Read the full transcript from BAFTA A Life in Pictures: Maxine Peake
Miranda Sawyer: Hello everyone, how are we all? Happy? My name’s Miranda Sawyer, I am very happy to be the host of BAFTA’s A Life in Pictures. I don’t know if you’ve guessed who it’s going to be yet, but I’ll give you a few clues, OK…
So this actor is one of Britain’s best-loved character actors, known for Twinkle in Dinner Ladies, Veronica in Shameless, Martha in Silk. Her versatility and truth means that she’s as happy playing a ‘70s stand-up as she is the good old Prince of Denmark, i.e. Hamlet. She finds the heart in every part. Have you guessed who it is yet? Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to see some more clues and then we’re going to bring her on.
Maxine Peake: Thank you.
MS: OK Maxine, so we are going to be talking about your fabulous career, obviously. But I want to rewind, rewind right back to the beginning. I have heard that you decided you were interested in acting aged thirteen. What was it that triggered your interest?
MP: For me, growing up in our household there was a lot of comedy. I remember sitting with my dad watching The Goodies and Dick Henry Show, things like Mark Harwood… Two Ronnies, Morcambe and Wise, so for me it was initially about making people laugh; I wanted to be a comedian, that’s what I wanted to do. Or I thought I did because that sort of felt in a strange way more obtainable than being an actor. Because the faces that did that looked a little bit more like mine. And Victoria Wood, Julie Walters… Sketch shows, I thought that was what I wanted to go… When I get older I’m going to go to university, meet a band of people with a similar sense of humour and we’re going to start up a comedy troupe and the rest will be history... and it didn’t quite work like that.
MS: It didn’t work like that, did it, no.
MP: No, no.
MS: But you did, I mean you did the things that one should do to be an actor. You joined a youth theatre, didn’t you? You joined Bolton Octagon.
MP: I joined Bolton Octagon, yeah. Not for long thought. It was that thing, that weird mix of what I wanted to do but on the surface I didn’t look like—it’s not just that I was big, but at that time I had a basin haircut, I think I was about fourteen so it was a thirty-two inch blouse, those horrendous carpet tops from Afflec’s Palace—
MS: Oh those were quite nice!
MP: That were slightly flea-riddled. An African Awareness pendant, you know… Yeah, I think I just sort of presented not as a theatrical. And personality wise I remember it being at Bolton and again it was always this all-singing, all-dancing, everyone was very confident and quite larger than life, and that really intimidated me. So I didn’t stay there long, I lost my bottle with it and left.
MS: You lost your bottle and left but you did move through other—you went to the Royal Exchange and—
MP: Yeah, the Royal Exchange was very different. There was only seven people in there and it was much more low-key. It was more of a collection of odd-bods there.
MS: And were you learning? What did you feel like you were learning there?
MP: I think—for me what I learnt there was about the reality of a part, the naturalism and being honest and truthful. That acting isn’t just about presenting. We did a lot of plays and reading and that was something I hadn’t done at school. We’d read Taste of Honey, and I read Road, and Road was a massive influence on me when I was at school obviously being from Bolton, Jim Cartwright who wrote it, I don’t know if you know it. And it’s set in Bolton, sort of a slightly heightened version of Bolton, or in some not! But yeah, I’d not really studied plays.
I went all the wrong way about it. I wanted to perform; I suppose at the time I wanted to show off basically if I’m really honest about it.
MS: But also it’s that consequence isn’t it of not really knowing what the route is. So if you’re not from a family that understands what the route is to get into acting then you try all sorts of things. You went to Salford Tech to do acting as well, didn’t you?
MP: Yeah two weeks in they said, ‘we think you should leave.’
Although they seem to have forgotten; some of the tutors now come and see me in shows and go, ‘Oh you must come back and talk to the students.’ And I think ‘and tell them about how horrible you were to me?’ but that’s fine.
But I learnt a lot there. What I learnt that was a priceless lesson was about discipline and it was about it not always going your way. And it’s about sticking it out even when people are telling you you’re not good enough.
MS: But that’s interesting isn’t it, because that’s the kind of stubbornness and a way of sticking at something that you thought you might be good at, even if people don’t agree.
MS: Because you then had quite a series of knockbacks, didn’t you, to different acting schools that you applied to?
MP: Yeah, I got rejected, three years I got rejected from every drama school I applied for, and then it was only in the final year that myself, and I’d met—this actress, she’s doing alright for herself, Diane Morgan, you know Philomena Cunk, amazing things—we met auditioning for Manchester Met. I remember her doing her audition speech and going ‘God she’s amazing. She’s got to get in.’ And I remember sidling up to her afterwards after we’d all auditioned and there were these big, very cruel group auditions where everyone had to audition in front of everybody. And I sort of sidled up to her and went, ‘Oh I think you’re brilliant,’ and she said, ‘Oh thank you, you’re not so bad yourself.’ So we sort of became friends and I was horrified because I didn’t get in and it was my second year, I think, and Diane’s first and Diane didn’t get in and I was really shocked and thought well they definitely don’t know what they’re talking about, Diane’s so good.
And then we said ‘come on, shall we audition for RADA?’ because they came to the Royal Exchange in Manchester to audition so we didn’t have to pay to go to London—it was so expensive, and that’s the problem now with drama schools still, it’s so expensive. Then I think it was twenty-five to thirty-five pounds a time and now I don’t know—
MS: Yeah just to apply, then you have to travel and stay
MP: And go to London, and if you got a recall then it was—you know we were staying at the YMCA in Noel Street, sort of yeah, scraping by. And then there was no chance, how would I manage the fee. But I didn’t think about that—I was just saying before, if I’d thought about things logically and practically there’s no way I would have gone to drama school and I wouldn’t be here. You’ve got to sort of—
MS: Yeah not many actors are logical or practical I have to say. So essentially you auditioned for RADA because they came to the Royal Exchange.
MP: Yeah and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And so me and Diane said let’s go along. And I’d just been doing theatre in education, TIE, going around in a minibus to schools in the north-west trying to encourage children to do their GMVQs. I was having a whale of a time and at the time I thought well I’ll just do this! This is good fun.
MS: So you had your troupe.
MP: I’d got my troupe! Yeah because I’d applied—I remember my mum saying to me when I said I wanted to be an actor…It had taken me a long time to admit to anybody and I thought I was just going to get ridiculed. And my mum said, you know, single parent family, she was bringing me and my sister up, working part-time, struggling financially. And she said, ‘how?’ and to her it just seemed a million miles away. Something that happened in that there London, to people who didn’t look or sound like I did. Do you know what I mean? There’s a myth around it and I think there was an anxiety with her because I think she thought my heart was going to get broken. And I just remember coming down the stairs one day and she was on the phone going ‘Oh she’s messing about still wanting to do this acting.’ And I thought right, I’ve got to do something now.
So I applied, my friend Cheryl in her front room—her parents were teachers so they had a video camera, I remember, and we put a bedding sheet up on her living room wall and I did these terrible monologues from plays and sent it off to various property agencies in the northwest, and a lovely agency north of Watford, based at Bridge Miller, Hebden Bridge, sort of called me in for a meeting and they took me on. And from that I got—one of the women, Helen Lacey, who was in the property, her then husband-to-be ran this theatre and education company. So it was sort of a bit of nepotism, she said ‘come on, I’ll get you involved.’ I tried nearly every theatre and education company in the northwest I applied to… There was a lot of rejection.
MS: What do you think it is about you then that just took the rejection?
My mum said, ‘oh god you’ve got thick skin.’
MS: That’s a vital part of being an actor, no?
MP: I always say this. You have to have thick skin and you have to have very thin skin. You have to have a vent that switches. It’s what I knew; it’s not like I ever even thought I was great at it, I just had to do it. and even though I was not particularly talented, I wasn’t these youngsters at the Bolton Octagon who were really confident and could sing and dance and do any accent that you threw at them; I couldn’t do that. I don’t really know why, if I’d thought about it logically and gone ‘well you’ve not got that many strings to your bow really…’ But it was a desire. I remember kind of going ‘you have to.’
MS: Let’s really quickly talk about RADA and then I want to talk about Dinnerladies which kind of came very soon after that. When you got into RADA, you got into RADA and you got your fees paid, you got a kind of grant, which is amazing.
MP: Yeah I got a scholarship there.
MS: So you go through RADA, and I have nothing to do with acting and I’m intimidated by RADA. It must have been quite a big deal?
MP: I thought I was going to turn up at RADA and everybody was going to be the offspring of Lords and Ladies. And there were one or two, but I was like ‘oh god there’s loads of normals!’ From Liverpool, lots of working class people. Actually when I got to the final workshop round at RADA I remember thinking this is the drama school I feel most comfortable at, bizarrely. It was the most welcoming and most democratic for me. And when I got there, there was such a great mix of people from all walks of life; very diverse. Because they had the financial clout to be able to take who they wanted. I got a conditional place; it was conditional that I then got this scholarship, basically the Daily Mail paid for me to go to RADA.
So it’s their fault. Basically every time they slag me off I go, well it’s your fault I’m here.
So yeah, but I wasn’t really in some respects. There were a lot of people who’d already been to Oxford or Cambridge or other universities, so that way I felt intimidated. But I was twenty-one by the time I got in anyway, but I still felt quite young in some respects. I felt slightly more streetwise than some of them, but educationally quite lacking.
MS: From there, it was very soon after that; I think you did the audition while you were still at RADA for Dinnerladies, is that right?
MS: And so you went along to the audition, and it’s Victoria Wood. I mean that is a big deal, isn’t it.
MP: That was a huge deal. Again, I remember getting the call; I’d signed with an agency, Bennett Granger. I remember everyone else in the third year was getting offers, people were fighting going ‘I’ve got so many agents.’ And I had one agent who was interested.
MS: You only need one.
MP: Exactly. I thought, well I’m going to do it. I went for a meeting and thought ‘well I’ve not got any choice,’ and not just that, I went to meet them and they were lovely and fantastic and had a vision for me that I thought was exciting, that they could see some potential. And so I got a call from them saying, ‘Look we’ve got you an audition for this Victoria Wood sitcom,’ and I couldn’t believe it. I never even thought I’m going to get this, I just thought I’m going to be in the same room as Victoria Wood. I got slightly over-excited about that. I thought I’d never get the job in a million years, but just to have that experience. So again I think sometimes my naiveté— because I think if I thought about things too much I would get myself in some sort of tizz.
MS: I think we should have a look at Dinnerladies because you got that job. Could we have the clip of Dinnerladies and then we’ll talk a bit more about it.
OK so I want to know: How was your first day?
MP: Can I remember that first day? I remember really clearly the recall audition, going into the room and that when I went in Celia Imrie was in there, Thelma Barlow was there and Anne Reid was there, and I remember being yeah… Really nervous. I couldn’t quite believe it when I got the job, but I remember everyone being so lovely and welcoming, but it never quite sunk in, in a way. We did an episode once and it was Thora Hird, Dora Bryan and Eric Sykes.
MS: A slightly out of body experience!
MP: Yeah! All these people that I’d admired and looked up to. Taste of Honey was probably the first play I’d read watching the film at school. Dora Bryan was a big hero and Thora Hird. Again, I think I’ve got that habit of I don’t let things sink in until sort of—I would have gone bonkers if I’d thought about it too much.
MS: It’s interesting because I was obviously reading around Dinnerladies and stuff for this interview, and you have said you were basically overwhelmed for two years—and that’s how you feel now?
MP: Yeah and I still sort of go ‘wow I’ve worked with Victoria Wood, I’ve worked with Julie Walters, I’ve worked with Celia Imrie. I’ve worked with all those people.’ And that was—actually as your first job leaving drama school, the bar is so high, you know. I thought I’d worked with all these comedy greats, not just comedy but acting; Duncan Preston and the guest people we had in and the friends I made, you know Shobna, Sue Devaney, people that yeah. I mean yeah.
MS: It’s an ensemble piece, and although Twinkle as we just saw is the person who might strop off occasionally, she was quite often quite narky, I think we could say. But it’s an ensemble piece; did you feel like you learnt… I mean obviously all these people are really great, but there’s something to do with an ensemble piece that you learn about timing, and…
MP: Yeah and watching, actually. Thelma Barlow and Anne Reid together were a real masterclass in timing and how they worked together. I mean they’re friends anyway but that doesn’t always mean you have great chemistry on screen. But watching those two with their timing and, I don’t know, the detail, and the subtlety within it. Still one of my favourite bits is Thelma Barlow when she thinks she’s had the Viagra by accident and she says ‘It’ll be like a Land Rover going down a cul-de-sac the wrong way.’ And it’s just… as a monologue, it’s amazing. I think that should definitely be on the drama school list of monologues to do, you know? Yeah, it was just a real eye opener.
And to work as a team and to work with someone like Victoria, whose writing is so precise it’s like music. You know, if you’d get a word wrong she’d know, and it wasn’t because she was a stickler, it would knock the, I suppose the timing out or the line out. Yeah. And it was a great exercise in doing it yourself. Everything, she wrote, she part-directed, she was in it, she was always rewriting so we’d film it on a Friday and film it again on the Saturday because she’d be up all night rewriting, we’d rehearse what she’d rewritten on the Saturday and then shoot it. So it was about graft.
MS: Graft and standards as well.
MP: Yeah exactly.
MS: And you’ve said also that you got advice from her to do with losing weight and everything. Did she give you any other advice around your career?
MP: No I mean she was just, she was very honest with me. Then obviously I was big and she said ‘you’re big, blonde and Northen. You’re going to get typecast, so I’m just preparing you.’ I sort of had—that’d been hinted to me at drama school as well. That there was limitations for me possibly when I left about what I would do. So…
MS: And what was their solution? Not be Northern?
MP: I mean there was never, ‘you must lose your accent.’ They encouraged me to but they were never like ‘you must.’ But in some ways, I think because I’d done a little bit of acting before going, I just thought in a way it was something that would set me slightly apart as well. I think sometimes you’ve got to play to your strengths and those can be your differences. But I knew if I wasn’t careful I would end up a one-trick pony, which I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I knew that wouldn’t be fulfilling for me.
MS: And how do you go about—I think that actually Shameless is a very different part but if you looked at it in a kind of analytical way you could say they’re Northern comedies, they’re modern, you’re playing a part within that… How do you go about, given that those parts are absolutely great, not playing that part over and over?
MP: You just have to say no. And sometimes it’s that gamble you have to take. Because what happened after Dinnerladies is I got substandard Twinkles. It was an episode in everything playing a Twinkle type character. I remember going for auditions and people going ‘where did she find you?’ and me going ‘Oh well I went to RADA,’ and them going ‘Oh really, we thought she’d found you on the street.’
That they’d done some street casting. In some ways I was quite flattered because I thought oh well maybe if people don’t think you’re classically—well it depended what mood I was in.
MS: But it’s also that thing where people assume you’re not acting but you are acting.
MP: And I think they assume if you speak like this you can’t have possibly been to RADA but actually if you looked at my year at RADA there were quite a few people who spoke like me or with a Liverpudlian accent or with a Derbyshire accent, you know, South East London, East London. There were people with accents, working class accents, but I think yeah. So then after Shameless I’d get scripts and go ‘oh she’s having a bunk up in a cupboard with somebody,’ you know it would just be then because you did a series where it looked like you didn’t mind having lots of sex scenes, then everything I got offered—you know, I would laugh and go ‘oh another good time girl,’ that’s usually what they were called. She’s a good time girl, and I’d go ‘well what does that mean.’ And you just have to say no, and it’s hard sometimes because you think ‘well that means I’m not going to work.
MS: Yeah and also it’s hard when you’re younger in that situation because you think ‘ok is this all I’m ever going to be offered?’ but also you’ve got to eat. Quite tricky.
MP: And you don’t want people to think you’re arrogant and that I think I’m better than this. And that’s hard, and I especially think I’m not saying it’s my background, maybe it’s just my family, but I remember when I told my dad I wasn’t going to do Silk anymore, he was like ‘what?!’ And I went ‘no I’ve done three and I’m leaving it,’ and he went, ‘you’re mad! You’ve got a regular job there, why would you voluntarily go—‘ you know it’s hard. You have to negotiate family’s expectations because as far as they’re concerned you’ve got a job. You carry on with that and you’re grateful.
MS: I think we should see some Silk.
MS: Beautifully segued.
So great to have a ‘yes’ moment, isn’t it!
MP: D N A!
MS: Yeah man! Martha was quite a complicated character, but those elements in the court were just great, weren’t they. That sense of winning.
MP: Yeah, yeah. I mean Peter Moffatt, because Peter had been a barrister, the writer Peter, and then gone into writing and then gone back. So he had that—I mean, you know of course there’s always that complaint and criticism isn’t there with courtroom or police dramas that they’re not completely correct. But I think he got as close as possible and actually, when you would bump into barristers in the street it was always Billy in the clerk’s office that they’d go, ‘oh my clerk was like a Billy,’ so it struck a chord.
MS: And did you do a lot of research? When you get a role like this, which is essentially a professional role and you’ve got to make sure it’s realistic even if some of the roles are not quite right. Do you do a lot of research?
MP: Yes. And that’s one of the most exciting bits about it. Literally when I found out—I got off the phone saying I’d got the part and I got my bike and I went down—I couldn’t quite believe I’d got cast as a barrister, so that was really exciting, and I was like ‘oh crikey how am I going to pull that one off?’ So I got on my bike and went down to Manchester Crown Court and there was a young man in and he’d been accused of stealing a bag from M&S. And there was a couple in front of me and the woman turned around and said, ‘do you want a sweet?’ I said ‘I’m alright thanks,’ and she said ‘do you come here often?’ I said no, and she said ‘we do, we come every day. It’s great, we’ve just been over to a fraud case and I tell you now it looks like butter wouldn’t melt.’
And I loved the fact that this couple came, you know they were probably in their sixties, and yeah. Once the ball got rolling they sent me to Furnival Chambers to do some research, and I spent about three or four days, and then I went to the Old Bailey. And Peter’s ex-pupil master is now a high court judge, so he said ‘oh we’ll have a word with—‘ well I probably shouldn’t say their name, but ‘have a word with them, you can have a meeting,’ and he said ‘oh I can do better than that, she can come and sit in.’ And I thought I’d just sit in somewhere at the back and he said, ‘no, no, no, get her a chair.’ So he sat me here at the table while presiding over a case and it was these four men who were accused of murdering someone with a machete in a beer garden in east London and he went ‘just ignore her,’ and I thought ‘they’re gonna go “that’s Twinkle from Dinnerladies she sent a—“’
And they did get sent down for quite a long time I thought ‘ooh I’m gonna have to dye my hair in about seven years.’ But yeah, I loved it. And what was brilliant was the barristers are more dramatic and more theatrical than actors. There’s a real—a real sort of kinship in a way. And they like to party; I would bail out most nights, it was like three o’clock and they’d be going ‘oh yeah we’ll go home and be back on the eight o’clock train into Waterloo.’ I was like ‘oh my god how do you do it?’ I suppose the job is so high powered and high pressured—and you go through that phase of being like ‘why didn’t I know about this? I wish I’d been a barrister’—I would’ve been a terrible barrister—but I loved it. And I do miss, I did love doing Silk, it was great fun.
MS: That was a kind of move into the mainstream for you, wasn’t it. I’ve got a quote which a journalist wrote about you before this and it said you’d made a stellar career out of playing misfits, emotional wrecks and hard-bitten survivors—he missed out the good time girls. So there was a sense that you were making a move to the mainstream; was that how it felt for you?
MP: Well yeah and there was a panic. I remember I’d been offered another job at the same time which was just a one-off BBC; mainstream but it would’ve just been a six-parter, done and dusted. And I remember thinking ‘well that’s what I want to do,’ and my agent saying ‘I think it’s about time you did something more—‘ and that really panicked me in a way.
MS: Why did it panic you?
MP: I don’t know because I didn’t—I remember someone once described me as more like an indie band of the acting world. And I quite liked that because I’d always been as a person not that into the mainstream.
MS: So you didn’t want to be Katy Perry.
MP: No, no. More The Wedding Present. I remember not going ‘oh brilliant I got this.’ And in the beginning I wasn’t signed up to do more than one series but then they said ‘we’re going to do another and another’ and that’s when by three I went I’ve done it and I think I’ve done as much as I can and that’s a worry as well; where do you carry on taking a character? And I lose interest quite quickly, lose focus; I think it’s hard coming back to a character year after year and keep focus with it.
MS: it’s interesting as well because the other—there’s a responsibility to being in a series and being the lead—I mean there’s lots of characters in that series but you’re the lead character. Did you feel a sense of—you just said you felt that you sometimes lacked focus, but did you feel a sense of ownership over that character? Would you bring suggestions in?
MP: Yeah, because Peter Moffatt was brilliant about that. You’d get the script, and I was never that actor that was like ‘oh I don’t like this, I’d never say that.’ And I think sometimes that’s good I’d never say that; I say things every day that I think ‘I can’t believe I said that.’ We do—sometimes I think it’s insecurity with actors and we don’t have much control really, but with Peter things would happen and I remember there was one scenario where there was a character—it was Tom Hughes’ character, he was playing my pupil—and there was an incident where we kissed and I went ‘oh no.’ Don’t get me wrong I’m not averse to kissing—my partner’s here he’s gonna kill me—but you know, you get paid to kiss young handsome men and that’s fine, I can deal with that. But I just thought what are we saying about her? What are we saying about Martha that this--? I just remember going ‘really can we think about this?’ and it went and he rewrote it and he went.
And there was always this thing about Martha and Clive becoming a couple and I’d get an episode and then they were going out and they’d be walking through Chambers holding hands and I’d be like ‘don’t put them together—please don’t make them a thing I think it’s much better…’
MS: Why didn’t you want that then? Because you didn’t want it to be conventionally romantic?
MP: Yeah, I didn’t think that was fair. I didn’t think she’d go out with Clive.
MS: See you are doing it, then!
MP: I think Martha loved Clive, but I think they had a thing that was more brother and sister. I know at the beginning of the series they had slept together and she’d had this miscarriage but I thought you know—it felt obvious to me. It’s why everyone loved Moonlighting because they never quite got together, did they. It keeps that tension; will they, won’t they? And the jealousy is there that when Clive’s character is a bit of a—
MS: And what happens—have you ever been in a situation where, because that is a situation where a writer listens to you and so is the director; have you ever been in a situation where those ideas that you have have not been taken on? How is that for you?
MP: Well you just have to sort of deal with it. I do that sometimes where they’ll give your character something to say and a lot of the time you create you character; there’s no backstory, there’s no bible to who your character is. It’s like with Martha, I made up a backstory for her that suited me and I made up a bio for all my characters; it just gives you something—because Peter didn’t write every episode and new writers come in and it takes them a while to sort of acclimatise, so it give you, it just gives you some foundation and things you can play on and fill out with.
But I have done jobs before where you’ve sort of said to the writer ‘that’s not what I had in mind; I’m not saying my character wouldn’t do that but I think my character’s from a different background or different situation from that,’ and they’re like well this is what we’re doing. So then I just go ‘oh my character’s lying when she says this,’ or you find a way round it because it’s hard. There’s not a lot of time in television drama to discuss that. Because Martha wasn’t Northern; I’d done Criminal Justice that Peter Moffatt had written and I remember saying ‘oh what are you doing next?’ and he said ‘I’m writing this drama about a female barrister,’ and I didn’t even quiz him anymore because I just heard female barrister and even though I was playing Matthew McFadyen’s very middle class wife in Criminal Justice I just thought the BBC were not going to think about me for this. And then I remember hearing ‘oh you’ve got a meeting,’ and my agent said ‘you’re very low down on the list’; he’s very honest, I love him. Well not low down on the list but I think they were looking at sort of film-y people.
MS: Film-y people. Are you not a film-y person?
MP: I’m not a film-y person. But you know he said—because he’s great at managing my expectations, you know I went in—he’s here as well, he’s going to kill me, I’ll be back to that property company in Hebden Bridge tomorrow…
But I remember going in for the meeting, and I remember they said many times ‘what are you going to do with the accent?’ and I said ‘what do you mean what am I going to do with the accent?’ and they said, ‘well she’s a barrister, she’s educated.’ Which is really quite rude to say. So I said ‘well I did go to RADA and I still talk like this.’
MS: So Northern is not educated.
MP: Yeah. Then Peter—I got the part and then Peter adapted the part for me. So then he started to work with the fact that she was Northern and working class and from a working class background and very different, but that wasn’t—she didn’t appear on the paper like that. And that’s amazing when you get someone who will do that. Sometimes you don’t want them to do it; sometimes people put a description and you’re like ‘oh don’t put that in,’ because that’s me and I don’t want to be me, I want to act.
MS: You want it to be real.
MP: But I think it worked perfectly for the way forward there.
MS: Around the same time, you did The Room at the Top. That is completely different; it’s an immensely famous book, written in 1957 and I mean we’re going to see a clip from it, but one of the things I wanted to talk to you about really was if when you read the book—which I read when I was young—it’s very much from a male point of view. I think we can see this in the clip we’re about to see—there’s something very different about the television series, so let’s see the clip and then we’ll talk about it.
We’d just like to say thank you so much to Great Meadow Productions for giving us that clip. You were playing Alice Aisgill in that, and she’s an older woman, and Joe Lampton who’s the main character in the book, you have an affair.
MS: And it’s a proper love affair, isn’t it.
MP: Yes, yes.
MS: And the beautiful thing about that clip, and indeed the beautiful thing about that series is you see much more about her reaction; you feel her aspirations, her desires in a way you don’t really get from the book.
MP: Because Amanda Coe adapted it for the screen, and it was such a beautiful adaptation, yeah. We had a female—the amazing Aisling Walsh directed it, so it was very, you know, the female narrative was very strong and encouraged. And obviously Matthew McNulty as Joe and Jenna Coleman as Susan, yeah. Both the female stories were really pulled out. I mean I know the poster is like Joe with Zoe Telford and Julia Ford, all the characters in his life, but it was all these women. And it was Joe and the women but how important these women, these landladies, you know were to him.
MS: It’s an interesting interpretation, isn’t it? It felt like it hadn’t been done before.
MP: Yeah because I remember in the film, when the offer came through and obviously the film with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, amazing actress; but in the book she wasn’t French. And it’s that thing, isn’t it, it’s a thing we still do—I think it was Gene Kent, I think it was Gene Kent who wanted to play that part, and she was furious because she said they didn’t cast her because she wasn’t seen as sexy because she was British. Even British men were not casting her—
MS: But the French
MP: And of course Simone Signoret oozes sex appeal. But I just loved the fact of being able to have a go at it as a British woman. But it is about a love story; it’s about those two, and he makes that decision and obviously money and his future and his ambition sort of wins out.
MS: You identify as a feminist—quite right—and that was a very kind of female turn to that story. Have you ever turned roles down because they don’t really chime with your feminist belief?
MP: Yeah, quite a lot.
MS: You don’t have to list them.
MP: No I won’t and I’d never do that. I hate it when actors say ‘I turned that down,’ or ‘I’d never do that,’ because I think it’s not fair, because at the end of the day it wasn’t your job. If you’ve turned it down it’s not your job and the person who takes it over—and my career’s been made doing things where people have either pulled out last minute or decided they don’t want to do, do you know what I mean? We’ve all done that and I think it’s just uncourteous and crass.
But yeah I have and there’s quite a lot and again I’m not just saying it but I have an amazing agent who gets me, who understands, who knows what I’m about, who will read something and say ‘I don’t think it’s for you,’ or ‘this isn’t for you,’ or ‘it may be, have a read.’ And there’s times where I’m going ‘no, no, no,’ and it sounds like I’m being arrogant like I turn down lots of stuff; I don’t turn down lots of stuff but there’s a lot of things that I will—other people would read them and go ‘what’s your issue with this?’
MS: And what would be your issue then?
MP: It’s just some of the time, sometimes it’s a female lead but how are they portrayed? There’s that brilliant Tracey Ullman sketch about successful women and it’s actually a character trait and they go and have a mental breakdown because they have a family and they’re successful and they can’t do it. You get these parts and it’s like yeah she’s successful, but her whole family life is in tatters. And that’s what I loved about Martha, she didn’t have a life; everybody kept saying ‘oh she needs a boyfriend,’ Why? Her work is it—and that’s alright. Her work is her family; it’s what she loves. Why can’t we accept that? But that’s not, because ‘she isn’t fulfilled,’ it’s all that nonsense and narrative that needs changing and it still creeps through in things that are trying to be progressive and you go [snorts], but there’s still the tropes that you go—
MS: The clichés.
MP: Yes. And I am picky, and I’m sure there’s things I’ve done that people go, ‘well that…’ And you can miss things as well, and you go ‘oh actually…’
MS: Well there’s a classic incident of that I would say, which people would have turned this role down, which is that of Myra Hindley. That one is, you know, it’s a tricky character to play, you played her, you played her very well, and that’s a completely fine thing to do. Did you learn from taking that role in terms of people’s reaction? Because there’s a reason to do that role, but what about people’s reaction to things?
MP: People’s reaction was nothing but positive. Again, I think I was… I remember hearing about the role coming up, it was my partner Paw, his friend, his locations manager. So you get this inside knowledge because you start looking for locations a lot of the time before. So I get these little things like ‘ooh they’re doing such a thing about such…’ So I’d heard through the grapevine and I just remember my ears pricking up and going ‘oh my God that would be an amazing part to play.’ Because acting is about delving into the human psyche, however dark or however disturbing, trying to work that out. And even sometimes you don’t work it out; she was a monster and I’m not—it wasn’t because I had any sympathy or any alignment with that character in that respect, but I just thought that felt like such a challenge to try and get into that mind set.
I remember speaking to quite a good—some close friends who were actors going up for it, and they were really in two minds about the audition. And I never; I was like ‘I want this.’ I was very much focused on really wanting the part where other people were like ‘I’m not sure it’s a good thing to do, will it damage my career? Will it damage my image?’ I don’t think that even entered, I didn’t have an image to damage.
MS: What about taking roles home? That’s an intense role, do you ever take—I’ve heard about actors taking emotions home…
MP: Yeah I think it’s a bit like having a hangover. I don’t think I take the whole character home but there is residue sometimes. You can find you can be a bit…
MS: You need a big English breakfast…
MP: Yeah! A couple of Beroccas… Yeah it sort of leaves a funny residue. But I think your brain’s a muscle so you play one character and you’re pushing it emotionally one way; it’s like anything, so it takes a bit of time for it to sort of realign itself back. But I don’t—I remember feeling bizarrely, oddly very confident playing Myra. I got quite cocky, there was something about the chemistry—obviously it was wicked and evil, but they thought they were better than everybody else. I remember having a sort of a bit of an odd swagger that didn’t last very long, but you do, you take little, you know, things just sort of linger a little bit.
MS: What about if you were offered a character—I’m just picking somebody out of the air—like Margaret Thatcher? Or Theresa May? That you might feel was going against your politics. Would you ever take a character like that.
MP: Depending on the circumstances. I wouldn’t maybe Margaret Thatcher because I think ‘no more. God almighty we’ve done so much, no more about Margaret Thatcher. Please.’
She doesn’t deserve it. It’s still like ‘oh but let’s feel sorry for her…’ but anyway.
But yeah. To me it’s the story. I would play a raving Tory, I would play a right-wing extremist, if the story is saying something I feel; I don’t have to be the good person in the story as long as the story is telling something that I feel is important and I believe in. I think sometimes you can be more important in a story if you go in against what the message is. I have no desire to always be on the good side as long as the story I’m involved with is telling something interesting and important and yeah.
MS: And if it’s a good character.
MP: Yes, exactly.
MS: OK. Which brings me to the next character, which is Hamelt. We’re going to see a little bit of your Hamlet which is at the Royal Exchange. Don’t make that face.
MP: It’s just I watched—when I went to the screening of this… It’s weird because it was a theatre production and then they filmed it; seeing yourself full pelt doing theatrical, and it was at the end of a seven-week run, and then they film it; it feels like an assault on the senses, and every crime you shouldn’t commit on screen acting I completely commit.
MS: So do you not feel that filming a stage performance is a good thing? Because sometimes that’s the only way people see it.
MP: Exactly, no. And don’t get me wrong it’s been great and the fact that it has been able to have another life—of course. But the beauty of theatre is you never have a chance, you can’t even slightly—it’s sadistic to watch yourself back anyway but what I love about theatre is it’s gone. There’s no chance of seeing it back to berate yourself.
MS: Tough luck!
MP: I apologise.
MS: We’re going to see it now.
MP: Shouty. Too shouty. Stop shouting.
MS: Great haircut, I have to say.
MP: That’s the best—everybody kept saying ‘oh we love your hair, where did you get your hair cut?’ Three hours of pumping truth and that’s all you get.
MS: That’s all you get! OK, so obviously Hamlet is usually played by a man. But when you played the part, did gender affect your thinking or were you just thinking about it as a character?
MP: Sarah Frankcom who directed it, when we first decided—we’d talked about it for years and neither of us had had actually the confidence to commit to it… And then yeah, Sarah tells me it was ten years previously that I suggested it. I wouldn’t have thought I was that arrogant ten years ago but maybe I did. It must have been in jest. Anyway, bla, bla, bla, when we sort of went ‘right, we’re doing it,’ it’s going into the season, it’s done at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. We talked and Sarah said initially to play it female, but the more and more I read it, and the more and more I understood it I said ‘I can’t,’ and I don’t know why.
Actually that probably was a fault. Maybe that’s what I really should have tried to do and really tried to crack. So we decided—because we wanted to make it for a Manchester audience; when was it, seven, eight years ago? Something like that. We wanted to make it contemporary, very much for Manchester at the time. There was just something about making Hamlet transgender that really spoke to us, that really spoke to Sarah’s politics in that theatre. So we discussed and discussed it, and talked to the other actors as well, we said ‘would this be an issue for you?’ Because they’ve got to play with Hamlet and the wording we didn’t want to change any of that, you know. And everyone was like ‘no, brilliant.’ For me it seemed to work. I think Hamlet’s such a great piece that it will absorb so much; it absorbs as much as you can throw at it really unless you go completely, you know, off kilter. So yeah, we played that Hamlet was a man born into a female body and that’s how we did it. Yeah. We were just talking today about the experience of it and the power I felt playing as male was very, quite shocking and quite enlightening in many respects.
MS: Have you used that?
MP: No, no.
MS: Can we use this word: big dick energy.
MP: Well that’s—I remember going ‘I am not playing—‘ because I played Ophelia about twelve years previously with Christopher Ecclestone as Hamlet. The ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene was quite dark and I remember thinking ‘when I do it I’m going to be tender to Ophelia’—no.
It just came out this sort of disregard for women that really shocked me. It was like you say, this big dick energy; ‘I don’t need anybody, it’s all about me.’ And I think the beauty of Hamlet is as he develops he grows up and he matures and he actually becomes, unfortunately that’s the tragedy is the loss of him; he’s grown into a decent human being but initially it’s about me—‘I am the next in line, the world revolves around me.’ So yeah, being a man was—I was like ‘wow, this is something very interesting.’
MS: This is a strong drug!
MP: Yeah, yeah.
MS: What’s your opinion on gender blind casting?
MP: I think it’s brilliant; definitely need more gender blind and definitely more colour blind casting, do you know what I mean? It is make believe. Theatre, film, television, it’s not real. Even if it is pretending to be real. And we should be able to suspend that disbelief if somebody doesn’t look exactly like somebody for any reason. And I think the beauty of theatre is it can hold that more. What I’m very proud to be part of is—I mean unfortunately Sarah, well not unfortunately, fortunately for the drama school LAMDA Sarah Frankcom is leaving the Royal Exchange to go and run LAMDA. She will be sorely missed, but what she set out as a blueprint and I think many theatres have followed, is she’s such a big force about making sure women are at the centre of most of her productions and there’s diversity within her productions and it is about getting the best person for the job.
MS: And you’ve had a very close relationship with Sarah; you’ve done a lot of work with her, haven’t you, over the years?
MS: And she’s commissioned your own writing and you’ve done lots and lots of stuff within the Royal Exchange. Have you ever had a similar relationship with a screen director?
MP: I would say Carol Morley, maybe. Yeah. I started off doing Carol’s—
MS: You did some shorts with her.
MP: Yeah. Short films and again, I remember I’d literally just moved with my agent at the time and I remember being offered a very popular series, three episodes of something, and I remember saying to my agent I’d had this call from Carol Morley and I’d seen Alcohol Years a few years before—
MS: Brilliant film
MP: And I’d thought it was fabulous, and she wants me to take part in a short film. And I’d just left an agent who was going ‘no, that’s ridiculous, you don’t turn this down to do a short film.’ And then I knew my agent was right when he went ‘no you go and do.’ And sometimes you go for the long run, and I just could see Carol’s talent and that she was a real auteur and this vision, this brilliant, bright vision. So I did quite a few shorts with Carol, then I did her first feature Edge, then The Falling and now she’s too big for me and gone off to America, but that’s fine.
MS: She’ll come back!
MP: But it’s like with Sarah, she’s a friend, foremost. And that’s the thing I say to Carol is ‘look, just because we’ve worked together, we are friends now—‘ it’s the same with Sarah, you do not expect—what I’ve gained out of that is a brilliant friendship, so you don’t expect to go ‘well you’re doing a project therefore I must be in it.’ It would be lovely because I love working with the pair of them because you feel very safe; I think that’s the gift most actors look for is somebody you can collaborate with, that you feel safe, but who will push, stretch you and push you. Sarah really does, but you feel safe within that, you feel that trust.
MS: What about the—you were slightly cringing at your theatrical performance, which is obviously needed for the stage, but is there stuff you take from the theatre when you’re acting on screen, or is it completely, completely different?
MP: I used to go ‘oh it’s two different disciplines completely,’ but I find my screen work is really informed, usually if I’ve done some stage previous to that. I don’t know, because at the end of the day I know I’m cringing and saying I’ve committed every crime against screen acting; it doesn’t matter how big you are as long as the inner truth is there. And I think we’re sometimes in a climate now where not much is going on and I find that slightly frustrating. It doesn’t matter how much is going on as long as it’s truthful. I’ve had people go ‘stop wrinkling your forehead it looks ugly,’ and I go ‘well I’m acting.’
MP: And as a person I gesticulate and you know most pictures of me I’m sort of gurning or doing… But there’s this thing, you know, ‘it’s all in the eyes,’ but it’s not, it’s all in the truth. To me it doesn’t matter if you squidge up your face or wrinkle up your nose, as long as it’s truthful, as long as… yeah not just this nice one tear down your very smooth face.
MS: Not many people cry like that.
MP: No, they don’t do they.
MS: Definitely don’t. OK, there’s no way of doing this, but I’m going to do a big kind of ‘and now for something completely different,’ because what I want to talk to you about now is you in Black Mirror in 2017, where I have to say what you are doing is fighting a futuristic robodog.
MS: So I think we should see the clip and maybe then unpick a bit. Shall we do that.
MP: Yes please.
MS: OK I have spoken to you about this before. It’s written by Charlie Brooker, directed by David Slade, but the thing I was most shocked about was there was no robodog!
MP: God, no.
MS: You had to act—it wasn’t real.
MP: No, no.
MS: I am shocked.
MP: But I will never, ever call out any actor in an action type movie ever again. I don’t know they do it. I’d be like ‘where is it? Where am I looking? Where am I looking? It’s coming between those trees there? Alright. Right OK. Aaaah.’ It’s really hard!
I don’t know how people constantly in those sci-fi series where you’re just looking at tennis balls on a stick, I haven’t got that skill.
MS: It’s an absolutely terrifying episode; it’s a terrific episode, and you were acting at nothing, is this right? All the way through.
MP: Yeah, some people have said ‘don’t worry, you’ve done that before.’
MS: When you’re doing that you need a particular technique, don’t you? What are you doing in order to do that? Is it just a question of imagination? Do you have a stuffed puppy down there?
MP: We did have this lovely guy called Christian who was a puppeteer, who had, well it was a stick with a wheel on it and a bit of a body on it, and I used to say to him ‘oh Christian love can you stop smiling?’ Because he’d come running after us…
But then he fell over I think on day three and bless him broke his shoulder, so he’d gone. So then it was just nothing.
MS: You literally were just acting against nothing at all. And how did you feel when you saw it then?
MP: Well I went ‘if I’d have known it were that scary I’ve had acted a bit better!’ I was like my god. It was weird because obviously I was trying to go ‘stop looking at yourself’ and just watch, and I mean, the—
MS: It’s a terrifying episode.
MP: And the special effects are just extraordinary. I was watching it going ‘wow,’ I think it’s the first thing I’ve watched where I’ve forgotten I was in it because I was just watching this creature, going ‘that is terrifying.’
MS: How are you normally when you watch yourself in things? Do you watch yourself back? Some actors don’t watch themselves back at all, do they?
MP: It depends. Sometimes I don’t, but I can’t sort of help it. it’s a bit like picking a wound. And sometimes I watch it and go ‘oh it wasn’t as bad as I thought, that’s alright,’ and then I feel better and sometimes I just go ‘ohhh.’
MS: Are you the kind of person who would want to see rushes while you’re filming?
MP: I remember sort of doing that once and we’d watch it back and I’d be like ‘oh actually can we do it again?’ and it we can’t keep—it would never move on. And you’ve got to trust as well, I think, you know a great editor can work wonders. So you go don’t watch it, just let it go and there’s a lot of work to be done before it’s the end product.
MS: But also sometimes there’s—it’s to do with time, isn’t it? So if you look at your early performances are you more forgiving of yourself?
MP: Yeah you do. I remember not so long ago flipping through the channels and there was an old episode of Dalziel and Pascoe that I’d done where I was playing a doctor. Oh my God I was like how did I ever have a career?! I was terrible. But acting’s like anything, that’s the thing it’s getting the opportunity to do it. I’ve been lucky; it’s funny, we were saying in the green room you sort of can’t do it on your own which is a shame because athletes can go for a run but acting you need to do it to get better. Some people are just born gifted and can just—but you need the experience and you need to learn. And that’s why I did for a really long time watch everything I did, because I would watch it and go ‘that’s not good,’ but then sometimes it never stops and you just go ‘oh you’re just pulling it to pieces now; leave it.’ And actually sometimes it’s none of your business what you think about your performance. Do you know what I mean? It’s down to the audience, it’s for them, it’s not for you.
MS: For them to decide what it is.
MS: OK. It’s another segue I’m afraid. You’ve been doing kind of a few more films and obviously you did Peterloo with Mike Leigh. You approached Mike Leigh, is that right, to do this?
MP: Yeah I wrote him a postcard.
MS: What was on the front of the postcard?
MP: Oh it was from the Paris Commune, I got it from the Working Class Movement Library, obviously, in Salford. And it just said ‘Viva la Commune,’ and I just said, you know, ‘Dear Mike, I’m so excited you’re doing this film. I would love to be part of it; I understand if there’s not a part for me but I’m just thrilled you’re bringing the film to a wider audience.’ And then he wrote back, and he has the most immaculate handwriting, and he writes in a sort of triangle shape, and he just said ‘of course you can be in it. Once I decide what I’m doing, I’ll be in touch.’ And then three or four months later I got the call and that was it. But I’d written to him—he’s great Mike, I remember writing to him when I left drama school, I’d done my showcase with Sally Hawkins—where’s she now?—
And I said to Sally ‘we should write to people’ so we did these joint letters, with both our Spotlight pictures in and a letter from us both, and Nina Gold called us in for a meeting with Mike and Sally became one of Mike’s prolific collaborators and it took me a while, but yeah.
MS: Would you do that again? Are there directors you would get in touch with that you--?
MP: I think so. I’ve done it over the years, I’ve definitely done it over the years, or just if I’ve seen something that I’ve just thought was fabulous I’ve always written. And I think actors should do it more; I’m namedropping now but I got—my agent rung me, it was when I was doing Peterloo and said ‘oh Judi Dench wants your address,’ and I thought ‘oh it’ll be for some charity thing she probably wants.’ I’ve never met her and I’m a big fan. Then this letter came from Judi Dench, and I did a radio of The Thrill of Love by Ruth Ellis and she wrote me this letter saying ‘I was listening to your radio play the other day and I thought it was wonderful and please could you pass on my congratulations to…’ I thought… Judi Dench. I think we need more of that in our business, do you know what I mean? To write and support each other. Especially women in the business; but I remember being on the phone to my partner Paw on the street crying because I’d just had this lovely—
MS: That’s so lovely.
MP: But I mean I’m digressing from what—but yeah I would. It’s not about networking or brownnosing, but if you see somebody and you love their work, I used to think ‘oh why would they want a compliment from me?’ but we all like compliments, don’t we? Flattery will get you everywhere as far as I’m concerned.
MS: OK well I’ll flatter you about this one then. OK we’re going to see a clip from Funny Cow, which I have to say I think you’re fabulous in it. The clip we’re going to see will have a bit of writing on it, of credits, but it’s a lovely clip, and then we’re going to talk about it.
Terrific film, and you’re finally being a comedian!
MP: But that was because Tony Pitt wrote it for me. So we’d done Red Riding in 1980, we’d made the trilogy based on the David Peace novels. There was myself, Tony Pitts and Paddy Considine. And Paddy’s in this film as well, and Tony had approached me and said at the time a TV producer had said to him ‘oh you’re working with Maxine, you need to write something for her,’ and he said have you got any ideas? And I’d always wanted to do something playing a comedienne who worked in men’s clubs. Even though I was hugely into Victoria Wood I’d always had this fascination with Marti Caine. I don’t know if you remember Marti Caine, but this glamour; she was this beautiful…
MS: Her name came from tomato cane didn’t it, because she was kind of a redhead and tall, hilarious, around in the ‘70s, wasn’t she.
MP: Yeah and she’d worked her way up and worked in a café and then heard a friend made a bit of extra cash working the clubs so she decided to get into that and then obviously her star was on the ascent and then unfortunately she got I think it was lymphoma and passed away. But I’d read her book years ago, Coward’s Chronicles, and just thought yeah she was inspiring and what must it have taken for a woman at that period to work her way through the Working Men’s Clubs, which were such a male, misogynistic world.
So anyway I told Tony about this and Tony went ‘well, as it happens my mum knew Marti Caine and as it happens I used to own comedy clubs.’ So he went off and said ‘I’m going to write it,’ and I thought, ‘oh I won’t hear from him again.’ And then two weeks later I got a call from him, he was living in Hebden Bridge, and he said ‘come up I’ve finished it,’ and I thought ‘oh this isn’t going to be very good, he’s only been at it two weeks.’
So I went and read it and I thought it was beautiful, but it took us nine years to get it made.
MS: And why was that?
MP: Because nobody wanted to finance a film with me in the lead. And people didn’t—
MS: This seems completely astonishing to me.
MP: Well it’s very, very—oh it’s so complex, and you’re on lists.
MS: What are these lists?
MP: I don’t know, God knows. I think it’s slightly changing now. There’s always that thing of if you did too much television then you couldn’t do film, or there was a snobbery. But I think there’s actors now breaking through that doing good telly and film as well, do you know what I mean? I was brought up on you did the good telly; if you did too much telly people would see… Oh and I’ve had feedback where people have been like ‘Oh you’re too telly.’
MS: What do you think that means
MP: It’s a snobbery. There used to be a snobbery, but I think the way it’s going now and I think it’s in some ways overtaking film and the money that’s put into television I think maybe that it’s shifting.
MS: Yes and the quality of television that’s coming out is very different.
MP: And film stars are now moving into television and—
MS: But there’s also an idea, I suppose of are you bankable? Is that part of it?
MP: Yes of course. Yes.
MS: So it’s to do with if you have a certain person in the lead then you get a certain amount of money.
MP: Yeah. You might pull millions of viewers in on television, but they see that audience as a very different audience for film. And I mean Funny Cow had no major funding, it was all self—I mean Kevin Procter the producer, he pulled money in from all over, it was lots of individual financing. And actually it did so well at the box office for a film of its budget.
MS: And it’s a beautiful, it’s a terrific film. Do you think once more films are like that—smaller films that do well, do you think it leads people to think ‘OK, you are bankable,’ and this means you go on to film?
MP: Well I mean the film offers haven’t been flowing in since Funny Cow. But I mean you look, I mean Emily Beecham’s just won Best Actress at Cannes, you know, Daphne which is a low budget indie but brilliant and a brilliant performance. And you know—and then to be in Little Jo, so you hope. But then it coming in at my age might be a bit more of a struggle, but I don’t know. But that’s what—I love doing British independent—well I’m saying British independent because I haven’t done anything other than British independents, but I love the fact because they are collaborative most of the time you feel like you’re working on a team. Everyone’s mucking together because there isn’t a lot of money and everyone’s doing it for the love, do you know what I mean? It isn’t big money banding about, people aren’t getting paid ridiculous money to turn up and do a day, you know, and big stars coming in.
But what Tony did, we were really struggling and then we needed a male to get the film financed; I wasn’t going to get the film financed, they needed a male lead, and we had the wonderful Martin Freeman attached; I sort of did that cheeky thing where I was at a BAFTA Awards and he said ‘we need to work together,’ and I said, ‘actually I’ve got something for you.’ And I thought he’d never do it in a million years; Kevin the producer sent it over to him and he said he’d do it. It’s amazing when people like Martin will support; Stephen Graham is in it. Stephen didn’t need to do that part in this film, but they support.
Long story short, when we eventually got to filming Martin wasn’t available, so then we sort of went to Paddy and said what are you doing—you call in favours; Diane Morgan will you come and be in it? Christine Bottomley. And that was the beauty of it. And Tony knew sort of John Bishop from back in the day, Richard Horley, Tony and Richard are really good friends so Richard came to be in it, Corinne Bailey Rae. It was this amazing cast of people who loved the script and were friends of Tony’s and just wanted to be involved in it.
MS: I’ve got an idea for you: You could write your own films and get them financed, no? Because you’ve been writing a lot.
MP: Yeah I’ve been writing stage… Yeah I mean I’d love to do more and have a bit more control. Although the stuff that I’ve written; I’ve been in the radio plays I’ve written but not on the stage, and I quite enjoy writing something and letting somebody else then create that final, put that finesse on the character.
MS: That’s quite interesting because a lot of characters say they start writing because they haven’t found the roles that they want, especially women actually, and so they then write the role that they would quite like.
MP: But then there’s a point where I go ‘do I need to play this role?’ and actually there’s something satisfying about seeing somebody else do it who may not—I’m not saying needs the work more than you do, but I’ve got so many amazing female actor friends who do not work as much as they should, and there’s some joy as well of going if you can just… I know they’re brilliant, and it’s great with theatre because it’s not as controlled. I did a play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, did a play up in Hull, Sir Franken for Hull City of Culture and the last one I did at the Exchange was Queens of the Coal Age. To be able to write female parts and have a hand in the casting as well, is yeah. I get a lot of joy out of that.
MS: You also get a bit of control, which is harder for actors, isn’t it?
MP: Yeah. We don’t have any control. There’s a bit of a myth—I mean you often see when the credits go up and they’ll be an executive producer, I often think that’s what actors are starting to do now, setting up production companies. You know, you see all these amazing women: Sharon Horgan, Phoebe Waller Bridge, are coming through, Diane Morgan’s doing more… Yeah it is. I always used to complain; that’s why I started to write is because I spent years sitting with friends, coming to London, sitting in a coffee shop and everyone going ‘oh I’m not getting offered the roles I want; I’m getting offered roles but they’re not that exciting or they’re this or that,’ and I thought well we can’t keep wasting our energy drinking coffee, we’ve got to do something about it.
MP: So it wasn’t like ‘oh I’m a writer,’ it was ‘I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is,’ really. I can’t keep complaining because it’s that whole thing of this business doesn’t owe you anything; no one’s going to change it for you. You’ve got to sort of do it yourself.
MS: And also you need to have the confidence to do it. Because I think sometimes women in particular, and working class women in particular, are told to keep in their own range, and actually if you push out you’re automatically a role model for other people anyway.
MP: Well that’s— and I was lucky the first radio play I wrote that got adapted for the stage, Beryl, was that I’d approached somebody with the idea for somebody else to write it and the producer director Justine Potter said ‘you should write it,’ and my partner Paw had been saying ‘you should write,’ but having that… If I’d have been not a name and just handed it into the BBC I’m sure it would’ve just disappeared somewhere. So I had that privilege and I was lucky that because I had a profile people would read things and go ‘that Beryl, we’ll do it if you’ll play Beryl.’ So I was like OK. The radio plays, ‘Queens of the Coal Age, we’ll do it if you’ll play Anne,’ OK I’ll do it. And then being able to move on to the theatre and going I don’t have to be in it, it’s not a pre-requisite that you’ll be in it, yeah.
MS: And can you see more of that in the future, then? Because you’ll keep all of these different pots bubbling: You’ve got acting, you direct, you write. Are you interested in keeping all these different strands?
MP: I think yeah, definitely. Definitely as a female and definitely as a female encroaching on middle age. And it’s about being fulfilled as well because it’s not even if the parts don’t come, it’s what are the parts and do I really want to—you know, I don’t want to sound arrogant and I’m in a very privileged position and that might not always be there, so at least if you spread your net a bit wider you can still gain some artistic fulfilment from writing or directing.
And I think as you do get older there are times I find acting is harder. It’s harder to put yourself on the line. I would say it’s nerves; I’ve just done a one-woman show at the Barbican and I say it’s not nerves anymore, it’s anxiety. It’s different. So not having to put yourself in that position. And I still love it and I hope that I’ll do it to the end of my days, but being able to take the pressure off a bit—
MS: Yeah, occasionally move away.
MP: Yeah and you do look and if you think about it it’s quite a ridiculous job for a grown adult to still be doing.
MS: There is that. We’re very glad you still are, Maxine. I have to say.
OK, I can see you lovely audience; well I can kind of see you lovely audience. Oh I can really see you lovely audience. We have some time for audience questions and you’ve been sitting there immensely patiently. They’re all fine, look at them, they’re beautiful. Do we have any questions for Maxine? I see you first—you put your hand straight up and you’re right in my eyeline.
Q: Hi Maxine. Thank you for being here tonight, it’s been a wonderful evening. I had a question; you spoke about acting being about delving into someone, another human being’s psyche, and then you work it out and sometimes you don’t work it out. Could you talk a bit about those moments where you don’t work it out?
MP: Yeah. I mean I suppose—it’s not about not working it out, but there’s times where I suppose you don’t always win if you know what I mean. Or maybe get exactly where you want to go and you can be very hard on yourself and sometimes, and you do have to sort of align yourself sometimes with that character and find within yourself what does resonate and sometimes reflects, and sometimes that can be quite scary. Because I think we’re all so multi-faceted, I think we have this thing that we all have this one personality ‘oh they’re like this,’ but in different situations we’re all very different. I remember Art at school I dropped it in the end because I remember my art teacher slapped me on the back of the legs, Mrs Brown, because she said, ‘I’m so frustrated with you,’ because I’d go ‘it’s not good enough, it doesn’t look right,’ and she’d say, ‘work on it.’ Do you know what I mean? Sometimes that’s what it can be with acting. And sometimes you’ve got to let it be a bit organic as well and give yourself a bit of an easy time and trust that the words will do it for you, the script will do it for you; be a bit open and sometimes you can surprise yourself and you go ‘wow I didn’t realise that was going to go that way or hit me like that.’ But yeah.
MS: Does that come with experience, do you think, that learning that OK, it will be alright. I might be really panicked about this and might feel like I’m doing it really wrong, but it will come.
MP: Yes. Especially with theatre, I do that every time with theatre. In fact with the last theatre piece that I did with a wonderful director called Anne-Louise Sarks, and I remember saying on the first day of rehearsal, ‘just to let you know it takes me a long time,’ you know what I mean? I said, ‘I will get there,’ and I remember when I first worked with Sarah Frankcom she confessed to me after she said ‘I was in a panic, I thought you were never going to get there and then in the last week you go click.’ I said ‘yes I need to filter it all down; I don’t want to second guess. It’s got to be there before I’m confident that it’s all layered; I don’t want to jump ahead to endgame before I know it.’ Even myself I’m going ‘oh God, but it has to be fine,’ and it does because you’re going to get there in front of an audience so you have to pull something out of the bag.
MS: Something has to happen!
MS: Another question. Hello. It’s coming along. Here comes the mic.
MP: Then there’s somebody right at the back, as well.
Q: Thank you for being here, it was brilliant. Is there a part you’re particularly proud of?
MP: You know what? That’s why I asked for Room at the Top, because I think about twenty people saw it at the time it was on. It had a real—we had a problem with the rights; I won’t go into it but it was tricky with the rights. We filmed it and then we were told we couldn’t show it and it was always scheduled in the papers and reviews came out and then it was pulled and then it was sort of put on and then went under the radar. And I loved that job so much, working with Aisling Walsh and Michael McNulty I knew, we’d done See No Evil together, and just a beautiful cast and a beautiful script. I never like to say I’m proud of anything I’ve done—
MS: You are allowed to.
MP: Yeah I’ve just never—and that was such a departure for me, I think, from what people expected I could do.
MS: It was a very tender performance, wasn’t it.
MP: Yeah, it was really effecting and I had a really lovely time on it.
MS: That’s the one. OK, I’m going to put my specs on because I saw you right at the back.
Q: Hi Maxine. As an industry veteran I was just wondering what your thoughts are on how the industry is evolving. Like you said you started to write because you saw there weren’t enough parts for your female actresses and I guess what I’m seeing is that there are the same types of films being made and types being cast again and it’s almost as if the industry hasn’t really evolved very much. I guess I was wondering what you think about disruptions or more indie films tackling different themes or having gender blind and colour blind casting, stuff like that?
MP: I suppose that is the way forward, in a way is the indie scene, isn’t it? That’s where there’s more—as I was saying before that’s why I enjoy it because there’s more control. You’ve not got a big studio or whatever with a bigger picture that they’ve got to adhere to or they know exactly their audience, or who they think their audience is who they’re playing to; marketing is so important. Sometimes I can feel that I’m falling into that, that you’re being cast again. I remember in a review once they said the ‘ubiquitous Maxine Peake,’ and then when I looked up what ubiquitous meant I went ‘oh God!’
MS: You’re just working!
MP: And some things hit, and instead of going ‘that was a hit because it was different, let’s make something else different,’ I think we go, ‘let’s make something similar.’ There’s a lot of that that happens. But it’s money, isn’t it? And our business does reflect society and it is a big capitalist machine.
MS: And there are moves to kind of change things. I have to say that BAFTA is very good at that, so BAFTA has various schemes to try and encourage different people to be writing, or to encourage actors at different times of their career to kind of move on; so there are moves, but I do think that you are right, maybe there should be more. I’m going to have to put my specs on again. Hello—oh God it’s a shock. Do we have another question for Maxine? Hello.
Q: Hi Maxine. It’s a really lovely evening, I’ve really loved hearing all about your career. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about Three Girls which was so powerful and just talk about the effect that had on you making the films.
MS: Do you want to explain a little bit about what Three Girls is about first?
MP: Yeah. Three Girls is a BBC drama about the Rochdale grooming scandal, and I played one of the parts which was Sara Rowbotham, a sexual health worker who blew the whistle on what was happening wit these young girls who were being groomed by a group of men who were a lot older from the Asian community. And she—the police sort of ignored her and ignored these young girls; they were twelve, thirteen, they were children, but they said it was lifestyle choices that these young girls had chosen, but they were very vulnerable young women. So they boiled these characters down to three; there’s hundreds of young women but within the drama they called it Three Girls because there was Rhea, Liv and Molly, these amazing three young actresses who took the leading roles as a selection of the girls who had been abused and then I played Sara and Lesley Sharpe played Maggie Oliver who was the police detective who got involved.
So yeah, it was an extraordinary response to Three Girls. I think it was the best response I’ve had to anything that I’ve done. It wasn’t about me, I mean it was about the drama; within the drama I was quite a small role within it, but Sara’s role was very important, she made such a difference. And people say about the effect; it’s been a real positive effect for me because Sara’s now become a really good friend and I think what’s happened now with Sara as well, and with Maggie, and with the girls—some of the girls came down to set and it was extraordinary to see these young girls getting on with their lives now. It’s hard and those scars will never heal, but they were really amazing young women who were forging forward. But I think that’s when television is brilliant; when it can change people’s perceptions. And people would say to me ‘yeah I used to think all these young girls just, slappers—‘
MS: Asking for it.
MP: Yeah, asking for it. All that horrible narrative and language that goes with it, and actually to make people think again about yeah.
MS: And there’s also—it’s interesting, if you put a story like that on television there’s a status attached to it, just because the story’s been noticed and turned into a drama in the first place means that people almost take it more seriously. They might not have been reading it in the paper but it’s on the telly so it means something.
MP: Yeah. No it was and obviously we had some horrible backlash from right-wingers and bla, bla, bla, but that’s great.
MS: I’m sure you’re used to that Maxine!
MP: Yeah, course. You’ve been on my Twitter feed recently. But yeah, but it was—it’s just about making dramas that get people thinking; that get people thinking about their perceptions, isn’t it? And to change people’s idea of, you know, yeah. It was just a great thing to be part of and that’s why you do it. Those reasons and those experiences. And what I’ve found is the beauty of doing those kind of roles is the people that you meet along the way. I mean it’s different but you know Silk, I was packed off to interview Helena Kennedy QC, and you meet all these amazing—especially amazing women. I remember doing a play on Sarah Helm and going to meet, spending time with her. You just go ‘wow, it’s a privilege.’ You do this anyway and then outside of it, I get to, you know—
MS: In the interest of research.
MP: Yeah, you know. Spend time with extraordinary people who have done some extraordinary things, not just pranced around in a costume pretending to be somebody else.
MS: It’s more than that! OK I think we’ve got time for one more question and I do see you I have to say, you lucky man. Here comes the mic.
Q: Maxine, thanks again. I just wanted to ask about related to Funny Cow. Obviously you mentioned about the fact that it did really well based on the scale of the project—what sort of, in terms of the on-going process for that, what catalyst has it been in terms of you getting something else made in the future? What’s been the knock-on effect of the success it’s had?
MP: Well I think Kevin, Kevin Procter and Adrian Shergold who directed the film have just finished their next project which is called Cordelia, and that’s got—that’s got a real stellar cast, Gambon’s in it, Johnny Flynn’s in it.
MS: Oh the Gambon.
MP: Antonia Campbell… So they’ve got that next project and—but what’s great is making that contact with that group of people and I keep bobbing into the office going ‘OK so what are you doing next?’ and talking about ideas and being able to have somebody that, you know, is openly saying to you ‘have you got any ideas? What do you think next?’ So it’s great to have that, you know, independent collaboration.
MS: And you are now a bankable film star.
MP: Well I don’t know about that.
MS: You are definitely a bankable film star. OK, I think it’s time to wind up. I’d like to say thank you so much to you, you’ve been a terrific audience; completely engaged, lovely to spend time with you. And of course, thank you to the fantastic Maxine Peake.