Shirley Henderson is in prison again, which is an irresistible invitation to say she has “previous”. Urban Hymn – in which she plays social worker Kate, weighed down with a secret sadness, who comes to the rescue of a female young offender with a great voice – is at least the third project in which the actor has spent time at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Before this new film (in cinemas from Friday 30 September), she was visiting nasty piece of work Tommy Lee Royce, banged up in Sally Wainwright’s brilliant Happy Valley. Henderson played Frances Drummond, whom she managed to make both pitiable and creepy. And back in 2012, the actress was in Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, filmed over five years, where she plays a mother of four whose husband (John Simm) is incarcerated.
She has a soft, musical voice – very proper and Scottish, talking about “folk” rather than people and saying “wee” for small. For such a slight frame, and at just over five foot tall (she’s now 50 but convincingly played a 14-year-old schoolgirl, ghostly Moaning Myrtle, from the age of 37, in the Harry Potter films), her laugh is large and gutsy and comes easily.
“Yes,” a big wheeze of laughter, “I have been in lots of prisons. I think I’ve been in at least four. I’ve gone through all that rigmarole of security. Sometimes it’s just a series of gates and they frisk you, but with some of them it’s the alsatian dogs that come and check you to make sure you’re not up to anything.”
Urban Hymn starts with the London riots of 2011, with two young women – Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) – joining in the pillaging. Henderson explains the message of the film: “There’s the healthy and the unhealthy, and what are you going to choose? Is it that life started really badly and you just can’t get off this thing? Or can you one day just pull yourself up and say, ‘I can re-choose – I can do something different.’ ”
Jamie’s salvation in the film comes in the form of music. As a choir person myself, the film strikes many – forgive me – chords. It features a community choir and has a message that singing is a healing and powerful tool in people’s lives; a choir can offer a supportive alternative family, and can re-route a person who is heading towards a bad path. My partner and I run choirs in prisons and community choirs outside that ex-prisoners can join when they come out (libertychoir.org) – so we know that it works.
When Henderson sings in the film she looks radiant and happy – I wonder if she enjoyed it or was she just acting? “Oh, I loved it, it was just gorgeous,” she says. “Every song has something about it that gives me a wee shiver… the warmth and the depth, it just goes through your body. I love singing – it’s just something I find myself doing as I go about my day.”
As a young girl, she sang in choirs at church and at school and, by her teens, Henderson was singing solos in working men’s clubs and in a boxing ring. “You’d wear your sparkly outfit, perform your songs and you’d get a big clap if you did well. It was an old-fashioned night out.”
She left school at 16, did a drama foundation course in Kirkcaldy and went to Guildhall at the age of 17. If she hadn’t done drama – “the careers lady suggested it”– she would have gone to art school. She still draws and paints and sculpts for her own pleasure. She relishes her breaks between projects – “I like having resting periods because your brain needs to rest and let it all go” – but they don’t seem to come too often.
The new Bridget Jones is in cinemas now, with Henderson’s reprise of Bridget’s best friend, Jude. “I wasn’t expecting to do another one,” she says. “There’s a joy at the age everyone’s at now – all in our 40s and 50s. People love that feel-good thing; it makes people happy.”
In Happy Valley, there was a confrontation scene between Sarah Lancashire’s police sergeant and Henderson’s Frances. The two had last acted together when they were in the same class at Guildhall. “At drama school, Sarah was outstanding – brilliant at comedy and a real character actress. I’ve waited a long time to act with her and I was just thrilled.
“It wasn’t a big fight where we’re chasing each other around the house, it was a conversation, but I didn’t want the day to end because it was a special day for us and it might never happen again.”
Sally Wainright has announced that she is about to embark on the third series of Happy Valley. We will have to wait for the reappearance of the sad, sinister Francis Drummond. In the meantime, I can imagine Henderson enjoying a break at home in Scotland – walking in the woods, singing.
Urban Hymn hits UK cinemas today