Jill Halfpenny has been winning plaudits for her performance as Rachel Watson in the new stage adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel The Girl on the Train at West Yorkshire Playhouse, even if the play itself has received some mixed reviews.
The 42 year-old actress is well known for playing leading roles in TV series such as Three Girls (BBC) and Liar (ITV), and has starred in famous West End productions such as Chicago and Abigail’s Party. She knows a good part when she sees one, which is why she jumped at the chance of playing Rachel – the central protagonist in The Girl on the Train who finds herself a suspect in an ever-deepening mystery.
“She’s interesting and complex and I like that,” says Halfpenny. “She’s a very human person and I think her flaws are just there to be seen whereas a lot of people hide their flaws.
“She can be interpreted in so many different ways and I thought that was interesting because as a reader you have different judgements about her all the time and that makes her fun to play. And as an audience member I like to watch that on stage, I like to be thinking ‘what do I really think about that person?’”
Halfpenny has been a familiar face on our TV screens for more than 15 years now, though it’s actually a job she’s been doing far longer. “I don’t remember not doing it, which sounds a bit cheesy, but I was always performing in one form or another whether it was at church hall dances or in school plays. It felt like it was always part of my growing up, this idea of play acting and letting your imagination run wild.”
By the time she was 10 (when most kids don’t even know what GCSEs they’re going to do, never mind what job) she was already thinking about being an actress. “I was very much of the view that this was what I wanted to do. I was quite geeky about it to be honest.”
Her big break came in the popular children’s TV series Byker Grove in which she starred alongside Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly (aka Ant and Dec). By this time she’d already done quite a bit of theatre work despite her tender years, but Byker Grove was her first TV show and she has nothing but fond memories of it.
“It was the best time. Nothing like this was being made back then and Andrea Wonfor [producer] had this idea of a series set in a youth club in the North East and we were in it. It was thrilling from start to finish. I couldn’t wait to get to work.
“Today, child actors might be away from home filming for four months of the year. We weren’t. We got picked up from school and taken to the set. So we weren’t professional child actors, we were just living a normal life and happened to be in Byker Grove. I think that’s why people liked it, there was an air of authenticity to it.”
Working on the series instilled in her a work ethic that has stayed with her. “I had to set an alarm clock for five in the morning to get up and to be at work by six, and as much as I didn’t like it I knew I had to be in the make-up chair at that time,” she says, with her disarming Geordie lilt.
These days no one blinks an eye when they hear regional accents on TV or in the theatre, but it wasn’t always the case. “When I was younger I didn’t question it but as time goes on you start to think about it,” she says.
“Just because I’m from Gateshead and speak with a North East accent doesn’t mean I can’t get on stage and play Shakespeare with an RP accent that wouldn’t be a problem.
“But it’s amazing to me that just because somebody has an RP accent some people think they must be better actors.” So that snobbery still exists? “A little bit. It’s definitely going away but certainly when I was younger in drama school I’d say it was probably there.”
Halfpenny spent three years training at drama school in London, though she doesn’t believe budding actors have to go down that route. “I would say to anybody wanting to be an actor that they don’t need to go to drama school. I don’t believe for a minute that you can only be a successful actor if you’ve been to drama school and if anybody tells you that then they’re lying,” she says.
“I’d like to see drama schools more accessible for lots of different people but I wouldn’t want anyone to think you have have to go to drama school, because, as in any industry, quite often the most interesting people haven’t done the most obvious route.”
Her own career has seen her enjoy success both on the stage and the small screen. She played nurse Rebecca Hopkins in Coronation Street and undercover detective Kate Mitchell in EastEnders and went on to play teacher Izzie Redpath in Waterloo Road. Working on two of the biggest TV soaps was a challenge but one she embraced. “Soaps are another level of recognition but I did enjoy it. They work at such a fast pace so if you can’t do a 12 hour day and then go home at night and learn another 14 pages then you’re not going to last very long in one of those shows. You have to accept it’s going to be a bit relentless.”
When it comes to her career she doesn’t differentiate between TV or theatre work. “For me acting is acting. I never thought ‘I only act on stage so I can’t be on television.’ The difference being on stage compared to being in front of a camera is just a little bit of technique and as an actor as soon as you’re in a new space you know how your brain and your body need to react to that. It’s just like if you’re talking to your kids you have a certain voice and if you’re working in the office, or you have a meeting, you have a different voice. As humans we adapt to different spaces.”
She’s refreshingly honest, too, when it comes to which parts she chooses. “I just go from job to job and see what’s the most interesting and audition for the one I want. I’d love to tell you that I’ve got 20 scripts waiting for me to pick and and choose from and I’ve got some masterplan but I don’t. Sometimes I work because I need to pay my rent and sometimes I work because I really want to play that person, or that character, it just depends where I am in my life.”
And after all these years she still feels inextricably drawn to acting. “When something comes along and it’s a good role and a great script you think ‘I haven’t done that before, I’ll give that a go.’ Sometimes I just feel like my brain needs to be stretched and flexed. I think anyone that works in a creative industry wants to feel a bit scared every now and then because when you’re scared you know you’re tapping into something new. So that’s what it is, it’s my constant quest to feel uncomfortable...”
The Girl on the Train runs until June 9. Box office 0113 213 7700, or wyp.org.uk.