‘I used to worry that I didn’t have a pretty face’ Anna Maxwell Martin on being newly single and learning to love her looks

From coping during lockdown to her shock split from her film director husband, nothing is off limits for Motherland star Anna Maxwell Martin. She opens up to Louise Gannon about co-parenting, self-isolating and why she won’t be dating again any time soon.

As Covid-19 starts to tighten its terrifying grip on the nation, and the world is a place of unmitigated gloom, the Bafta award-winning actress Anna Maxwell Martin is attempting to bring some cheer to a small corner of the East End of London. She seems, for the sake of entertainment, to be blurring the line between who she is and the character that three years ago made her a comedy icon for every middle-class parent in Britain: hysterical slummy-mummy Julia in the BBC’s Motherland.

Anna Maxwell Martin
Dress, Jasper Conran Archive. Earrings, Vicki Sarge. Image: Carla Guler

‘Oh Lord, what am I going to do if I have to self-isolate?’ she muses. ‘Well, I will be at home with my two girls [Maggie, ten, and eight-year-old Nancy by the acclaimed director Roger Michell]. I won’t be able to work. A friend is setting up a studio in her home so she can do voiceovers, so I could see if I can use that too. And then… Well, I’m going to drink. I’m going to have one alcoholic drink every day – beer, wine, gin, whatever I can find. And I won’t feel guilty. Maybe I’ll make margaritas. There’s lime in margaritas. Vitamin C. Healthy alcohol!’ She beams, gratified by the smiles on the faces of all within earshot.

So is she actually a bit like Julia in real life?

‘Oh God, no, darling. I’m absolutely not like Julia. She’s a horrible self-centred human being. I’m not. Julia is awful. She would be a hoarder, a stockpiler. I’m not doing that. It’s terrible. I’m on a WhatsApp group with all the neighbours in my road, so we can all help each other out.

‘And you know, my kids hate Julia. They absolutely hate Motherland. They won’t watch it. It’s not funny for them. They hate seeing me like that; seeing me that stressed.’

We are not here to talk about Motherland, though. We are here for her new Sky show, Code 404, in which she plays Kelly, the wife caught between her husband – a reckless British cop called John Major (played by Daniel Mays) – and his more sensible partner, Roy Carver (Stephen Graham).

When John is killed in a botched undercover sting, Kelly swiftly begins a new life with her true love, Roy. But her husband is resurrected by an American scientist, and chaos ensues. It is a surreal comedy set in the near future, which just so happens to feature three actors who have all starred in the TV phenomenon Line of Duty.

‘Bonkers, isn’t it?’ says Anna. ‘But honestly, it’s a coincidence. We filmed it before Line of Duty. It was Daniel who suggested me. I’ve played his wife a hundred times [actually twice: once in the gritty IRA drama Mother’s Day in 2018; and the 2008 film White Girl]. And then he suggested Stephen, so that’s how it happened.’

Anna Maxwell Martin
Dress, Jasper Conran Archive. Ring, Vicki Sarge. Image: Carla Guler

At 42, with two Bafta awards and 20 years of theatre and serious drama under her belt, this is Anna’s second big TV comedy. ‘It’s very silly but it’s old fashioned laugh-out-loud funny,’ she says. ‘That’s what we need right now. Everything is so awful we need something to make us laugh. We are all struggling and my job is to entertain. it will make me happy if this show can lift a few spirits, even for a few hours.’

In celebrity terms, Anna is something of an anomaly. She rarely attends red-carpet events and doesn’t do social media. She has retained her extraordinary versatility as an actress by keeping a large degree of anonymity. Her father, Ivan, was a pharmaceutical company director and her mother, Rosalind, a research scientist who gave up work to look after their children. Anna grew up with her elder brother Adam in the Yorkshire town of Beverley.

She can’t recall wanting to do anything but perform. As a child she joined a singing group and entered competitions singing Whitney Houston songs. ‘My parents had no idea where I came from, but they let me get on with it. I’d dress up in little outfits and I’d get to sing solos. I remember dressing as a pearly queen for one performance, but Whitney was my idol.’

By the age of 11 she thought she might have a career singing in working men’s clubs. The same year, a friend took her to after-school drama classes. ‘And that was it,’ she says. ‘I was going to be an actress. I found my future. I had these amazing parents who never said, “oh, I don’t think so, Anna.” I went to Liverpool University and did history, and then went to drama school at Lamda [London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art]. I wasn’t confident about my looks because I wasn’t classically pretty like a lot of actresses when I was growing up. But I never doubted I could act. I wasn’t arrogant, just totally sure I was doing the right thing. I was strangely un-neurotic for an actress. And even more strange is that from the moment I left drama school I almost never stopped working.’

Clearly very smart, Anna does not give herself limits – she is planning to do stand-up comedy and has been commissioned to write ‘a very dark’ comedy. She describes herself as socially awkward yet in person she is like a one-woman show. Ask her a question and she will answer truthfully, and then elaborate on the theme, punctuating her sentences with bursts of laughter. But she also resists being pushed to give emotional responses. She skates over big events, such as the death of her father, but this makes you all the more aware of the unspoken emotional depths beneath that surface. ‘Thank God he got to see me perform in the theatre before he died is all I can say,’ she states before quickly moving on to another subject.

Anna Maxwell Martin
Dress, Suzannah. Image: Carla Guler

I stop her to talk more about her dad, whose passing came when she was in her mid-20s. ‘He was a lovely man,’ she adds. ‘My belief in myself is entirely down to him and my mum because they encouraged me to do what I wanted. The Little Foxes [2001 at London’s donmar Warehouse theatre] was the play he saw me in. And afterwards he told me he was really proud of me.’ She pauses. She pulled out of her next job because she needed to deal with her grief and be there for her family and ended up working in a burger bar to pay her rent, worrying that she’d never be able to resume life as an actress. ‘It was the only time in my life I thought things might not work out. But they did,’ she says. ‘They did,’ she repeats firmly almost to herself.

We talk about her relationship with Roger Michell, who she met when he cast her to play Sophie at the National Theatre opposite the late Corin Redgrave in the Australian play Honour. She fell in love with Roger then, the following year, he cast her opposite Daniel Craig in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Roger was divorced with two children, and 20 years older. Initially he showed no sign of romantic interest, but Anna knew he was the man she wanted to have children with.

I tell her that she seems to know exactly what she wants and how to get it. ‘Yes,’ she says and laughs. ‘I groomed him to fall in love with me.’ Then she drops a bombshell. ‘But you know we aren’t together any more. Our marriage has ended and we’ve been separated for quite some time. I haven’t really spoken about it because it isn’t fair on all the people involved. There are four children to think about. It’s taken an enormous amount of time, but we are all getting through it in a healthy way.’

I ask her how she is coping as a single working mother and she shakes her head. ‘I’m definitely not a single working mother. Roger is amazing. I feel incredibly supported. We always have conversations about work. He is great and we also have a brilliant nanny, and my mum helps out with the girls as well, so all is fine.

Anna Maxwell Martin Roger Michell
Anna with her ex Roger Michell. Image: Dan Wooller/REX/Shutterstock​

‘Roger was and is very special in my life, and we have gone on this journey together. When I met him he felt like my person, although things don’t always work out. But you get on with life. We talk all the time.’ She pauses, then says, ‘And all you have to really think about is the kids.’

As much as she wanted to be an actress Anna also knew she wanted to be a mother. ‘They are the centre of my life,’ she says. ‘More than anything else. It’s me and my girls. I mean, otherwise, what is it all for?’ She was pregnant with Maggie in 2009 when she won her first Best Actress Bafta for the Channel 4 film Poppy Shakespeare. ‘I rocked up, the size of the Queen Mary, and another actor looked at my bump and said, “Is that you done with acting now?” I never thought that having children meant I couldn’t work. I thought it would be wonderful.

‘And yes, it meant I had to sacrifice certain jobs, maybe even going to America, but I don’t think I’d ever have felt comfortable there anyway. That always felt [as though] you would get work based on your looks. And I have unusual looks.’ She does. She has a distinctive elfin face, with huge blue eyes, but it’s a face that can deliver a phenomenal range of emotions and fits everything from period drama to gritty working-class roles to comedy.

‘I’ve grown into my face. I’m happy with it. I did used to worry that I wouldn’t work because I didn’t have a pretty face, but luckily the industry has changed. Women don’t have to look a certain way, which has given me a lot of work and a lot of confidence. This face has got me work. And having children hasn’t stopped me working. It changed me – in a good way.’

I ask her how, and the answer brings her back to Roger and his two grown-up children, Harry and Rosanna, from his first marriage to the actress Kate Buffery. ‘I learned a massive amount from them all,’ says Anna. ‘I made dreadful mistakes with his children at the start, so many I can’t remember. I was so uptight, just incredibly uptight, and these lovely, funny kids changed that just by being themselves.

Anna Maxwell Martin
Dress and jacket, Jasper Conran Archive. Earrings, Vicki Sarge. Image: Carla Guler

‘They had a massively positive effect on me, and I am so privileged to have them in my life. I’ve just done a film that Harry has written and directed called Ilkley [a black comedy about a murder at a literary festival, also starring Derek Jacobi]. So, well… It’s all OK.’

Is she ready to start dating? ‘God no,’ she replies quickly. ‘Way too early. Not going to happen and, to be honest, I can’t be a****.’

We move on to other topics. She remains a proud Northerner and is close to her family and the friends she met at Liverpool University: ‘We meet up every year and get very drunk.’ She gives a hysterical Julia-style laugh, which brings us back to Motherland. She got the part because she was in a filthy mood at the audition. ‘I was rude and snappy, and I think that the writers and creators Sharon [Horgan] and Graham [Linehan] loved it. I was fed up with auditions; I was thinking, “Do I actually want to do this or shall I just be at home with the girls?”’

Motherland, which will return to the BBC with a third series this year, turned out to be a blast. ‘I love it. I get to be this livid, over-the-top person. Then in between filming I sit with Diane Morgan [who plays fellow slummy mummy Liz] and we talk about our saggy jowls, and sit in front of a mirror pulling our faces back to see what we’d look like with plastic surgery. Then we watch Lucy [Punch, who plays alpha mum Amanda] do her scenes with our mouths open because she is just so precise and brilliant.

‘It wasn’t Motherland that really changed everything,’ she says. ‘It was playing Patricia Carmichael in Line of Duty [in series five]. I had no idea that Line of Duty was such a huge deal. You become public property, and I wasn’t used to that. I was used to the odd lady coming up to me in Waitrose and saying, “I saw you at the theatre in Cabaret [she played Sally Bowles in 2006] and I didn’t think you were very good.” But Line of Duty was a whole new level. I took the dog for a walk and ended up in a mad car chase with a paparazzo. When we stopped, he shouted at me that I drove like a maniac! Of course I did – I’ve never been chased before.’

Patricia was the ruthless anti-corruption detective who came in to oust Superintendent Ted Hastings of AC-12 [Adrian Dunbar]. ‘Isn’t she awful?’ laughs Anna. ‘She’s a monstrous human being and such fun to play. In the interrogation scenes we all fall apart because the lines are so long and complicated; everyone just starts to laugh. Line of Duty is pure hysteria on set.’

Anna’s character will return in series six, but filming is currently suspended due to coronavirus and she doesn’t know when it will start again. She shakes her head. ‘Who knows? Nobody does right now. We just have to look after each other and try to keep smiling.’

Anna Maxwell Martin: ‘This face has got me work’

Doctor Who
BBC Pictures

Playing Suki Macrae Cantrell in the first series of the rebooted Doctor Who, 2005

Bleak House
BBC Pictures

Her portrayal of Esther Summerson in the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in 2005 earned Anna her first Bafta

Poppy Shakespeare
Channel 4

In the film Poppy Shakespeare, 2008. Her portrayal of N, a mental health patient, won Anna her second Bafta

The Bletchley Circle
ITV/REX/Shutterstock

As Susan in The Bletchley Circle with, from left, Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham and Sophie Rundle (2012-2014)

Motherland
Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Slummy-mummying it (with Diane Morgan and Paul Ready) as frazzled London parent Julia in the BBC’s Motherland (2016-2020)

Line of Duty
BBC Pictures

As fearsome detective Patricia Carmichael (with Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings) in Line of Duty, 2019

All episodes of Sky Original Code 404 will be available from 29 April on Sky One and NOW TV