Last Tango In Halifax star Lu Corfield tells Carrie Lyell about working with Sarah Lancashire, playing a baddie and having baked goods lobbed at her by old ladies


Actor Lu Corfield is no stranger to causing a stir. Her latest role, as antagonistic Ruth in Last Tango In Halifax, might have some passionate Sarah Lancashire fans describing her as a “spawn of the devil” and wanting to “burn her house down”, but that’s nothing compared to the reaction when she was one half of the first daytime lesbian kiss on the BBC in long running medical soap Doctors. “I’d nipped out to get my lunch and an elderly woman threw a croissant at me in Sainsburys! At first I thought she must have dropped it, but I realised, no, she was trying to lob it at me. I went outside thinking, ‘How strange’, and ran into a group of three young lads who started kissing their teeth and saying ‘Disgusting, disgusting’. It wasn’t even a snog – I think we pecked. But this lady did not like it and neither did these three lads.”

The 42-year-old takes it on the chin – literally. “It takes all people,” she laughs. “This woman must have been in her mid to late 70s, and she lobbed a baked good at me, mate. She was not happy. When I went back, [my co-star] Danielle Henry was furious. I was like, ‘What are you going to do? Go and find the elderly lady who threw a croissant at me? I’m alright love.” 

She might have to start leaving the house wearing a helmet, I joke, as jumping on board the Last Tango train is sure to bring more baked goods flying her way. Corfield might have been in the industry for more than 20 years, but not even that experience could have prepared her for the reaction this latest role would provoke. “It’s been ridiculous. Honestly, ridiculous. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something that has had such a reaction. I was warned about it before I went in, but I had no idea,” she chuckles. “Dear lord. There are a few fans, god love them, who don’t seem to be able to get the fact that I’m playing a character. They think Ruth is a complete dirtbag, because I’ve been nasty to Caroline. Which you don’t do. She’s the 2020 Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet. You do not shit on her!”

You play a baddie well, I say. “I’m really glad I can, because it’s fun. It’s fun being nasty”. When we talk, we’re half way through the fifth series, and there’s much speculation about Corfield’s character, a colleague of Caroline’s who reacts badly when she finds out that she’s gay. Is Ruth homophobic? Is she closeted? Why is she behaving the way she is? “The wonderful thing about it is that I’m not trying to put words into people’s mouths,” she tells me. “Sally Wainwright is so clever. We’ve hit it right – it’s meant to raise questions.”

What attracted Corfield – a queer woman – to play such a role? “I thought it was really brave to cast somebody who very clearly presents as queer to come in and play, depending how you look at it, a homophobe… It was really interesting for me to play something that is so far away from me in real life. It was fascinating, trying to get into that mindset.” Was she nervous about the reactions? About joining such an popular show? “I was petrified. Of course I was. In episode one, it’s clear I’m going to be Caroline’s new sparring partner, in whatever form that takes, be it romantic, antagonistic, whatever. I had some big shoes to fill. I thought the previous performance was beautiful. And it’s a big ask to go up against Lady Lancashire.”

There was an additional factor contributing to the nervousness, Corfield tells me, revealing that it was actually Sarah Lancashire who laid the groundwork for her to get the part, recommending her to writer Sally Wainwright and the show’s producers, after meeting on the set of Channel 4 four-part drama The Accident, in which Corfield had a small part. “The pressure not to fuck up was huge. Sarah had done everything she could – she couldn’t give me the job but she had opened the door and plumped the sofa seat. Fortunately, I didn’t fuck it up. It was such a relief not to have let her down. She had been such a champion, she really had.” What was it Sarah saw in her, I ask? “I think she saw play and fire. I think she saw a twinkle, and somebody who would give her something… It sounds as though I’m being big headed, I’m not, but we’ve talked about it, and she’s been beautiful enough to say that as soon as she saw me working with people, she knew she would have something to bounce off and there’s something that would excite her, which is possibly the biggest compliment that I’ve ever been given in my career.”

While not the straight up romance that some viewers would have liked, the chemistry between Sarah and Lu is quite something. “Whether people love Ruth or hate her, the fact that people are commenting on the dynamic between me and Sarah is something that makes my heart sing,” Corfield says. “It’s something that we felt while we were doing it. There’s a scene in the third episode that is horrible. It is just horrible. You have an opportunity to stand across one of the greatest actors that we have in the UK today and you get to push her and push her and push her to a point where afterwards, we didn’t have to say anything, Sarah just grabbed me, hugged me, kissed me and whispered in my ear, ‘Thank you’. That’s all I need. I did my job. I walked away and the director was pleased, Sarah was pleased, and I’m pretty sure Sally’s quite pleased as well.”  

The reaction the storyline has had speaks to how loved Last Tango is, but also how important it is for queer people to see their experience reflected and represented. It’s important, too, that the wider public see that coming out isn’t without its challenges. There is certainly an assumption that if you’re a person of Caroline’s stature, it’s easy to move through the world, which Wainwright challenges cleverly. “That’s a very good point,” Corfield agrees. “If a person is comfortable, privileged, doing well and happen to be queer? Oh, they’re fine, they’ll never get any resistance. They will never receive any form of homophobic attitude from anyone else. That’s utter bullshit. I would put myself in the category of being comfortable. Liking what I do. Reasonably well liked in the industry. And yet recently, in a relatively safe area of London, I got spat on in the street and shouted ‘dyke’ at. Yes, we have come a long way, but we’ve taken steps rather than strides.”

That’s one of the reasons that, as well as acting, Corfield has set up House Of Pride ( with friend and business partner Alexandra D’Sa. Their first two events have been roaring successes, and the future looks exciting, with trips to New York, Puerto Rico and Las Vegas on the horizon. “The responses have been incredible. It’s growing quicker than we thought it would,” Corfield says. “It’s going well. We’re a little team, but we’re a strong team.” 

If the reactions to her Last Tango performance are anything to go by, Corfield’s on screen future is exciting too. She laughs at being described recently as a “rising star”, despite two decades in the industry, but she’s grateful for the recognition, too. “It did make me smile. Of course, we all want to be told we’re going to be launched to stardom. But it’s a load of bollocks because you never know what the next job is. The biggest thing that I’m proud of is the fact that I pay my bills on acting and voiceovers. No, I’m not a stop-you-in-the-street and ask for an autograph actor, but I like that. As long as I can carry on doing what I’m doing and paying the bills, and doing things that excitement me, and working with people who excite me, I’m happy mate.” Last Tango will change all of that, though. “Maybe I’ll get a full loaf thrown at me now,” she laughs. “Then I’ll know I’ve made it!” 

Catch up on Last Tango In Halifax on BBC iPlayer now 

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