Broadchurch actress Julie Hesmondhalgh on playing her most challenging role yet

Broadchurch actress Julie Hesmondhalgh on playing her most challenging role yet

The best actresses are those who care little for their own vanity as they search for the truth in the roles they happen to be playing. Julie Hesmondhalgh is one such actress. Sitting with her over coffee in the ITV offices in London, you can’t help but be struck by the difference in her own smiley, vibrant persona and the haunted, hollow-eyed and traumatised figure of her character Trish, recorded in unforgiving close-up by the Broadchurch cameras. 

“Any vanity I may have went completely out of the window to play her,” Julie says. “It did come as a shock to see myself like that on screen, but it was vital I looked the way I did. It’s really important that viewers see ordinary people in TV drama – people they can relate to rather than the unrealistically gorgeous types who tend to be cast in US TV shows.

Television also has this unfortunate tendency to portray a rape victim as a young girl running through a wood – there’s often a slight titillating edge to it, which is really distasteful. Sexual assault is not an act of sex, it’s an act of violence. It was very challenging to portray what happened to Trish. 

“It started with the writing – it always does. I also did a lot of research. I watched a couple of documentaries and got a lot of help from The Survivors Trust. I also spoke to the people at Rape Crisis and they told me that the victims of sexual violence react in different ways.

Ultimately I trusted my instincts and tried to imagine what it must be like to be in that situation. The programme makers were very keen to show that sexual assault can happen to absolutely anyone. I think that’s why they cast me – to show that an ordinary, middle-aged woman is as likely to be the victim of rape as anyone else.”

Fair enough but it’s clear Trish has something to hide.

“You know I can’t say anything about what happens,” smiles Julie. “As cast members, we never knew what was coming next, even as we filmed it. Trish is a nuanced character; there are some grey areas in her life and she’s ‘lived’, if you know what I mean. It’s Broadchurch, so obviously all is not going to be as it seems. I think it’s really interesting that this is a sexual assault whodunnit rather than a murder, actually.

What with Midsomer Murders and Murder She Wrote, maybe we get a bit blasé about murder in TV drama. As an audience we don’t feel it like we do a violent, sexual assault. The dead person gets forgotten about but in this series of Broadchurch, Trish is a constant reminder of what happened as we see her struggling to move forward with her life.” 

What with appearing in the second series of Happy Valley and now starring in the third and final series of Broadchurch, Julie’s career has gone from strength to strength since leaving Coronation Street in 2014. But was she ever worried that she’d struggle to get work because she played Corrie character, Hayley Cropper, for 16 years? 

Julie as her old alter-ego Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street

Julie as her old alter-ego Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street

“Maybe when I first made the decision to go it felt a bit like that, but I knew I’d be very happy as a jobbing actor,” she replies. “I thought the worse thing that could happen was that I’d do regional theatre, which I love, and bits and bobs on the telly. I had no game plan. But I felt things begin to shift when I was given Hayley’s exit storyline, in which she passed away from pancreatic cancer. I thought that might be a springboard into more high profile work. And that’s turned out to be the case. I’ve been very lucky.”

Julie may have left Weatherfield but she still watches The Street avidly.  

“Of course, I do,” she smiles. “I have so many friends there. I have to admit that I was shocked when Roy seemed to have found love again with Cathy, but it was right that the wedding didn’t go ahead. While Hayley would have been happy for Roy, in his head he will only ever be married to Hayley. 

“Some people think Hayley might return one day. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’m approached in Tescos or wherever and asked if Hayley will do a ‘Bobby Ewing’, and Hayley’s death will all have been a dream!”

Broadchurch is on ITV on Mondays at 9pm

Words and interview by Alison James