Julie Hesmondhalgh is one of Manchester’s most famous faces and requires little introduction. Hailing from Accrington, Julie first appeared on our screens in a variety of shows including Victoria Wood’s television movie Pat & Margaret.
In 1998 she took on her most iconic role as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street, making history as the first transgender character in the history of soap opera.
Gracing the infamous cobbles, anorak in tow, Julie’s fifteen years on Corrie were full of joy, laughter and heartbreak. But her career didn’t stop there. Since saying goodbye to the Street, Julie has appeared in numerous critically-acclaimed television programmes such as Cucumber, Inside No.9, Broadchurch and Happy Valley.
Julie is also the co-founder of the Take Back Theatre Collective, which was set up as an artistic response to the politics of austerity. The collective brings together a community of artists from across Greater Manchester and beyond to create rapid response script-in-hand events that address topical issues, as well as creating groundbreaking immersive and installation-based work.
What got you started in your field of work?
A teacher at primary school encouraged me to do speaking examinations. I know! At a 1970s state school – and it’s what got me into performing. I honestly don’t think I’d have found my way into acting otherwise.
Who have been your biggest influences?
My teacher at drama school, Brian Astbury, who had set up The Space in Cape Town, South Africa, in the ‘70s. It was the first multi-racial company in the country in the age of apartheid, and they were raided and closed down weekly by the authorities because of it. He was the one who taught me that art and theatre is political, that you can change the world through culture. Also my big brother Dave, seven years older than me, was a massive influence. It was him who first talked to me properly about politics and class and feminism, and who encouraged me to go to drama school.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
I was really proud of how Hayley, as the first trans character in a soap, did so much to win hearts and minds around that issue. Also, playing Sylvia Lancaster in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, and how that play and film have been used in schools and communities to combat hate crime. And the conversations around the portrayal of rape on TV that were provoked by the storyline in Broadchurch.
What does a typical day involve?
I get up first in our house, and write a page, longhand, stream of consciousness every morning and do some stretching with about five mugs of tea – because I’m always stiff as a board in the morning. Getting on a bit now! I get breakfast ready for my daughters and take my husband a brew. Then when the girls are on the school bus I either walk or jog in the woods with my old dog.
After that, every day is different depending on work. I run a political theatre collective with Becx Harrison and Grant Archer and we always have a project on the go, so if I’m not rehearsing something or filming, we’ll be meeting and discussing and planning. I visit my old Mum in Accrington once a week.
I probably see about two plays a week on average. There’s so much going on in Manchester, you could literally be at the theatre every night. And we’re a tight and lovely theatre community here in the north west, so there’s always a mate in something, somewhere.
How do you relax on your days off?
Game of cards with my 13-year-old, dog walks, cinema. I like a good book.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My old teacher at drama school was pretty forthright about us not waiting around for the phone to ring; to go out and make our own work.
If things hadn’t worked out, what else could you have seen yourself doing?
Probably something in social work or mental health.
Tell us one thing about yourself people might be surprised to hear
I have two tattoos: a red rose for Lancashire and a Manchester bee, of course.
Red or Blue?
Name your three favourite places in Manchester
Royal Exchange, HOME, Koffee Pot.
If you could change one thing about Manchester, what would it be?
More social housing; better care for homeless people. There is so much more homelessness now than there ever was.
What do you love most about Manchester?
I’m completely in love with this city: the people, the buildings, the culture, the activism, the music. All of it.
You can see Julie in conversation discussing her stand-out career at the Pilot Light TV Festival at HOME on Saturday 5th May, where she will receive an Excellence in Television Award.