There is something immensely satisfying, moving even, to witness life imitating art. Usually.
“Hello, I desperately need a wee!” cries Julie Hesmondhalgh unceremoniously as she scuttles through the restaurant doorway towards me. By a bizarre coincidence this is exactly how audiences first meet her character, Linda, in You & Me; bustling into her adult son Ben’s flat, announcing in her plangent Lancastrian tones that she urgently needs the loo.
“I’m classically trained, you know,” she quips grandly in a pukka RP accent, when I point out the parallel, before segueing into her normal voice. “And being a menopausal woman I usually do need a wee, so I can pull that performance out of the bag any time.”
In this new ITV three-parter her son is played by Harry Lawtey, who most recently came to our attention as cocky yet vulnerable outsider Robert Spearing in the addictive banking-and-bonking series Industry.
You & Me is a love story. Or rather it is a story of love in all its iterations and complications; passionate love, parental love, the emptiness old love leaves, the fear new love brings. As mother to Ben, Hesmondhalgh is more than just a cipher. Frankly, it would be a waste of her talent if she weren’t.
“I think TV often ages ‘mums’ and automatically sends them into a frump zone in a way that just doesn’t ring true,” she muses. “We were keen to get it right – Linda would have danced at the Hacienda, she wears her old band T-shirts, she has a hinterland.”
It’s all spectacularly well done. When I say so, Hesmondhalgh clasps her hands together in genuine wide-eyed delight. “I didn’t have to audition for it,” she confesses. “The script was sent to my agent. That’s terribly flattering but the downside is that when you go to the read-through you feel so stressed waiting for a tap on the shoulder and someone telling you they made a mistake and you’re not what they wanted at all.”
This seems absurd, given Hesmondhalgh’s professional stature. In the past few years, she has continued to win both affection and plaudits for playing a rape victim in Broadchurch and the stressed-out nurse married to a murderer in Happy Valley. That’s the insecurity of showbusiness for you, I guess.
When I put it to the 52-year-old actor (she never refers to herself as an actress) that she brings both the kitemark of quality and a troubling hint of darkness to any production, she laughs. “These characters find me. I’m quite an upbeat person in real life, yet people love seeing me cry; I seem to have cornered the market in anguished middle-aged women,” she says, brightly. “Even in my 20s I was projecting middle-age – I was only 27 when I was cast as Hayley [in Coronation Street].”
Ah yes. Hayley Cropper, the transgender character who first turned up as a comedy date with Roy, played by David Neilson, during his online attempts to find love – and went on, unexpectedly, to steal not just his heart but that of the nation.
“When I left drama school I was told that as a character actress I wouldn’t work until I was much older, but Coronation Street bridged the gap between ‘young maid’ and ‘grandmother’,” reflects Hesmondhalgh. “It was brilliant; soaps are the best places to grow old as an actress because the writers keep giving women rich lives and adventures, no matter what age they are.”
Hesmondhalgh, who is married to scriptwriter Ian Kershaw and has two daughters, joined the ITV soap in 1998 and stayed for 16 years, bowing out with a deeply moving assisted-dying role that will always define her career. Yet one performer’s stepping stone is another’s millstone; in recent years, non-trans actors who have played transgender characters, including The Danish Girl star Eddie Redmayne, have said they regret their casting. Hesmondhalgh remains unapologetic but is adamant that she wouldn’t – couldn’t – play the character again.
“I was really proud to play Hayley and I felt it was an important role,” she says. “I’m a massive believer in confronting prejudice through television and theatre, and Hayley storyline’s shifted perceptions. If you have someone in your living room who is different but sparks empathy or sympathy or affection, that’s a really big thing.
“But there’s no way a cisgender woman like me could or should play Hayley now; there are so many trans actors out there and it would be entirely anachronistic.”
Leaving Weatherfield in 2014 was not an easy decision, she admits. Coronation Street felt like home. When younger cast members arrived she would simply introduce herself as Hayley and say things like “they’ll have to carry me out in a coffin”.
“I lost all ambition and it was wonderful because I loved the people I worked with,” she says. “But then I took a break to do a play, and it was terrifying, but I knew that was where I wanted to be.”
The play in question was Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, in which she played Sylvia, the mother of Sophie, who was attacked (along with her boyfriend) and murdered in a Lancashire park for dressing as a goth in 2007. She was 20 years old. Hesmondhalgh, who is wearing a rubber wristband bearing Sophie’s name, remains a patron of The Sophie Lancaster Foundation. It was set up in her memory to promote tolerance, something that still can’t be taken for granted; police are investigating whether the murder of transgender 16-year-old Brianna Ghey by two 15-year-olds in Warrington earlier this month was a hate crime.
Hesmondhalgh, a straight-from-central-casting Leftie, is known for her grassroots activism and campaigning – she is also patron of Reuben’s Retreat, Maundy Relief, Trans Media Watch and various local theatres and youth groups, hospices and LGBTQ organisations. She also founded the anti-austerity Take Back Theatre Collective and the 500 Acts of Kindness charity where 1,000 people donate a pound a week – it has given out £200,000 in the past three years to a person or organisation in need.
“There are more successful actresses than me, more famous actresses than me, but there was something about Hayley that just connected with people,” she says. “That gives me a platform and a way to communicate with people from all walks of life, so, of course, I’m going to use that.”
Hesmondhalgh is currently in rehearsals for The Jungle, a play set in the Calais refugee camp of the same name. After a successful run at the Young Vic it is transferring to New York and then Washington. While Hesmondhalgh commutes to work on the Staten Island ferry, viewers at home will be hunkering down to watch You & Me – and what a treat they have in store.
“It’s about masculinity and fatherhood in a modern world and I haven’t seen that before,” she says. “And another thing, I am so proud Ben lives in a tiny London flat with not a bloomin’ kitchen island in sight. That’s proper authenticity.” I mumble something tongue-in-cheek about wokeness. She immediately shrieks in recognition. “Woke? I’m not woke. I am way beyond woke. I’m a fully paid-up w—-r! I’m a vegan. I don’t drink. I drive a hybrid, for pity’s sake! What am I like?”
What is Julie Hesmondhalgh like? The term national treasure springs to mind.
You & Me premieres on ITVX tonight