- Interview by
- Chandler Dandridge
When Maxine Peake was growing up in working-class Bolton, just outside of Manchester, she knew of few people who made a career in the arts. Nevertheless Peake, now a prolific actor who has acted and starred in dozens of nationally televised productions and films, was determined to make a career on the stage.
Peake’s early efforts were unsuccessful: for three years running, she was rejected from every drama school in North West England. So as a bit of a laugh she auditioned for RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), one of the most prestigious drama schools in the UK, and was accepted. Tragically attendance required tuition — so Peake wrote six hundred letters looking for someone to sponsor her. At the final hour she was able to secure a scholarship and the stage was set.
Peake’s career as a performer has stayed true to her working-class roots and socialist politics. Her breakout role was in dinnerladies, a hit show about cafeteria workers in a Manchester factory. Since then Peake has performed in numerous television dramas and films with a strong social conscience. In 2018, she acted in Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a film about the Peterloo Massacre, the working-class socialist mass uprising repressed with bloodshed in nineteenth-century Manchester. Gravitating toward working-class characters, Peake’s only role as a royal to date was a highly acclaimed performance as Prince Hamlet in a 2015 production of Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Peake is an outspoken socialist, a political conviction she inherited from her grandfather. She remains involved in political activism off the screen and was a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in both the 2017 and 2019 UK general elections. Peake spoke with Jacobin contributor Chandler Dandridge about her socialist politics, the Hollywood labor strikes, the realities of performing in the arts as a woman, and why art must be incorporated into any worthwhile political movement.
Maxine, thank you for speaking with Jacobin. I want to start by asking: Are you now or have you ever been a socialist?
Yes. I will always be. To me, that’s the root of who I am. The basic teachings are so rooted in who I am.
How do you balance achieving artistic success with sustaining your socialist values in a profit-driven industry?
My politics goes very much into what projects I choose. I’m very forensic on projects, maybe too much. I ask: What is the message? What is being said? What is this presenting?
It’s also the sort of extracurriculars that comes with that. It is getting involved. I am in a privileged position within the arts, so how can I can help encourage and be a voice? I think in some ways left politics and being in the arts has separated. It used to go hand in hand. It’s very different now. And I think it can be difficult for people because it isn’t the job; we’re not politicians. I can understand why people grapple with airing their opinions. You have to be careful that you don’t beat people over the head with it. But I always said, these are my views — if people ask me, then I will be honest and tell you how I feel about things.
Have you received pushback on that attitude?
Yeah, but we know the British press. Whatever line you take, there’s always some pushback on it. You can only go so far before they will find something to attack you on. I’m sure there are rooms that I don’t get into because of my politics, but actually I feel that my career has gone in a way I wanted it to because of my politics. I know parts come my way because people know that I have a social conscience. So I actually think so far it’s been positive. There have been some negatives of course, but that’s the choice you make when you become vocal about your beliefs.
Would a casting director call you to play a royal?
I don’t think I wouldn’t be cast as a royal. Well maybe because of the way I speak, I probably wouldn’t be.
Why is an accent a limitation? Aren’t you trained to play different people with different voices?
Because in the UK we are absolutely riddled with an obsession with class. And people think, wrongly so, that the way people speak defines their social, economic, and intellectual background. It’s still very prevalent in TV and theater that if you speak like I speak people go, “Well, you’re working-class.” They think there’s no class nuance within the North. You either speak like this, or if you don’t have an accent, you’re middle-class.
The class system within the UK is archaic, and it feels sometimes like we haven’t broken through it in our film, telly, and theater. I just hope we can get to a time when somebody’s accent will stop defining them. It just happens to be the way we speak.
What is your relationship to Hollywood?
It was never on my radar. Leaving drama school we were always told to do ten years of good, solid work before you get a career as such. Do theater, good telly, good British film. America seemed sort of unobtainable.
I think now for younger actors it really is more of a possibility. Because of the internet and other things, the world has gotten a lot smaller. There are so many British actors going over and having great careers, and it feels very much on the to-do list of a lot of young actors that I speak to. It seems to be the pinnacle.
Would you be opposed to working in Hollywood? I mean if Marvel came to you to be the next Captain America, would that interest you?
[Ha!] There’s always a curiosity. . . I just want to see what their catering services are like. Because I’ve heard they’re brilliant.
The Screen Actors Guild is on strike in the US. Is that being discussed in the UK among your colleagues? What do you make of the labor action happening in Hollywood?
Yes, it’s very much being talked about in the UK and impacting casting and the industry over here. Actors over here are really behind it. We know what’s happening over there will affect us.
Without sounding tub-thumping, socialists always knew that for capitalism to work you’d need a certain percentage of unemployed. Now in every workforce, actual physical human beings are becoming redundant and will only become more rampant if we don’t stand up for it.
Of course there are actors who can get paid a lot of money, but that is a small percentage. People seem to forget those constant jobbing actors, going from job to job to job, are not being compensated properly. What we see now is because of the big output from the streaming services, a lot of them came to the UK after COVID, and that work is now drying up. So there are a lot of people in the industry on both sides of the camera struggling now. Before the work was in abundance, but now there is a bit of a famine.
The SAG-AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] strike was announced about two months after the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. What do you make of these two unions striking simultaneously?
As far as I’m concerned, the writers make the piece. As actors we are nothing without the writers. I never quite understand why writers get such short shrift. For every actor who picks up a script, it’s the writing we look for. So yeah, I think that there now needs to be closer work between the performers and the writers. I know actors get all the fame and laurels, but there is no show without the writers.
It’s great to see the actors join the strike because I’ve always had the impression that the Screen Actors Guild in America is quite a strong union. We have a good union here, but we still have an issue getting actors to join Equity [Actors’ Equity Association, the trade union for performing arts in the UK]. It used to be that you couldn’t get a job unless you were in Equity, and you couldn’t be in Equity unless you had a job. So you’d have lots of actors going off doing anything just to get the hours to get an Equity card. Doing all sorts of weird and wonderful bits that could be classed as performance.
Why are actors today more hesitant to join Equity?
I just think there’s an element of people who don’t feel it’s important to them. And it really, really is. But it’s boosting its profile now and getting more proactive. Politically Equity sat a bit more to the right, you know what I mean? But it’s changed a lot. They’ve got some great people working toward what’s been happening with theater closures, and it’s really coming to its stride now.
Still it’s been difficult for them because I think actors are like, “Oh I’m too busy acting.” I don’t think a lot of actors were ready to make the sacrifice to then get involved with the union as such. They also maybe saw it as not wanting to be on the wrong side.
I read that during your production of Hamlet at the Royal Exchange everyone was paid the same wage, so that you, as Hamlet, were being paid the same as the gravediggers. Is that right?
Yeah. You get the same. It’s very democratic.
But on a film set that doesn’t happen, does it? The pay is often wildly varied. Why might actors hesitate to join the union if it could democratize their wages more?
The trouble is a lot of it really is done through your agent, and it comes down to the power of the agent and the standing of the agent. I know actors who are with an agency that maybe doesn’t feel they want to push too much, because then that might have an impact on the other clients if they’re not in the bigger league. I sort of find it ridiculous because if you’ve got two actors both playing leads and you find out that one’s got more than the other, in general it’s because one agent pushed more than the other.
I was reading about the latest star-studded Wes Anderson movie, and one of the actors, Bryan Cranston, was talking about the joyful, almost emancipatory feeling of working on a rare set where there is no call sheet, trailers, or hierarchy amongst the actors. He said, “We’re all equal, in a socialistic kind of way. And it really works.”
I think that’s it, isn’t it? Theatre feeds more into a socialist ethos in many ways. I always feel that’s why I’m drawn more to theater. It depends on the theater, but you spend all this time together and it feels more egalitarian in a way. It is about everybody locking in. It feels like a collaboration. I do think acting is a team effort.
What are some of the barriers that prevent that sort of feeling on a typical film set?
Because there’s bigger money in it, not always, but it can be a less creative endeavor. You come on to a job, you’re thrown straight in. There’s pecking orders. There’s a bit of a culture of people throwing their weight around, even if it’s unintentional. You know, who’s got a bigger Winnebago, blah, blah, blah. The politics of it all are quite complicated. But I think as actors you have little control. And sometimes when I see actors being slightly awkward or persnickety over little things, I think, “Oh really?” But then I sort of see that it’s the only way you have control.
There’s a myth that acting is glamorous and actors are lauded, and actually a lot of the time you are herded around like cattle. I’m not excusing bad behavior on set, but sometimes it usually stems from this lack of control or the actor not feeling they’ve got respect.
You’ve been a very vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and his effort leading the Labour Party. As you know, we in the States had a bit of a similar heartbreak with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. I’m wondering if you can talk about some of the feeling around Corbyn’s leadership and campaigns in the general elections.
It sort of felt like it came out of. . . well not nowhere, but who would have thought? I was always very aware of Jeremy Corbyn because of his left politics when he was just an MP in Islington. My grandad died ten years ago and he was a fan of Jeremy Corbyn, and he would never in a million years have believed what happened.
And of course, how naive to think that they would let it continue. But I think whatever the perceived failure of his leadership, it stirred something up from people. Corbyn brought a lot of people together. And the thing with the Left is, as we know, it can be quite fractious.
Following the campaign from the States, the moment that really stuck out to me — brought me to tears, really — was his reciting that [Percy Bysshe] Shelley poem at Glastonbury. For a moment it did feel like another world was possible, on the horizon even.
Exactly. And it was fascinating how there was a real parallel with Bernie Sanders in the US. It felt like there was something happening. I wasn’t trying to think too far into the future. I just thought, I’m getting behind this now. I’m just getting behind the fact that there is an alternative.
What happened, Maxine? Why does it feel like we’ve taken a dozen steps backward?
We were just absolutely floored by Brexit here. It became the main topic on everyone’s lips. And there’s so much misinformation about it. I don’t think either side really knew what they were voting for. It blinded people and it divided people — really divided people. And it feels to me in the UK now there’s a wave of libertarianism that feels sort of American, you know? When you look at your country, with what’s happening with [Donald] Trump and what’s happening here, people’s politics have gotten so confused.
Since you left drama school in 1998, austerity has hit the UK harder and harder. You’ve worked through the periods of New Labour, [David] Cameron’s austerity, Brexit, and the COVID pandemic. How has the trend toward austerity affected your vocation?
Arts institutions are closing at the rate of knots. There’s a greater struggle for young people getting into the arts, being able to stay in the arts, being able to make a living. When I started out you could do two or three theater jobs a year and then do a couple of guest episodes in a series, and you could live, you could get through the year. The cost of living now is causing lots of people to leave the business.
I could sign on. When I wasn’t working for months on end, when I first started out, I could go to the Jobcentre and I could get £40 a week to eat, and then I got my rent paid for, which I think was about £90 a week. Can you imagine that now? I mean, I was living in a shared house, but I could get by. There’s not that facility now.
You’ve spoken a lot about the working conditions affecting women performing in film, television, and theater. You’ve mentioned “periods, menopause, and motherhood” need to be taken more into account in the business. Can you talk a bit about that?
As women, subconsciously, we are taught to feel embarrassed about talking about our menstrual cycles. In the theater world I’ve never really had a discussion with another female actor about periods and trying to get on stage and doing a three hour performance, and the fear that you could leak and you could flood.
I used to have the most horrendous periods, and I would be drained. After Hamlet I went to see the doctor and they took some blood tests and he said to me, “How the hell you got through that I have no idea, because you are one point away from having an iron transfusion. You you were running completely on adrenaline.” I literally got packed across the road to have a vitamin B injection, and then you go back on and, rightly or wrongly, it’s this tradition of the show must go on.
What would a more inclusive working environment around these issues look like?
It’s about a discussion and woman being able to say, “I don’t feel great at the moment. This is happening, that’s happening.” Instead, people are sneaking off and hiding sanitary protection around the set because they don’t want anybody to see. It’s still this sense of embarrassment. Or you’re filming something and the toilet is down the hill and over stream. So it’s just being more mindful of making facilities first and foremost within reach. And having an understanding that it can be debilitating for people. Periods, menopause, women in the industry who are pregnant. Then we get into childcare. Why are there not more childcare facilities with theaters and film and television?
You recently starred in a dystopian episode of Black Mirror. But tech dystopia isn’t always fictional these days. The Hollywood strikes are partly over the issue of the studios using artificial intelligence to write scripts. What do you think about this?
I’m horrified by it. I suppose in some areas there’s a place for it but, but not in writing. Art is about energy. It’s about human connection. It’s about the human condition, isn’t it? And if you’re not human, then you can’t write about the human condition.
What is art’s role in politics? When I see Jeremy Corbyn up there at Glastonbury reciting a two-hundred-year-old poem to a hundred thousand people, I can’t help but think that the arts can save us. Is that naive?
Absolutely art can save us. It can inspire us, and it can connect us. We all need a witness. We all need to be seen. And that’s what art does. It allows people to express themselves, and it allows the viewer to be seen, to see themselves in something, to feel respected and that they matter and that they have a voice and that they’re understood. To me that’s what art is about. I hate how art gets pushed and advertised as for the elite. It’s for everybody. We’re all creative. We’re all storytellers. That’s what keeps us going, isn’t it?