Julie Hesmondhalgh on performing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre and Hayley’s anorak

Julie Hesmondhalgh

Julie Hesmondhalgh - Credit: Archant

She may still have Hayley’s anorak under the bed but Accrington-born actor Julie Hesmondhalgh has discovered there is life after soap. Janet Reeder reports

Julie with Rachel Austin as Sophie in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster

Julie with Rachel Austin as Sophie in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster - Credit: Getty Images

New year is a really special time for Accrington-born actor Julie Hesmondhalgh and her family.

Throughout the previous 12 months, if they have a lovely experience, however small, they write it down and put it in a jar, then on New Year’s Day they go through all those little often overlooked moments and discover there is so much to be thankful for.

And it seems Julie has quite a lot to make life truly special.

She’s may still have Hayley’s anorak under the bed at home and admits she’ll forever be associated with the groundbreaking transgender role in Coronation Street, but Julie is finding there is life after soap.

Two years on from quitting the cobbles, she’s treading the boards at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in Wit, Margaret Edson’s prizewinning play about a university professor of metaphysical poetry called Dr Vivian Bearing, who is undergoing aggressive treatment for the cancer that will eventually bring her life to an end.

It doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs but Julie insists, au contraire, it’s a funny, hard-hitting, warm hearted work that tackles some of the big questions of human existence.

Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh and husband, Ian Kershaw

Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh and husband, Ian Kershaw - Credit: Archant

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‘She doesn’t realise she hasn’t got a chance of surviving the treatment and thinks that because she’s a professor she knows everything there is to know about life and death,’ explains Julie.

‘But what she learns is that nothing can replace humanity, or human kindness and kind of learns how to live. It’s a very beautiful play.’

A breakthrough for Julie is ditching her distinctive Lancashire accent and playing the role with an American twang, which she finds liberating as she feels completely like someone else.

She’s played Manchester’s Exchange Theatre before and tells me that it was the holy grail of acting when she was growing up.

‘The Royal Exchange was the first theatre I went to when I was at school. I saw Dorothy Tutin in After the Lions and queued up afterwards to get her autograph, never realising I would one day perform there,’ she says.

‘Then at Accrington college I did performing arts at A Level and used to got here lots of times. I have always wanted to perform there.’

In 1997 she got her wish when she was cast with actor Josie Lawrence in the Royal Exchange’s Much Ado About Nothing. ‘But it was after the IRA bomb so it was in a tent in Castlefield, so I had to wait another 15 years to get to play there properly,’ explains 45-year-old Julie.

She’s lived in Broadbottom for 15 years, since meeting her husband writer and actor Ian Kershaw on the Weatherfield set, in the former home of actor Tony Booth who famously married another Corrie star Pat Phoenix who played feisty Elsie Tanner - ‘her bird bath’s in my garden’, reveals Julie who has two daughters aged 14 and 11.

It was portraying Sylvia Lancaster in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster which was based on the heartbreaking real-life story of Sylvia’s late daughter, a young girl killed in a Bacup park, that gave her another chance to play the Royal Exchange back in 2012 on a break from Corrie.

It was as career highlight. ‘It was such a special thing to be part of, not like a job at all,’ says Julie, who became friends with Sylvia.

But not all her roles have been heavy. For sheer enjoyment she rates Russell T Davies’ Manchester-based TV comedy, Cucumber as a fantastic experience too.

‘Everything I do, I enjoy and I just weep every time I leave a job. I get so attached to it. It’s a miracle I ever left Corrie,’ she confesses.

‘Afterwards, I was asked to do a few reality shows but my ambition was to work and do things that I love. Just to keep busy, keep working. I’m not bothered if it’s not high profile. Hayley is probably the most high profile thing I’ll ever do and I’ll probably be called Hayley until the day I drop.

‘People still say to me “it’s such a shame you’ve given up acting.” In fact when I am dead they’ll probably picture me in that anorak - I’ve still got it. It’s under the bed, as I’ve saved it to be auctioned for charity but haven’t got around to it yet.’

Wit: runs January 21st-February 13th. For deatils see www.royalexchange.co.uk