Actress, comedienne, Northerner… National-Treasure-in-Waiting Maxine Peake is our kind of woman.
But do we really know this mercurial performer?
As she adds Wylde fashion model to her list of memorable roles, she tells Luke Singleton about Hamlet, Hindley… and topless ironing!
Twice Bafta Award nominee Maxine Peake is no stranger to our country’s screens and stages. Her rise to fame came swiftly: playing Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s iconic BBC sitcom Dinnerladies whilst still a student at Rada.
She grew into womanhood as Veronica in Shameless, Paul Abbott’s trailblazing comedy-drama about British working-class culture, which won a Bafta for Best TV Drama in Peake’s second season. She has since become a quality TV stalwart, starring in acclaimed dramas Silk, Criminal Justice and The Village and, earlier this year, played social worker Sara Rowbotham in BBC One’s hard-hitting Three Girls, based on the real-life conviction of 12 men in 2012 for running a child sex abuse ring in Rochdale. She is also an accomplished stage actor, commanding roles in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at The National Theatre, playing Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and the eponymous role in her self-penned Beryl for BBC Radio 4 (which she later adapted for the stage). Her critically renowned Hamlet, in 2014, was the fastest-selling show at the Royal Exchange, Manchester in a decade, and last year she cemented her partnership with the theatre by playing Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire – in another sell-out run. We sit and drink tea in the Academicians’ Room, at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, talking theatre, industry feminism… and Nineties nightclubbing.
Wylde: I’ve just met you off the train from Manchester, where you live. You are an anomaly; as soon as someone becomes successful in your business, they leave town for London!
Maxine Peake: But I couldn’t wait to get out of Bolton… even just going to Manchester! It’s still the North, but Manchester always seemed so big to me. I did live in London for 12 years, though; this was just before Criminal Justice. I was still doing Shameless. I was looking at flats in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, and Kennington… but, God, the bidding wars! Properties were going for £30,000 over the asking price. You were going into flats, like: “Yeah it’s OK, I’ll just sweep the hypodermic needles away, it’ll be all right!” It was madness. I woke up one morning and knew I was going back up North.
Did you ever go to the legendary Manchester clubs of the Eighties and Nineties? Paradise Factory, The Hacienda, Bugged Out at Sankeys, the PSV Club..?
Yeah, we’d go to Flesh [iconic Nineties gender-bender rave at The Hacienda] a fair bit. I went to Paradise quite a lot too… Sankeys not so much. Man Alive Club [Northern Soul and funk night] was a firm fave! It was hard to get in to The Hacienda sometimes. They’d do that thing: “Oh, you’re not gay! You’re not coming in!” So we’d say to each other: “OK, I’ll kiss you, you kiss her..!” Sometimes it would take us a few rounds to get in! It depended on how you were dressed; you couldn’t look too normal. [BBC Radio 2 DJ] Sara Cox and I were in sixth form together, so when it was Flesh on the last Wednesday of the month, we used to come into college with our bag, get changed and go down Canal Street for drinks first. It was a bit of a Bolton crew: Sara and I, Rachel and our mate Debbie. When I look back on some of the things we used to wear..!
Were you like the Northern Club Kids?
It was that time in the Nineties, you know. You’d see girls wearing cut-off shorts with gaffer tape over their nipples. There were always amazing drag queens. I bought a top once because I saw Björk wearing something similar. I found some red leather trousers in a charity shop – bearing in mind I was a big girl – and I’d wear a pink ruffle shirt, black velvet choker and these brilliant platform boots from Red or Dead! My nan used to look after this woman called Miss Taylor, an old spinster, who left Nan all her house contents when she died. There was this original Twenties flapper dress, with a low drop, all black lace… it was completely see-through. There was no way I would ever fit into it, so our Sonia would just go out in that, nothing else underneath!
What do you think is the generalised image of you, propagated by the press, or by fans? I feel it’s a fond and affectionate one; would you agree?
First and foremost it’s Northern, isn’t it? That’s who I am: I’m Northern! “She’s Northern, you know!” [pointing to herself] “She’s down to earth!” I suppose that all came from the parts I played. Dinnerladies, Shameless, you know… But also because you’re approachable. As an actress, you have to be your own business; you have to market yourself in some way. What’s interesting was much later, when working with certain directors, they’ve gone: “Phew! I thought you’d be quite difficult, ’cause of the roles that you play.” And I’m like: “What? Not at all!”
What do you do to challenge any misconceptions of yourself? Are you wary of meeting people in case they have a pre-formed idea of who you are?
I challenge it through my work. The thing I’m wary of is when people want stars to be a little bit tricky, more glamorous and interesting than they are. I worry people are a bit disappointed with me! [giggling] Do they think: “God, she’s really normal and Northern”? What does normal mean, anyway? We’ve all got fascinating stories, whatever they are. But I’ve worked with a couple of actors who are like that and people think they’re a better actor because they’re a bit tricky. That still goes on in our business. I remember Victoria Wood hit the nail on the head about Celia Imrie [Peake’s co-star in Dinnerladies]. Celia is such a gorgeous human being. Victoria used to introduce her on set and go: “This is Celia Imrie… I knew her for 10 years, way before I knew she was a good actress!” What she meant was Celia was so nice, even at work.
You played Myra Hindley in the BBC drama See No Evil. Do you ever feel apprehensive about a role that you have just signed on to do?
God, that was 15 years ago! I usually do things naively, to be honest. When I auditioned for See No Evil about the Moors Murders, I just thought: “I’ve got to do this!” A couple of really good mates were up for it too, and they were going: “I don’t know if I really want to audition for it...” Again, you’ve got to be careful about what you say because of the implications, but I loved doing that job. Those jobs are about real people, where you’ve got to do your research. You’re a bit of a detective, putting that character together. I don’t think she would have done any of it without him [Ian Brady]. They were in their own force field, like a toxic chemistry. But I don’t think she was a victim who was cajoled. They thought they were absolutely untouchable.
How did it feel, entering into that woman?
I didn’t go into the whole: “What was it like when she murdered people?” I didn’t go there. That wasn’t the Myra for me. You have to protect yourself as an actor. Filming Three Girls, talking to one of the young actresses in that, I was telling her: “Just look after yourself!” I think: “Don’t push yourself there; you don’t need to go there.” You can imagine a lot of the information you need. When we were filming it, Sean [actor Sean Harris, who played Ian Brady] and I were really close. But, gosh, we were horrible! We were this terrible twosome, two naughty little imps who just went around laughing at people, not my normal behaviour at all. I remember, whilst filming in Manchester, these two girls were fighting in the street. One of them knocked into me and I just turned like: “Oi! Watch it!” I felt invincible. That’s what I got from that character. I felt so confident. That’s when you know there’s going to be a huge fall afterwards.
Isn’t it by watching drama that we get to know people of such notoriety? The press tends to be more moralistic, in ways that television and film are not…
That’s the juxtaposition of drama. That’s what it does. I remember a director who I was working with said to me: “You can’t play Myra Hindley; you will just make people feel sympathetic towards her!” But that’s human nature. It throws it all at you and you have to siphon through. I read interviews with neighbours and friends. People used to call her Auntie Myra. She babysat for the kids on the street. That’s when Myra Hindley’s story gets really fascinating, actually. It was touched upon when Sam Morton played her in Longford. In prison, she ended up being godmother to 14 children from ex-inmates! She had this affair with a prison warden who tried to break her out once, and he got arrested. Her power! She was obviously this arch manipulator. People said she would do a “Princess Diana”; looking under her eyelids, all big-eyed, very demure…
See No Evil won the Bafta for Best Drama Series. How important are award ceremonies for you?
Not important at all. Because I don’t win very many! [chortling] If I’m honest, I’m not keen on the whole system of it. I think it’s very political. Sometimes you receive a script and go: “Whoever plays this will probably be a contender for the Bafta.” Not necessarily with me playing it, but because the script is that good; you sort of know the dramas that get picked. But there is a slight bitterness with me. I remember doing Criminal Justice and all the reviews went: “Oh, Maxine Peake, she’ll be nominated for a Bafta for this.” And like a silly sod, I believed it and got swept along with it. I got a call from my agent and he was like: “Max, you haven’t even been nominated for the longlist for Best Actress.” [Peake looks reflective, smiles and shrugs] I’ve been asked a couple of times to judge on the Bafta panel, but I won’t. I don’t want to judge my fellow actors. I think it’s a hard enough job as it is; it takes a lot of balls to get up there.
How do you deal with bad press or criticism?
I get angry for about a day now and then I laugh about it. I just take it on the chin. I did a play a couple of years ago at The Royal Court called How to Hold Your Breath. The reviews didn’t talk about my acting, but about the way I looked. Basically, they couldn’t have compassion with the character I was playing because they didn’t find her attractive. When I had very short hair for Hamlet, there was all this “Maxine Peake… with short hair!” Like, gosh, you’re in your forties and you can’t have short hair?!
Didn’t you receive outstanding reviews for your Hamlet?
Hamlet was good. But How to Hold Your Breath, written by Zinnie Harris, was an amazing piece of theatre; beautifully written, just prophetic. I wondered: “Aren’t you all seeing what I read? Are you watching the same thing?” It was interesting when they started picking at my looks. You reach middle age and the way of getting at you is picking at your appearance.
Playing Hamlet, were you conscious of the lineage of female actors taking on this iconic Shakespearean male character?
My motivation to play Hamlet wasn’t some big feminist clarion call. I have always been drawn to male parts, because of the athleticism, I think, and something about the physicality. I don’t want to get into trouble, but being able to wield a sword and do a stage fight; you don’t always get that from female parts. It was just exciting to be able to say: “I’m playing Hamlet.” I’d love to carry on playing male Shakespearean parts. I don’t have too much love for his female roles. But it was never started as us creating a feminist piece of theatre. I just felt I should challenge myself and this felt like the biggest challenge of all. It is fantastic to be in that company, of course; Sarah Bernhardt, Asta Nielsen, Frances de la Tour. I just hope other female actors want to come on board.
Do you feel that female actors suffer gender bias a lot in their critiques?
Of course they do! There are some actresses – and I still say actors and actresses, by the way – who are in plays, and the reviews are amazing, because half the male reviewers have got a semi as they’re watching it! [Peake’s smirk yields to a chuckle] You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s about being an artist. Awards, reviews; you learn, as you get older, to ignore the hype. But it’s the scripts that come your way, where you really see it. There’s always this fine line between going: “Is this a good representation… or is it not a good representation?”
Can you describe some of the misrepresentations of women in television and film?
It’s interesting; lots of dramas are now about women and their sexuality. Great; they are trying to write something about women having sexuality. But it always then feels like there is a consequence for it. Even if by the end she comes out on top, part of the drama is about the punishment she endures for the price of her sexuality. We are in a society where, if a woman has a strong sexuality, we can be critical of it. But it’s not the same for men. There’s the double standard. It’s still the Dark Ages for women. Sometimes I think, though: “You overread things… just get on and do it!” It’s a gamble. I’m very safe in my personal life, but I think in my work life, that’s where I like to take risks.
Are you a bit Method?
Up to a point. Depends on the director and whom I’m working with. On set, I don’t go into this: “I’m immersed in my character!” thing. That doesn’t work really, for me. I’ve got to be alert in myself. You see actors sometimes, they’ll bring a mood into a room, and they’ll walk into a scene after building themselves up. When an actor has their performance set – and I’m not saying this is better or worse – you realise: “Oh! I’m not getting anything back here, am I? Right, what do I do now?” Acting is reacting. That’s why with jobs I ask: “Who else is in it?” It’s not a snobby thing. It’s more about going: “That person? Yeah, brilliant. I love their work, and I know how they work.”
Can we talk politics? Haven’t you been accused in the past of being too outspoken?
Oh, people always say: “She’s a communist!” Actually I am a socialist, first and foremost. But very rarely will I go around saying: “Listen to me! This is what I believe!” I don’t stand on my soapbox, you know. Maybe once I spoke at a political rally... I think politics evolves with us, anyway. Some people say: “But are you a feminist, Max?” It’s not so simplistic, being a feminist. This is the debate I’m having with myself at the moment. Can you be an actress and be a feminist? It is a business that is about your looks. Even if I say: “I don’t care about my looks!” Later I’ll be thinking: “But I am getting a bit line-y over here… I can see a jiggly-bit there! Best get my
face threaded, make sure my eyebrows are dyed, get my eyelashes done…” I’m always conscious about my appearance because that’s the job I do. If I really were a feminist, I’d still be 15 stone! Wouldn’t I be rocking up on set, like: “No, I’m not wearing make-up in this scene, and I’m not going to wear those high heels!”?
Have you had scenes in which you had to get naked?
Not naked, but topless. In Shameless, I did some topless ironing. Veronica [her character] was making money on the internet, doing topless ironing!
That’s hilarious! When you were reading for the part, did you feel any initial anxiety over the sexuality in the show?
You do question the politics of things. Although, probably at that stage in my career, I just thought: “This is a brilliant part.” What I loved about Shameless was that it was about the joy. There are a lot of dramas where it’s still Grim Up North. I remember going for the re-call for the part and them going: “If you get this job, you are aware there is this topless scene in it?” So they were already warning people who were back for the next round of auditions. I thought: “I’m not that bothered.” Until I had to do it! I had terrible sunburn here [pointing to her décolletage] and some sloppy tracksuit bottoms on. Then all my insecurities came right back. But I did it. The thing about Veronica was that she was a real woman. She wasn’t supposed to look amazing, necessarily. That was the beauty of that show. You were playing real people, and it was funny. All the sex scenes were hilarious.
Have your professional experiences helped shape other areas of your life?
Because of my previous roles, sometimes when I do shoots they assume I’m not that interested in fashion. I’ve been trying for years to get away from the tomboy look. So what I love about publications like Wylde is the clothes. It’s not about being more feminine, it’s just being a grown-up. As I’m getting older, I’m thinking about cleaner lines more, something more elegant.
Did your British Vogue shoot in May nettle you a little bit, then? You were holding a cup of tea, sat in a café, wearing your own jumper…
It did, a bit! When I got the call, I was like: “Oh my goodness…” The make-up, the designers; I had never done anything for Vogue before… how exciting! Fair enough, Tim who does my publicity, said that the shoot was representing Three Girls, the series I’m in. The character I was playing is a Northern social worker, so I was given a mug of hot tea and sat in a café. Helen McCrory was promoting her show [Fearless], so she was shot in an office with Michael Gambon, although I bet it’s not her own suit she’s wearing! When I arrived, Mary [McCartney] said to me: “Oh, that jumper’s nice!” You know when you’ve worn something to death? And you think: “I can’t wear that!” Jenna Coleman is playing Queen Victoria, so she was shot in a beautiful, long gown… But my antenna is always up for anything like that. I’ll think: “Right! It’s because I’m Northern working class that I’m in Vogue drinking tea!”
Three Girls might be up for a Bafta or two... Do you have a red-carpet heroine; somebody who gets the politics right, as well as the glamour?
Most definitely Tilda Swinton. If I look at anybody, I see her and think: “I’d feel comfortable in that!” I would quite like a brilliant pair of trousers and a sharp-cut jacket. I need to be able to sit, walk, move… But making a statement? Yes!