Maxine Peake reflects on playing Nico: “She was a woman of huge contradictions”

The 'Fanny Lye Deliver'd' star played the German singer, who was dropped from her record label for making racist remarks, in a play last year

Maxine Peake isn’t an actress who chooses easy roles. A seasoned British performer and activist, the star of Funny Cow, biographical play The Nico Project, Black Mirror and now Fanny Lye Deliver’d – a survivor’s story set against the English Civil War – often tries to use her parts as a platform for telling a broader story about issues she is passionate about. In the case of Fanny Lye Deliver’d, in which she plays the dutiful wife to Charles Dance’s prim Puritan, Peake embodies a woman emancipated from a violent past with the same emotional strength that has typified her 25 year career.

Thanks to a strong political voice of her own, Peake isn’t one to shy away from telling it as she sees it. Earlier this month, she gave us a ring from her home near Manchester to tell us how the new film is an important lesson in working class history, and about her hopes that recent anti-racism protests will go on to shape a revolution of their own.

We’re experiencing turbulent times following George Floyd’s death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. What are your thoughts on these events?

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“It’s been horrendous, but there’s now a level of expectancy I think. We’re all accountable for what’s happened, and I think there’s going to be a lot of inner tussle that I’m hoping will have an impact on huge issues against humanity that are going on around the world. I’m excited – I know that that’s a weird thing to say, but it feels like there’s a revolutionary spirit in the air.”

So you think that this is a time of significant change?

“I hope that the more that people become aware of the issues, the more that this will evolve past simply posting on Twitter or Instagram. Protesting is good, but we need to put measures in place to make sure that people do get heard. Tearing down statues is a start, but we also need to teach students about our horrendous colonial history in our schools.”

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Maxine Peake in Thomas Clay’s folk horror fable ‘Fanny Lye Deliver’d. Credit: Vertigo Realeasing

Some artists are reevaluating past performances in light of current events. Have you reviewed your performance as Nico – who was dropped from her record label for making racist remarks – in the same way?

“I think that one thing that we can’t do is say that we never made any mistakes. Yes, Nico was questionable, she was a woman of huge contradictions and we weren’t saying that we agreed with her. We wanted to find out why she was the way that she was, and I think that’s something that you’ve got to investigate as well.”

There are elements of revolution in Fanny Lye Deliver’d – is that what appealed to you?

“This was what Fanny Lye was for me; this was about not being taught about the grassroots movement. It was about asking myself, “When will I get to talk about my working class history?” Because they don’t want us to be reminded that we did make changes, that there were amazing people who stood up and lost their lives for what they believed in.”

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Charles Dance plays a controlling Puritan husband in ‘Fanny Lye Deliver’d’. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

Charles Dance plays your husband John in the film, how did the pair of you get on during the shoot?

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“Obviously Charles is calibre. He’s so generous and supportive when you’re working with him. We didn’t rehearse much at all, it was just an onscreen relationship that we slotted into very naturally. John is an interesting character because he’s not without compassion, he’s just very much a man of his time.”

Some scenes are quite physical – was that tough?

“We were battling the elements; the farmhouse was built especially for the film but it was built in a dip in the land, so when it flooded, the whole place flooded. Sometimes we were knee-deep in mud and pig poo… The costumes were amazing though, every detail was beautiful. The costume department had to tug and pull you into the corset, and you could feel it digging into your ribs, but it helped to put you into a different physicality.”

The film seems to be influenced by 1970s horror films. Were you a fan growing up?

“Folk horror is my bag. When I was a teenager I was into anything that was weird or psychedelic. I was a big prog rock fan as well, and I loved Italian horror; anything that was soundtracked by Goblin was very much up my street… But I see Fanny Lye as more of a folk Western. You can even see some of Akira Kurosawa’s work in there.”

As a big music fan, are there any artists that are pushing boundaries at the moment?

“There are two female artists who I’m really excited about at the moment: Natalie Sharpe who performs as Lone Taxidermist and Elizabeth Bernholz, who’s known as Gazelle Twin.”

Finally, Black Mirror has come eerily close to predicting some aspects of reality. As someone who’s been a part of the show, how does that feel to you?

“Charlie Brooker is like a soothsayer. He saw into the future and there’s a warning in there for all of us; I think especially in the episode that I was in where they can find people with robots. Now, I don’t think that they can write these stories quickly enough because events are overtaking us.”

‘Fanny Lye Deliver’d’ is available digitally from June 26

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