Don’t miss out on this impressive, honest interview – you can read it right below:
To thine own self be true…
From her exciting new gender-swapping role as Hamlet, to the reason she won’t be defined by the baby question, Emma Jane Unsworth meets Maxine Peake and discovers a woman determined to defy convention.
As I’m nattering with Maxine Peake, it takes a while for me to appreciate the bizarreness of the scene. We’re in her trailer on the set of BBC drama The Village, deep in the Derbyshire countryside, where she’s shooting the final week of the BBC drama’s second series after an intensive 14 weeks. The trailer is large and slightly chintzy, decked out in floral fabrics and beech veneer. There’s a tiny toilet, a microwave and an unslept-in double bed. The blinds are pulled halfway down, letting in shafts of sunshine. Somewhere nearby, a generator thrums. It’s like a strange, American gothic film set all of its own.
Meanwhile, Peake is dressed in 1920s costume for her part as Grace Middleton, which saw her nominated for a BAFTA in 2013: a long-sleeved pink blouse, the high neck buttoned tightly. Her hair, dyed red for the part (‘I love being a ginger’), is pinned up in loose knots. The joy of this postmodern mash-up dawns on me as we chat about her weekend: DJing at a local club on Saturday, and ruined with a hangover for much of Sunday. ‘I play vinyl,’ she says. ‘I don’t do all that computer stuff.’
It’s something of a cliché to say that Maxine Peake is down to earth (and is it just because she has a Northern accent? More of which shortly). She’s universally loved and respected. She radiates an extremely comfy mix of honesty and warmth. Everyone wants to work with her right now. Peter Moffat, writer of The Village and Silk, the legal drama in which Peake starred as Martha Costello QC, hailed her ‘the best actress of her generation’. And because Peake has kept her accent, because she lives in a terraced house in Salford, because she shot to fame playing brassy northerners in shows like Shameless and Dinnerladies, there’s the temptation to pigeonhole her as some kind of working-class hero. But this is where you learn that Maxine Peake is someone who won’t be shoved in any old category.
‘I left the north when I was 21 to go to drama school in London, and I stayed there 12 years,’ says Peake, who turned 40 this summer. ‘I just woke up one morning and thought, I want to go back. People say, is it because you’re dead proud of being northern? And I say no, it’s just my home. It’s where I’m from.’
Peake spent her teenage years living with her granddad Jim in Bolton, a beloved mentor to whom she attributes her socialist politics. ‘I was in awe of him,’ she says. ‘Politically, he was so clued up.’ She joined the Young Communist League aged 18 and still has that fire in her belly. ‘For me, politics is about passion,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter what you know; it’s your actions that count. I meet people who say they’re socialists and that’s not what they carry out in their everyday life. As I’m getting older, I’m getting angrier. I remember my granddad saying to me before he died: Maxine, I was born in the biggest depression and I died in the biggest depression and I fought all my life for socialism, and we’re in a worse state now than when we started.’ She sighs. ‘That breaks my heart.’
In January this year Peake went to Bolton Socialist Club to accept an Outstanding Contribution to Socialism award – an honour she described as “better than a BAFTA”. And though her career has gone stratospheric, she isn’t dazzled by the glamour – quite the opposite, in fact. ‘I have to laugh when I get invites to the polo,’ she chuckles. ‘I’m like, have you seen me? My granddad would turn in his grave if he saw me hobnobbing!’
When I bring up next year’s general election, she grimaces. ‘I’ve always voted Labour because they’re the best of a bad bunch, but I’ve no faith in them. I worry if Labour don’t find a solution the Tories will get in again. I remember when New Labour got in. I was at Salford Tech studying drama and everyone was jumping up and down, and I was so upset I went to a phone box and called my granddad. He said, don’t worry, they don’t understand – they’re the same as the Tories, these lot.’
Peake hadn’t had the greatest start studying drama. ‘They said I’d never be an actress as I wasn’t gregarious enough. The other girls were all-singing, all-dancing, in sweat-pants and jazz shoes – and I turned up in dungarees and German para boots with a basin haircut,’ she laughs. ‘But I really think if I hadn’t had that tough time, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, because it made me think, I’ll bloody show you.’
This ‘I’ll show you’ attitude carried her through college, through RADA, through a broadcasting world and industry that still treats anything other than RP as a novelty, and all the way to the Manchester Royal Exchange this autumn and that traditional pinnacle of acting ambition: Hamlet. After a hugely successful run in Miss Julie at the venue in 2012 – her favourite role to date – Peake met with artistic director Sarah Frankcom to discuss what next. ‘We knew it had to be bigger in terms of concept,’ she says. ‘So I said, what about Hamlet?’ The next day Frankcom called Peake and asked if she was serious. ‘I said, let’s do it.’ Admitting she gets ‘very bored’ if she doesn’t stretch herself, Peake relishes the challenge of Hamlet: ‘Why should it be the preserve of men?’ In Frankcom’s production, there will be a female Polonius, a female Rosencrantz and a female Player King. ‘I’ve had emails from actresses saying thanks for doing this,’ says Peake. ‘But, lovely as that is, it wasn’t a feminist statement. I just thought, why not?’
That said, Peake is super-aware of the societal pressure on women to do and be certain things, despite her incidentally no-fuss look (‘I get angry about the way women are forced and bullied into what the male ideal is’). At a deeper level, too, she has found herself frustrated with expectations regarding her life choices. Like many famous women, she is constantly asked whether she wants children. ‘Men don’t get quizzed about their personal lives in the same way,’ Peake says. ‘No one says to a man, you’re 38 and you haven’t got children: why? You spend your life as a woman building your career, then, once you’re there, there’s a tiny window and all this pressure.’
In reality, Peake and her long-term partner Pawlo tried for many years to start a family, suffering two miscarriages and enduring a course of IVF. ‘I haven’t talked about those things before because they’re very personal and I didn’t want to be a spokeswoman for women who don’t have children,’ she says. ‘But when I did interviews, it was the first thing they asked about, like it was a conscious decision on my part to not have kids, and it wasn’t.’
Now, Peake is adamant she won’t be defined by not being a mother. ‘Paw and I have been down every avenue and it hasn’t happened,’ she says, ‘but there are other things to do. My own mum told me not to have children. She loved us, but she realised that because of us there were things she hadn’t done. I think women can feel ashamed, like they’ve failed or like they’re not a woman somehow if they don’t have kids, and that’s wrong. It shocks me that in this day and age motherhood still often defines a woman.’
Just before I leave she takes me on a tour of the set, leading me through the maze of white vehicles to a large shed. Inside, we pick our way over leads and wires to a huddle of chairs, the makeshift ‘green room’, where John Simm sits rehearsing his lines. ‘It’s non-stop glamour round here,’ he quips. A few metres away, the ‘bedroom’, where they’ll been shooting for the rest of the day, is packed with lights and cameras; boiling hot. Then she waves me off in the production car, and I look back to see a brilliantly modern woman (albeit in an old-fashioned long skirt and brown workboots): a woman who is at home in her own skin beyond the costume changes, who is keen to see where her own questioning takes her next. One thing’s for sure – we’ll all be watching.
Hamlet is at the Manchester Royal Exchange, September 11th-October 18th; royalexchange.co.uk. The Village is back on BBC One this month
I have the biggest respect for Maxine. Truthfully and frankly. Just wow! I wish more people shared her view towards women’s life choices so sincerely… also, the ‘I’ll show you’ attitude is something I want to emphasize. Great interview!