Julie Hesmondhalgh: 'It's much harder for working class performers to break through now'

As she opens in the Bruntwood Prize-wining show ”The Almighty Sometimes”, ex-”Coronation Street” actress Julie Hesmondhalgh answers our 20 questions about her life in theatre

Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Almighty Sometimes
Julie Hesmondhalgh rehearsing for The Almighty Sometimes
© Manuel Harlan

1. How would you describe The Almighty Sometimes in five words?
Raw, warm, witty, visceral, relevant.

2. How would you describe your role?
A mum trying to do the right thing by her extraordinary daughter; a woman whose life has been on hold.

3. What do you enjoy most about working on this production?
The people! It’s always the people. We have a wonderful woman-heavy team, which is a rare thing, from the writer Kendall [Feaver] to the director Katy Rudd, designer, lighting designer, movement director and entire SM team. We’re having a lovely time. The brilliant cast are making me raise my game!

4. Did you jump at the role?
I did. As we all know, rich and complex female characters in their late forties are a bit thin on the ground, and I love Renee. She’s funny, and there’s an indefatigability about her, a dogged maternal love that is very potent, in an understated way. And the mother/daughter dynamic is so real, so perfectly observed in the scenes between them. There is resentment and frustration, but with an underlying deep and steadfast love. The subject matter, young people and mental health, is a huge topic at the moment, and it seemed the perfect moment for this play to be produced.

5. It's a Bruntwood play, what was it about the writing that appealed to you?
I’d read an early draft of the play as I performed an extract as part of the Bruntwood Prize Ceremony in 2015. It’s changed a lot since then, but it’s all there: a beautiful exploration of creativity, mental health, relationships, survival, love. There is so much warmth in it. And it’s genuinely funny. Kendall has written a play with a lot of humour in it.

6. Are there things about being in a world premiere that are harder?
It’s exciting. We are making small changes with Kendall as we go, during rehearsals, but the play was already in great shape, even in the very early draft I read. The rest has been finessing. It’s a very supportive and collaborative rehearsal room with Katy at the helm. I love new writing, it’s what I’m most interested in as an actor, and most of the plays I’ve been in have been "world premieres" which is just a way to make "new play" sound more grand!

Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mike Noble in The Almighty Sometimes
Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mike Noble rehearsing for The Almighty Sometimes
© Manuel Harlan

7. What is your earliest memory in entertainment?
Watching old MGM musicals on the telly with my mum.

8. What do you consider to be your big break?
Playing Hayley in Coronation Street, without a doubt. I had no idea when I entered Judi Hayfield’s casting office at Granada in 1997, how completely it would change my life. And my beautiful leaving storyline changed everything for me in terms of opening doors as an actor back out in the world!

9. If you hadn't become a performer what would you have done?
Probably something in social work or politics. Maybe a writer. A non-fiction writer. I was commissioned by Methuen to write a Working Diary last year, and I absolutely loved that process, and the discipline of turning up on the page every day.

10. Most embarrassing moment?
I can’t remember who first said this, and I’m probably paraphrasing, but it applies completely to me, as all my friends will testify… my life is a series of embarrassing moments punctuated by me recounting the embarrassing moments.

11. What has been your career highlight?
That’s too hard! Every job I’ve been lucky enough to do, especially post-Corrie, has been a highlight. But in terms of far-reaching impact, and feeling proud of some sort of legacy, I suppose it’ll have to be Hayley. But the work I do with Take Back, the Manchester theatre collective I co-run, gives me so much joy and fulfilment: being part of that has been a highlight of my life.

12. What draws you to acting?
The people, the rehearsals, learning new stuff on every job, the connection.

13. Who are your idols?
Patti Smith, Serena Williams, Sheridan Smith, Victoria Wood, Maya Angelou, Lena Dunham, the group of women I worked with on Peterloo last year: my Manchester Female Reform Society gang.

14. If you could go back in time and change one thing in your career what would it be?
Absolutely nothing.

15. What have you seen on stage recently?

I saw the excellent Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange and my niece Rosa in A Christmas Carol at Hull Truck, which I loved.

16. You were on Coronation Street for a long time, was it hard to leave it?
Yes, it nearly killed me. I loved it there, but something in me knew it was time to go. It was a now-or-never moment that took a bit of courage. But I had the expression "Leap and the net will appear" as my mantra, and it’s not worked out too badly. So far.

17. Had you always thought you would be a performer?
No. You didn’t grow up in Accrington in the '70s and '80s thinking that that was really a possibility. I was incredibly lucky to go to a brilliant FE college with an amazing teacher who opened our eyes to the possibility of acting as a job and who encouraged us to go to drama school. As is well documented, I was also very fortunate to have been 18 at a time when there were full grants available to enable us to train. It is much, much more difficult for young people from working class backgrounds now.

18. What do you do to unwind in your spare time?
Books, telly, walking the dog, board games with my 13 year-old. My absolute favourite thing is to go to the theatre though. Watching plays is totally my happy place. My 16 year-old daughter is the same, so it’s wonderful that we can enjoy that together now.

19. What would your dream role be?
Mother Courage.

20. What advice would you give to aspiring singers and actors?
Wherever possible, make your own work. Find your gang, find a venue, just do it. Keep yourself creatively alive. Join Equity. Engage with the world, it’ll make your art better.

The Almighty Sometimes runs at the Royal Exchange Manchester from 9 to 24 February.