Actress and disability campaigner Melissa Johns makes her Coronation Street debut tonight playing Imogen, a love interest for Kate Connor. As fans will see, Imogen quickly gets passionate with Kate during a girls’ night out, earning the consternation of Rana in the process.
Here, Johns discusses life at Corrie, the visibility of actors with disabilities on TV and how she herself has come to love life with one arm.
Do you think soaps lead the way when it comes to depicting people with disabilities?
I do. And Coronation Street is really winning with this at the moment. It already has Cherylee Houston [Izzy] and Liam Bairstow [Alex] and now me. And there is a responsibility there – with soaps, you’re in people’s living rooms almost every night of the week, so it’s an amazing platform to make a social change. We still have huge barriers in society because people can be incredibly awkward around disability. And the more we se it on our screen, the more positive effect it has on society as a whole.
Could the 9.00pm dramas do more?
Every time I watch a drama, I do get a bad feeling in my stomach. Because often, I’ll be left asking myself: why couldn’t there have been a disabled actor in that? We’re fighting for the same opportunities as our non-disabled peers. So I think the question programme-makers need to be asking themselves isn’t ‘why should I cast an actor with a disability?’. It should be: ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And this should be across the board: casting directors, producers, but also storyliners and researchers. If everybody just opened their minds a little bit more, I think we would have a huge change.
Was this part created specifically for you?
No, not at all. I get annoyed with the idea of ‘disabled parts’, I just don’t understand it. A part can be played by someone with a disability. But if we’re waiting for these ‘disabled parts’ to come up, then that’s where a lot of our problems lie. I know that my agent put up lots of other actors in her agency for this role, but Coronation Street came back with a straight offer for me, which was just incredible.
So did you relish the chance to play a character like Imogen?
Yes, because I’ve always wanted to show the fun side to my disability. And Imogen is sexy, flirty, feisty and has attitude. Not every disabled person is going to be the same, but I’ve always joked about it. There’s no point crying – the tears aren’t going to fall on my arm and make it grow. And too often, when someone with a disability gets cast in something, very rarely do they have a personality as well. Usually, it’s a case of ‘having a disability is enough. God forbid there should be something else on top!’. Here, I get to show that I’m at ease with the body I was given. It hasn’t always been that way – I’ve had some really dark moments in my life. It took me a while to feel comfortable with my body. But I now love having one arm.
What reaction have you had from the cast?
Working on Coronation Street was something I’d imagined for so long, so to be there was amazing. The first person I met was Connor McIntyre [Phelan] and he’s been an absolute rock for me. One thing that a couple of the cast members have said to me is that I’ve really opened their eyes to something they hadn’t thought about before. So that was a lovely compliment. They’re like a real family – for instance, one day, Samia Longchambon [Maria] got straight down onto her knees to help me with a buckle on a shoe I had trouble fastening. She just did it without hesitation. So people are just very accepting and lovely – and that really helped.
Tell me about your first scenes…
Imogen is in the Bistro enjoying a few drinks and that’s where she meets Kate. And as you’ll see, it’s a flirty, lustful relationship between Kate and Imogen. I do end up having to do the walk of shame wearing the same clothes as the night before. But, you know, as a person with a disability, you’re asked the most ridiculous questions, such as ‘do people with disabilities have sex?’ So, playing Imogen, it’s amazing to show this very normal side to having a different body shape.
How did you react when you were asked whether people with disabilities have sex?
The first time it was said to me, I was completely shocked. Because what they mean by the question is: who on earth would want to be with someone with a disability? They’re not talking about science. What they’re saying is: aren’t people put off?
As if you must be living some kind of half life?
Absolutely. And the amount of times I’ve had people telling me that they feel sorry for me. I just say, ‘don’t feel sorry for me – I have a lovely life. I’m so grateful for the life that I have. Never feel sorry for me because I’m doing OK.
You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of Coronation Street below