Peake performance: The queen of TV drama on rugby, diets and Bolton ballsiness

From Shameless and Silk to Strindberg and a stint as Myra Hindley, Maxine Peake is an actress at the top of her game – not bad for the girl who was ordered to lose weight by her teachers at Rada.

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The Independent Online

It's half past nine on a Monday morning and Maxine Peake has been up since dawn, catching a train from Manchester just to meet me in an empty basement restaurant in South Kensington. Job done and she'll head straight back home to Salford. Maxine (I think I'll call her Maxine – she's instantly warm and likeable, although she's known as 'Max' to her friends) moved back north four years ago because of the "absolute madness" of property prices in London. And to stop recurring nightmares in which she'd give uptight southern girls a good slapping. Well, that's not exactly the reason she vacated the capital, but the nightmares are intriguing none the less.

"I had dreams that I had an argument with somebody and then slapped them across the face. I'd wake up... 'Oh my God, I've done it again'," she says. "I think it's about when I first came to London and I always remember being told by a teacher at Rada, 'The trouble with you Maxine is that you always say what you think'.

"If girls at school [in Bolton] had a row there might be an exchange of blows, and then half an hour later you'd all be friends again, and then when I came to drama school there was none of that and I remember I started having panic attacks. It's part of that culture of suppressing. But I've become so soft now... I wouldn't say 'boo' to a goose."

If Maxine did say 'boo' to a goose it would be in a lovely thick Bolton accent that's a bit Victoria Wood and a bit Hilda Ogden of sainted Coronation Street memory. It's an accent she retained for Veronica in Shameless and for Twinkle in Dinnerladies, although it might surprise those who have only come to her later, with BBC1's Silk, in which she plays an ambitious barrister, or to the abused middle-class husband-killer in Criminal Justice. Maxine gets to play the posh birds now.

"After Criminal Justice, I was 'Wow, oh my God, I've cracked that now'... People see me as having a different accent and being different classes," says the actress who will, in the coming months, be reprising Silk's QC heroine Martha Costello, portraying Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV, Part 2 for the BBC (alongside Jeremy Irons and Julie Walters), taking the title role in Strindberg's Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and co-starring in the film of Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful. But then there is something of an ugly duckling turned into a swan about Peake's story, of a socially awkward and overweight teenager with a pudding-basin haircut transformed into a popular, trim and naturally pretty woman in her late thirties.

She has one, much older sister, Lisa, a policewoman, while her father, Brian, is a retired lorry driver, and her late mother, Glynis, used to work in the same department store as Vernon Kay's mum. "Bolton's really weird like that," says Maxine. "I went to sixth form with Sara Cox, I used to be a lifeguard with Paddy McGuinness, and Vernon Kay used to stack shelves in the local supermarket."

Her parents divorced when she was nine and Maxine lived with her grandfather, Jim Taylor, from the age of 15, after her mother re-married and moved away. An ex-coal miner and a lifelong communist, Taylor is now 84, but "very modern for a man of his age. He sits in his chair all day and listens to Radio 4 and just absorbs everything". Jim provided a political education as well as a home – Maxine joining the Young Communist League (she's now a socialist) – but he couldn't help with his granddaughter's thespian ambitions. "I didn't know anybody who was in the profession," she says. "It was a little bit, 'It's not for the likes of us'.

"I bumbled along for years, really. When I was 15 I was quite a large girl with a basin haircut and I was obsessed with prog rock and wearing dungarees and big German para boots and jumpers with painted magic mushrooms on... Don't ask... And walking up to auditions I was probably quite a sight."

"I went to college in Salford when I was 16 and it was all-singing, all-dancing, and everyone had their sweatpants on and their jazz shoes and I was like, 'What? I've got to change into my what gear? Dance gear?'. I knew I wanted to act but I didn't want to be your typical actor, I suppose."

Before we get on to the acting, I wanted to rewind and ask Maxine about what she was doing listening to dreary old prog rock when a few miles down the road Manchester was busy turning into Madchester, the capital of rave culture. Each to their own and all that, but even so. "Bolton's quite a conservative town," she says. "I had a lot of male friends but I was never popular with boys and music was a way of making a connection – it became a way to impress. I couldn't quite do the glamorous thing."

Another idiosyncratic thing about the teenage Maxine was that she played rugby league for Wigan Ladies. Oh, and then there was the show-jumping. "My sister was big into horses ... she got a pony, Smoky, and then when she got boyfriends and stuff, I got Smoky. He was quite a difficult character. I wasn't very good... I tried, but like I said he was a difficult animal..." she says, dissolving into infectious laughter.

And it was her sister who got Maxine into rugby league. "A guy who used to work with her played for Wigan, and they announced they were looking for women players," she explains. "Because I was a bit larger and slightly clumsy I thought maybe rugby's the sport for me. I lasted a couple of years and then I chickened out of it."

Rugby's loss eventually proved acting's gain, as Maxine applied for a Rada scholarship and, rather amazingly, found herself being shadowed by The South Bank Show who happened to be making a documentary about the scholarship scheme. Part of the application process involved being interviewed by Richard Eyre, although, unlike the other candidates, Maxine didn't have the foggiest about who he was. "Everybody was having panic attacks – 'It's Richard Eye, it's Richard Eye' – and I was like, 'Who's Richard Eye?'. Anyway, I won it. My mum didn't stop crying for two days. It paid for everything so I had a charmed life at drama school – everyone else was working in bars and things." Incidentally, Eyre has just directed Maxine in the aforementioned Henry IV, Part 2.

Her teachers at Rada told Maxine to go on a diet, but it was Victoria Wood, creator and co-star on her first major TV series, the BBC sitcom Dinnerladies, who finally persuaded her to shift an impressive five stone. "Victoria did it in a better way than they did at drama school," she says. "I was told by one teacher, 'If you don't lay off the chips you'll never play Juliet' and I was kind of, 'Juliet? She's a wimp anyway'. Victoria said, 'Look, you're big, you're northern, it's going to be funny roles... it's going to be really difficult for you'. Anyway, I did WeightWatchers..."

Even so, when a now relatively sylph-like Maxine won her breakthrough role as brassy next-door neighbour Veronica in the first series of Paul Abbott's groundbreaking underclass saga Shameless, she still found her character described as 'a big woman with rather large breasts and nice tattoos'. She played Veronica for three years, claiming that the actors – including co-stars James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff – were initially worried about what they had got themselves mixed up in. "It was very disorganised," she recalls. "The scripts often weren't ready and you'd get scenes at 11 o'clock the night before. They kept asking for bigger performances – bigger, bigger. And we thought, 'That's our careers over, it's like panto'. When I first saw it I thought it was awful, it was so bright and brash, and then it came out and you said, 'Oh yeah I always knew it was going to be good'. But you didn't".

She was given time off from her final series of Shameless to visit a harrowing and controversial corner of Mancunian history – playing Myra Hindley in the TV movie See No Evil: the Moors Murders. Given the still raw and very real emotions engendered by Hindley, Ian Brady and their vile crimes, did Maxine feel any trepidation stepping into the role? "No, naively I didn't," she says. "I remember my agent saying, 'Have you really thought about this?' ... I really wanted to do it but I couldn't explain why. I think coming from the North it's more there in the consciousness – it's kind of a folk story. Feelings still run very high with it though and I wondered whether I'd get odd letters, but there was nothing".

And career-wise the gamble – if that's what it was – paid off, and Maxine started getting treated as a "serious TV actor". After Hindley came roles in The Devil's Whore, Little Dorrit and Red Riding, playing Tracey Temple to John Henshaw's John Prescott in Confessions of a Diary Secretary, Bafta-nominated as Tony Hancock's wife, Joan, in Hancock & Joan, the female lead in a BBC version of John Braine's Room at the Top that has yet to be screened because someone forgot to check whether the company making it had the film rights to Braine's novel (they didn't – duh!), and winning a lesbian fan club in the BBC's Sapphic costume drama The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.

Silk is Maxine's first bona fide, name-above-the-title, mainstream TV drama. It's also her second drama with Peter Moffat, having starred as the abused wife in his Criminal Justice, for which she was initially offered one of the supporting roles. "Criminal Justice was a weird one," she says. "I was sent the script but I'd just lost my mum, and my enthusiasm was waning and I said to my agent, 'I don't think it's for me' and he said, 'What if I ask them if they'll see you for the main part of Juliet?'. And I was, 'Oh don't be silly' and he rang straight back and said 'They'll see you on Friday'. That was a bit of a punt to cast me in that part."

A punt? She'd just been nominated for a Bafta, for heaven's sake – is she naturally self-deprecating? "I'm just being honest. People say, 'Don't be so self-deprecating', but it's not self-deprecating... I just wish I could take myself a bit more seriously. I'm still trying to shake off that self-image of me being big and northern... that image of being very difficult."

Perhaps this lack of self-confidence helps explain why Maxine, who got her first boyfriend at the age of 23, had been famously single for so long. I almost dread asking about the state of her love life, fearing that it was still non-existent, and find myself giving a little cheer (which I hope didn't sound condescending) when she tells me that she is now stepping out with an Ukrainian art director called Pawlo.

"I've got a boyfriend – hurrah! I've finally tricked somebody! I think I always saw settling down as weakness – my mum was always quite independent and I think I've inherited that. And for years I got easily distracted... the acting profession is full of very charming people, if you know what I mean."

Maxine and Pawlo have been a firm item for about a year now, although she says: "It's one of those things where we've been in each other's lives a long time. I think it was always on the cards but we denied it for a long time, but, yeah, it's really good. We live together now... he's moved in. Luckily we've got the same, slightly offbeat, tastes. I think anybody else moving into my house would go 'What?'."

What would make them go 'What?' I ask. "We've got a bit of taxidermy and things like that."

Talking about taxidermy, does she ever think of joining the queue of cosmetically-embalmed starlets in Hollywood? She doesn't, she replies, telling me how she recently went to her actress friend Rebekah Staton's wedding and sat at a table with Eddie Redmayne, Jodie Whittaker and Gemma Arterton ("She was the bridesmaid... it's very brave to have Gemma Arterton as your bridesmaid!"). Apparently they were all exchanging their LA stories. "They went, 'Oh when did you last go out there?'. I've never been. I think it's definitely a generational thing, they were all that little bit younger than me. They're sat looking at me and saying 'Why've you never done it?'. But I always thought you had to be Hollywood glamour material to do it. And I don't know whether I'm tough enough, to be honest."

Not tough enough? A Bolton lass who used to play rugby league and who slaps people in her dreams? "Well, I'd love to do Broadway," she says. "And there is a slight temptation of going over and reinventing yourself." Not for the first time, she might have added.

'Silk' returns to BBC1 at the end of April