Jill Halfpenny: 'Women are judged on TV in a way that men are not'
Former EastEnders and Waterloo Road star Jill Halfpenny talks to Alexandra Pollard about her harrowing drama Dark Money, the dangers she sees in child acting and why she believes females are 'punished' on television
After the first episode of Dark Money aired on BBC1, Jill Halfpenny had a quick look at Twitter. She only managed a few seconds. "Some people were really angry," she says in her thick Geordie accent, "and some people were really upset."
The 43-year-old actor is no stranger to water-cooler television. Even if you don't know her by name, you only need to have watched a smattering of British TV in the past decade and you'll have seen her crop up in something - perhaps in EastEnders, Waterloo Road or Humans. But she knew that this four-part drama - which revolves around the family of a child actor who is sexually abused by the director of his first Hollywood film - was going to be divisive. Particularly given that the boy's parents (Halfpenny's Sam and Babou Ceesay's Manny), as loving and horrified and protective as they are, decide to take a £3m pay-off to keep quiet about what happened.
"I think what we see is a family that are trapped," says Halfpenny, "and they make a decision that they think might free them up, but actually it just traps them even more. There's no good ever gonna come of that."
Halfpenny, enviably chipper after a morning gym session, did wonder what she would have done. She has an 11-year-old son, Harvey, with her ex-husband, fellow actor Craig Conway. "But I'm not in that position," she shrugs. "It's all well and good to surmise, isn't it? But actually, until we're in those situations, do we ever really know? I'm just not sure we do. You think, 'Well, I have strong morals and I'm ethical and I'm compassionate, but often in these scenarios, it's so nuanced, it's so grey, it's not a black and white decision."
In the case of Dark Money, those grey areas are manifold. After watching footage of the abuse Isaac filmed surreptitiously on his phone (mercifully, we only ever hear the audio; the camera is pointed at the ceiling the entire time), the couple are horrified. "He will pay, I promise," says Manny, whose pain is laced with rage. But Isaac insists that he wants nobody else to know. If they take it to trial, a solicitor advises them, "the aim of the defence team will be to make Isaac feel like he's the one on trial. He'll have to sit in court, day after day, and essentially be accused of lying." Then there's the family's financial struggles to consider, and the fact that US laws don't protect people publishing details of Isaac's identity and allegations in the UK. Suddenly, a decision that seems abhorrent becomes a little less so.
Dark Money clearly reflects some of the issues that have arisen from the #MeToo movement. Halfpenny insists that this is a coincidence. "Levi (David Addai, the show's writer) started writing this years ago, before the Michael Jackson documentary, Harvey Weinstein, any of that had come out. He had dropped his child off a drama school, and he sat in the car watching all the parents come in and drop their kids off, and he started thinking, 'As parents in this modern world, we do give a lot of trust to the people that we let our kids spend time with, especially out of school'."
Isaac had a chaperone while on set, but she did nothing to stop the abuse. Halfpenny was a child actor herself, appearing on BBC series Byker Grove at the age of 13, years before she made her name as Phil Mitchell's wife Kate on EastEnders. Does she feel she was adequately protected? "Yeah. The difference with that is, because it was a kids' show, it was mainly kids on set. So for me, it felt very safe and very protected, but also just really fun. I would have worked seven days a week if I could have... Not that that would have been healthy."
Still, she knows that it's a strange world for a child to be exposed to. "There's a lot of glossiness and bells and whistles around it, and it seems to be a world people feel either attracted to or intimidated by," she says. "I think sometimes that facade around it can lead parents into doing things that they wouldn't normally do, just thinking, 'Oh it's okay because it looks so well-handled'. Obviously on most productions nowadays, everything is, but there's always gonna be exceptions. Always. And I think as a parent, you always worry about it."
She tries not to let it colour her view of people, though. "I don't wanna go through my life distrusting people," she says. "It's such a fine line to walk. I have faith in human beings. I'm not a cynical person who thinks that people are gonna do something bad towards me, but you just have to use your instinct I suppose." She thinks for a moment. "I guess that's the point. Sometimes your instinct can waver in a world where everything just seems so heightened."
For 30 years, though, Halfpenny has made her home in this world. Since leaving Waterloo Road in 2007, she's remained a staple of British TV, appearing in shows such as Inspector George Gently, Wild at Heart, Vera and Babylon. In 2017, she starred in the astonishing Three Girls, a dramatised version of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring scandal, and last month popped up in the weird, whacky Victorian-set sitcom Year of the Rabbit. There's no one type of person Halfpenny's particularly drawn to playing - but there is one word she's become increasingly allergic to: "likeable".
"I just think women, especially mothers, are punished, or judged, in a way that men aren't on television," she says. "And this is where this weird, 'women have to be likeable' thing has come from. There was a time where directors were mostly male - they still are. I think a lot of it can come from the male line which is, 'We have to make sure that she's not too hard or that she's likeable', and it's like, 'Listen, it's okay, as women, we do things that we're ashamed of. That's just normal'. And then we talk to each other about it, and we say, 'I wish I hadn't done that. I regret it. I'm gonna try and make that right'." There's a solemn pause, punctuated by a laugh. "And then we go and f*** up again!" she says. "It's just called being human."