The way I work: Julie Hesmondhalgh

Former Coronation Street regular explains why her acting career is now geared towards social change

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My modus operandi when I left Coronation Street was to do work that I would want to see and the work that I’m interested in is work that has something to say about the world, has relevance and just moves you forward a bit in your life.

I think the reason that I originally wanted to be a social worker is that I always wanted to be an actor, but I thought it was a bit frivolous and social work was more suited to someone like me. As someone from Accrington it was more realistic, but it was also something where I could change the world quite quietly.

“It’s wonderful to be part of a mass movement of giving a toss about stuff.”

When I went to drama school I had a teacher who had set up the first non-racial theatre company in South Africa and he was the one who taught me that the two things weren’t mutually exclusive – that actually art was a really important part of social change. A group of us set up an independent theatre company together after graduating from LAMDA and we spent years doing plays that, to misquote Morrissey, had something to say about our lives. That’s still in me. I’ve started a little theatre company in Manchester with a group of friends who are very politically engaged. We have called it Take Back and that grew out of response to the Conservative Party conference being here and it’s given me so much joy, I can’t even tell you.

I’ve always identified as a socialist and for me the rise of Jeremy Corbyn has been the perfect kind of politics. I know it’s been problematic, but a lot of the problems have come from the press and the fact that he cannot do anything without the worst kind of scrutiny. But for me, his policies make sense – spread out the wealth, fund things properly and don’t take money from the bottom of the pile to give to people at the top. To me, it’s common sense and somehow last summer that managed to translate to ordinary people. The day that he got elected – honestly, at the end of my life, whatever else happens, the joy that I felt that day will stay with me because it had come from ordinary people. I hadn’t been a member of the Labour Party for years. I left when Blair became leader, long before Iraq. But it’s just wonderful to be part of it again and be part of a mass movement of giving a toss about stuff.

Diversity in the arts is a massive worry. Charity organisation Arts Emergency is doing brilliant work in trying to make theatre accessible for people from lower income families – all that stuff that’s going to disappear if we don’t fight it now. I couldn’t have done what I did without the support that I got. I grew up in a small industrial town, but we had a great independent bookshop, two indie record shops and a fantastic library that famously saved Jeanette Winterson’s life. When I got into drama school, I got a full local authority grant and was able to stay in London because I had housing benefit and the dole, which is not possible now.

I do think acting and the arts are going to become a pastime again for the elite. It’s going to be only if you can afford it. The same thing with internships. The amount of people who are being expected to work in cultural industries for free is shocking. You can’t blame the people taking internships. It’s absolutely not their fault and my children will have opportunities because of me and I can’t apologise for that. But the point is that those opportunities should be available to everybody, just like they were for me.

Julie Hesmondhalgh takes on the lead role of Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, about love, sickness, life and death,
21 Jan-13 Feb, Royal Exchange (royalexchange.co.uk)

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