Culture

‘When people feel excluded and marginalised, they get angry. And that’s when mistakes are made’

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Maxine Peake challenges the status quo

I’m sitting in the Marylebone Hotel on a spongy leather sofa with herbal tea in hand, feeling ever-so-slightly intimidated while listening to Maxine Peake condemn our political system – Brexit in particular.

‘We took our eye off the ball,’ she says. ‘And what happens when you get comfortable? You get a kick up the backside. I just hope we don’t stay stuck. Now Brexit’s happened, we’ve got to deal with it.’

Her outspokenness is nothing new. Peake’s best-known as the 43-year-old actor from Greater Manchester, whose stellar career has seen her take on a diverse breadth of roles, ranging from Hamlet to Myra Hindley, making her one of the most recognised female performers in Britain. While some actors prefer to leave their more strident opinions at home while under interview, Peake is only too happy to share hers.

‘I identify as a socialist,’ she says in a thick Bolton accent that’ll come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched her play a part without her native intonation. She’s a regular at Manchester Labour Party rallies, and speaks at the annual memorial of the Peterloo massacre every year. She even has a small rescue dog named Castro, after Fidel.

As Peake continues, her tone becomes more pensive. She cuts a slight figure, but her blue eyes are piercing – like her rhetoric. ‘If Brexit had happened under a Labour government, the immigration issue wouldn’t have been there, and freedom of movement wouldn’t be under threat in the same way,’ she insists. ‘Brexit under Labour would have been a lot more palatable for a lot of different people.’

Peake’s politics seem informed by a genuine connection to her fellow man – or should that be citizens – and they’re never far from the surface. They’ve also inspired performances delivered with intense emotional sensitivity.

Take her most recent performance as the fugitive Bella in Metalhead, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror, a masterclass in tense, emotionally charged drama. Then there was her portrayal of Martha Costello in BBC1’s legal drama Silk, where Peake’s trailblazing character forges a career as a defence barrister in the closed world of Lincoln’s Inn. Her turn in the title role of Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre struck a radically different tone to other recent productions.

‘Sometimes I feel that maybe I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,’ she admits. ‘For me, Hamlet wasn’t just about a woman playing the part, it was about a northern, working-class woman playing the lead. It’s still tough for working-class men to be cast in that role, so that was two boxes ticked.’

Her next project is Funny Cow, a film by Adrian Shergold about a stand-up comic’s rise to stardom in 1970s Northern working men’s clubs. Peake’s character, who remains nameless throughout, butts up against racism, sexism and an abusive relationship (Tony Pitts gives a brave performance as her abusive husband) on her journey to the top. It’s a compelling film, darkly funny but stinging and angry, too – it’s not just a movie about the British comedy circuit. And that’s precisely why Peake went for it.

‘I didn’t set out to only take parts that challenge social stereotypes, I’m always looking for things that look different and that make me nervous. Of course, it’s often about the message in there; about challenging how people think, challenging popular perceptions. What I do is entertainment, but if I can make some people rethink, or bolster the way they feel, so much the better.’

She’s set to do just that later this year, too, thanks to her lead role in Mike Leigh’s forthcoming film Peterloo, a dramatisation of the 1819 rally in Manchester. ‘It’s pure genius of Mike Leigh to pick up on this story now, given everything that’s happening,’ she says. ‘What was happening then politically, and what’s happening now isn’t worlds apart – 1819, 2019… We continue down the same cycle, don’t we? We think we’re a progressive society moving forward, then we slide back.’

What does she think the solution is? We turn to the debate around moving Parliament north, a step in the right direction, she says.

‘I think that’d be an interesting prospect. But it’s not even just about moving Parliament up north, it’s about thinking about the regions. London’s a fantastically diverse place but it does look in on itself. A lot of what our MPs do is very London-centric.

‘We talk about the Northern Powerhouse, but there’s huge swathes of the North that seem forgotten about. It’s easy to lose touch when you live in a nice area, but our government needs to be exposed to what’s happening, and understand why people are voting the way they are.’

Which of Peake’s passions rules the other? Does her socialism inform her acting, or does acting give her empathy for the marginalised? Her answer takes us to Three Girls, the drama about the Rochdale sex ring.

‘I used to think we were just there to entertain, but the more you act, the more you feel. And the feedback from Three Girls was astounding. So many people said: “Our perceptions have changed about the way our society sexualises young girls.” And with things like that, you can just tell you’ve got a responsibility to do the story justice.’

Peake is a firecracker. I come away from our encounter not convinced by all her arguments, but in no doubt she cares. No doubt at all.

Funny Cow is in cinemas on 20 April. Peterloo is due for release later this year.