Her incredible range – from Myra Hindley to Hamlet – coupled with her heart-felt socialism and elfin looks have made Maxine Peake one of Britain’s most interesting actors
The first two things anyone mentions are that I’ve cut my hair and moved to Salford,” says Maxine Peake with a chuckle, soon after we sit down. Well, it happened again. But while she still has the Jean Seberg trim and still lives in Salford, they weren’t the first things on my mind. We are meeting in a north London hotel just before Christmas and the lobby is bustling with out-of-towners in black tie waiting to be bussed to West End parties. I find myself wondering how many of them would recognise her.
Because, at 41, Peake occupies a slightly awkward position in the British thespian landscape: supremely well established, yet not quite a superstar. But she radiates a kind of irresistible energy that makes you want to like her. “I hope she’s nice,” a friend tells me beforehand, and you know what he means.
Partly it’s the roles; the virtuosity and range of her talent, from her popular debut in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies to her repeated scene-stealing as Veronica Fisher in Shameless. She appeared in three steely seasons of Silk as Martha Costello QC, “a cross between Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and a small Rottweiler,” according to the trailer. And she received consecutive Bafta nominations as Grace Middleton in The Village. Peake has shown she can take on almost anything and triumph – even Myra Hindley in See No Evil: a hospital pass of a role if ever there was one.
Nor has her success only been on TV. To many she is principally a stage actor. At the Manchester Royal Exchange, where her partnership with director Sarah Frankcom has produced a decade of hits – a fiery Hamlet, Caryl Churchill’s mischievous sprite in The Skriker, Strindberg’s Miss Julie – they are surely on the verge of either banishing her or erecting a statue. Hollywood must beckon, too: last year Peake popped up alongside Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, as Stephen Hawking’s second wife, Elaine.
‘Obviously she has some extraordinary charm that people really seem to fall for’: as Rebekah Brooks in The Comic Strip Presents… Red Top.
But it’s not just the work. There are other reasons why Peake invites such admiration and affection. Maybe her elfin beauty plays a part, and she can flip those features from pitiful to savage with a twitch of the jaw. Her public image certainly helps. In an epoch of privately schooled smoothies Peake has always been refreshing: a straight- talking comprehensive girl from Bolton with a soft spot for socialism and a ready laugh.
She is in London to film a short film for her friend, the theatre director Katie Mitchell, but the interview is to promote Red Top!, a Comic Strip production for UKTV Gold, inspired by the phone-hacking scandal but set in the 1970s. Peake plays Rebekah, an “innocent and beguiling northern girl” who accidentally becomes chief executive of News International before being caught up in a “Watergate-style scandal”. Russell Tovey plays Andy Coulson while Stephen Mangan reprises a role as Tony Blair. Guessing the inspiration for Peake’s character will not win you any prizes.
“When I heard it was Comic Strip I just asked if I could be in it, and when I heard that it was Rebekah Brooks I thought ‘Brilliant’,” she says. The Bolton accent is broader than she usually plays it and her speech is generously salted with ‘yuh kneuus’ and ‘ah means’.
“The Brooks part is obviously a caricature, but I tried to pick up on elements of her character. People who’ve met her say: ‘I didn’t want to like her but I did.’ Obviously she has some extraordinary charm that people really seem to fall for.”
Surely there’s a bit more to Brooks than that, though. After all, this is a woman who got to the very top of an overwhelmingly male- dominated industry and who, despite coming within a whisker of jail, continues to have the ear of some of the most powerful people in the UK.
Peake performance: playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photograph: Jonathan Keenan
“It [Brooks’s career] has been all about getting from men what she wants to get. That’s not a feminist role model. It’s like when people say Thatcher was a feminist. These women get to positions of power, but at what cost? They don’t take other females with them. It’s not: ‘Come on sisters, let’s get up the slippery pole together.’ It’s ‘I’ll get up and kick you with my stiletto back down.’”
The description doesn’t feel especially nuanced for such a subtle actor, but perhaps this is because the programme has its tongue firmly in its cheek, nearer to panto than documentary. “We don’t go into the deep, dark side of phone hacking, but it pokes fun at [the scandal], because it deserves to be poked fun at. It wasn’t a pleasant time for a lot of people.”
Was she ever caught up in it herself? She practically yells: “God no! I’m small fry!”
On the other hand her Dinnerladies co-star Shobna Gulati, who spent 13 years on Coronation Street, was very much involved. In 2014 Trinity Mirror apologised for hacking her phone and agreed to pay compensation. “Shobna said the most upsetting part was that you blamed friends and family for spilling details, because how else could the papers know these personal things?”
Despite Red Top!’s obvious satire, Peake says the producers are still “a bit worried” about the legal implications. “It just goes to show who still wields the power in this country,” she says.
Politics is never far from the surface with Peake. The daughter of a lorry driver and care worker, she used to be a card-carrying Communist and still has distinct socialist leanings. She supported Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership, and was photographed at a rally in Manchester.
Silver service: in Dinnerladies, where she made her debut (with Anne Reid, Andrew Dunn, Victoria Wood, Duncan Preston, Shobna Gulati and Thelma Barlow). Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
“I just love him,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it when it was happening, the momentum of it all. I felt that hope had returned. I never had any doubt. The media are just out for him, but he’s weathering the storm. I hate all this nonsense about how he’s dragging us back to the 70s and 80s, three-day weeks and donkey jackets. They say it’ll be miserable, but it’s miserable now. We’re in a worse state than we were then. We’re going backwards. The way women are over-sexualised, it’s like the 70s feminism movement never happened.
“At least Thatcher knew she was an evil witch,” she adds. “The government now is much smoother. You’ve got to keep positive. There are a hell of a lot of people who are impressed by Corbyn who have not engaged before.”
Plenty of actors talk this kind of talk, but Peake walks more of the walk than most. It is tempting but wrong to read her mouthing off at Maggie as indifference to the public view. “I do in a strange way care deeply what people think,” she says. “You worry as an actor, because you want to keep some privacy. But for me the politics and the work are too meshed in not to be doing it.”
After nearly 13 years in London she moved to Salford six years ago with her partner, art director Pawlo (“Pav”) Wintoniuk. (“‘Boyfriend’ seems weird at 41, but ‘partner’ makes everyone think you’re gay.”) Partly because of the city’s rich socialist history – “Marx and Engels in the pub, the Working Class Movement Library” – but also because the lower prices allow her to be more discerning about work.
“You used to be able to survive mainly on theatre and the odd guest episode on TV,” she says, “but not now. Pay in the acting world hasn’t kept up with inflation.” Salford lets her choose her parts more carefully.
“It’s not as if I’m batting away Hollywood offers all the time,” she laughs. “I’d happily take that superhero movie and buy a little pad in Bloomsbury with my cape in a frame on the wall. But I do have a sense of what roles are saying about me. A lot of it is to do with how parts for women are written. I’m unusual in that I’ve worked more as I’ve got older. But I have noticed a common theme [in the parts I’m offered] seems to be a sort of desperation in pre-menopausal women – ‘I need a partner and a family’ kind of thing, and I think: ‘Maybe no, she doesn’t.’ I’m not saying that isn’t a human story, but there are ways of telling it.”
This could be uncomfortably close to home, given the couple’s own well-documented struggles for a baby. Given her robust feminism and determination not to be pigeonholed, you can see why Peake feels the subject has been done. But she allows that the whole process was exhausting.
Northern lights: as Grace Middleton in The Village, with John Simm, for which she received a Bafta nomination. Photograph: BBC
“I don’t think people realise what a long road it was for us. You’re working and all that’s going on in the background. It probably motivated me in my career in a way, but at some point you have to sit down and come to terms with it all. It has taken a toll, but it’s also been a test of how strong we are as a couple. If I’m honest we get more broody about dogs,” she says, back on to more settled ground. “We lost our dog in September, and she was an heirloom. My mum had her for five years then she died, then my granddad took her on for five years and he died. We thought: ‘Shit, does that mean after five years we’re going to cark it in some terrible road accident, like in a Stephen King film?’”
After Red Top! she will appear as Titania in Russell T Davies’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Some of the purists might blow a gasket, but I think it’ll be fabulous,” she says. Then there is a major theatrical part she can’t yet talk about, but which will suit her down to the ground. Beyond that, who knows? You’d be brave to second guess an actor who can switch from Myra Hindley to Hamlet. The only thing she’ll concede is that after more than a decade it might be time for a break from Frankcom. “We’ll give it a rest,” she says, or people will start to think: ‘Not ’er again.’”
On the day we meet, the 22-year-old Star Wars actor Daisy Ridley is on the front of all the newspapers. Her career, I suggest, seems like an inverse of Peake’s slow-building stardom. Almost overnight, with no other work to her name, Ridley became a celebrity for the rest of her life. Could Peake imagine that kind of switch? “It must be fabulous in one respect, but really daunting. We’ve become much more youth- centric. When I was at drama school you thought you’d leave, do regional theatre, a bit of telly. You had 10 years to hone your craft. Now it’s about getting your big break straightaway.”
And what has Peake learned, with those extra years of practice? “Hard graft. I turn up, read books, do my research, I don’t go out on schoolnights. And I used to be cripplingly self-conscious. Now I just get on with it. Or I say: ‘I feel like a bit of a prat,’ and then I get on with it. I was absolutely shocking when I was younger. I’m not saying I’m great now. But I’ve got better by doing it.”
Just as I get up to leave she reaches an arm out to my shoulder. “Be kind,” she says, her eyes dilating like some rare nocturnal marsupial. She’s very good at pretending, but she really does care.
The Comic Strip Presents… The Red Top! is on 20 January at 9pm on UKTV Gold