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Julie: My final scene in Corrie was life-changing but I haven't looked back

Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh discusses life after Coronation Street and how her latest role has influenced her parenting

By Gabrielle Fagan

It was acclaimed as one of the most moving moments on television - when transsexual Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street killed herself to escape the final stages of cancer - but for Julie Hesmondhalgh that dramatic end spelled a new beginning and has been "life changing".

A year after the deathbed scene and quitting the role she played for 15 years - a decision she describes as "scary" - she declares she has "absolutely no regrets and I'm having the time of my life".

Free from Hayley's brown wigs and red anorak, the actress looks years younger with her platinum blonde crop, jeans and stylish top. The bubbly, warm personality which characterised her former role is clearly all hers and even more apparent.

"It was a loss leaving Corrie, life-changing in fact and I don't think I've properly processed it yet. It was so busy leading up to my leaving and I was completely immersed in the beautiful, moving storyline they gave me as my finale," admits the 44-year-old, who's down-to-earth, open and endearingly modest.

Factory worker, Hayley, wife of shy cafe owner Roy Cropper (David Neilson), took her own life in a controversial 'right-to-die' plot after being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer and given only months to live.

A peak audience of more than 10 million in January 2014 watched her harrowing final moments in an emotionally-charged scene for which Hesmondhalgh won a prestigious Royal Television Society acting award.

"Straight afterwards, I plunged into new challenges, working in theatre and then my role in (Channel Four's) Cucumber and it's been so exciting and fulfilling over the last 12 months. I've been having the time of my life and that's kept at bay any thoughts about not being on 'the Street'. I wonder if, when things quieten down, the loss will really hit me.

"Letting go of Hayley, was so hard. I cried when I filmed the last scenes and I still love her. I watch Corrie whenever I can, and feel a warm glow if she's ever mentioned." When she wrestled with whether to relinquish a pioneering role as the first transsexual in a British soap, which she took on in 1998 and which made her one of the most recognised faces on television, she was in no doubt it could potentially have been high-risk career-wise.

Many actors have failed to successfully recreate themselves after being so closely identified with a hugely popular character.

"I thought long and hard about it," says Hesmondhalgh, originally from Accrington, who still retains her Lancashire accent. "In the end, I took a long walk for three hours on my own. It's what I always do if I ever have to make a big decision. I was told by someone that doing that helps release the bigger, braver self inside you and stops the little frightened other self inside controlling you. At the end of that walk I knew without doubt it was right to leave and try new things."

She believes the wisdom of that choice was justified by winning her latest role as Cleo, bossy, zany sister of gay man, Henry (Vincent Franklin), a lead character in Cucumber, part of a trilogy of programmes. She also appears in Banana on E4, focusing on standalone stories predominantly about the lives of the younger generation in the drama, as well as in related online documentary series about sex and sexuality, Tofu.

"Cleo's a gift of a part and I was thrilled and honoured to get it," she enthuses as she discusses the show written by Russell T Davies, creator of the first drama about gay men in the UK, the 1999 cult series Queer As Folk.

"I think it will stir up controversy, but it's absolutely brilliant," she says, describing her character as "multifaceted. I'm the voice of reason for Henry, chaotic and a mum of three."

The series has had an unexpected personal effect on Hesmondhalgh - it's shocked her into being more vigilant as a parent of two daughters, 12 and 10.

"One of the major plotlines focuses on porn and what children are exposed to online. It's opened my eyes to a lot of the social media pressures on young people and what they can access at the click of a button," she says.

"It's quite frightening to realise not only what's out there but that it's so easily accessible. In the past, kids could always come across 'naughty' magazines but nowadays they can view quite extreme versions of sex and sexuality. So it's a whole different world and it's not easy to know as a parent how to keep them safe and how much access to allow to social media."

Hesmondhalgh, who's married to writer and former actor, Ian Kershaw and lives in Derbyshire, felt compelled to have a heart to heart with her eldest daughter and imposes her own restrictions.

"I wanted her to know that if she stumbled across anything she was uncomfortable with or needed to ask about something, she could," she says.

"I told her she could literally ask me anything and nothing would shock me - after all I've been around the block a few times. I felt it important to keep the dialogue between us open and honest.

"I try to monitor what both girls are watching. I'm on Facebook, so I know what's going on there, and neither of them's allowed a TV or a phone in their bedrooms. That's not popular I can assure you - they think I'm out to ruin their fun.

"Of course, you have to keep a balance. It's easy to get completely neurotic as a mother about cyberbullying and all the pressures online, but there's also many wonderful things about the internet. But I definitely now look at the web in a more rounded, informed and possibly more open-minded way."

Patently a devoted, conscientious mother, she nevertheless confesses that, in common with other parents, she constantly wrestles with maintaining a balance between family life and work.

"Motherhood's the most important thing in the world to me - my girls are amazing - but it's the role in my life I find most challenging," she says with typical honesty.

"Getting the balance right between being there for them, having the right degree of selflessness to be a good mum and keeping hold of who I am as a person is not easy sometimes. Naively, when I first became a mum, I assumed it would be just an extension of being an aunty, a role I'd enjoyed with my niece, now 20. When she was little, she came to me for fun and treats and used to tell her mum gleefully, 'You never have to brush your teeth at aunty Jules!'. Now I'm at the sharp end, I realise parenting's way tougher."

Hesmondhalgh, whose original ambition was to become a social worker, takes pride in the fact that through acting, she's helped give a 'voice' to highlight real life issues such as transsexuality, the right-to-die, and pancreatic cancer.

"It has been wonderful to feel you're playing a part in raising awareness. It's fantastic to do something positive through your job in an industry which sometimes can be negatively associated with being rather shallow and narcissistic," she says.

"I've been privileged to get involved with some campaigns and charities associated with all those issues, and it's incredibly moving to hear from people who've been affected."

In her busy, fulfilling life, relaxation is going running and walking - an opportunity to clear her head. "I've always been a bit of a worrier, but my New Year's resolution is to focus more on the present rather than the future. If my older self could tell my younger self something it would be, 'Stop caring so much about what people think about you, life will unfold as it's meant to, and everything is going to be alright'."

  • Cucumber starts on Channel Four on Thursday, January 22

Other memorable Street storylines...

Deirdre Rachid jailed (1998) - even then Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the throng of voices by demanding that the ill-fated Deirdre be freed from prison after she was wrongfully jailed when a former lover implicated her in a bank fraud scheme

Richard Hillman (2002-03) - played by Brian Capron, Hillman - aka 'Norman Bates with a briefcase' - brought an air of menace to the storyline when he came to the street and gradually insinuated himself into the lives of the locals, including marrying Gail Platt. After his murderous past and dodgy financial dealings were finally brought to light he attempted to kill his new family by driving his car into the canal

The tram crash (2010) - what better way to celebrate the show's 50th anniversary than crashing a tram into the cobbles, killing off well-known faces such as Ashley Peacock (Steven Arnold) and Molly Dobbs (Vicky Binns), among others?

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