She used to be told she was too fat, too northern, too political. Decades into a stellar career, Maxine Peake is on fighting form
Maxine Peake looks at me and rolls her eyes. “Last time we met, you got me into trouble,” she says.
“Really?” I say, confused.
“Yes! I said there were no working-class actresses in Hollywood. And I took a load of flak for that. People were going, ‘Well, maybe if you acted a bit better, you might be there.’ Are you going to get me into trouble again?”
To be fair, Peake can barely open her mouth without saying something controversial. When I interviewed her six years ago, she was beginning to establish herself as one of the best actors of her generation. She had moved on from playing loud, blousy, funny girls on television (Twinkle in Dinnerladies with Victoria Wood, and Veronica in Shameless) to complex, heavy-duty characters (Myra Hindley in See No Evil) and sophisticated, career-driven women (barrister Martha Costello in Peter Moffat’s Silk).
Today, she is on the verge of becoming a great. In recent years, she has dominated Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre: as the shape-shifting fairy in Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker; as Strindberg’s fallen aristocrat Miss Julie; as self-deluding alcoholic Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire; and as a puckish but ferocious Hamlet, all directed by Sarah Frankcom.
Now, she has returned to TV in a powerful BBC drama. Three Girls is about Rochdale’s grooming scandal, which finally resulted in the conviction of nine Asian men for sexually abusing white teenage girls. It’s a difficult story to tell, one that could be sensationalist or inflammatory. But Three Girls is beautifully written by Nicole Taylor. It does not focus on the abusers, but the abused: three working-class girls betrayed by the council, the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as the men who stole their lives. The girls were written off by the agencies that should have protected them, because their lives were chaotic and they did not present as ideal victims.
But they are not the only victims. Peake plays Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker who repeatedly reported her concerns to the police that the girls were being abused – and was repeatedly ignored.
At one point, Peake’s Rowbotham is approached by a female officer who tells her that Greater Manchester police have decided to reinvestigate the abuse, years after dropping the case. The scene lasts only a few seconds, but stays with you. “Fuck off,” she tells the officer. “No, really, I mean it, fuck off. I’ve been in here, sat in here, for years, and what you’re demanding off me now I couldn’t pay you lot to look at for years. You swan in here with your Prada handbag, asking me to hand it over like you’re checking my gas meter.”
She displays an astonishing mix of emotions: fury, contempt, shock, heartbreak. Throughout, you see a single tear lodged in her eye which she never allows to fall. It is Peake at her very best: not flash, not actorly, just viscerally real.
“Philippa [Lowthorpe], the director, restored my faith in television,” she says. Apart from two series of The Village, an early 20th-century period piece in which she played long-suffering farmer’s wife Grace Middleton, Peake has been conspicuous by her absence from television. Why did she lose faith in TV? “Because there’s no time or money. I’d done a few jobs where I thought, ‘I need to step away from it now, because I don’t want to become one of those actors you meet who works a lot but are very unhappy and moans a lot.’ As soon as you arrive on a job, they let you know they’re unhappy. Certain actors forget they’re really lucky to be doing what they’re doing.” Names, please. She grins, looks tempted, then shakes her head. “I did a series, and it wasn’t Silk – I loved Silk – and after that, I thought, ‘You know what? It’s time to sit and contemplate.’”
We’re at a photo studio in Kentish Town, north London. Peake lived in London for a decade, but now she’s back in the north-west (in Salford) – her true home. Peake is a stylish, androgynous dresser. For years, she used to gad around in her grandad’s brogues, bought from the Co-op in the 1950s. Today she arrived wearing high-waisted brown cords, brown shoes, brown socks and a brown cashmere jumper. Every brown is a distinct shade, yet they all complement each other. She says her agent describes the way she dresses as the “Pilgrim father look”.
She grew up in Bolton, a dozen miles from Rochdale, to working-class parents who divorced when she was nine. She was 15 when her mum moved several miles away with a new boyfriend, and Maxine chose to move in with her beloved communist grandad, Jim, who became her mentor and gave her a political education.
In some ways, she was a rough-and-ready girl: she played rugby for Wigan Ladies, scrapped her way through school, was partial to a bit of inept light thieving. “We all did a bit, going into Bolton on Saturday. I wasn’t good at it, though. I had too much of a conscience. I used to think the store detective had followed me all the way home and would knock on the door and go, ‘Hello, is this your daughter? She’s got three blue lipsticks and a moisturiser from Boots in her bag.’ We just used to nick crap. Not even stuff we wanted.”
Yes, she says, had life taken a wrong turn, she could have been one of the teens in Three Girls. “I had two friends who were fostered, and they went through this. We used to hang around street corners at 12, 13, and cars would pull up, driven by men aged 26, 27. I witnessed young girls getting in the cars, and coming back and not talking about what had happened. I was quite prudish. I had friends who lost their virginity at 13, and I’d be like, ‘Disgusting!’”
Despite her prudishness, as soon as Peake started to act, she was stereotyped. “They think if you’re from up north, you’re up for it. Good-time girls. ‘Ooh, she likes a laugh!’ You mean, ‘She’s promiscuous.’ And again, it all ties into class, doesn’t it? Northern working-class women are obviously a bit loose. This is what this drama is about: how people perceive these young girls.”
Peake says she always wanted to be an actor, but didn’t think it was feasible, so set her heart on being a comedian. “That seemed more possible than acting, because I didn’t think I looked like an actor.” Why? “I didn’t see dumpy 11-year-olds with basin haircuts. I was quite big, and got bigger.” Did it worry her? “No, I thought that was just the way I was. I thought, ‘I’m not going to have a boyfriend, no one will fancy me, and I’m fat and people take the mickey out of me.’ But that was my armour as well. I could be the funny girl.”
She didn’t become a comedian. In fact, she went to study drama at Rada, ironically thanks to a scholarship handed out by the Daily Mail, which she despised. At Rada she was told she would never play Juliet if she didn’t lay off the chips. “I went, ‘What would I want to play Juliet for? She’s well boring. I mean, killing yourself at 14 for love? Ridiculous!’” At Rada, she became known as Red Max.
By the age of 23, she was 15 stone and starring as tardy, sarky Twinkle in Dinnerladies (“All right, keep your scrotum on,” she would tell canteen manager Tony). It was the show’s creator, Victoria Wood, who gave her the warning that changed her life: “She said, ‘You’re big, you’re blond – take it from me, you’ll get typecast.’ Despite all her amazing work, I think Vic wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.” Peake did Weight Watchers, lost five stone, and her career blossomed.
She says she has experienced pretty much every ism going: blondism, sexism, sizeism, northism. “I was talking to a young actor from Hull, and she was telling me what people say to her in auditions. I said you could have people in front of a tribunal if it was another line of work. Now, people are like, ‘Oh, she’s a proper actress’, but if I had taped the way they challenged your intellect. They’d say, ‘She’s been educated, she’s been to university: can you lose the accent.’ Or, ‘Have you read the script?’ and I’d go, ‘Yes’, and they’d say [whispering], ‘You do know she’s not from the north.’ I can read, we’ve got schools up north, we’ve got electricity.” Did she always respond in that way? “No, did I heck. I’d just sit there and go, ‘Yes, I know. Please give me a job.’”
She seems easy in her skin these days, I say. “It’s because I don’t care now.” Really? “I don’t care as much. I care about my work, but I don’t care about getting it wrong. The more you do, the more you realise nobody’s going to die.”
So many actors angst about everything. “Yes, because they think too highly of themselves. People go, ‘Oh, I’m so unconfident, I’m so damaged.’ Well, that’s because they love themselves far too much. And I go, ‘Look, this is what I’ve got, I don’t particularly like myself, and I don’t hate myself, just get on with it.’”
Another reason she’s stopped caring, she says, is because she’s become immune to criticism. “I’ve taken so much flak.” What for? “My politics. The Bolton News is the best place for online comments. They say I’m an absolute idiot and a communist anarchist.” And this really does outrage her. “I was never an anarchist, I was a communist!” She joined the party when she was living with her grandfather, and quit when she was 21 and at Rada. “I left because I became self-obsessed and got wrapped up in drama school and acting.” How would she define herself today? “I’m a socialist. In the Communist party, we always said a communist is a socialist who means it!”
Her critics have another misconception, she says: that she’s loaded. “Everybody thinks you’re a multimillionaire, so I’m not allowed to have an opinion on society, because, obviously, I’m far too rich and above it!” Does that piss her off? “Well, yeah, it does. That’s why I don’t do Twitter and Facebook, because I’d spend my time going, ‘F you. Where d’you live, let’s have this out in person, shall we?’”
But these are small gripes. Success has been great. It has given her the confidence to say yes to new things, rather than running away from the unknown. Peake has just finished directing her first short film, set in the 1960s, about a young couple with a child affected by thalidomide, and wants to make a full-length feature. When she was asked by the Guardian to write a short film about Brexit, she instinctively said yes, even though she didn’t have a clue what she was going to do. She’s learned so much from the great writers she has worked with (Paul Abbott, Carol Morley, Wood, Peter Moffat) that these days she is convinced she’ll be able to busk it.
“What’s that Andy Warhol quote? ‘Art is getting away with it.’ ” The funny thing is, she says, now she’s being stereotyped because of the smart women she has played. “People think I’m clever, which is hilarious. I’m like, ‘When did this happen? People used to think I couldn’t string a sentence together.’”
She talks about working with Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch – both Eton-educated “and probably the nicest people I’ve worked with” – and how they have an innate self-belief. “Why can’t we give people that at comprehensive schools, that sense of entitlement, that you can. We were taught, ‘You can’t, it’s going to be hard’, whereas they’re taught, ‘You can, it’s possible.’ That’s what I feel now, because I’ve got to that privileged place. I think, ‘Course I can, why not?’”
This is how she came to play Hamlet. “We’d done Miss Julie, they asked, ‘What do you want to do next?’ and I thought, ‘Balls, why not? Let’s have a go at Hamlet.’ I’d never had a burning desire to do Shakespeare, because it was like, ‘It’s not really for you, it’s difficult.’”
She thinks of her mother, Glenys, who died eight years ago and worked in a department store and as a carer. Peake says Glenys was talented, but never had the opportunity to fulfil her potential. “She was brilliant at drawing and one day she said, ‘I wish I’d gone to art school.’ And the way she dressed; it was all charity shops, but people always said, ‘Your mum looks really sophisticated.’ She had that eye.”
She says her mother would have loved to have been middle class – as indeed she would have back then. “Middle class to me was books. We didn’t have books in our house. Middle class was the kids whose parents were teachers, and they’d have carvings from Africa and loads of books and vinyl, and their mum and dad liked Fleetwood Mac.”
Peake says she learned from seeing her mother thwarted. Not least with men. “That’s why I moved in with my grandad, because she met a guy and moved to Leyland, and I didn’t want to move and I didn’t like the guy. She went for obnoxious men. I don’t know why. She was a caring person. She’d pick everyone up at the bus stop if it was raining. But I’d say, ‘Stop letting these men shape your opinions.’ After she got out of her last disastrous relationship, she got proactive and vocal. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the woman I knew was there.’”
Did it affect Peake’s own attitude towards men? “Yes – even with my dad. I thought, ‘I don’t know if that’s something I really want to give myself over to’, because it was like her entire life was spent servicing these men.”
Peake, 42, lives in Salford with her partner, television art director Pawlo Wintoniuk, whom she calls her soul mate. “He’s better informed than I am, and he thinks I’m a lot better informed than I am. Which makes me laugh.”
Do they always hold a party line? “Usually. We never row about politics.” Could she have a relationship with a Tory? “No.” A Lib Dem? “No!” A New Labourite? “God, no! I’d rather be with a Tory. Well, same thing.”
Peake and Wintoniuk have tried to have children (they underwent IVF treatment unsuccessfully) and Peake has been appalled by the things people have said to her about not being a mother. “After Mum’s generation, it felt like we’ll get a career off the ground, and now it feels as if it’s gone back to the role of wife and motherhood. You’ve got to have five kids to fill your 4×4. It’s a middle-class thing: they’re having these huge broods.”
She talks about the highly qualified women who devote themselves to competitively bringing up children because their partners have well-paid jobs. “When society gets like this, it turns insular. It becomes about the family, the little unit. Where does this cult of motherhood come from? We’ve gone so far back. We shouldn’t still be asking, ‘Have you got children? Why’ve you not got children? Ooh, you must have children!’ Bog off, d’you know what I mean?”
Actually, Peake says, she has never been convinced she wanted kids anyway. “We have talked about adopting, but then something comes along and I go, ‘Oh, but I’ve got this project to do.’ Somebody said yesterday, ‘Your work’s your babies’, and I thought, ‘Yeah, it is.’”
And there is so much more she wants to achieve work-wise. Would she like to work in Hollywood? “No. I was talking yesterday about actresses who’ve gone over there, and they don’t come back unscathed.” Has she been offered stuff. “No!” she shouts. Not even American Shameless? “No! Because I don’t register over there. I’d have to start again, and I don’t want to do crappy parts to get into something good. If I don’t care about what I’m doing, I can’t do it. I’m not that good an actor. That’s why I did Three Girls, because I cared about it.”
Would she go into politics? Long silence. “That’s one thing Pav said to me: ‘Please don’t go into politics, because I don’t see you enough as it is. I’ll never see you if you do that.’” She sounds as if she’s given it consideration. “The misogyny in that world, and the way you’re supposed to present yourself, I wouldn’t last.”
What does she think of Theresa May? “A terrible politician. How can you like her? And I can’t buy into this thing, ‘Oh, but she’s a woman.’ I don’t care.” What upsets her about May’s politics? “Her lack of care. I mean, we’re talking about another £30 being cut off disability benefits. I cannot believe the callousness. Why are we not in the streets rioting? Why are we not in the streets going, ‘You cannot treat people in this country like that’? It’s absolutely distressing when you go to Manchester and see the homeless people on the street. Every time I go back, there’s more.”
How does she feel about Labour? “I am a Corbyn supporter. My mind boggles why people treat him like the anti-Christ, but it goes to show people are a lot more right-wing than they like to believe. People say he’s not been vocal, but he is out at grassroots. Every time I go somewhere, he’s there.”
How does she feel about the snap election? “I am an eternal optimist, and I had a surge of excitement when the election was announced. This is a real opportunity to try to repair the devastating damage that the Tories have inflicted. I hope more than anything that their arrogance is completely misguided and they tumble dramatically.”
Peake says she can’t wait for a fightback to start. Would her ideal be peaceful revolution or violent revolution? “A bit of both. You can’t have a peaceful revolution now. Terrible thing to say. But we need a coup!” She gives me a look. “Have I got myself in trouble again? Oh, who cares, eh?” And off Citizen Max goes to fight the good fight.
• Three Girls will broadcast on BBC1 over three nights, from 16-18 May.