a piece about Maxine Peake, the star of The Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, for Curve Magazine. If you haven't seen the film, check out my review here. Below is the full interview.
Firstly, I just want to say that I loved the film, and your performance. I’m a big fan of period pieces, so it felt familiar in a way. But it had this second level of enjoyment because it dealt with a lesbian character. What drew you to this project?
What happened was a friend of mine, Andrew, is a locations manager...And he’d been approached about this film, and he just sort of hinted to my friend, tell Maxine about this part. And he said she’s called Anne Lister, and she was a traveler, and a scholar and a lesbian, and this really sort of quite formidable character who lived in Yorkshire in the late 1800s. So I go straight to my agent, and tell him I know nothing about this. And he said, find out who’s making it. And I was on holiday at the time, but I went back to the hotel and read it and said yes, I want to do it. So that was that.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you research the real Anne Lister?
Obviously I did some research on the internet, initially. I also got Helen Whitbread’s diary publications, And then I went to Shibden Hall, where Anne lived, which is still open to the public…and then I went over to see Helen, who lives not far from where Anne was born and brought up, and spent the day grilling her about who she thinks Anne was—because she spent 20 years researching and deciphering Anne’s diary, so she’s seems to be the only person really who knows about Anne. And that really helped actually. I mean, you’re so lucky with characters like that, that have diaries. So you’ve got it all there—their day to day life.
Anne’s story is quite extraordinary, in that she was essentially an out lesbian in a time where that kind of lifestyle was basically seen as unacceptable in the minds of most people.
Well at that time the word lesbian didn’t exist. And I think what was interesting was that, in my research, women did have romantic relationships—young women had these romantic relationships—where they slept in the same bed. I’m sure there was a bit of kissing, and a bit of intimacy, and it was all sort of a precursor to getting married. It was sort of accepted that these young girls had some sexual experience with each other. But that was fine, because it was preparing them for marriage with men. But then their sex life probably went terribly down hill, because there were a lot of arranged marriages, and a lot of girls got married off to men a lot older than them. It was all about monetary gain, or financial gain. You get the feeling that a lot of those marriages weren’t about love. Maryanne is sort of case in point, of how it seemed to work for a majority of women in those days. And Anne was extraordinary because she didn’t want that, and she wouldn’t even entertain it, to protect herself. She said, I don’t care what anybody thinks of me, and I’m going to live my life the way I want to. And that’s what I think is so fascinating about her.
Anne’s family is surprisingly accepting of her sexuality. Were you surprised by that when you read the script?
Well, sort of, but then, when reading the diaries again it was weird, because you’re used to the Austen account of how things were, like we all these lavish BBC dramas in England, you know? And you get the impression that it’s all very stead and very stiff and very prim—but reading Anne’s diaries, not just for Anne in herself, in [regards to] her sexual preferences, but it seemed a lot freer in those days that I think we are used to. I think we get slightly the wrong impression. I mean, looking at the diaries, they seem to have a good time. And she seduced a lot of married women. And not necessarily lesbians. She just seemed to have this power over women.
You have such great chemistry with Anna Madeley’s character on the screen. What was it like working with her? Were there ever any awkward moments, or did you feel comfortable with the scenes?
It seemed to come naturally. I thought it would be more difficult than it was but it did feel natural, and it felt fun. You’re acting a part. I mean you act parts with male actors. I just think it’s such a beautiful story, so you just try and be as truthful to the characters as you can. So there wasn’t much time to think about it really, because we shot it in 18 days. So it was very quick. There wasn’t time to feel awkward. And Anna was great to work with. She just really went for it. And if one person had felt a bit awkward it could have really thrown the chemistry out. All the girls—Susan Lynch, who plays Tibbs, did the first scene with me where we kiss, and she was amazing.
Why do you think Anne is a role model?
I think she’s a role model for young lesbians—well, lesbians of any age actually—and I think she’s a role model for anyone really, because she lived her life as she wanted to. And she was bullied for it, and she was persecuted for it, but she stuck true to who she was. And there’s a part where she says, Intellect has no sex. And it was. She didn’t see herself as a woman, that she was any different. She saw herself as a person. And I think that’s what we should all do. It shouldn’t have anything to do with your gender or sexuality.
She was definitely a sort of proto-feminist icon.
Yeah, but I mean she wasn’t perfect. I mean her politics were a little bit dodgy. She was a Tory, which goes against a lot of my beliefs. But I suppose nobody’s perfect [laughs].
There is a sort of universal aspect to her story, especially pining after a loved one that you can’t have.
Yeah, unrequited love. I think everybody at some point has been touched by that—what it’s like to have your heart broken. What really did it for me was reading the script, and I thought, yeah, I’ve been there. And I think that’s the universal level of it. It’s a love story. Or a failed love story, really.
Who do you think Miss Lister should have ended up with? Do you think that she ended up with the right person?
Um [pauses] no I don’t. But then I don’t think she could have ended up with Maryanne at the time. And some of the things that Maryanne did and said to her—I mean you can’t go back. I just wish that Anne had maybe met somebody more suited to her. But she had a smaller pool to choose from I suppose. And if you read a lot of the diaries, Anne was a handful. I mean she was quite dramatic and slightly hysterical. But I think in the film she decides that, ok, If I’m not going to get fulfillment through passion, I’m going to get it through travel, and get it through my intellectual stimulation. So she just shifted and put her energies that way.
I was actually rooting for her and Tibbs. But I guess she saw her more as a friend.
Yeah. There’s always that one, isn’t there? I mean, Anne was so driven sexually, she had to have a sexual spark with someone. There had to be passion. Everything was high drama for her, and she liked it like that. And I love that about her. And if it’s just not there, then it’s just not there, is it?
What was it like working with the director, James Kent?
James was lovely. He knows exactly what he wants, but he’s very quiet, and very gentle. But he’s got a very strong vision. And he’s a gay man, so I think that helped give an edge to it as well. He said from the beginning, I want this to be for the audience that it is for. I don’t want it to be for a straight audience, with all the titillation or anything like that. I want this to be aimed at the gay and lesbian audience, and I want it to be made for them. Which was fantastic.
I hate to generalize, but it does seem rare to have such strong women characters in movies that are written by men—let alone lesbian characters.Did you have any reservations?
Yes, and I did initially, when I heard that a man was directing the film, say, Oh, typical. But then I also get frustrated by the fact that there aren’t nearly enough women directors in England. It’s sort of endemic of this business that we’re in, isn’t it? There’s a lot of talented women where it just seems twice as hard—it seems the business is still riddled with sexism. I mean, most businesses are, aren’t they? But James really did bring a kind of gentleness to it, and a real delicacy, and a real understanding.
What are your thoughts on the current political climate in America, especially as a British citizen, sort of looking in from the outside, regarding gay and lesbian rights—particularly the passing of Proposition 8?
It’s so ridiculous. I mean in England we also have civil unions. But it’s a practicality—a financial practicality when you have two people. People should not be defined by their sexuality. I think it’s shocking. And you would think that America would be much more liberal, but I mean—I mean England is still very conservative. I don’t really understand what people are afraid of. I mean what are we now, 2010?
It almost seems like we are going backwards in a way.
It does! I do feel in every way, I mean I feel in England—especially with all the banks crashing at the moment, and the current economic climate—it’s going to be like Victorian times as far as England is concerned.
How did you get your start as an actor?
I started at 17, doing plays. And then when I was 21 I went off to drama school, in London. I went to [Radlys? Look up] to study dramatic arts. I spent 3 years there. And when I left I got an agent, and that was it really. I’ve been at it for 11 or 12 years now. I’ve always worked, but it’s been sort of gradual build of parts. I did a comedy called Dinner Ladies, where I did this sort of monosyllabic character called Twinkle, and then I’ve done quite a bit of television and theatre. In the last couple of years it’s shifted really. The parts have started to get more diverse and interesting. And that includes strong women. I mean people say, Oh you play strong women, and I think, well, in my life, there’s always been strong women. That was how I was brought up. So I do think it’s funny how, when you read a lot of scripts, the women often seem sort of like a pathetic, naggy ex-wife. And I think, well let’s look at why she’s a naggy ex-wife. I mean it’s either the mistress, or the wife, and I’ve been trying to stay away from those stereotypes. I mean they say that sex sells, but it’s just so boring.
Sex sells, but at the same time it’s so—we have this very convoluted view of it in America at least, where it is everywhere, but at the same time we are kind of repressed. Is it the same in England?
I think it’s getting worse in England. It really seems to be a problem. Especially I think for young girls. Everything is over-sexualized now. It’s shocking. And men’s attitudes towards women has really just regressed. It’s the media. I think we should be comfortable with sexuality, but I think that it’s gotten completely out of balance. There’s a fear and extremity to it, and I think we need to—I mean people shouldn’t be afraid of their own sexuality, but I just get so disgusted with how women are portrayed at the moment, as objects.
Because they don’t own their sexuality.
Exactly. It’s about looking sexual and being—appearing to be. But to me, that’s not sexy. Dressing in skimpy clothing is not sexy. I mean it’s all breast enlargements and botox. But I mean, girls aren’t being inspired to go out and pursue their own careers.
Is there a director or an actor that particularly inspires you or who you’d like to work with in the future?
Tilda Swinton. I think she’s amazing. As far as directors. I don’t know. Maybe the Coen brothers or something like that. But then, those are men directors again. Jane Campion is amazing. I watched Bright Star right before I started Anne Lister, and that film really inspired me because, just the atmosphere of it.
Are there any projects that you are working on at the moment?
Well I’m going back to England to work on a new BBC drama called Silk.
Are there any other projects you are currently working on?
No, I think that’s it. [Laughs]
Well, thank you so much!
Thank you! Cheers.