The actor on her new role as a woman undergoing IVF, the trouble with being outspoken and why she called her dog Castro
Maxine Peake’s roles range from a transgender Hamlet to a sharp lawyer in the BBC series Silk to, most recently, an early 19th-century matriarch from Manchester in Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo. Now she is about to star in a stage adaptation of Julia Leigh’s harrowing memoir of IVF treatment, Avalanche: A Love Story, as part of the Barbican’s Fertility Fest about “the science of making babies and modern families”.
You have made no secret of your attempts at IVF; was it personal experience that drew you to this piece?
What I like about this piece is that there is no happy ending. It is so difficult for people for whom IVF has not been positive to find stories that do not end well. I wish I could have read Avalanche when I was going through IVF. My experience was not successful. I did three rounds and that was me done. I felt I’d been through the mill. And I felt guilt. I felt: do I want a child enough? What people do not understand is that you are pumping your body with hormones. I felt I don’t want to do this again, thank you very much.
But then when you talk to another woman who does not have children, you sometimes find a little shared island, because we can otherwise feel stuck on in a place populated by people who do. Sometimes, with Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, I want to throw the radio out the window – they expect their audience to be mothers and it can make you feel very isolated.
The academic and essayist Emilie Pine and the novelist/journalist Elizabeth Day have recently written about unsuccessful IVF treatment. Day points out that IVF is talked about in the language of failure and suggests failure can be positive. What is your feeling?
When things do not work, you move on. You channel it into something else. I want to say to women: it isn’t over. There’s a part in the book where Leigh says she wants a child because she wants an “inviolable reason for being”. I went through that but I’ve got over it – I think it was hormonal.
Julia Leigh writes about an imaginary child and Hilary Mantel once wrote something similar. Are we haunted by what has not happened to us, dreams that stubbornly resist coming true?
Yes – if there is something out there we have not been able to make happen. For me, it was a faceless child that always had dungarees on and was at the bottom of the garden, helping my partner in the shed. A little girl. My only sadness now is that I’ll never be a grandparent because I had such a connection with my own grandparents.
I think it is fair to say that, in your career, you are more used to success and that this has involved persistence as well as talent… what is the ideal temperament for an actor?
I feel more creative in my 40s. I care less, my self-consciousness has dropped. Life bruises but you know what? I’m still here. A thick skin is what actors need, but like a vent: thick one minute, thin the next. It’s said the best actors are missing a layer of skin.
Acting is one of the most unjust professions. People should not think actors have got where they have got because they’re talented or have not got anywhere because they’re untalented – it’s about luck and hard work. When you get a chink of luck, you have to grab it with both hands.
Of the roles you have played, which comes closest to the person you are?
It is the roles a million miles from you that you end up tapping into. Alice in [2012 BBC drama] Room at the Top. There was something about her vulnerability.
You are a socialist, a feminist and tend to be outspoken about your views…
I’m not sure if my speaking out about politics is good for my career. I’m sure there are rooms where people say: “Oh please don’t hire that big red raving loony.”
What is your prediction about Brexit?
I would not want to guess. It’s a disaster – a hash. The whole country has been whipped up into a frenzy. And there’s so much misinformation with Leave and with Remain. It’s like a toxic mist and we’re all wading through it.
You left London for Salford; what does Salford have that London lacks?
Affordable house prices. At least, affordable for some people. And an amazing heritage, a progressive past and a sense of community – that’s what attracted me back. As a city, there is something in the soil. Look at the people – Shelagh Delaney [the playwright who wrote A Taste of Honey]. Look at the birth of communism. And lots of the bands Manchester claim as theirs came from Salford. It has something magical about it – a good mix, rough around the edges – I love that.
What makes you angry?
What cheers you up when you are down?
Going out with my little rescue dog, a bedlington cross whippet who – obviously, because I am a walking cliche – is called Castro. They called him Bungo but he wasn’t a Bungo. I was going to call him Fidel but my partner [the art director Pawlo Wintoniuk] said it might sound as if I was shouting “Fiddle!” in the park.
What is the hardest thing for you about being an actor?
The anxiety of performance. I used to think that when I got older it would be so much easier but that’s a big lie. Although as one of my friends said to me: “You’re not packing parachutes so shut up and get on with it.”
What comes after Avalanche?
I’m back up north doing a show for the Manchester International festival – The Nico Project – based around the German singer who worked with the Velvet Underground: it’s a performance piece, directed by Sarah Frankcom.
Avalanche: A Love Story is at the Barbican, London, 27 April-12 May