Julie Hesmondhalgh

‘I felt like a competition winner,’ says Julie Hesmondhalgh, recalling the day she was offered a leading role in the third and final series of TV phenomenon Broadchurch. ‘It’s a big shock, to get a call like that. In a way, I’d prefer to have auditioned – at least then you’ve passed some sort of test, haven’t you? Instead of turning up on the first day thinking, “What if they think I’m s***?’”

There’s little danger of that: the former Coronation Street star is sensational as Trish Winterman, the victim of the sexual assault that forms the basis of the show’s compelling new storyline. From the opening, lingering close-up of Trish’s traumatised face, Hesmondhalgh is front and centre of the drama, with even stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman initially taking a supporting role.

‘It felt like a big responsibility,’ admits Hesmondhalgh, who spent much of last summer living in a caravan on the beach at the show’s stunning Dorset location. ‘The first scenes we filmed were pretty full on – the sort of day you go home with a headache afterwards. But what an amazing thing to be part of.

‘I know there’s a lot of conversation at the moment about how this issue’s dealt with in crime dramas,’ she adds. ‘The sexualisation of it – it’s very often young girls being chased through woods and ending up on slabs. I really get that, and I’m sick of it too, so I was interested in the fact they wanted to cast me – to see an ordinary middle-aged woman going through something like that. I think that’s an important message – that this is something that can happen to anyone. It’s an act of violence, not an act of sex.’

It’s the second acclaimed crime drama the 46-year-old has joined recently, having also appeared in the second series of Happy Valley. Indeed, Happy Valley was something of a Corrie takeover, with Katherine Kelly also in the cast, alongside star Sarah Lancashire.

‘When you come out of a soap, everyone always asks, “So are you going to be the next Sarah Lancashire?”’ laughs Hesmondhalgh, who spent 16 years playing Hayley Cropper on the Street. ‘Of course not everyone’s going to be like Sarah, or Suranne [Jones]. But there are plenty of people leaving to have good, steady careers.’

Over the years, Corrie has proved an incredible rep company for female talent. Is it, wonders Weekend, to do with creator Tony Warren’s vision of the show being about ‘women and their menfolk?’

‘Yes, absolutely,’ says Hesmondhalgh. ‘Corrie’s always been amazing for women. But it is for men, too. It’s such an amazing training ground. There’s a snobbery about soap acting from some places, but it takes real skill. And you don’t get any help – there’s no nice lighting or music or any of that stuff you get in dramas. It’s just absolutely flat on, what you see is what you get. And with no rehearsal – it’s literally line run, runthrough, do it. So when you see some of the stuff that comes out, it’s pretty amazing.’

Hesmondhalgh was 27 when she was cast as Hayley – famous for her iconic red anorak, and for being the first transgender character in a soap. Initially, she was devised as something of a punchline to a story about Roy Cropper’s disastrous dating attempts, but Hesmondhalgh – who met her husband, the writer Ian Kershaw, on the Corrie set – brought an earthy integrity to it from the start. Her relationship with Roy went on to become one of the show’s great love stories, and her death in his arms – having taken her own life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer – among the most indelible scenes in the soap’s long history.

‘My anorak has just gone into the People’s History Museum in Manchester, for an LGBT history exhibition,’ she beams. ‘I love that. I’ll always be really proud of what we did with that character.

‘But I don’t think they’d cast a cis woman as a trans character now,’ she adds. ‘And rightly so. It’s kind of like blacking up; me playing that character now would have been an anachronism. I’d have started to feel uncomfortable now about being in that part. It was of its time.’

Hesmondhalgh was born in Accrington, Lancashire, to office worker parents. ‘My dad had a poetic soul,’ she says. ‘He was one of those people who should have gone to university. His education was thwarted through tragic family events, and he wasn’t allowed to go to grammar school. He always wrote poetry, he loved books and music. But it was also Top of the Pops and Fame and the pools round on Thursday – we didn’t sit round listening to classical music. It was a really ordinary family, just with this amazing, poetic dad.’

After school, she won a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – arriving, she admits, with a bit of a northern, working class chip on her shoulder. ‘The difference in class was just so massive, because I was mixing with people from Eton and Harrow,’ she recalls. ‘It was quite a culture shock.

‘I’m often asked to speak about working class people in the arts, and I’m really passionate about it. But I don’t want it to be posh-bashing – because it’s not about that. You can’t help the privilege you’re born into. My kids [Martha, 15 and Melissa, 12] are privileged. They’re growing up in an artistic, arts and crafts household now. So I’m not chippy any more. I want people to have the same opportunities, but I’m not going to be slagging off Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Eddie [Redmayne]. That’s not what it’s about.’

As well as working with Arts Emergency, which helps people from diverse backgrounds access training in the arts, Hesmondhalgh is the co-founder of Take Back, a political grassroots theatre company in her adopted home of Manchester. So does she believe art has the power to change the world?

‘Yes,’ she says firmly. ‘I think it’s our number one responsibility as artists to do what we can to change the world. By questioning things, and starting conversations about things. It’s absolutely the motor that I run on. People say it’s a bit of an echo chamber, but it changes things. People being in a room together, being emboldened by arguments about what you believe in your heart about equality and justice… There’s a lot of emboldening of the other side going on in the world at the moment, and for us to get together and feel that energy, I think it does change the world, a bit.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 23, 2017

(c) Waitrose Weekend