave with.”

Her role in Wit may well stir echoes for Coronation Street viewers, who saw her character Hayley suffering with pancreatic cancer before deciding to end her own life during an episode in 2014. But Hesmondhalgh says the process behind portraying the two dying women could not be more different.

“One of the most amazing things about the last scenes in Corrie, when Hayley was dying, was that you’ve got all that history,” she explains. “If you’re filming a drama or doing a play, you never have 16 years of history behind you to bring to the last scene of something. Your investment in it and the audience’s investment in that character and the relationships and everything… it’s a really unique thing.”

With Hayley, she explains, there was never any time to think about process. “There is no preparation in something like Corrie, you just do it. And that in itself is quite exhilarating, and an amazing training for me to go out into the world with, because you come ready. There’s no rehearsal time, I mean no rehearsal at all. You come in, you do a line run, you block it, you block it with cameras and then you do it. And because it’s multi-cam, you only do it once at the time. So the immediacy of that brings up some really exciting things sometimes.”

It was on the Royal Exchange’s stage in 1997 that Hesmondhalgh was first spotted by Coronation Street casting directors – though this, she stresses, is not unusual. “It’s always like that in Manchester when you’re in a play,” she chuckles, mimicking the whispers of an excitable cast: “‘Ooh Corrie are in tonight. Corrie are in tonight.’”

“Funny,” she adds, as a sudden aside, “that’s been taken away from me now. What can they do with me?” She is joking, of course, and laughs, but it’s the kind of humour her characters are known for; you get caught on the joke, like a sharp edge.


Q&A: Julie Hesmondhalgh

What was your first professional job? The Lizzie Play at Arts Threshold in 1992.
What is your next job? An undisclosed part in the second season of Happy Valley on BBC1.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I suppose… keep the faith. That things will happen. Not to worry.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Brian Astbury. He continues to be an angel on my shoulder, not only in terms of creating work, but creating work that has something to say about the world. He’s the one who taught me those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
What’s your best advice for auditions? It’s important to just keep working and keep creating and not just sit rocking in the corner waiting for the phone to ring, because that doesn’t inspire people to employ you. So just be passionate about something. Find something to be interested in. Have something to talk about when you go to auditions.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A social worker.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? No, I’m not a superstitious person. It’s all a load of bollocks, isn’t it?

While Coronation Street’s door is clearly closed, dozens more are exploding open in Hesmondhalgh’s resident Manchester. The city is experiencing something of a theatrical boom: the Royal Exchange is going from strength to strength, the opening of Home has provided a new 400-seat venue and the city will be receiving a £110 million theatre, the Factory, in 2018. Could Manchester become a theatre hub to match the capital?

“It’s happening,” she fires back, with triumphant certainty. “It’s absolutely happening. I think the notion of London being at the centre of everything is dissipating. I think that more and more people are coming to Manchester and thinking: ‘Oh God, I love it here’ – my agent says that all the time. Because it’s manageable without being parochial now. It’s exciting and vibrant, but cohesive. We’re all together in it. London’s so sprawling that sometimes it can be quite difficult.”

Julie Hesmondhalgh with Katie West (left) in Blindsided. Photo: Kevin Cummins
Julie Hesmondhalgh with Katie West (left) in Blindsided. Photo: Kevin Cummins

The city’s community spirit is evident in Hesmondhalgh’s recent grassroots projects. She’s part of a collective of theatremakers called The Gap, aiming to bolster the city’s burgeoning fringe scene, and also helped put together an evening of short, sharp political theatre, Take Back.

Neither of which, apparently, were difficult endeavours. “It’s unbelievably easy to get things cracking in Manchester,” she says, matter-of-factly. “You just shout out and everyone says: ‘Yeah, I’ll do something.’ And then suddenly you book a room and you’ve got something on.”

Hesmondhalgh has some experience in getting things cracking. Case in point: her own career. On leaving drama school in 1991, she helped set up an independent fringe theatre in Paddington, Arts Threshold, at the insistence of her LAMDA teacher Brian Astbury. It was where Rufus Norris directed his first play. Hesmondhalgh starred in it – it was her first paid role.

She acknowledges, though, that 2016 is a very different landscape for young people wishing to force a foot in the door. “It was so much easier for me. I got a full grant to go to drama school because I’m from a working-class background, and when I left I signed on [to jobseeker’s allowance] while I was at Arts Threshold. I couldn’t have done it without that. Now they would be making me go and do other jobs, but I was saying: ‘This is my apprenticeship. This will stand me in stead for the future,’ and that was enough then.”

For a working young person, breaking into acting is now “unbelievably tough”, she protests. “I know a girl who got a place at Drama Centre London on the foundation course, which is a dream place to go to. There’s no loan available for that, and the full bursary was only two thirds [of the total cost]. And she just couldn’t do it. So she’s gone somewhere else and she’s happy there. But it’s things like that. And when she leaves, how can she live in London? It’s just really, really difficult.”

Offstage, Hesmondhalgh has been outspoken in her support for Arts Emergency, which supports disadvantaged young people seeking a creative career. But it’s something she tries to take on stage with her too. “The thing that has been in common with everything that I’ve done,” she tells me slowly, “is having something to say about the world. That seems to be my shtick now, which I’m really happy with.”

It’s a good shtick, I reply.

She laughs again. “It is a good shtick to have, innit?”

CV: Julie Hesmondhalgh

Born: 1970, AccringtonTraining: LAMDA (1988-91)
Landmark productions: Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster (2012), Blindsided (2014)Television: 
Coronation Street (1998-2014), Cucumber (2015)
Best serial drama performance, National Television Awards (2014), Best actress, British Soap Awards (2014)
Lou Coulson Associates

Wit runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, from January 21 to February 13

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