As actress Julie Hesmondhalgh prepares for an emotional exit from Coronation Street next week, she tells Susan Griffin about her memorable moments on the cobbles as transgender character Hayley Cropper

TODAY is the last day for Julie Hesmondhalgh on Coronation Street and it’s only lunchtime but there have already been tears. “Jennie McAlpine (who plays Fiz) got me going with her card,” says Accrington-born Julie, who has played Hayley Cropper for the last 16 years.

Her departing storyline, set to be shown on Monday, has been one of the most talked about in soap history, not only because she and husband Roy (David Neilson) are such well-loved characters, but because of the controversial decision to end her own life after being diagnosed with cancer.

Julie, 43, knew the moment she told the show’s producer Stuart Blackburn she wanted to leave it wasn’t going to be in a taxi.

“It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted, but I knew it had to be that way for Hayley and Roy,” explains the actress.

“It wouldn’t have made sense to do anything else. Had I gone to Africa [as the character did in 2007 when Julie had a break], I would have been ringing Roy all the time.”

Roy and Hayley were introduced by Alma Baldwin back in 1998, when Hayley was a shy shop assistant at Firman’s Freezers. A friendship ensued until, on one of their dates, Hayley revealed she was a pre-operative transgender formerly called Harold (she later underwent sex change surgery).

“The trans community weren’t happy with the storyline because, to be fair, it was a bit of a joke,” says Julie, who’s wearing a bright green Sixties-style dress, her peroxide crop messily styled.

“But I never saw it as a joke. I read up on it, talked to people and tried to do it properly, and when David and I started working together, we both took it on.

I think the trans community saw it and thought it was actually changing attitudes.”

The fictional pair had a blessing ceremony in 1999, which is where Julie met her real life husband-to-be Ian Kershaw, the writer and actor who played “a baddie journalist” in the episode.

Then in 2010, Roy and Hayley got married to reflect the change in law. “Roy gave a speech, which remains one of my favourite lines ever,” says Julie. “He said, ‘We’ve remained the same, the world has turned to meet us’. And that’s exactly what happened. They’ve just carried on their path and the world has adjusted.”

The star’s initial interest had been social work. She decided later to focus on acting, studying at LAMDA before joining an independent theatre company. Roles in The Bill, Dalziel And Pascoe and The Dwelling Place followed, before Coronation Street came calling.

Just as Hayley’s arrival proved thought-provoking, so does her departure — in choosing to end her life before cancer treatment renders her incapable of doing so. “She wouldn’t ever want Roy to assist her, and she doesn’t want to get to a point where she isn’t able to do anything,” she says.

A member of the British Humanist Association, Julie has “quite strong views” in favour of pro-choice. For that reason, she’s always understood Hayley’s decision, while David hasn’t.

“We have very different views, so he’s played what he feels and I’ve played what I feel.”

She describes the two of them as “like an old married couple”. “My relationship with David’s been the absolute best,” she adds. “He’s completely different from Roy. He’s very dry, he doesn’t suffer fools. He’s loved and respected.”

Viewers won’t actually see Hayley die but they will witness her drinking a lethal concoction, which Roy tries to dissuade her from doing right up until the end.

The last scene was done in one take and the atmosphere on set was unlike anything she’d known before. “There’s usually a lot of banter and fun, even when you’re doing extremely dramatic scenes, but everything was silent, almost holy and church-like,” she says.

As to her own future, she’s set to star in two plays at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Blindsided, opening on January 23, is written by Simon Stephens and tells the story of a girl growing up in Stockport who falls in love with a man who breaks her heart.

After that Julie will also be reprising her award-winning role as Sylvia Lancaster in Simon Armitage’s moving play Black Roses, about the murdered Bacup teenager Sophie Lancaster, which opens at the end of February.

“That takes me right up until April. After that, who knows? I think I’ll probably be ready for maybe a little bit of comedy,” she says, laughing.

“Or a holiday!”