Former Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh found fame as transsexual Hayley Cropper, but quit the role a year ago. She tells Gabrielle Fagan about her new life and worries for her daughters
It was acclaimed as one of the most moving moments on television - when transsexual Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street killed herself to escape the final stages of cancer - but for Julie Hesmondhalgh that dramatic end spelled a new beginning and has been “life changing”.
A year after the deathbed scene and quitting the role she played for 15 years - a decision she describes as “scary” - she declares she has “absolutely no regrets and I’m having the time of my life”.
Free from Hayley’s brown wigs and red anorak, the actress looks years younger with her platinum blonde crop, jeans and stylish top. The bubbly, warm personality which characterised her former role is clearly all hers and even more apparent.
“It was a loss leaving Corrie, life-changing in fact and I don’t think I’ve properly processed it yet. It was so busy leading up to my leaving and I was completely immersed in the beautiful, moving storyline they gave me as my finale,” admits the 44-year-old, who’s down-to-earth, open and endearingly modest.
Many actors have failed to successfully recreate themselves after being so closely identified with a hugely popular character.
“I thought long and hard about it,” says Hesmondhalgh, originally from Accrington, who still retains her Lancashire accent. “In the end, I took a long walk for three hours on my own. It’s what I always do if I ever have to make a big decision. I was told by someone that doing that helps release the bigger, braver self inside you and stops the little frightened other self inside controlling you. At the end of that walk I knew without doubt it was right to leave and try new things.”
She believes the wisdom of that choice was justified by winning her latest role as Cleo, bossy, zany sister of gay man, Henry (Vincent Franklin), a lead character in Cucumber, part of a trilogy of programmes. She also appears in Banana on E4, focusing on standalone stories predominantly about the lives of the younger generation in the drama, as well as in related online documentary series about sex and sexuality, Tofu.
“Cleo’s a gift of a part and I was thrilled and honoured to get it,” she enthuses as she discusses the show written by Russell T Davies, creator of the first drama about gay men in the UK, the 1999 cult series Queer As Folk.
“I think it will stir up controversy, but it’s absolutely brilliant,” she says, describing her character as “multifaceted. I’m the voice of reason for Henry, chaotic and a mum of three.”
The series has had an unexpected personal effect on Hesmondhalgh - it’s shocked her into being more vigilant as a parent of two daughters, 12 and 10.
“One of the major plotlines focuses on porn and what children are exposed to online. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of the social media pressures on young people and what they can access at the click of a button,” she says.
“It’s quite frightening to realise not only what’s out there but that it’s so easily accessible. In the past, kids could always come across ‘naughty’ magazines but nowadays they can view quite extreme versions of sex and sexuality.
‘‘So it’s a whole different world and it’s not easy to know as a parent how to keep them safe and how much access to allow to social media.”
Hesmondhalgh, who’s married to writer and former actor, Ian Kershaw and lives in Glossop, Derbyshire, felt compelled to have a heart to heart with her eldest daughter and imposes her own restrictions.
“I wanted her to know that if she stumbled across anything she was uncomfortable with or needed to ask about something, she could,” she says.
“I told her she could literally ask me anything and nothing would shock me - after all I’ve been around the block a few times. I felt it important to keep the dialogue between us open and honest.
“I try to monitor what both girls are watching. I’m on Facebook, so I know what’s going on there, and neither of them’s allowed a TV or a phone in their bedrooms. That’s not popular I can assure you - they think I’m out to ruin their fun.
“Of course, you have to keep a balance.
‘‘It’s easy to get completely neurotic as a mother about cyberbullying and all the pressures online, but there’s also many wonderful things about the internet. But I definitely now look at the web in a more rounded, informed and possibly more open-minded way.”
Patently a devoted, conscientious mother, she nevertheless confesses that, in common with other parents, she constantly wrestles with maintaining a balance between family life and work.
“Motherhood’s the most important thing in the world to me - my girls are amazing - but it’s the role in my life I find most challenging,” she says with typical honesty.
Hesmondhalgh, whose original ambition was to become a social worker, takes pride in the fact that through acting, she’s helped give a ‘voice’ to highlight real life issues such as transsexuality, the right-to-die, and pancreatic cancer.
“It has been wonderful to feel you’re playing a part in raising awareness. It’s fantastic to do something positive through your job in an industry which sometimes can be negatively associated with being rather shallow and narcissistic,” she says.
:: Cucumber starts on Channel Four on Thursday, January 22. Visit www.channel4.com/programmes/cucumber