Actress Maxine Peake is best known for her television roles in Dinnerladies and Shameless, as well as the recent drama See No Evil, in which she played murderess Myra Hindley.

Her other TV credits include Messiah, Christmas Lights, Faith, Dalziel and Pascoe, The Way We Live Now and Clocking Off. She has also appeared in short film Surfacing, and the feature film All or Nothing, directed by Mike Leigh.

Her stage work includes The Cherry Orchard, The Relapse and Luther at the National, as well Miss Julie in the West End, Mother Teresa Is Dead at the Royal Court, Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance for the Oxford Stage Company, and Rutherford and Son for the Royal Exchange.

Peake is currently starring in the winner of Channel 4’s The Play's the Thing, On the Third Day, by teacher-turned-debut playwright Kate Betts. The play is set in London, where a young woman catches the eye of a stranger in a bar. Before the night has ended they will have told each other secrets that will change their lives forever.

Date & place of birth
Born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1974.

Lives now in
South-east London. I’ve lived there since drama school.

RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts)

First big break
Dinnerladies was my first job from leaving drama school and that was great. Then Thelma Holt cast me as Kristin in Miss Julie at the Haymarket in 2000 so that was my first break in terms of theatre.

Career highlights
I think Shameless is a highlight. Actually, I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done that I haven’t been proud to be part of, not in a big-headed way, it’s just I have been so proud of all the companies I’ve worked with. I did a drama called Faith about the miners’ strike and that’s a highlight because I had a great experience with the people I was filming with; and I think See No Evil (in which she played Myra Hindley) was a highlight, too. It was extremely difficult in that the project was such a tough one and people were very wary of it. There were some who said it was wrong that we did it. But then when they watched it, some people who were very unsure about it said that actually it was very good and it needed to be done.

Favourite production
I don’t know - I think every one has been enjoyable. At the time, each one you do is the one you’re completely focussed on and it’s your favourite at the moment. If I’m honest, this (The Play’s the Thing) has been such a different experience from everything I’ve done before, and I am really enjoying that.

Favourite directors
Again, I always love the ones I’m working with at the time! I think Robert Delamere and Steven Pimlott (who was the original director of On the Third Day before falling ill) on this project have both just been great. Steven especially set up the atmosphere for our production and made it so easy so that, when things started to go a little bit awry, we were able to cope with it.

Favourite playwrights
I’m a big fan of Simon Stephens. And Kate Betts at the moment. I’m sort of waiting now for her second play. We keep saying to her during the rehearsals “we’ve got to be in everything you do now”. I’m excited to see what she comes up with next. I don’t think she’s had a chance yet to do another. She’s so dedicated and involved in this one, she’s been in here with us all the time, and when she’s not in here, she’s sat with the TV camera doing all this behind-the-scenes stuff. I don’t know how she manages to stand up some days!

Favourite co-stars
They have all been good. Sean Harris was a brilliant co-star in See No Evil, and due to the nature of the piece, which was really hard, we just bonded and worked really well as a team on that job. Tom McKay and Paul Hilton on this as well. It’s a great little team, the three of us have just sort of gelled together.

What roles would you like to play still?
I’d like to go back to some I thought I never quite got right. But I get quite frightened of saying what I’d like to do because I just take it as it comes, and if I say I want to do something, it might never happen. I don’t think there’s anything immediate that I specifically want to do, but I do want to do more theatre after this.

If you hadn’t become involved in theatre, what might you have done professionally?
I never really thought about it. I was a lifeguard before I was an actress - it’s quite a dull job unless you like the smell of chlorine, so I don’t think I’d have done that! I’d like to think I’d have done something more arts based. I’d love to write a play, but I wouldn’t know where to start. I think that’s one of the hardest things, to put a situation on a stage, to get something that’s stageable. I so admire people who can do that. But I think I’ll try to get the acting right before I get cocky and try my hand at writing!

What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Motortown at the Royal Court, again that’s Simon Stephens, he’s a great writer. I’m also a huge fan of Daniel Mays, he’s a fantastic young actor, so I was blown away by that. It had a lasting effect, truly amazing. The first production I saw was A Streetcar Named Desire starring Susannah York at Bolton Octagon. Before that I saw pantomimes and things.

Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
I just think they’re such different genres. In a way I like both, but I do love the theatre. For me, having five weeks before you have to show anyone anything is wonderful. On telly you show up and go for it straight away, which I get much more self-conscious about.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Pump more money into it please, if you don’t mind! We’ve just got to get rid of the elitist tag theatre has. I know £35 or more for a ticket is a lot for people to pay. Luckily, if you’re aware that standby tickets and cheap deals are available on the night, you can take advantage of those. But I’ve been to see shows when I can’t believe I’m paying so much. I know people say some people pay that for football, but we still need to redress that balance in theatre. There needs to be more subsidy and people need to be encouraged to go to plays. We’re terrible in this country for not encouraging up-and-coming talent and that’s what gives this country its identity. We have this great literary identity but we’ve got to keep encouraging people to come forward. I hope The Play's the Thing has done that.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Oh crikey, that’s a good one! Mary Wollstonecroft. I’d like to be her for a day because I just think she’s such a fascinating woman so I would be quite intrigued to have a little spy on her life.

Favourite books
My favourite of all time is Wuthering Heights. I’m a bit of a romantic at heart.

Favourite holiday destinations
Cuba. I went with my mum a couple of years ago and it’s an amazing place. The spirit of that country is awe-inspiring.

Favourite after-show haunts
I’m not a big going-out person, and it’s been a while since I’ve done a show round the West End. I just like to have a nice glass of wine in my dressing room with a few pals.

Why did you want to accept your role in On the Third Day?
I felt the project itself was unique – well, obviously it’s a first – and I actually thought the piece itself had a lot of potential. I was quite surprised it was a first-time playwright’s submission. It’s very theatrical. There’s a lot of writing that could be a piece for screen, but because of the nature and scale of Kate’s play, it’s definitely a theatre piece, which is really exciting. As usual with this you sort of thing, you get scripts the week before and read it and then go into your audition and hope to get the job – so, yes, I had seen the script before I decided to come on board. I would definitely have done it had it not been part of The Play’s the Thing. I’m a big believer in the piece. With every job I do, it’s the writing that’s important to me. And Steven Pimlott was attached which was a big plus to do it. I knew it wouldn’t be bad. My character is Claire. The play starts two days before her 30th birthday and she’s had a tricky life. She’s quite a lonely character, she has a lot of issues she’s never confronted, and as she approaches 30, she tries to take control of her life and get herself together. She meets a young man in the bar and he’s the catalyst to doing this, but actually meeting him has the opposite affect and her life spirals out of control. I went about researching this as I would any piece. The character works at the local planetarium in Greenwich and so I went there to have a look. I tried to gain as much information from the script as I could about the character and expanded it from there.

What was it like to be rehearsing a ‘secret’ play?
It was a bit strange because, to be honest, nobody told me it was a secret until the second day. Nobody really told me exactly what the project was about. I just thought this was about putting on a play and it was going to have a telly programme on. So I did tell some people and then I had to ring them up and tell them not to tell anyone else! Luckily, I only really told my mum any details. She has an even poorer memory than me, so she’d forgotten anyway!

What do you think of reality TV competitions in general?
If I’m honest, I’m not a huge fan of the usual run-of-the-mill reality TV series. But this is different because it’s not sensational and it’s not about displaying people’s misery. Obviously, there will be unsuccessful applicants and it’s disappointing to them, but I hope we’ll get quite a few new playwrights out of it and it’s intriguing for people to see what goes on behind the scenes from when the playwright is chosen to the cast being brought on board. And maybe, hopefully, we’ll get more people into the theatre. The film crew have been quite discreet. They’ve not been in rehearsal too many times, which is good because when you’re trying out stuff and failing a hell of a lot, you don’t want to be worrying that this is going down on film and people are going to see you making a fool of yourself. With regards to using reality TV to find new talent, that’s difficult as an actor because you’ve made your choice that this is your career and have worked really hard at it. There’s that argument that there’s a shortage of work and people plucked from obscurity coming to take what little there is is unfair when people have put so much effort into doing this full time. But then I suppose I was lucky. I went the drama school route, but there’s always an element of luck in your career. Maybe some genuine talent can be found through these programmes. But I do think there’s enough of us out there trying desperately to get work. I remember when they did it with the Soap Stars putting a new family into Emmerdale, that all came to nothing. With all these things, there’s the issue of, do they get looked after well enough when plucked from obscurity? How equipped are they to deal with the business being thrown straight into the public domain? It’s a hard situation to deal with and it needs to be thoroughly thought through.

How do you think audiences – and critics - will receive On the Third Day?
I haven’t got a clue. It sounds really corny but we’ve had such an extraordinary time on it and it’s such an extraordinary team and it’s just been an experience itself, so if we get absolutely slated - which I hope we won’t because Kate’s fantastic and has a great future ahead of her – we’ll have enjoyed ourselves anyway! It’s very strange having a new director. It was very sad to lose Steven from the project, but obviously you pull together and you carry on. We’ve had five weeks in rehearsal. We did two weeks and then Steven got very ill so we had a week in limbo, and then Robert came in and took over and we’re getting though it. Everybody just wants to do the best we can for the play. Hopefully people will like it.

- Maxine Peake was speaking to Caroline Ansdell

On the Third Day has its world premiere on 22 June 2006 (previews from 15 June) at the West End’s New Ambassador’s Theatre.