'It's horrific to lose your home... an awful thing to happen'
Corrie fans will be shocked to see Sean Tully sleeping rough, but as star Antony Cotton says, it can happen to anyone
All soaps need some comic relief and, for 15 years, Antony Cotton has been bringing exactly that to Weatherfield. But it's the Bury-born actor's turn for a darker storyline this summer, as Coronation Street tackles the issue of homelessness.
His much-loved character, Sean Tully, hits rock bottom after he loses all of his employment, has to move out of Fiz and Tyrone's house, and is then kicked out by Liz.
And heartbreaking scenes - to be aired on ITV next week - show him waking up cold and scared in a car park, having slept in a tent he stole from bins.
"This one has been unusual - we've never done this storyline before," remarks Cotton (42), who found fame in groundbreaking gay drama Queer As Folk.
"I've loved doing the serious stuff. The one thing I hope people will take from it is it can happen to anyone."
Discussing how Sean finds himself in this situation, he elaborates: "Everybody has their own issues, whether that's they've not got a spare room or they're going through a divorce. And every avenue seems to be a dead end.
"He shrugs his shoulders and goes, 'There's not much I can do'. He thinks it's for one night, then it turns out it's not that."
Cotton has been part of Corrie firsts before - upon joining the show in 2003, Sean was the only out and proud character on the cobbles (Cotton himself is also gay).
But Sean being forced to sleep on the streets is arguably the star's biggest story yet.
And the fact that it's eerily similar to the experience of someone he knows in real life has made it even more poignant for Cotton.
While filming ITV reality show Dancing On Ice last winter, he received a message on Facebook from a friend saying: "Can you help me? I've got nobody else to turn to. I'm homeless."
"I did all the classic things that everybody does - the idea that all homeless people are on drugs, or there's something wrong with them," Cotton admits, sadly. "I was thinking, 'What could have possibly got you into this position?' When I knew him, he had a missus, two kids, an Audi on the driveway and was self-employed."
He booked the man, who had been living in a tent in a stairwell in a council block, into a room at a Manchester Travelodge.
"He'd lost everything - everything had been robbed off him. He had no front teeth, where he'd been beaten up."
It was far from easy, but, luckily, the man (whom Cotton never names) is now getting back on his feet. With the actor's help, he visited various organisations across Manchester, before one of them put him into a private house.
"Once he had an address, he was able to unlock the social benefits and he got an emergency payment like that," Cotton explains with a click of his fingers.
Now, he says, his friend has a job with a construction company that he found via Barnabus, a volunteer-led organisation based in Manchester.
Cotton insists it's purely a coincidence he is now exploring the issue of homelessness on Corrie - he'd kept his friend's situation secret from everyone at work. But, when he read the scripts, "very spookily, it was the identical story".
"I was doing the research without knowing," he exclaims. "It's an awful thing being homeless, horrific. I've sat in crack clinics and places I never thought I'd be sat in a million years, all because of trying to access help for somebody."
He adds, candidly: "Because I've got a big gob, I was able to knock on doors and I'd say, 'I'm not leaving here until we're sorted'."
While there will be some lighter moments - 'Sean-isms', as Cotton puts it - in the Coronation Street storyline, viewers can expect to see the character in a dark place for a "good few months".
He gets mugged at one point and ends up in a 'homeless village', where he meets a woman called Carol.
"The eye-opener for Sean is she says she's been doing it (being homeless) on and off for nearly four years," explains Cotton. "My friend did it for six months and it nearly killed him."
While there's no doubt this is a tough topic to tackle, Cotton is loving the opportunity to raise awareness of the struggles homeless people face.
"What's been a real joy is sometimes shows - not necessarily this show - do issue-based storylines and you can tell it's purely to drive traffic to a website. Sometimes, you see those stories played out and something doesn't ring true about it.
"What I've loved about this is, it's all true."
Coronation Street, ITV, Monday and Friday, 7.30pm