Jill Halfpenny has been a fixture on our screens from her first TV role in Tyne teen drama Byker Grove in 1992. The show that also launched Ant and Dec as well as Donna Air, put Halfpenny on track for an almost three decade career and counting that has seen her in both EastEnders and Coronation Street, Waterloo Road, Humans, In the Club and dancing her way to winning the glitterball on Strictly. Recently she was army officer Jennifer in James Strong’s Liar for ITV. In cinema she starred in comedy feature film Walk Like A Panther opposite Stephen Graham and Dave Johns, and Command Approved, How to Stop Being A Loser and Canadian drama Murdoch Mysteries.
Right now she’s can be seen in the BBC’s Dark Mon£y, Matt Berry’s Victorian cop comedy Year of the Rabbit on Channel 4, and is chuffed to report she’s just recorded an episode of the darkly comic twisted perversity that is Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No 9.
Speaking down the phone from London, her Geordie tones still evident in the smattering of ‘likes’ (the north-east tic not the virtual click) and Halfpenny is keen to talk about Dark Mon£y. Written by Levi David Addai (Damilola: Our Loved Boy) and directed by Broadchurch’s Lewis Arnold, it also stars Babou Ceesay, Max Fincham, Rudi Dharmalingam, John Schwab, Poldark’s Rebecca Front and Chewing Gum star Susan Wokoma. Halfpenny is determined not to give away any spoilers.
“I don’t want to say too much, give it away, but it’s very intense. It’s one of those that’s not cut and dried, tied up in a bow and nor should it be. Whatever the family go on to do next, they are going to have to live with what happened for the rest of their lives.”
Halfpenny plays Sam, whose son Isaac has been abused by a Hollywood director after landing a role as a child actor in a blockbuster. The drama, to be screened over four consecutive nights keeping tensions running high, covers the aftermath of the abuse and its effect on Sam and Isaac’s father Manny and the family. Further, there’s a moral dilemma over accepting a substantial pay out in return for silence.
“I think there will be a lot of conversations about that – what would you do? Like most things in life, you can’t really know until you’re in that position. When Levi was writing this he was very keen to let us see what happens inside the heads and the houses and the minds of this family and see how dark and tricky and difficult the decisions made are.”
Describing her character Sam, Halfpenny emphasises she’s a woman who hasn’t begun to reach her full potential until life forces it upon her.
“Before this incident she’s suppressed a lot and put up with a lot. Her MO is to say that’s happened now, let’s get on with it. I think you can only do that for so long then there’s a point of eruption.
“Sometimes in life you get backed into a corner and either take it or explode and say absolutely not and push back. And that’s interesting to watch.
“There are so many things we do where we make decisions and intellectually we tell ourselves, these are the reasons why, but our intuition, our heart and gut is saying it doesn’t feel right. And that’s a struggle. That’s the drama.”
Now 43, with a successful career that continues to flourish and an 11-year-old son, Harvey, Halfpenny sounds like a woman in control of her life who deals with issues as they come up.
“I don’t wanna sound like an idiot,” she says and laughs, “but I try to be really honest and not push things away. I try to deal with them. When I was younger I definitely ignored things and put them in a box or decided I would deal with them later but I learnt as I got older that those things never go away, they will always come back and when they do, they will be scarier than they ever were.”
As an actor Halfpenny appreciates that she has the opportunity to be able to step outside normal life into a variety of fictional versions.
“That’s probably one of the joys of being in acting,” she says. “I think most of us are drawn to the profession because you do literally get to be someone else for a bit and we quite like that.”
There’s a downside to stepping into someone else’s life, however, especially if it’s a role with a dark theme. Yet Halfpenny is used to this, having acted from a very early age growing up in Gateshead, and it’s only after a job winds up that she feels the effects.
“When I’m in it, I feel absolutely fine because I’m so focused but for me, it’s always the aftermath. I finish something and think ‘oh my god, that was brilliant’, and I’ll be really high on it, then suddenly I’ll go ’oh I feel a little bit weird’. I do it on every job. We finished Dark Mon£y two days before Christmas Day and we all just sat over the Christmas period and just thought ‘wow, that was intense’.”
But there wasn’t much time to dwell on it because her next job came along. Year of the Rabbit, the six-part Channel 4 comedy began filming the first week in January and couldn’t be more different.
“It was like a tonic, it was brilliant,” she says. “I was allowed to be grisly and dirty and over the top and fun, and it was very, very liberating. It was just such a contrast. I think most actors feel like that, that whatever you’re doing at the time you’re loving and immediately you’re finished, the instinct is to do something completely different. So it was really, really good fun and I loved every minute of it.”
And it shows, with Halfpenny striding around Victorian London with a big hat and a gun, as Flora, a sniper “who doesn’t give a s**t what anyone thinks about her. She’s her own woman, does exactly what she wants, when she wants. She’s a survivor, looks after number one, and will do whatever it takes to get through the day. She’s the most authentically herself character I’ve probably ever played. She was a joy.”
Year of the Rabbit also gave Halfpenny the chance to hook up again with Susan Wokoma, who is also in Dark Mon£y, along with Matt Berry, Freddie Fox, Keeley Hawes and Sally Phillips.
“On set on Dark Mon£y Susan told me that she was doing something called Year of the Rabbit next and I said ‘that sounds REALLY fun’, then literally four or five days later they asked if I would be interested. It was so bizarre to go from Dark Mon£y, especially when we’d played the sort of roles we were playing where it’s frosty between us to say the least, to Year of the Rabbit where she’s running around in a corset and I’m walking around with a rifle and eating pies. It was just hysterical.”
Halfpenny was always going to be an actor. Born in Gateshead in 1975 to Maureen and Colin, she has two older sisters – one a maths teacher while the other works in a school for children who are severely disabled or have learning difficulties – but Halfpenny was drawn to the stage.
“It was such a sort of strong pull for me. I was acting from such a tiny age. I just couldn’t get enough of it. It wasn’t even just performing that I loved, but as cheesy as it sounds, I loved going to work, being in the dressing room, being costume fitted, rehearsing, I thought directors were fascinating. It just felt like my world, my people. I do sometimes wonder if I hadn’t got into it so early, would I have actually chosen it as an adult? I’ll never know the answer.
“It felt like everyone was doing what they wanted to do. I’d never really lived in a world where people CHOSE to do things, it was like ‘I HAVE to go to work, I NEED to go to school’. This was ‘oh, people actually wanna be here, that’s unusual,’” she says, and laughs.
“I’m sure that wasn’t the case by the way, I had my kid spectacles on there, but to me everybody seemed to be happier than in the other worlds that I had experienced.”
Trained in theatre in the North East and later at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she landed her first TV gig on Byker Grove at 14, kicking off a long screen career. On stage she’s been equally successful, playing the lead in The Girl on the Train and winning an Olivier Award as Paulette in the original West End production of Legally Blonde alongside Sheridan Smith.
“It’s a long game acting, that’s the beauty of it really, you can just keep going. And if you stick in there you can hold out for something that people have never seen you do before. Sometimes you’ve got to say no to a few things so that the one you want comes along.”
The dance floor versatility that saw her switch from tango to foxtrot to a perfect jive and win Strictly in 2004 is also evident in her acting and she has many highlights, but hones in on working with Danny Boyle earlier in her career.
“My favourite job probably was in a series for Channel 4 called Babylon in an episode directed by Danny Boyle. He was such a brilliant, inspiring director. Then I did Abigail’s Party in the West End and I really loved that, and EastEnders was really fun as well.
“I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky, had some really, really good experiences. Obviously my favourite things are usually where I feel like I’m doing something a bit different or I’m being pushed in a different direction or working with someone I’ve long admired, the thrill of that.
“I got to do an Inside No. 9 after Year of the Rabbit, and I love those guys. So to be asked to do one of those was a real honour.”
At the beginning of her career, Halfpenny was given a piece of advice that she took to heart and offers to anyone keen to emulate the variety and longevity of her career.
“Someone, I can’t remember who, said don’t be defined by your work. Anyone that’s self-employed can feel pretty bad about themselves when they’re not working – and there are going to be so many times when you’re not – so if every time you think ‘aw I’m useless, no one’s employing me, what‘s wrong with me?’ that’s going to be a lot of your life taken up thinking badly about yourself!” She laughs.
“You’re NOT your job, you’re not how many children you’ve got, you’re NOT what house you live in, you’ve got to go a bit deeper and realise who you are inside so you still feel like a whole person.
“The hardest thing about being an actor is not acting, it’s not working. There’s a financial price to pay and emotionally you can feel down then your confidence can go. To anybody that wanted to be an actor I would say, absolutely go for it, but it’s the bits where you’re not acting that will really test you. Not the work bit – the working bit is easy.”
In between work, Halfpenny looks after her son, writes, works out, meets friends, heads north to see family in Newcastle, “just the normal things. I don’t do that thing any more of, ‘will I ever work again?’ Yeah, of course because that’s the nature of the universe so accept that, have patience and something will come along.”
Wise words that Halfpenny is currently putting into practice while she waits for her next job – she’s about to start shooting series two of the Williams’ brothers ITV series Liar, and the fifth series of Inside No. 9 will air on BBC2 later this year.
“What do I want to do next? I don’t know. I’ve never played somebody real, which I’d love to do. I’d love to do something with a bit more of an international feel. And I’d love to play a baddie! I quite often go for roles that are in essence quite a good person so I’d quite like to play an absolute terror. And I think as women we’re allowed to play characters that are way more morally ambiguous than ever before, thank god. I feel there’s loads of good stuff happening – Killing Eve, Mum – and I’m constantly watching things and going; ‘oh I’d love to be in that’.”
It doesn’t sound like Halfpenny is ever going to stop.
“I don’t think I will,” she says. “Even if you’re 85, even if you just do one or two jobs a year, then you can.”
Dark Mon£y, Monday-Thursday, BBC2, 8-11 July; Year of the Rabbit, Mondays, Channel 4, 10pm and on E4