Coronation Street bids farewell to one of its most-loved characters next week as Julie Hesmondhalgh bows out as Hayley Cropper.
As she has repeatedly vowed to over the past few months, terminally-ill Hayley takes control of her own death by saying goodbye to everyone she cares about before taking a lethal cocktail with husband Roy at her side.
Here, Julie chats about the heartbreaking final scenes, her future plans and the impact of Hayley's 16-year stint on the cobbles.
You've already seen Hayley's final episodes, so how did you feel when you watched them back?
"It was extraordinary for me to watch them. I've got a little bit of distance from it now, but when I was watching those episodes, I was right back in it. Me and my husband watched them together and it was like a scene of carnage afterwards, with loads and loads of screwed-up kitchen roll and empty bottles of whisky! (Laughs.)
"It was emotional on loads of different levels, especially watching Hayley's storyline play to its end and seeing her saying goodbye to everyone. But what really struck me was how beautifully written it was. I thought the writing was on a different level and it was brilliantly directed as well. I felt really honoured to be part of it."
Were the scenes also emotional to film?
"Yeah, it was very hard. I had to be quite strong in the final scenes - we knew it was going to be upsetting to watch, but we didn't want it to be a tear-fest for us. What we were very, very keen to do, which went a tiny little bit against the writing of it, was that we wanted to make Roy and Hayley's final scenes as unbeautiful as we could.
"We wanted to make it quite an awkward and difficult scene between them, because Roy still doesn't agree with Hayley's decision to end her life. She almost railroads him at the end, because it's becoming too painful. That comes over quite strongly in it - she's driving the bus big-style, while Roy feels like he's on the bus and can't get off. That's really upsetting to watch."
What was the atmosphere like on set for Hayley's final moments?
"Kay Patrick directed the episodes, and she's a veteran director of Corrie - someone we've all known for years. She was brilliant as she really created such a quiet atmosphere on set. It was a closed set and I've never known anything like it. We've done some big stuff recently, but this was like something else. Everything was put in place so we just marked the scene through and we did it. She didn't want us to do it over and over again, so that's possibly why it comes across as so raw on screen. It was just one take."
What can you tell us about Hayley's final day?
"Beforehand Hayley has said her goodbyes to everyone. Nobody realises she's saying goodbye, but she's managed to see everybody she wants to see. Then on the day of her death, she invites Fiz, Tyrone and the kids to the café to see them for the final time. It doesn't go well, as things are a bit off and go a bit wrong.
"Hayley is embarrassed as she gets a bit upset in front of the kids and clings onto Fiz a little bit too tightly when she says goodbye. As a story it isn't neatly sewn up, which I've loved. She also says goodbye to Rita a little bit cack-handedly."
What happens next?
"Hayley goes back upstairs and tries to write cards to Ruby, Hope and Joseph for the future, but she can't think of anything to write and says, 'Oh, they won't remember me anyway, this is just stupid'. Roy says they should try again tomorrow and do Hayley's final day better, but Hayley says it won't be better - they'll just do it a bit wrong, a bit right and that's life. Hayley also points out that waiting for her death is making it worse for Roy.
"You don't actually see Hayley die. You see her take the drink that will end her life, then it cuts away somewhere else, and then Carla and Anna find Roy with Hayley after she has passed away. That was really hard to film - hearing their reaction."
Have you seen any of the following episodes?
"I've seen the episode after Hayley's death, which very much goes into the community's reaction. There's a scene in The Rovers where everyone finds out, and that's amazing. There's a beautiful line where Emily says, 'I can't even begin to imagine what Roy is going through' and Rita replies, 'We know what he's going through'. It's all that history of everyone who's lost someone in Corrie over the years. It pulls it together beautifully.
"Everyone talks about it being a pancreatic cancer storyline or a 'right to die' storyline, but first and foremost it's a love story, albeit an offbeat one."
What has the reaction from the public been like?
"I think what's surprised me most is that I thought more people would switch off, to be honest with you. I thought it would be too much for people. Although Coronation Street deals with all the big universal things that soaps do, I don't think this is why people watch Corrie. It's only because people are invested in Roy and Hayley and this long relationship that it's been slightly different.
"Everyone has been affected by cancer in some way and of course people have said to me, 'I can't watch it anymore, sorry'. But the absolute overwhelming majority have said, 'I didn't think I'd be able to watch it, but I'm finding some kind of solace from seeing my experience of going through loss being reflected'. Something in the writing has got it right. I think that's come from the researchers, the writing and then the work on the floor. Everyone has been so committed to doing it properly.
"I've been getting so many tweets and messages and I've tried to reply to everybody when I can, even if it's just a couple of kisses."
What is your take on the 'right to die' debate?
"I'm a member of the British Humanist Association, so I have quite strong views in favour of it, obviously within the constraints that have to be there and extremely carefully laid-out to ensure that it's not abused. I've always really understood Hayley's decision, and the interesting thing is that David hasn't. As actors we've had very different views on the issue. I've been playing my views and David has been playing his.
"At the same time, I think people will have a lot of sympathy for Roy at the end. It's been difficult to watch Roy go down a road that he doesn't want to go down. Over the next few weeks there is Roy's journey from here, and that is very much the other side of the coin. They will see the devastating effects of Hayley's decision on him."
How did you prepare for the physical change in Hayley?
"My natural rhythm is very fast and Hayley has always had her totter, so it was hard to slow it right down. Hopefully that is quite shocking to see, because she's always been so fast. That and weight loss were the only things I could do. It is noticeable on screen that I did lose weight and the make-up has also been really good."
How did you feel about Hayley being killed off?
"As soon as I told them that I wanted to go, I knew that it would happen. It wouldn't have made any sense otherwise. If Hayley had gone off to Africa or something like that, Hayley would be ringing Roy all the time and you have to let a character move on. This was the only possible end for Roy and Hayley."
What are your future plans? Are you worried that people will always see you as Hayley?
"I'll always be Hayley and I think that's just inevitable. I'm proud to be! I know that if I hadn't left now, I never would have. I'm doing a play at the Manchester Royal Exchange called Blindsided, which I auditioned for. It's very different than Hayley and very, very dark. I'm a very hard character in it, which is great."
Would you say Hayley has changed attitudes towards transgender people?
"It's hard for me to say, but apparently it has moved things forward in some way. At the beginning, the trans community weren't happy with the storyline. To be fair, it was initially portrayed as a bit of a joke. At the time we had a producer called Brian Park who wanted Roy to have a series of disastrous dates. The plan was just for Roy to fall for Hayley and then find out that she was a transsexual.
"In my head it was never like that. When me and David started working together, we both took it seriously and then I think the trans community said, 'Oh, this is actually changing attitudes'.
"Old ladies in the street would say to me, 'When are Roy and Hayley going to get married?' and I'd say, 'Well, they're not allowed to because of the law'. They'd be like, 'Never mind that!' Suddenly when it's two people you care about, the law becomes absurd. We were even mentioned in Parliament early on for changing attitudes, so I'm really proud of that.
"Now you couldn't have me playing a trans character, as it would be ridiculous. You'd have to get a trans actor to play Hayley. I'm very grateful that it was the dodgy 1990s! Back then, though, the pressure for a trans actor would have just been off the scale. There was enough pressure on me from some sections of the press who were saying a lot of stuff. If the actor was also trans, that would have been really hard, especially with the new fame to deal with. The story was of its time and served its purpose at the time."
Did you ever imagine that Hayley would become so popular?
"In a way yes, just because I knew it was working. I knew the character was good and I knew it was working between me and David. I knew I was only in the show for a short space of time, but in my head, I always knew I was coming back! I loved it.
"What did surprise me was that Corrie took on the storyline. I grew up on Brookside, which was the first soap to do issue-led stuff. I remember being really challenged by it, learning from it and seeing things in my life represented in a real way on that. Corrie back then was completely different and was never issue-based, so if I'd ever hoped to play a part like this, it would have been on a different soap. I never thought that Corrie would do anything like this, so it was a real opportunity."
Do you want Roy to find love again in the future?
"In reality, I don't think he would be with anyone else, but this is continuing drama, and drama has to exist in relationships between people. I think they'll have a lot of fun trying to find someone for him. With the sort of person Roy is, I think Hayley would be the only one for him, but he has to continue on in the show - and he has Hayley's blessing!"
Read more Coronation Street spoilers and news
Coronation Street airs Hayley's final episodes on Monday, January 20 at 7.30pm and 8.30pm on ITV.
Digital Spy Soap Scoop - press play below for gossip on Hayley's emotional Coronation Street exit, an affair revealed in EastEnders, the dramatic aftermath of Rachel's Emmerdale departure and secrets in jeopardy on Hollyoaks.
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