Maxine Peake

Lyn Harris of Perfumer H
Lyn Harris of Perfumer H Interior

 On Tuesday we traveled north to Salford, Manchester to interview the actress Maxine Peake. Whilst utterly brilliant on stage and screen, she is also renowned for her political engagement in her work, her life and is very conscious of the way women are portrayed. We were greeted with the warmest welcome into her beautiful home with an unexpected lunch followed by a steady flow of tea and cake.

Our Founder and Creative Director Nick Wakeman sat down with Maxine for a chat to find out about a bit more about her journey as a woman and actress, what drives her and what inspires.

What drew you to acting, how old were you when you first realised you liked performing?

Really young I remember, there is no defining moment I just liked showing off. I used to stand on a poof and do Michael Crawford impressions of some mothers do have them. Gloria Gaynor etc. `We used to have patio doors with long curtains I used to come out from behind there like I was on the stage. I remember times with my dad watching comedies. He used to come in from work have his tea and fall asleep. We used to watch Benny Hill, Dick Emery. I loved The Goodies too, I just loved watching and laughing with him. I wanted to make people laugh but ended up doing loads of gritty drama somehow (laughs). I wanted to be a stand-up comedian to start with but when I didn’t follow through acting seemed like a good idea, I wanted to go to drama school, but I didn’t get a place in acting school for three years, no one would have me. I wasn’t very good, I didn’t know how to prepare for the auditions and never really asked for help. I was doing Victoria Wood monologues which were meant for Julie Walters and didn’t really feel like I could do them justice. When I finally got in I learnt what drama school is for. It gave me the tools to do the job and improve.

Stage or screen?

Stage, definitely. Mainly because you get four weeks of it, well depending on your play but I recently worked The Royal Court and some regional theatre. You don’t have endless budget, so rehearsals are always limited, but really, I love being in a rehearsal room with people - I love the process. Spending time on it working on it and getting it right. With theatre work you get to constantly hone the idea and performance. There is no editing once you step on that stage you tell the story from beginning to end. I love turning up every night getting ready and going out in front of an audience and then getting the chance to do it all again. With film you can do lots of takes but sometimes it just doesn’t feel right. You also get the reaction which is something film lacks. It is about the exchange of energy with you and the audience. I have done a lot of my work at The Royal Exchange in Manchester and the nature of the set-up is very intimate. You can’t avoid the audience sometimes literally!! (laughs).

Is there a role you’re most fond of?

I don’t know I think screen wise, well no one really saw it because there was an issue with the rights, but BBC did a remake of room at the top a john Brian novel which had originally been done with Simone Signoret. I did it as a two parter and Alice Aisgill she was called. She was a tragic character, but I loved that character. It went quite under the radar due to the rights issues.
Theatre most recently I just played Winnie in happy days at The Royal Exchange and I did love that, but also Blanche Dubois in Street car named desire about three years ago. I think it was a role that people wouldn’t really imagine me playing. I had a lot of friends saying “I didn’t know you had it in you”. I really enjoyed it she was one of the most complicated characters I have played. Sometimes you get the most joy out of playing the most tragic characters (laughs). You really get to play and stretch your muscles. You take it home sometimes, but I love the emotional extremes of these characters.

Do you have days where you don’t feel inspired to be on and if so, how do you overcome this?

Yeah. You just have to do it. I always used to laugh when I was filming and say is it a Tuesday? I don’t act on Tuesday’s. There is always one day a week when you just feel like I can’t do it and some days you are like I am an actor aren’t I?! I think some people just think you are always on but the older you get the harder it gets and the more it costs. Sometimes I think this is a really silly job for an adult. I spent all my youth dying to be an actor and then sometimes now I am like I am not sure I want to do this anymore. Only occasionally but it does happen. That’s why I started to branch out and do more writing. Looking for other ways to stay creative and still having a bit of control. On paper you are freelance but really you are always at the mercy of other people. It’s about creating your own work and that seems to be the way forward. A lot of the other actors I admire seem to be doing this. I get sent a lot of stuff but sometimes I think I have funny taste when it comes to characters. I say no to things. I am very conscious of the way women are portrayed and sometimes I’m over sensitive about it but that’s just personal taste. A lot of the time I just don’t relate to these characters and if it doesn’t speak to me I can’t do it. I am quite open with people about it and I have had to stick to me guns.

What do clothes do for you? Do they change your mood?

I sometimes have an alternative character in mind when I get dressed in the morning.
I think clothes are about self-expression. It has always been very important to me. As a child I remember crying because I wanted my mum to sew white piping down the side of my jeans. I think I got slightly obsessed with the army not combat gear but old-fashioned peak caps and the buttons. My mum eventually did sew on the piping. I always had tantrums about what I was and wasn’t wearing as a child. My mum worked in a concession in Whitehead in Bolton. She got paid on commission, but she said she couldn’t sell clothes top people that didn’t suit them so didn’t so well. We never had a lot of money, but mum always had a way of making things looking good. I always wanted to be a bit different. At school I wanted to stand out of from the crowd and clothes linked to music. I want to wear this or that and then people might know what I am into. Clothes give signals don’t they. I often play characters in the theatre and then realise out of work I am starting to look at clothes that relate to their style. Why I am looking at that. I did a Chekov play called Cherry Orchard once and then I started looking at clothes with puffed sleeves, then realised where it had come from. I guess clothes are all about dressing up and thinking who you want to be that day. I have always been into utility and workwear inspired stuff. I want clothes I can do things in. I still don’t get it at award ceremonies and I want to say to women why you still dressed up like a turkey. I usually like Tilda Swinton and I like Cate Blanchett. Just wear what you want to wear, a pair of flat shoes and do what feels good. Otherwise after an hour you are tired can’t be bothered to dance and you’ve lost your shoes. It’s about being yourself.

Is there an item in your wardrobe you could not live without?

I have got an old Margaret Howell woollen trench coat. I have had it about 10 years and every time I wear it my dad says you have got that horse blanket on again. I sometimes put it away and I have bought replacements, but I still really like it. I am really into that thing of buying well rather lots of. People always say how much? Pav my fella is really into his clothes and he has his style and just sticks to it. I have kind of been the same since my 30’s too. I sometimes want to change it up but then think you know what, I am alright where I am. I also like wearing Pav’s clothes too. He gets a lot from Oi Polloi which is a great shop, but they haven’t done women for years.

Are you an obsessive? What are your current obsessions?

I don’t think I am really an obsessive. I get obsessed with work I guess and feel I should always be doing something. I also can be quite obsessive with cleaning not that the house looks like it at the moment. I can be going out on a Saturday night and I will be giving everything a wipe down. Pav will be like what are you doing? I am like just let me do it. I often put in four hours for a clean on a Saturday morning. I feel relaxed then when everything is in its place. At the moment the house is slightly exploding!!!

Inspirational women?

My favourite actress is Gena Rowlands. Gloria and Opening Night are my two favourite films. Her characters are really, and I hate the word feisty but there is unsent mentality that resonates with me and the performances I love. They have steel but vulnerability. Then I would say my Mum. She sadly passed away 10 years ago. She was strong and quiet but emotionally she was like a rock. She had that thing women have where they might be on outside not so obviously strong, but she was made of such strong stuff. Even when she was diagnosed with cancer she just got on with things. I really admired her for that attitude. I think these days there are so many stresses that are unimportant but, in those days, they would have been like why are you worrying about that?

How do you feel as a woman in your 40’s compared to your 30’s?

I feel much more comfortable. I don’t think about age anymore. I remember being in my 30’s and then realising I was nearly 40 and I was still a bit of a mess and things had been a bit rocky but now I feel a lot more settled and content with who I am. I don’t feel I need to apologise for who I am now. It is just nice to have self-awareness it doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes but knowing that it will be alright whatever happens. I just think what is the worst that can happen. I still get anxious but you kind of realise as you get older you aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. The hours I have wasted on negative thinking what was the point. Worrying about what people think about you and all that. Such a waste of time!

I love that you have your very own shed, what do you do in there?

It’s my writing shed, the weather has been so great though that I’ve been writing in the garden a lot.

Tell me some great things about Manchester and Salford?

Great things about Salford; I would say the working-class movement library which is on the crescent going into Manchester from Salford. It used to be a nurse’s home and its packed to the rafters with literature, pamphlets, banners and memorabilia anything to do with working class history. It is an amazing archive. They have events, readings and films run by mainly volunteers and it is like a second home for me. I always pop in for a cup of tea when political stuff gets dark and you know you will find like-minded people.

The People’s History Museum is also great, more of a public place/museum type place with excellent exhibitions and a nice café. We shouldn’t forget these stories because we are going through these things again. I have just done a Mike Leigh film and you watch it and what really makes you furious is that we are here again.

Lastly The Eagle pub in Salford is my favourite pub they have a little gig venue next door that’s a great little spot. Salford is really on the way up. I got sent an article the other day and It said something about Salford being the best place to go clubbing. It’s got that rough and ready DIY ethos to it. That’s what I like about it; there are still artist studios and music places doing their thing. It’s still vibrant and creative that’s the key. I have always looked for the alternative, not the main stream.

Interview By Nick Wakeman
Photos by Ollie Grove