As Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street, Julie Hesmondhalgh played one of the most universally loved characters in the long and illustrious history of Coronation Street. Hayley was kind, caring and courageous and, as a transgender character (the first in British soap history), represented the kind of complex and rewarding acting role that comes along once in a lifetime. So, for Hesmondhalgh, leaving Corrie was an agonising decision, and a nation watched, equally agonised, as Hayley, suffering from terminal cancer, took her own life. “The decision to hang up Hayley's red anorak was a tough one… but there's life in the old dog yet, and there are other things I want to try,” she remarked at the time.
Little did she know, though, that waiting for her just around the corner was Cleo Whitaker, one of the lead roles in the latest landmark drama from the pen of the brilliant Russell T Davies. Here, Hesmondhalgh reveals how she landed the role, why it means so much to her, and how it marks a beautiful full circle for her.
This is your first TV role after Hayley in Coronation Street – were you waiting long for the right project to come along? Did you have a strong idea of what you wanted that to be?
I had no game plan at all when I went to Coronation Street and said that I was going to leave, and I just couldn't have anticipated the beautiful storyline that they gave me. So that changed things for me a little bit, I felt that change happen and that I was in a different game than I had been in before. So it was all very open and all very exciting – but I never in a million years expected it to be something like Cucumber!
Russell hasn't written anything for years and years, so for him to be writing this..! I’d heard about it because I live in Manchester and I know Russell a little bit. There was a big buzz about it even then – but I didn’t think there was anything for me. One of my great friends is a writer on Banana and I said I was being seen for Cucumber and he said “what part?!” It was never in any of our consciousness that it could really happen. So I went and I loved doing the audition, even the little bits I did for that were brilliantly written so it was beyond my wildest dreams that this was what I got offered. I was ready to do anything, I do a little bit of theatre and I was happy to do bits in TV and I was ready to be a jobbing actor again so this transcended any of that.
Was Russell T Davies the main draw?
Yeah and the amount of people that said “Was it a conscious decision to do a Russell T Davies drama” and I said “oh yes, it’s that easy!” It just came up and it was amazing. I got offered a couple of jobs that I had to say no to in order to do this. They were really lovely and I was really happy to do them but this took precedence over anything else really.
What were your first thoughts when you read the script?
I absolutely loved it. I got the first two episodes to read and I loved them and thought, ‘this is going to be amazing, what a wonderful thing to do 16 years after Queer as Folk’. Queer as Folk came out around the same time that Hayley arrived on Coronation Street so I was very much part of that cultural group in Manchester at that time, you know around Manchester Pride. It was around the time of Coronation Street’s first trans character, Queer as Folk being on the telly and it was the beginning of LBTG politics especially in Manchester so this is a beautiful full circle from that.
When I accepted the part, they said “you might want to read episode four” and I laughed with my husband and said “what could it possibly be? What could put me off this unless it’s a sex scene?!” I started reading episode four and shouted to my husband in the other room “I’m on a date!” and sure enough I do have a sex scene of sorts which was a bit terrifying but turned out to be more than fine actually. I enjoyed it a little bit more than I could have anticipated. Having not even kissed anyone else apart from my husband for about 17 years it was quite a big thing for me and I was very aware it would change the perception of me. It would be a big shift in audience who were following me as Hayley from Coronation Street. It would possibly be the biggest brain shift they would have to do…
How would you describe Cleo?
She is a fantastic character and I don’t know how Russell has written her so beautifully. From his own perspective as a middle-aged gay man, for him to write a middle-aged straight woman and a mother as thoroughly and as beautifully as he has. Cleo has a very busy life and she is very
entrenched in Henry’s [her brother’s] life as well. She sees Lance [Henry’s boyfriend] completely as a brother-in-law even though they aren’t married, and completely as part of the family so when that all implodes it has a huge effect on her. I think for quite a while she is talking about it like it is just a crazy midlife crisis and she does her best to reverse the damage that has been done. Even though she is the person Henry listens to most in the world, she doesn't have that influence on him and she can’t turn back the tide on this.
She becomes like everyone does in some ways, a victim to Henry’s actions in terms of a trickledown effect of the little business that Henry has with Cleo’s son, Adam, which implodes in episode five as you see the effects of what they are doing. That starts a whole conversation about what children can access online. Russell wrote a sort of addendum to that, a 10 minute short called Screwdriver [which will be released online after episode five has aired], a two-hander between Cleo and Adam where she grills him about when he first saw porn and what he has seen. Cleo has been drifting along with a certain amount of naivety about what he has been exposed to, but a friend has shown her what’s on the internet and she is shocked to the core about what she sees.
It was a fascinating part to play because on the outside Cleo seems a bit like a character in a gay drama who is very comfortable with men’s sexuality and very involved in that world. However, she is also a person struggling with her own aging and sexuality. She hasn't had sex in a very long time and she has sort of given up on it as well, quietly, without really admitting it, but it is what happens to Henry that makes her think “I am no better than he is.” I think she is a really likeable character.
Her teenage son Adam seems very comfortable with his sexuality, he is just as happy to share a bed with his male friends as bask in attention from girls – it feels like a very modern depiction of a teenager?
I think it is brilliant – it is one of my favourite bits when Cleo comes back from her date and finds him sleeping in bed with his friend. She doesn't really know what’s going on there, she doesn’t really think he is gay. It’s a bit like Freddie [played by Freddie Fox] who’s polysexual rather than bisexual, he is just somebody who likes people and will sleep with people he likes. She’s cool with it. She trusts Adam to be safe.
You mention Screwdriver addresses the issue of online porn, is it something you worry about?
I am at the beginning of this journey because my daughter is just 13 and also quite an innocent child and I hope I am not saying that naively! We have a really open relationship and talk a lot about things so I have said to her constantly, she is not allowed access to the internet anywhere in the house where I’m not. So she’s not allowed a computer in her room or a phone in her room. I have always said to her, if there is anything you see that you are uncomfortable with, come and tell me about it because I will talk to you about it – nothing is off limits. Screwdriver was an eye opener for me because there are hundreds of things that I knew nothing about and that was shocking to me. It is a worry about the expectations of my daughters from young boys, and I think it would be the same the other way round as well. If all you have seen of sex is hardcore porn, how do you consolidate that with what you are supposed to be doing, and even what your body is supposed to look like?
Also check out our interview with Banana's Letitia Wright and what Russell T Davies had to tell us about Cucumber and Banana