The only thing Anna Maxwell Martin did not enjoy about her role in a new cold war spy drama was the tights. Luckily, her character Lily Taylor, an MI5 debriefer, spends a lot of time behind a desk. “Every scene where you see a table, the tights are off, they’re round the ankles,” says Maxwell Martin. “Damian’s like … ” She mimics Damian Lewis, playing MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, rolling his eyes. “They were so itchy!” Who knows if the maddening woolens were deliberate, but they must have enhanced the uncomfortable atmosphere of her claustrophobic interrogations.
In A Spy Among Friends, based on the book by Ben Macintyre, Taylor is trying to get to the truth of what happened in Beirut where, under Elliott’s watch, the British double agent Kim Philby (played by Guy Pearce) escaped to Moscow. It’s enthralling and classy, and Maxwell Martin is rightly proud of it. “It’s not an easy watch. You have to concentrate. It’s not like watching Married at First Sight.” A laugh and a hammy aside: “My regular viewing.”
Her character is the only made-up one – a northern woman, from a lower social class, and pin-sharp. “She’s a representation of the antithesis of that world, that old boys’ club and someone who has not been handed everything – and, by the same token, nothing is expected of her. It’s a network isn’t it? You’ve got a job based on the people you knew.” Taylor, she says, is “cynical about that network, as you would be – as we feel like that now.” At one point, Taylor complains about these elite men, operating in secret, not wanting to be scrutinized by the “peasants” – which just as accurately describes modern politics. “It’s ghastly,” says Maxwell Martin. “So much of the behavior now is awful. It is so brutal. They are a brutalizing force.”
There is nothing of DCS Patricia Carmichael – the withering anti-corruption investigator Maxwell Martin played in Line of Duty – about Taylor. “Patricia Carmichael is all about artifice. That maybe was deliberate on [writer] Jed Mercurio’s part, and certainly a choice on mine, that you did not have a clue who that woman was. Lily is not like that at all. In a world where there’s so much hidden agenda, Lily doesn’t have one. She’s just doing her job.”
We meet in an absurdly fancy London hotel suite. “I’ve never been anywhere like this in my life,” says Maxwell Martin, bright blue eyes wide, who is weighing up whether to pinch the miniatures from the cocktail trolley. She is an absolute hoot, with a great cackle and a slight maniacal air – the same bristling energy she gives to her hilariously awful and frazzled Julia in the sitcom Motherland but, unlike Julia, it’s joyful. It also serves as a handy way of deflecting anything too serious or emotional; Maxwell Martin does not do earnest. She’s wearing a tangle of heavy gold chains round her neck, gold shoes and trousers with tassles all over them – she’s come dressed as Aladdin, she jokes – and it works.
She turns in brilliant and versatile performances – she won Baftas for the BBC’s Bleak House and Channel 4’s Poppy Shakespeare, has had acclaimed theater roles, and on TV done sci-fi, comedy and drama – but all without fuss or actor’s angst, to the point where she laughs at how unprepared she usually is. It never matters – as Sharon Horgan, Motherland’s co-creator, has said, she is “so naturally gifted she can just switch it on and off”. On A Spy Among Friends, she recalls being asked her character’s surname. “I went: ‘She doesn’t have a surname.’” She mimics the show’s writer Alexander Cary, exasperated: “’Of course she has a fucking surname.’ I’d been playing the part for four months and I didn’t even know!” A smile. “You could argue, why do you need to know?”
This drama is one of only a couple of projects Maxwell Martin has taken on in the last year. “I’ve just had a massive amount of time off with the girls, since Roger. I haven’t taken anything because it’s not…” She pauses. “It doesn’t mean enough to me to leave the girls.” In September 2021, the director Roger Michell, her former husband and father of their two daughters (he also has two children from his first marriage), died suddenly. She and Michell were separated, seemingly amicably – Maxwell Martin, who has a new partner, was in Michell’s last film, The Duke, and they were developing something else at the time of his death. “We didn’t have grudges,” she says. “I don’t operate like that, Roger didn’t really operate like that. It’s very sad if you separate, it’s devastating, and you hope you’ll come back around, after a period of time, where you’ll be … When Roger died, I lost one of my best friends. I see it as that.”
Over the last year, she and her children, who are 11 and 13, “just navigate a really unknown world and often patience is your only friend, and it’s hard. I’m very lucky, I have masses of support, amazing friends and my family. You just have to go through the process. What else is there to do?” What has helped? A shadow of mischief passes her face and she says: deadpan, “Drinking, smoking and taking drugs.” A laugh, then: “I never get offered drugs. There’s something about my face. I think people think I’m a child.”
She becomes more thoughtful. “What helps? Nothing really. Human interaction. You can see me and my kids laugh a lot, we’re not miseries. We process everything, and we feel miserable, but we really like having a good time, so we do have a right laugh at home. We cry, we laugh, we cry. That helps. And having lots of lovely people around.”
Maxwell Martin’s father, Ivan, died when she was in her 20s. It has been strange, she says, because people have said to her she’s been through grief before, that she knows what to do. But it’s different, she says – not least because she’s also trying to help her daughters through it. “I don’t think you do know what to do. That’s maybe what’s really frightening isn’t it? Things happen to all of us, universally, and it’s about how you get through those things in a … I don’t want to use the word ‘positive’. In a way where you come out the other side and you’re not a dickhead.” At best, you come out of it “understanding other people, having empathy, being good fun, working hard, making good relationships, that’s all you can do. You have to just get through it as best you can.” A comedy pause and a straight face: “With the drink, the drugs…”
Maxwell Martin grew up in Beverley, east Yorkshire, where her mother was a research scientist and her father ran a pharmaceuticals company. She, though, loved the arts and got into singing first, then after-school drama classes. She studied history at Liverpool University, then went to the London drama school Lamda. Did she have a plan for her career? “Yes I did, and it’s not worked out. I thought I was going to be the next Kate Winslet, and I’m not.” She laughs. I can’t tell if she’s being serious, but she claims she is. The romantic lead? The Hollywood career? “Yeah.” She lacked “chutzpah”, she says. “Even though I had drive and ambition, I was really chronically shy, socially awkward, so that whole thing was quite daunting.”
The industry has changed, particularly for women, since she was in her 20s. She’ll try to break Hollywood now, she says. “Now I feel like, oh yeah, I can be really me now, because no one’s going to say I’m not thin enough or not pretty enough, because we just don’t say that stuff any more. Well, I hope we don’t. Maybe pretty young ingenues are still followed around and asked not to eat burgers. I hope that doesn’t happen. It happened to lots of women of my generation.” To her? “I had the opposite. On Bleak House, I got so chubby I couldn’t get into any of my dresses by the end of it. Roger was such a feeder, I ballooned. They should have said it!”
In her 20s, Maxwell Martin came close to getting a Coen brothers film. “Then my personal life took over, I had a lot of responsibilities here [with her children]. Maybe I used that as an excuse. I definitely wanted a family, I wouldn’t have sacrificed that, but maybe I didn’t have to … I don’t know. I just didn’t do it. But as I say, I’m going to do it soon.”
She wants to get back to TV and film sets, which she has missed, and writes her own work. “I never thought I’d be able to do that. Roger would say: ‘You should write something.’ Then you just start doing it and you realize it’s semi-OK and people don’t have too horrific a response to it. It’s all confidence that comes with age, doesn’t it?” She has changed a huge amount, she says. “I’m quite happy in myself. That’s not to negate anything that’s happened in the last couple of years, but you have to really remember how lucky you are if you’re … ” She looks down, amused at herself. “It’s hardly a hardship, sat in a hotel room in an Aladdin outfit.”
A Spy Among Friends is on ITVX on 8 December.