“Jolene is old school. I compare her, which is maybe a bit bold of me, to Tony Soprano at the beginning of The Sopranos.”
If Hayley Squires is feeling bold, then little wonder. For her latest role, Squires, whose devastating performance in I, Daniel Blake moved, shocked and impressed in equal measures, leads a starry cast including Rupert Everett and Joe Dempsie in Channel 4’s big autumn drama, Adult Material. She plays Jolene Dollar: business owner, devoted mother-of-three, veteran porn star.
While the tone of the four-part series written by Lucy Kirkwood is largely playful at first, and the costumes and sets can dazzle, there is no disguising the serious themes at its heart as the series progresses.
Issues around consent, control and the impact of porn on young people’s attitudes come into the spotlight in a series that forces us to look at an industry many wilfully ignore. We get no easy answers. The moral questions do, however, become clearer.
As Squires plays her, Dollar is confident, successful, defiant and powerful. Adult Material asks who are we to judge her choices.
“I am still mulling it over after shooting it a year ago,” says Squires. “As much as you do find out about traumas that have happened in her life, she’s never a victim. And she’s worked very hard to ensure that nobody ever sees her as one.”
One question Adult Material poses is how it is possible to support women like Jolene in their choices whilst also having reservations about those choices.
“When it comes to women who are porn stars or strippers or make their living selling sex, I don’t think I have ever looked at them and thought you are not helping women or you are not feminists,” says Squires.
“To me, feminism is about equality in terms of rights and opportunity and voice. It means a woman doing the absolute best she can to live the best possible life she can with the means she’s been given. And that’s what Jolene does. If people ask if I think she’s a feminist? Yeah, I do, despite the fact that she’s UK’s top MILF.
“I was scared by the sexual content but after the audition, we talked about what we were comfortable with. Dawn [Shadforth, director] was very specific that it was the kind of female gaze over the porn industry. I was helped, more than on any other job, by the wig and the clothes and the tan and the makeup – it was like putting on a suit of armour every day.”
But Jolene is not bulletproof.
“No. She’s always in a state of confusion, trauma, panic, anxiety, stress or anger under the surface,” adds Squires. “But a lot of people need her to keep being Jolene Dollar.”
Dollar has established a successful career, family life and business. But times are changing.
“The internet’s got a lot to answer for, hasn’t it?”
“People want what’s new, whereas Jolene is old school,” says Squires, before unleashing the unexpected Sopranos comparison.
“When Tony Soprano sits down with his therapist for the first time and says ‘I feel like I’m coming in at the end’? He’s the boss right as it’s all changing. And that’s what happens to Jolene. The industry is shifting. All porn on the internet is now owned by multi-millionaires sitting in ivory towers.”
She might be an industry veteran, but our sexual mores change quickly. Viewers may recoil when Dollar leaves naive newbie Amy (Siena Kelly) alone on set and take exception to her response to daughter Phoebe being assaulted.
“Porn informing teenagers’ understanding of how consent works plays a massive part,” she says. “The internet’s got a lot to answer for, hasn’t it?”
Visiting a real porn set was certainly an eye-opener, but not in the way we might expect.
“I learnt how un-extraordinary the making of porn is. You go on set and the sandwiches are shit, it is in a cold warehouse, and the crew are tech geek boys wanting to talk about their cameras.
“We put porn in the dark. We don’t talk about how it sits in people’s lives. So the people involved are alien to us. But they are the same people you’d meet on a bus.”
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
Class, poverty and power are at the heart of much of Squires’ career to date. Adult Material is no exception. The 32-year-old says her politics comes into all her big career decisions.
“Politics is about how you treat the humans you share your world with. So I think it’s impossible, when you’re telling stories of other people, for it not to come in play,” she says.
“It is about your fundamental beliefs, your moral compass – and that never switches off. Even down to how you talk to people when you’re buying a train ticket. It is all part of it. That is a bit of an out-there answer.”
It is and it isn’t. Because with Squires, there is no bullshit. Not in her chat, not in her work. Morality and politics brings us back to I, Daniel Blake – the film, its impact and its legacy.
“I’m very, very proud of it,” says Squires, fighting back tears. “It changed the way people think. It changed people’s political views. It is a prime example of why it is important that our voices are heard.”
Squires witnessed the impact of the film shining a light on period poverty while visiting her mum at work in Kent.
“She is a Student Support Officer and looks after students in a vulnerable position,” explains Squires. “I opened her cupboard and it was just stocked with sanitary items. She said girls are always being sent in for them.
“I’m not saying we’re responsible for that. But it wasn’t happening before this film. It is making me choked up thinking about it. But it is making me angry as well. Because it is going to be an issue in this country for the foreseeable future.”
Hayley Squires is not just one of the UK’s best actors, then, but also one of the most turned on to key issues. She talks well. But does she feel the pressure to be a spokesperson on class issues?
“This country has a class problem. It always has and it always will,” says Squires.
“When I was younger, I was more vocal about how that holds me back in the industry. But Jolene is the perfect example of being able to tell a story of a working class woman who is powerful in her world. So now, to be the woman that represents these characters from the working classes, I love it.”
Watch Adult Material on Channel 4 at 10pm on Mondays through October and online.
Adrian Lobb is The Big Issue’s TV editor. He tweets at @adey70.