Julie Hesmondhalgh wrote her second book, An Actor’s Alphabet, in just a few months. It’s clear that her advice for actors, wannabe actors and anyone interested in what actors do has been building up over years in the industry and was just waiting to be let out. What’s more, out it all comes in her brilliantly conversational and no-nonsense voice.
The room is full of fans, and a whole lot of her peers – lots of famous faces, or at least people you ‘kind of know from somewhere’. It’s a mark of her reputation in the business that her friends and colleagues are here – and there’s good reason for her being so highly respected. She’s not only a great actor, she’s something of a poster girl for the profession.
Hesmondhalgh looks completely at home on stage with Contact’s Artistic Director and CEO Keisha Thompson, whose questions are simple and unrehearsed, leaving room for her chatty guest to take the conversation in whatever direction feels right. Hesmondhalgh reads a couple of short sections from the book. Thompson opens up a conversation about how it came about and why it felt important. It’s clearly a very personal memoir, focused on the things that mean something to her. She writes with passion; wise words that cover subjects from class to parenting, sex to tax. While she makes it clear that she feels it’s important to think of yourself as a worker as well as an artist, there’s no avoiding the fact that life as an actor touches every part of ordinary life. Never nine to five, it’s all consuming, precarious and often desperately hard. Hesmondhalgh manages to accept all of that while never wavering in her delight at having made a go of it, and she shows a huge generosity in wanting others to make a go of it too.
These events so often end with uninspired audience questions but Hesmondhalgh has raised the bar and the audience steps up with some entertaining and thoughtful ones. A couple come from current and recently graduated drama students and Hesmondhalgh shows them huge respect, giving sensible and encouraging advice.
A question from a bright young woman takes Hesmondhalgh back to where the book starts – A is for Activism. What has driven her career is the opportunity to make ‘work that matters’, playing parts that have a direct impact on the way people think and see the world. From Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street (the first transgender character in mainstream continuing drama) to Sylvia Lancaster (the mother of Sophie Lancaster, the young goth woman murdered in a hate crime for being different) in Black Roses, Hesmondhalgh has landed parts that have allowed her to do just that. Her own Manchester-based company, Take Back, which she runs with Rebekah Harrison and Grant Archer, creates work about social issues.
After an hour of chat Hesmondhalgh goes off to sign books as Thompson signs off. “Isn’t Julie just magic?” she says. There’s not much more to say.
Reviewed on 17 November 2022