From children’s TV to EastEnders, Jill Halfpenny’s certainly gets around – on TV that is. Her next role is in a Danny Boyle drama and she couldn’t be happier, as Keeley Bolger finds out
For someone who’s worked in showbiz for over 20 years, Jill Halfpenny still has bags of enthusiasm. But then, when you’re cast in Babylon, Danny Boyle’s new comedy drama for Channel 4, all-out enthusiasm is a given.
“Danny is one of the nicest directors I’ve ever worked with,” says Jill of the legendary Trainspotting director and creative brain behind the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
“He’s so welcoming and involved, it’s a pleasure.”
The new series will see Jill star alongside James Nesbitt, Peep Show actor Paterson Joseph and rising Hollywood actress and writer Brit Marling.
Written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, who penned Peep Show and Fresh Meat, it takes a wry look at the people and politics of London’s police force.
Satirical comedies and internationally-known directors may be a world apart from Jill’s modest beginnings, as fresh-faced teen queen Nicola Dobson in BBC One children’s drama Byker Grove, but the actress has always enjoyed a new challenge.
After playing nurse Rebecca in Coronation Street in the late Nineties, she spent three years in Walford as the beau of burly EastEnders bruiser Phil Mitchell, before leaving the confines of soapland and starring in West End productions of Abigail’s Party, Calendar Girls and Legally Blonde The Musical.
Yet it’s her early days on the Grove that Jill thinks have helped to shape her career most.
“Maybe my naivety when I was young has stood me in good stead, because I always thought an actor did everything,” says the actress, who has a five-year-old son, Harvey, with her ex-husband. “They do TV, theatre, radio, film – so I’ve never limited myself, or maybe I’m just lucky.”
Whether it’s luck or sheer hard work that’s helped Jill who’s also had roles in Waterloo Road, Peak Practice and Wild At Heart, she admits she was careful not to make a rod for her own back when she started out.
“For the first 10 years of my career, I purposely didn’t do musicals because once you do one, everyone goes, ‘Oh, she’s that one who sings’, and you go, ‘I did it once!’”
There’ll be little chance of singing and dancing in Babylon; Jill’s relishing the challenge of playing an officer in the Territorial Support Group (TSG), which is “basically the riot police”. In preparation, she met real-life TSG officers.
“We went to Kent and watched the officers do their riot training,” says Jill. “They built a mini village and had to create a riot situation with petrol bombs.”
But it wasn’t as action-packed as she’d expected.
“Danny said he likes to throw actors into situations where you’re like, ‘Oh God, what’s going on?’ He likes to give you a real flavour of what it’s like and with that job, there’s a lot of waiting around and a lot of the time, nothing’s happening,” she explains. “Some people in the TSG are glad nothing’s happening and some of them want something to happen.”
Boyle’s research and attention to detail made a deep impression on Jill, who waltzed to victory in the second series of Strictly Come Dancing.
“There was one really basic scene where the TSG are in a cafe, and there’s a guy who follows us around, films us and he’s outside on the phone chatting to his boss. That’s it,” recalls the actress, who was born in Gateshead.
“So we turn up at the cafe, which has black and white tiles, and Danny says, ‘Right, everyone take your coats off’. So we’re all in our stab vests and white shirts and Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the cameraman, is standing in front of the cafe with a dark jacket on with this bright orange hood. And Danny says, ‘It’s going to look like a black and white shot [except for] this big orange hood of Daniel’s’.
“It’s essentially a scene which is five seconds long but visually, he made it so beautiful. I love the way he thinks so much about every single thing he does. It’s inspiring.”
Jill says she hasn’t felt a drop off in roles as she’s got older – not that she wants to sing and shout about that, mind.
“I haven’t found that to be the case yet,” she says. “I’m 38, and maybe if you ask me in 10 years time, I may have a different answer.
“It’s hard enough being in this industry sometimes, I don’t want to take on those opinions,” she adds. “The more you think something like that, the more you bring that stuff to you.
“I keep an open mind and see what happens.”
Babylon airs on Channel 4 on Sunday, February 9