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.
What do you think Hayley has done for awareness of transgenderism?
Well, right at the very beginning in 1998, the trans community wasn’t happy with the storyline because – to be fair – it was a bit of a joke. The producer Brian Park thought of Hayley as the first in a series of disastrous dates for Roy. But it was never like that in my head and when David and I started to work together, we did begin to change attitudes.
Old ladies would say to me, “When are Hayley and Roy going to get married?” And when I told them that they weren’t allowed to because of the law, they’d reply, “Never mind that!” And that’s the way to change lives, you know. You’re watching two people on TV that you care about and the law suddenly becomes absurd.
One of my favourite lines was spoken by Roy at his second legally recognised wedding to Hayley. It was written by Debbie Oates and Roy says, “We have remained the same, the world has turned to meet us”. And that’s exactly what happened – they carried on in their little Roy and Hayley world and the world adjusted.
So I’m very proud, but at the same time, you couldn’t have me playing a trans character now. It would be ridiculous. You’d have a trans actor doing it. So my casting was of its time and it served the purpose of its time.
Was there a point where you realised that the show really understood Roy and Hayley’s relationship?
There was a scene in the Croppers’ flat, back when Hayley was living with Roy but sleeping in the living room. And Roy put You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman on the CD player and took Hayley to bed. That was the moment, really, where the writers realised that all aspects of Roy and Hayley’s life had to be portrayed. There’s more to them than just making bacon butties. It mattered that they also had this intimate life where they had sex.
How do you feel about the traumatising effect that Hayley’s death is going to have on the nation?
I hope that people are going to be able to stick with it. If you’re going to show someone dying of a really terrible kind of cancer then you can’t shy away from how horrible it is. In a way, viewers are happier to see a brutal murder because it doesn’t say anything to them about their lives, but Hayley’s story and cancer in general touches so many people. I know some people are finding some comfort from seeing their experiences portrayed on screen. But I’m not taking any credit – that’s the writers and researchers, who have played a blinder.
Can you sum up how Corrie has changed your life?
It’s changed my life in every possible way you could imagine. I met my husband on it, I had my children while I’ve been on it and I’ve done the work that I’m proudest of in my life. It’s completely unheard of to play a love story in soap where the two characters have always been faithful to each other – and that’s because of who Roy and Hayley are. Plus the viewers have always been so lovely. It’s certainly better than playing a baddie and getting spat at!
Julie Hesmondhalgh’s final episodes of Coronation Street air on Monday 20 January at 7.30 and 8.30pm