TV interview: Why Maxwell Martin loves the miserable roles best

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Anna Maxwell Martin is the Hull-born actor who has cornered the market in playing characters in costume dramas who have something going on beneath the bonnets.

Although her CV is impressive, and includes movies with the likes of Daniel Craig (Enduring Love) it is the BBC’s version of Dickens’ Bleak House that gave her a big break in TV.

But those actors who experience the phenomenon of the “breakthrough role” often quickly realise those parts can become something of an albatross.

“I haven’t done a costume drama for years actually, I’ve avoided them,” she says.

“Plus, I’m just not good with all the ‘stuff’ when it comes to period dramas. You know, the gear, the hair, God the gear.”

Nevertheless, over Christmas Maxwell Martin starred in Death Comes to Pemberley, a sumptuous period drama based on the PD James book of the same name.

The murder mystery took the great liberty of purloining the characters created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice – and was well-received.

And it was all too much for Maxwell Martin to resist.

“I am a massive fan of Austen. I think Austen was a visionary. I think her female characters are so bright and witty, the themes are brilliant and the men are so sexy in Austen as well – but no man has ever fallen in love with an Austen woman because she is pretty or beautiful or because she has long blonde hair. They fall in love with them because of who they are, because of their vibrancy and intelligence. If only we taught that a little more in our schools.” She has played some seriously intense roles over the years.

In the Jimmy McGovern drama The Accused, she was almost unbearable-to-watch brilliant, as a prison officer raped by a young inmate.

“I’m really lucky in that I think it’s much harder if you are typically beautiful and you are forging your way down that road. I think it’s very easy to be offered parts that are overly sexualised, overly scrutinised, slightly dumbed-down.

“I’m lucky enough to be often offered character parts or misery-guts parts,” she says.

“Something with a bit of juice in them.”

You might expect an actor who takes on such roles to have something of the intense about them.

“Yeah, I have managed to get a fair bit of dark and intense in there. I’m only good at that really,” she says.

“I’m not very good at all the laughing and smiling when it comes to acting. I remember a TV series I did on ITV and the producer said to me ‘are you going to smile?’.

“I said ‘no, I can’t, I’m not very good at that’”.

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary on BBC iPlayer

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