The guardian website has published a wonderful new interview with Maxine. You can read it here:
Actor Maxine Peake – best known from Shameless and Silk, and now starring in BBC drama The Village – is a plain-speaking grafter with no time for luvvies and a firm belief in housework…
Maxine Peake: ‘I’m concerned we’ll tip back into the bad old days when only people from a certain class could afford to send their children to drama school.’ Photograph: Lorna Milburn
Maxine Peake is wearing slippers and a faded grey dressing-gown belted loosely round her waist. There is an indistinct white-ish stain on one shoulder that might or might not be scraped-off baby sick. “Sorry about that,” she says, dabbing at it ineffectually.
Her face, fine-boned and pale, peers out from underneath roughly swept-back hair. Most actresses like to claim they don’t really care how they look, but Peake is the first I’ve met who genuinely seems to mean it.
“For me,” she says, “It’s about being as down-to-earth and low-maintenance as possible.”
It turns out the dressing-gown is for a role: Peake is currently filming Keeping Rosy, a low-budget independent film in which she plays an advertising executive whose life spirals out of control. Today, the crew are filming in an antiseptic apartment in London’s Canary Wharf but she’s actually here to promote her turn in the forthcoming BBC drama, The Village.
“The problem with Maxine,” her publicist sighs, “is that she’s always doing the next job when we need her to publicise the last one. She’s never out of work.”
The green room where we meet is fairly chaotic and overrun with electric cables and stage-school kids, including a chubby baby who for some reason is wearing a tea-towel as a nappy. Peake herself appears unconcerned by the hubbub, and answers each question with the same considered calm that she brings to many of her characters. She says she has no time for “method” luvvies who agonise over their art: “I get very irate with actors when they talk about how distressing it all is. I mean, it’s only acting. Please.”
It’s probably easier to get away with saying something like that when you’re at the top of your game yourself. Over the past decade, Peake, 38, has quietly become one of our foremost television actors, renowned both for her complete believability and her understated ease on screen. Her big break after graduating from Rada (where she was on a full scholarship) was a part in Victoria Wood’s hit sitcom Dinnerladies in the late 1990s. Peake had grown up in Bolton watching Wood on television with her dad, Brian, a lorry driver and factory worker. Getting to star alongside her idol was thrilling. “I still haven’t come to terms with it,” she says.
It was Wood who famously advised her young protégée to lose weight to avoid being typecast as the funny northern lass.
“I’d get a script which said ‘she’s from Hertfordshire’,” recalls Peake, “and in the audition, they’d hear my accent and say, ‘You do know she’s not northern?'” She guffaws. “I might be northern, but I can actually read. But I think because I was young, chubby and bubbly, people felt they had to explain in a slightly patronising way.”
Peake duly shifted five stone with Weight Watchers and landed the part of brassy Veronica in Shameless – a programme her mother, Glynis, could never bring herself to watch.
“She was mortally embarrassed by Shameless,” says Peake, laughing. “I think Dinnerladies was a big thing for my mum.”
Were they proud of her? “They never said [Peake’s mother died four years ago]. My dad did say to me once: ‘I don’t know how you do what you do’ and that was his way of saying it, I think.”
After Shameless, Peake took the lead role in a clutch of critically acclaimed small-screen dramas: in 2006 she portrayed Moors murderer Myra Hindley in See No Evil. The experience “took a little bit of time to shake off”. After taking on a particularly dark role, she recovers with a bout of frenzied cleaning around the house.
“I love hoovering,” Peake says. “People go to therapists, I’ve got a Hoover. Cooking, you can keep. I’ve not the slightest interest in it.” Her favourite food is a packet of crumpets – she has a stash in the freezer. What brand? No hesitation: “Warburton’s.”
More recently, she appeared in the Channel 4 trilogy Red Riding, played the Simone Signoret role in a superb BBC4 remake of Room at the Top, and was the feisty QC Martha Costello in the BBC series Silk, written by Peter Moffat. With her uncompromising ethics and dashing slash of red lipstick, Costello has become the official girl crush for all right-thinking women in their 30s. It is a role that could easily have been clichéd but in Peake’s hands it acquired depth and realism.
“Martha’s not cool but she tries to be cool and that’s what I like about her… For the second series, they said ‘Let’s glam her up a bit’ and I said no, I liked the fact her hair’s a bit messy.”
The Village is another Moffat script: an epic six-part BBC series that charts the life and times of one English village across the whole of the 20th century.
“It always starts with the writing,” Peake says of how she picks her roles. “Normally I get three pages in and I can say yes or no.”
She is aware, too, of a responsibility to depict women a certain way on screen. “I think all things are political… How women are portrayed – that’s a big thing for me. What is this role trying to say about women? Is this woman weak or victimised and, if so, do we get to understand why?”
In The Village, Peake plays Grace, a devoted mother of two sons who channels her energies into caring for her family. Peake, who lives in Salford with her boyfriend Pawlo, a TV art director, has no children herself – a fact often commented on in interviews almost as though she is a freak of nature. Was she ever anxious about taking on a matriarchal role?
She nods. “I used to panic. Can I really truthfully play a mother? I mean, people say you’ve never felt a love like that you have for your children. But then, you’re an actor. You can play an axe murderer without having done it.”
Why does she think we are still so surprised when a woman chooses not to have children?
“It stems back to keeping women in their place, to women feeling guilty if they’re not fulfilling those roles. I just find it ridiculous that we are still in this day and age so hung up on children. Women can be completely fulfilled in different ways. I was talking to a friend the other day who said: ‘I don’t want children. I’m too selfish’ and I thought, maybe you’re not. Maybe wanting children is selfish… It’s not just about you and your need for a baby. Children have a life [of their own].”
Besides, she says, The Village appealed to her because the drama centres on “working people” rather than “the decision-makers”. Peake is a committed socialist. Apathy worries her and she thinks it’s “criminal” when people don’t vote. When they were filming The Village, she took the entire cast to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. In July, she will perform Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, a 91-stanza political epic written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, at the Manchester international festival.
Is there any major political party that currently reflects her beliefs?
“No, I don’t think so… It’s very difficult to find anyone at the moment who is beating the same drum. Still, I suppose I’ve been brought up that, whatever happens, you vote Labour. It’s difficult but the alternative is worse.”
Does she worry that the current climate of austerity will put working-class students off becoming actors?
“Yeah. I do wonder how people are going to afford to go to drama school now. I panic about how people can even afford to go to the theatre. The West End is thriving but at £76 a ticket…”
She’d like to see more grassroots funding and cheaper tickets so that younger people get to go the theatre more regularly. When she was at drama college, her role models were not movie stars but the stage actors: Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Albert Finney…
“I’m really concerned we will tip back into the bad old days when only people from a certain class or people with disposable incomes could afford to send their children to drama school.”
It’s a rare and refreshing thing to hear an actress speaking her mind with such clarity and force. Peake’s political awareness was minted in 1985 when she was 10. The miners’ strike was on the news and she remembers being petrified by the notion of nuclear war. She was also educated politically by her beloved grandfather, Jim, a formative influence after Peake’s parents divorced when she was nine.
When she was 15, her mother moved in with a new boyfriend several miles away and Peake lived with her grandfather for a few years so that she could continue going to her local school. She has described him in past interviews as her mentor. It was Jim who encouraged her to pursue her acting, even when she was rejected by regional theatre companies and spent three years trying and failing to get into drama college before going to Rada at the age of 21.
A few days before our meeting, Peake’s grandfather died at the age of 85. For a while, it looked as though the interview was going to be postponed. But then the call came through that, no, Peake wanted to do it. Her publicist says that throwing herself back into work has helped divert her energies elsewhere. She is a grafter; always has been. Understandably, Peake has said she doesn’t want to speak about Jim today. She says simply that she “worshipped” her grandparents, and her hand trembles as she raises it to tuck back her hair. She looks momentarily fragile.
Shortly afterwards, we’re told the next scene needs to be shot and the wardrobe lady needs Peake to change. She seems lightened when she gets up, as though she is back in her element – relieved perhaps that she can plough all that feeling into a different character, not her own.
The Village starts on BBC1 next Sunday, 31 March. MIF’s Masque of Anarchy is at the Albert Hall, Manchester, 12-14 July.