Maxine Peake wishes she’d tackled bullying in showbiz head-on

Acting ace Maxine Peake reveals how Vanessa Redgrave inspired her to speak about politics and how she spent her teen years saving lives with Paddy McGuinness in her Letter To My Younger Self

Music was my big passion at 16. I wore big green patch dungarees that I got from Afflecks Palace in Manchester and German paratrooper boots with red and white fly agaric mushrooms painted on the side – I was into all things psychedelic at that point. I went to X-Records in Bolton and got a couple of Gong albums. Anything psychedelic or trippy. I was trying to get dreads at the time. I was all over the place – fads would come and go and I’d jump around trying to find my tribe.

I had just started a diploma in performing arts at Salford College of Technology when I was 16. Going from a smaller town to a city can be a culture shock. Manchester was the centre of everything at the time and Bolton, even though it was only 15 miles away, in some respects was 15 years away. Salford College was a 10-minute walk to Manchester. There was a lot of clubbing – I started around 14. Being slightly larger of figure, I could get in. Although sometimes you’d not be let in and have to go to the back of the queue and try again. 

I knew I wanted to perform in some way. After two weeks at Salford Tech they took nine of us to one side and told us we wouldn’t stay the course. I was told I wasn’t an actor because I was too quiet, too introverted. Anybody who I’d been to school with would have laughed at that. I was just sussing it out and it wasn’t quite what I had expected. Everyone was in sweat pants and jazz shoes – I had no idea what all that was about. 

I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I’m not that good at accents – what was
I thinking?
It sounds weird, but sometimes you know your destiny. And that is why I stuck at Salford Tech. I knew if I didn’t follow this path, I wouldn’t get what was meant for me. I sort of knew I would have a career – I just didn’t know what the career would be. My younger self would be surprised that I haven’t been typecast as I expected to be. 

Everyone told me I would do comedy – the big, funny girl. And that was fine by me. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters were massive influences. Then my first job out of drama school was dinnerladies, with Victoria, who is one of the best writers this country has ever produced. You are so spoiled after that. I realised you can be the
best actor in the world, but if the writing is not there, forget it. I wonder why I didn’t make more of an effort with Victoria. But I was so overwhelmed and socially awkward. I was in awe of her. I am still not good at absorbing things when they happen. It is only when I look back that I take it all in. 

My ideal was to get a comedy troupe going and write sketches, but I never found my gang. I met Diane Morgan when we were auditioning for Manchester Theatre School. We didn’t get in, but she has done alright for herself. We said we’d write stuff together – because we couldn’t imagine what we wanted to do would be on offer. If I could whisper in my younger self’s ear, I would tell her to stick at that. At Christmas, when I watch Morecambe and Wise, I get a real pang: why didn’t I stick with comedy? I would have had more control. As an actor, you are at the mercy of roles that come along. Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a mug still doing this. 

My mum and dad split up when I was eight. It is not a sob story but it had an effect. My mum struggled to bring up two daughters and my dad wasn’t paying child maintenance. It was a real struggle but I had fantastic grandparents. I learned about self-sufficiency. As soon as I could get a Saturday job or evening jobs I always worked. I cleaned old people’s homes and me and Paddy McGuinness were lifeguards at Horwich Leisure Centre. He used to say, ‘I’m going to do a bit of that acting that you do, me and my mate Peter.’ And look at him now. 

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We were Thatcher’s children. That was all we knew. And the politics opened me up to the arts world – I was 10 or 11 in the mid-Eighties, so there was the miners’ strike and Red Wedge. The 1980s had a huge effect on me. Then one of the first actors I performed with was Vanessa Redgrave. There was an actress speaking out, whose political agenda was to the forefront in her work and fuels the work she chooses. I thought that was really exciting. 

When I did See No Evil I was dipping my toe into straight acting – and now I’m synonymous with gritty drama. That role [as Myra Hindley] took me in a different direction. My younger self would never have thought Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Miss Julie or playing the middle-class wife of a barrister in Criminal Justice were for her. One reviewer said, ‘When I saw Maxine Peake getting into a 4×4 I thought she’d robbed it.’ I know it was meant as a gag, but be careful what you say in jest. 

Who in their right minds would get me to do Hamlet? I’m so lucky to have collaborators like [theatre director] Sarah Frankcom. There were female Hamlets before and Frances de la Tour had done it 30 years before, but we kickstarted it again. I am proud that Sarah and myself revitalised that. Not only a woman playing Hamlet, but a northern, working-class woman – that has opened doors. It is about being brave. Sometimes I feel I didn’t do enough, that I just selfishly went for what I wanted. But it is flattering when people say I broke down walls. I get a lot of correspondence from young women. It is about visibility. We all need somebody where you can go, ‘You look like me, you sound like me, so I can do it.’  

I would tell my younger self to have some more self-worth and tell people to jog on earlier. The best thing a friend said to me about relationships was, ‘Yes, but do you like them?’ And I went, ‘Oh, interesting, never thought about that.’ Young men definitely need to be educated about acceptable behaviour, but young women also need to be taught much earlier about self-awareness, self-fulfilment and self-love. 

Politics has always been a big part of my life but when I was younger, nobody was interested in what I was saying, as a young woman. I was never shy about it. My grandad Jim spent his life being fired from factories because of his politics and used to say it would impact my career. Maybe in some ways, once he passed away I felt I could speak out more without upsetting him. I can see why people say ‘Shut up, you are just an actress.’ But if somebody wants my opinion, then why can I not voice it like any other citizen? If you don’t like it, don’t read it. 

I would tell my younger self that she is entering a business where there’s a lot of bullshit. I wish I had tackled it head on more. The way I was spoken to in rehearsal rooms, the issue of how you are seen as a young, working-class woman – talking to actresses I am working with, I am just appalled about experiences they are having today. It happened to me but I thought we had moved on. I am not talking about inappropriate physical behaviour, I am talking about bullying and the presumption that if you look or sound a certain way you must lack intelligence. 

If I could go back in time, I would speak to my mum and find out more about what made her tick. You slightly dismiss your parents when you are young. When I had to draw something at school, my mum did it for me and it was great. She said she would have liked to have gone to art school but she grew up on a council estate, was pregnant at 21, and didn’t think it was for her. I think I talk so much because we are a family that didn’t communicate. Everything was buried. It wasn’t that we didn’t care, we just didn’t express ourselves. 

People think all actors are totally in love with themselves. But I think most of us act because we are not. So I would tell my younger self to be a bit kinder to herself. But that is something I could also say to my 45-year-old self. It is a constant battle – but if you don’t like you, nobody else is going to. 

My last advice to my younger self would be to dig deep and figure out what you want to do, admit it to yourself, and go for it. It has taken a long time to admit what I want to do. So I would like to plod along doing good independent British films with juicy scripts, good telly, good theatre. 

People don’t believe me because they think every actor wants to go off to Hollywood. Could you imagine me in a Marvel film? Northern Woman! 

Maxine Peake stars in the The Welkin at the National Theatre until May 23

Image: Camera Press/Iona Wolff