When Julie met Hayley: interview with Julie Hesmondhalgh

an interview by Samantha Johnson of The Beaumont Society

This interview was first published in the quarterly magazine of The Beaumont Society, who have kindly given us permission to reproduce it here.

JULIE HESMONDHALGH’S character Hayley Patterson is one of the UK’s most controversial soap roles, Beaumont transsexual columnist Samantha, managed to persuade Julie to take time out of her busy schedule to talk to the BS. She told Samantha what it’s like to be Coronation Street’s first television transsexual and the responsibility it carries…

How old are you?

28, believe it or not! My wig and anorak age me considerably older and people are often shocked to learn I’m not in my 40’s.

Where were you born, and educated?

Accrington, Lancashire born and bred. Moorhead High School, Accrington + Rossendale College, London Academy of Music + Dramatic Art (LAMDA)

When did you decide to become an actress, and why?

There’s always been a tug of war inside me between the ’girly’ girl who loves to dress up and dance around and the nauseatingly right-on part of me who has always wanted to change the world. So I was genuinely torn in my late teens between acting and social work. It took a couple of inspirational people in my life (my brother and my drama teacher) to point out that art and entertainment have a huge part to play in the development of a culture and that going into acting with a big fat social conscience, would probably be something that could make a difference to people’s lives…… Little did I know! !

You are now a household name in’ Corrie’ but what were your best stage roles and do you plan to go into pantomime,if so as what?

I helped build and run a theatre in London for three years out of drama school - running the box office, doing the publicity, cleaning the toilets, acting in plays - a real co-op environment and I’m proudest of some of the work we did there, at Arts Threshold, with no money and lots of passion. Once I played a disabled German anti-Nazi linguistic professor (male) in a devised play about a group of dissenters in World War II. I think, in retrospect, that I was probably terrible in it but I was very very proud of the project. I’ve also done some Theatre-in-Education, taking plays to schools all over the country in a little van, which I loved!

I think Pantos are great, the most popular form of theatre there is, but I’ve never really thought about going into it (daft really they’re LUDICROUSLY well paid!). I’d love to play an ugly sister, but I always play “nice” characters, so I’d probably be the fairy godmother (yawn).

How were you ’discovered’ and why do you think you were chosen for the part of Hayley?

As is quite well documented now, the ’Corrie’ casting directors came to see me in ’Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I had a few lines as a maid and pranced about a lot in a corset, but for two scenes I played a silent night watchman in a false moustache. I can only glean from this they spotted androgynous capabilities and remembered me when Hayley popped up in the scripts. Judi, ’Corrie’s’ casting director, swears they had me in mind even before it was decided that Hayley would be a transsexual.

What was your reaction when you were told of the character’s unusual lifestyle?

I had been told only that Hayley was a “fun” character, so when I turned up for my interview I came in all ’Bet Lynch’, in my leopard skin & red lippy. Judi told me immediately that Hayley was TS and that it was going to be quite a big deal for ’Corrie’ and to be honest I was very shocked (it’s just not what I’d had in mind!) and a bit nervous and giggly, I’m ashamed to say…. then it dawned on me that this was actually my ’dream job’ and I desperately wanted it.

What have you learnt about transsexualism which you didn’t know before the role?

I had a basic understanding of transgender - I’ve been around - and knew more about the politics and civil rights aspect than the personal and physical stuff, and my learning has been an ongoing thing over the last year. No amount of books can teach you as much as a conversation with someone who has been, or is going, through a particular experience and because of the secret nature of the storyline, this came later when I was able to make contact with people in Hayley’s position. All in all though, I’ve tried not to get bogged down in facts and figures - I can only act what is written for my character. The writers are the powerful people, definitely. I would always contest a line I felt to be wrong or badly researched, but I’ve been very lucky. Hayley above all is a lovely human being - she’s been very lovingly created by all concerned.

What is your opinion on this subject - answered as Julie!- and the worst thing about being a TS - from what you have discovered so far?

In a way, as an actress, my opinion on the subject doesn’t matter. I could be the biggest bigot in the world, but as long as I played the part with sensitivity, that’s what counts. However as a human being, I have huge empathy for anyone who is persecuted, excluded, victimised or discriminated against because of other people’s fear and ignorance. I can only imagine what it must be like to feel you have lived a lie, have the courage to change your life and then be abused on every level because of it. I can’t imagine the strength it would take to endure it.

There have been comments from certain quarters that the role is unsuitable for the pre 9pm watershed despite you sensitive approach, what would you say to these people?

People are terrified of anything that challenges their ideas of normality. Coronation Street has always been the most conservative of the soaps and in many ways Roy & Hayley are two of the most conservative characters in the street. That’s where the true subversiveness lies! I can understand why people are freaked out - they’re being almost forced into feeling sympathy for someone for whom they previously might have only felt contempt. Parents are having to talk to their kids about transsexualism, and knowledge is power and all that, I think it’s brilliant. To put Roy and Hayley’s innocent fumblings on TV after 9pm and keep Sally & Greg’s shenanigans pre-watershed would be preposterous!

How did you feel on your first day on ’the street’ and how did the other cast members treat you? in particular David Neilson.

I was terrified! I’ve watched ’Corrie’ all my life and to suddenly be amongst all these people you feel you know, but clearly don’t, was mind-boggling. It was blissful to meet David, because immediately we knew that we were going to be OK. Not only is he, in my opinion, the best actor in the show, he’s also highly intelligent and sensitive. We get on fantastically and are both completely aware and passionate about our responsibility - not only to the transsexual community, but to everyone who feels a bit out of step with the rest of the world. We consider it a privilege. A lot of other actors were highly amused when they found out about Hayley (they didn’t know for ages), but they’re generally very supportive.

Why do you think that the producers chose this moment to introduce the Hayley character?

To be completely honest, it would be mad to try to pretend that it was anything other than a shocker ratings booster at its inception, but he whole thing has turned into something quite different now. As I said, Hayley existed first as a character, Brian Park (Producer) went on holiday hoping the writers would kill her off while he was away (he told me this in my interview!) and they surprised him with the TS idea when he came back and Brian, being Brian, went for it! But there was, I promise you, always a commitment to the sensitive handling of the issue from the moment they decided to introduce it. I was reassured at my interview.

Do you get any ’Corrie’ fans who believe you were a man? If so, how do you deal with it?

I get asked quite a lot, but mostly by children and stupid people, so I’m terribly patient and explain. What they normally say is, ’Are you really a man?’ To which I reply, ’No. And neither is Hayley.’

When you find the time, how do you unwind? (music, pastimes,interests)

Travelling, reading, films, theatre, pop! I’m starting an Open University degree in social sciences next year. What are your favourite things? (pets, hi-fi, etc) I’m just buying a little flat with a garden in London, and that’s my obsession right now.

My little 1988 Fiat Uno car, Betty, is definitely up there - I love seeing her amongst all the Mercs & BMWs at Granada, and it’s my favourite thing to rattle along in her singing my heart out to Madonna or Pulp. And I have a little wooden chest with all my special mementos in it that I keep by my bed - that’s very important to me.

How like Hayley are you?

I like to think I’m slightly more funky than Hayley, but there is definitely a bit of ’anorak’ in me too. I like pottering around in museums and exhibitions, and I am too very eager to please. I try to strike a balance between being rock ’n’ roll and real prefect material.

How long has it taken for you to settle in at the ’Street’ and what do the other actors think of the Hayley character?

It took me a while to settle, not because of the work (which I love) but because of the change of lifestyle. I found it very strange having money for the first time in my life and struggled to get used to being up North again after ten years in London. I feel very happy now, and am hugely grateful for my present lot in life!
The other actors seem to like Hayley a lot, thankfully. I think Hayley & Roy bridge a gap between the old Coronation Street and the new Brian Park one!

What would you tell your children if they asked ’what is a transsexual?’

I’d say, ’A transsexual is a person who feels they have been born in the wrong body. So although they grew up looking and acting like a little boy, for example, they know deep inside that they are really a girl. There’s an operation you can have to change the outside to match the inside. A man’s body can be transformed into a woman’s body, or a woman’s into a man’s.’

…and finally, what would you say is the best thing about being a girl …..and the worst?!!

Best: ’girly’ nights, dressing up, red lippy, girl power.
Worst: Periods, people’s conventional standards of beauty, ’Jobs for the boys’.

Any additional info you would like our magazine to print about you that you would like to share…

Blimey! I think I’ve said enough ! ! !

Good Luck with all your work and very best wishes from me to all your readers,
Lots of love,
Julie Hesmondhalgh