WHEN soap actors decide to move on, they usually do so in a flurry of non-committal “I'd like to leave the door open” and “never-say-nevers”. Not Emma Rigby.

When the actress from Windle left her Hollyoaks role as anorexic teen Hannah Ashworth in 2010, she had her eyes fixed firmly on the horizon.

Armed with a Best Actress gong from the British Soap Awards, the 22-year-old ex-De La Salle pupil went on to land a lead role in British horror flick Demons Never Die, produced by The Wire's Idris Elba, as well as parts in Channel 4 comedy Fresh Meat and the forthcoming BBC Three series Pram Face.

But it's her latest role in Prisoners' Wives that has really got her excited and will catapult her into prime time national television.

“This is what I left for,” says Rigby, who plays Gemma in the Sheffield-set drama about women whose husbands, partners and sons have been put behind bars.

In Gemma's case, her whole life falls apart when her husband, played by former Robin Hood star Jonas Armstrong, is arrested for murder.

It couldn't have come at a worse time for Gemma as she's just found stability after growing up in care and is now expecting a baby.

To top it off, she has absolutely no idea of what her husband was involved in.

She added: “Her world's been torn apart. Everything she's ever known and believed in has been completely shattered, yet there's still this belief that her husband isn't guilty.”

Rigby, who has followed St Helens’ Legally Blonde: The Musical star Carley Stenson in progressing from Hollyoaks, is practically unrecognisable as downtrodden Gemma.

Her bottle-blonde hair has been toned down a few shades and all those pretty frocks replaced with baggy jumpers and jeans.

There's also the not-so-small issue of the baby bump that had to be created by the costume department using the surprising combination of sponge and dried peas.

Flashing a very broad grin, Emma adds: “It actually made me feel pregnant. I kept sitting down and rubbing my stomach.

“But also, I wanted to act normal. Gemma's in a nightmare and it's getting worse. She has no time to think about being pregnant as her husband's in prison for murder.”

“All the women in Prisoners' Wives do the things they do because they love somebody. That's what happens with Gemma. She just wants her husband back home with her To get a flavour of what this might be like in real life, Rigby and her fellow lead actresses Walker, Natalie Gavin, and Pippa Haywood, went to a real prison during visiting hours.

“The atmosphere was so powerful. This was real life and these people have been separated from their loved ones. It broke my heart.''

As well as tackling tough themes, dealing with a heavy belly and working by herself (in the majority of Gemma's scenes, she's alone), Rigby also had to cope with a stream of accidents while filming.

“I managed to hurt myself at least once a day,” she giggles. “I cut my finger while chopping peppers in one scene. I fell over, bruised myself – all sorts of things. But I think that all helped me to play Gemma.'”

But she adds: “I'm so fortunate to have been able to play this part. I'm grateful for Hollyoaks but this is the new me.”

Prisoners' Wives begins on BBC One on Tuesday, Jan 31.