Interview with Maxine Peake

If you’re lucky, you’ve already seen The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. And if you haven’t, don’t fret. The drama, which aired on the BBC, is making the LGBT film festival rounds — it opens San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival on June 17 and plays Los Angeles’ Outfest in July, among others.

The film stars Maxine Peake as Lister — a landowner, traveler and industrialist who lived in the early 1800s and who also happened to be a lesbian who wasn’t shy about her sexual orientation. Lister’s journals — numbering more than 25 volumes and 4 million words — have become some of the best lesbian nonfiction in existence. caught up with Peake to discuss why she pursued the role, doing justice to the role for the LGBT community and how Lister has changed her. You initially heard of the part from a friend and chased it until you landed it — all without having read the script.
Maxine Peake: I heard about it from a friend who is a locations manager. I got in touch with my agent and went online — because I knew nothing about Anne Lister, just how my agent described her — and my agent got in touch with [production company] Oxford Film and Television Co., and they were a little bit cagey about it [and asked], “How have you heard so soon about this?” and then eventually I got a call saying that they’d like me to do it. It was all a bit of a shock but it was great news.  

AE: What was it about Lister’s life that captivated you?
MP: I just thought, what an amazing woman. Living in the early 1800s, I just saw her bravery and determination; she was a scholar at the time, a traveler and she was a lesbian. She was this strong, outspoken, intelligent woman and I just thought there’s not enough drama in England with a female part like that. So I thought that I’d have to try and get this job. 

AE: How did you prepare for the role? Did you read Helena Whitbread’s I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister?
MP: Yes. I went and got all the books. I was told about Helena’s I Know My Own Heart and I got as much of her stuff as I could and then I set up a meeting with her. She lives in Halifax, which is not too far from Manchester. I spent the day with her, and then I went to Shibden Hall, which is where Lister lived. The stuff there was fantastic. They were so happy about the (project) being done.  

AE: What was it like at Shibden Hall?
MP: It was strange. It’s very small and sort of dark. It’s an open house, a sort of museum, so it’s very clean and it felt a little bit too polished. But it was just going into this house — you sort of get shivers up your spine because this is where this wonderful woman lived all these years ago. There was something about that. There was definitely her energy there. One of the guides that I was talking to, he was such a fan. He really loved his job and it was inspiring and I thought that this woman must be quite special. 

AE: Were you at all intimidated to play Lister?
MP: Yeah, definitely! (Laughs.) She’s so amazing and intelligent. I just wondered if I could get all of these attributes across because she’s such a complex person. Especially within the gay and lesbian circle, she’s heavenly. So I felt an added responsibility to get it right because people know a lot about this woman and have strong views on her. So I wanted to give it justice. So yes, I was intimidated. 

AE:’s Great LezBritain reviewers said your performance as Lister was played with “such intense, heart-wrenching and rather arousing devotion” that you “turn Lister into the kind of romantic hero that would make Elizabeth Bennet weak at the knees.” What do reviews like this mean to you?
MP: (Laughs.) That’s the best review I’ve ever gotten! I was very concerned (about reviews) especially within the community because there’s not enough film and television for the lesbian and gay community and for them to accept it and go with it and be moved by it, it means a hell of a lot. That’s the people that the film was made for. James (Kent) the director is very open and said in the beginning that he is a gay director and that he wanted this to be made for the minority; that this isn’t titillation for the masses; that he wanted this to be for the gay and lesbian audience and he wanted them to be behind it.  

AE: Did you speak with Anna Madeley (who plays Lister’s first lover, Mariana) at all before filming began about playing gay since she already had Affinity under her belt?
MP: It didn’t bother me. I know Anna did Affinity, which is fantastic. I auditioned years ago for Tipping the Velvet but I didn’t get it. But after that, I read all of Sarah Waters‘ novels and I watched Fingersmith with Sally Hawkins and that was wonderful, then Affinity with Anna, but I wasn’t concerned about playing a lesbian. I’ve got so many lesbian friends; I just felt that it was going to be fine. This is about a woman’s story. I was less nervous than when I have had to do sex scenes with members of the opposite sex. I think with two women and such fantastic actresses like Anna — and all the women: Christine [Bottomley, who plays love interest Ann Walker] and Susan [Lynch, who plays Lister’s BFF Tib] — I just felt so privileged to work with those girls.