Coronation Street will next week screen Julie Hesmondhalgh’s emotional final scenes as ailing Hayley Cropper prepares for the end. Here, the actress talks about her 16 years on the ITV soap, what it feels like to be parted from on-screen husband David Neilson (who plays Roy) and the impact her beloved character has had on the viewing public:
So, Julie, can you tell us about the filming of Hayley’s death scene – what was the experience like?
It was the hardest day of filming, but the atmosphere on set was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was almost holy and church-like. David and I went in and everyone was just silent. We have a great crew and usually there’s a lot of banter, but this was very different. And we did the main scenes in one take, which was helpful because it had to feel raw.
What did you do when you got home at the end of that day?
I’d rung my husband [writer Ian Kershaw] and told him that I’d found it very difficult. He was running a youth club in our village that night, but bless him, he got some cover and was there when I got home. He’d lit candles and poured me a glass of wine. And he sat down and talked me through it because he knows how massive this all is for me.
Has the storyline made you think about your own mortality?
Yes, it has. I lost my dad last January, although not from cancer, but it does bring that sort of stuff up. And it’s really because the scripts for these episodes are so brilliant. We were keen for the death to not be beautiful so we deliberately played against that. Roy still doesn’t want Hayley to commit suicide and she’s quite driven about it. Right up to the end, he doesn’t agree with her decision and she almost railroads him into it because it’s becoming too painful.
What was your last day on set like?
Well, Jennie McAlpine gave me a card that really made me cry. I did my last scene with Debbie Rush and that made me cry. Helen Worth and Sally Dynevor both made me cry. And Ali King really made me weep. So that’s not bad going, is it?
What’s your relationship with David Neilson like?
We’re like an old married couple and I love him. He’s so loved and respected and I think he’s seen universally as the best actor on the show. I’ve had him for 16 years, so it’s someone else’s turn now and they’re all queuing up. But my relationship with him has been an absolute blast. Plus he’s completely different from Roy – he’s very dry and slightly suave. There are some framed photos in the flat that were taken in Blackpool and I’ve said, “That’s not Roy, that’s David!” Even when he’s in full costume, I know the difference.
Can you tell us about other people who have featured heavily in Hayley’s life – Jennie McAlpine (Fiz) and Katherine Kelly (Becky), for instance?
The second Jennie walked in 13 years ago, I knew she was something special. She has a maturity about her, she’s an old soul and wise beyond her years. I wrote in a card that I want to be her when I grow up. I’ll miss her a lot but we’ll stay friends. Kate Kelly was one of the first people I told that I was leaving Coronation Street and she’s been brilliantly supportive. She’s absolutely gorgeous and we’re in regular contact.