Heart-to-heart Interview With Heather Peace
Lip Service star Heather Peace chats about sex with straight female co-stars and the prejudice she’s faced as a lesbian actress.
L + R
A year ago, Heather Peace was hard-pressed to get her mates to come down to her local pub in Brighton to hear her play her guitar - her style? Eva Cassidy meets Sheryl Crow, since you're asking. But then came Lip Service, the BBC3 mini-series in which she plays cool DCI Sam Murray. It's an understatement to say the show's created something of a buzz, particularly among 20-something lesbians. But today it's Heather who's buzzing after a sell-out gig in London's Soho where, randomly, her pal Clare Balding turned up and interviewed her and co-star Ruta Gedmintas (Frankie) on stage. "Clare reckons that I told Ruta I educated them all on the sex scenes, which I don't remember - that must have been a drunken brag, it certainly isn't true. They all read the Lesbian Kama Sutra book - cover to cover!"
As we go to press, there is feverish speculation about a second series. Heather's certainly up for it - "it's the most popular show they've ever had on BBC3," she confides, and with a steady 500,000 viewers every episode and 1.5 million downloads on iPlayer, it would seem crazy not to. For now she's happy to crack on with her first love, music and has planned a nationwide tour over the next few months. Although she's no longer competing with Frankie for Cat's love, she now has another battle to contend with: fans who post angry messages on her website when they can't buy tickets to her string of sold-out gigs. "I booked the venues ages ago before the show started," she explains, "so I really had no idea how popular they'd be. The girls who run the Soho Theatre knew me when I first came out from the old Candy Bar. I've done three sell-out Sunday nights there and they're all finding it hilarious; they're like, 'It's just Heather'. But I've learned my lesson. I'm booking bigger places from now on."
So let's start with sex. How was it having sex as a lesbian with a bunch of straight actresses?
We just used to laugh when we got scenes. Fiona Button was laughing at Ruta Gedmintas having to do the strap-on scene and then the next script came out and she had that rimming scene! It was like the writers had gone away and said, "Right, you" because she wouldn't let it go with Ruta. So it's less about the girl-on-girl sex and more about just actually having sex on telly. Or looking like you are.
Was this was the first time you've actually had screen-sex as a lesbian character?
Yes, and the nudity in the sex scenes was pretty full-on and it was absolutely freezing. Because those gorgeous flats are actually just warehouses made to look like flats, so there was no heating. I don't mean Laura had an easier time than Ruta or Fiona, because they sort of had to change the partners that they were, um, simulating sex with, whereas me and Laura, once we got the initial sex scene out of the way there was a trust - it was easier then.
How do you think she felt about it?
I think the thing that certainly Laura struggled with more was the scene in the last episode, where she kind of takes me. Being dominant's quite hard if you're straight and she struggled to get that scene at first. So I said, "Come here, I'll be you - right, you go there" and once I'd kind of done it, she got it straight away. It's that kind of thing, the dominance thing, more than the actual what-you-do. I find it really natural, like picking Laura up in the police station. It just feels natural.
When you did you start acting?
When I was 20, mainly in rep theatre. I was 21 when I got London's Burning. There was a lot of homophobia back then. I'd only come out when I was 19, so it was all quite new anyway, and then moving to London.
Did you think at the time, "Can I be a lesbian actress"? Did you know of any others?
Yes I did, Sophie Ward, and it made me absolutely not want to. Because I adored her when I was younger and certainly looked up to her, and afer she came out - I don't want to say she never worked again. Just because you don't see someone on TV doesn't mean they're not working - she gave up. But I don't know the story. She should have gone on to being one of the biggest TV stars in the world, as far as I'm concerned.
Did you experience lesbophobia?
Yes. There was one producer in a particular show where I was the only girl, and he told me not to talk about my sexuality because I was there as the totty for the men. He said it wouldn't do the show any good if they knew I was gay. That was terrifying. I was also told I was going to be outed. I hadn't done anything, [a Sunday newspaper] had just found out I was gay. At that time, my grandparents were still alive and they could never be told. Now everybody in my family knows it, everybody that matters, so it doesn't matter. In the end a bigger story broke and the paper didn't run with it. But that meant the press always knew, and just decided not to say anything.
That was bound to happen back then if you were a lesbian actress, sadly.
Yes, but I didn't choose this job to be famous, I love acting. And there was nothing more scary than the idea of getting into a black cab and immediately being recognised and judged. Back then I'd been acting longer than I had been gay! But I feel differently about it now; I feel like maybe I do need to have a voice now, being visible. I think things have moved on a lot but I know how important it was to have women to look up to.
Do you think being out may still affect your future as an actress?
It'll be interesting to see what sort of acting roles come now I've well and truly outed myself. It wasn't that I was in the closet, I just didn't talk about it. I think that certainly 8 or 9 years ago it did affect your career, especially 'cause I was the young lead playing opposite guys. I'm 35 now so it's all down to fate. In the old days you used to think you couldn't play opposite a boy if you'd come out because the public wouldn't believe it.
When did you come out to your mum and dad?
When I was 19. The day I came out to them, I was terrified and all my mum did was put her arms around me and say, "Don't ever not tell me anything ever again". For 18 months she'd known that there was a distance between us, that suddenly we were just talking about the weather, and me and my mum had always been really close. She realised she couldn't get inside my head and when I came out, she realised that was what it was.
What made you think you might not be able to tell her?
I don't know, I think you underestimate your parents. I've done it before, and I hope I won't do it again. You forget that they were young, you forget that they had feelings, you forget they probably experimented.
This was while you were still in Bradford?
Yeah, I'd come back from Manchester and come out. I'd just broken up with my first girlfriend and couldn't cope. I hadn't experienced anything like it. I was 19 and at that time I didn't know if I was gay because I was just obsessed with her. It was a total shock, and then she went off with someone else. We were in a show together at drama school. It was a mess. I was such a baby and she was a lot older and she was absolutely fine, and I couldn't understand why she was fine… and that was why I came out. I just went to my mum and said, "I'm telling you because I'm going to fuck up my whole course". That was horrible.
When did you first realise you were gay?
When she kissed me. Seriously! It was boiling hot in July and the heavens opened. We got absolutely soaked, got the bus home to hers with the steam coming off our clothes. We just couldn't believe it. That sounds like I made it up but I haven't. It was quite an incredible and spiritual experience.
You didn't fancy anyone before?
I had obsessive friendships where we'd get jealous of each other when we had boyfriends. My mum and dad bought me a Princess Diana and Charles' wedding book. The middle page had a photo of that famous kiss where she leans back and her neck's exposed, and I remember from about the age of 11 opening that middle page and just staring at it and having some feelings, but I never connected it. I look back and it's all that classic stuff, but it wasn't until it happened that I knew.
Did you experience any homophobia?
The only time was the day that me and Elaine broke up. I remember her holding me when I was just in bits. At that moment some drunk man came over and he just called us every name under the sun and people in the street were looking at us. But I've been pretty lucky so far. I've had a little bit on Twitter actually. My girlfriend was trying to learn how to remove some of the comments by blokes saying that I look like a man. It was really horrible. Because it's in the public domain and I'm really aware that there can be a backlash. I'm just a scaredy-cat about it all, to be honest. It's not nice, is it?
There will be people who say really horrible things.
I know. They can go stuff themselves. If someone asks if you're gay it's literally as though they're asking someone what they do in the bedroom. I used to think if I was ever asked when I was going to come out, or "are you gay?" I'd say to reporters: "Well what do you do in the bedroom? Do you dress up as a nurse and swing from the chandelier? Don't ask what I do!"
Are you seeing someone at the moment?
Yeah, very much so.
Have you been with her for long?
No, about nine months, but I've known her for a long time. But it feels very real. I'm very happy. She's younger, for the first time, and she's not in the industry.
That should warn a few people off, anyway.
And lastly how do you feel about criticisms of the show?
It's a show about gay women. The problem with doing a gay show is that there's a whole community there that feel like they need representing. If we had 50 gay shows the way we have 50 straight shows, this one wouldn't be an issue. You'd either liked the show or you didn't. Let's stop whinging about this or that. We're underrepresented enough, just go and support a show about you and get another one made! And I think there's something in it for everyone. There's a huge straight audience, too. I think the best thing about this is that it's not like The L Word because it's not issue-based, it's about love, friendship, betrayal, lies, which everybody experiences. I think that's the most important thing, if we can just create a drama that crosses boundaries a bit and becomes a bit more mainstream. The best thing that could happen to this is that it does so well that it does a second series and they put both of them on BBC2. If that happened, then we'll know we cracked it.
YOU ASK THE QUESTIONS
Will you marry me? Emily Whelan
No. I've already got someone lined up, hopefully. Although she doesn't know it!
Does Laura Fraser smell nice? Laura Phillipson
Laura Fraser smells gorgeous. I don't know what perfume it is. It's very sweet. She also smells of nicorette gum because she's actually given up smoking for two years, but is still addicted to the gum. So you can usually smell the nicorette fruit one. If you want to smell Laura Fraser, go chew a piece of that.
Did you realise how huge Lip Service would be? Angie Kirton
No, we didn't realise. The buzz is phenomenal. Someone come up to my mum at work and said you're Heather Peace's mum aren't you? My mum was obviously thrilled. It would be stupid not to have a second series but we don't know for definite yet.
Were you nervous about the sex scenes? Chloe Fair
The first one, yes, because we were completely starkers. From there on in it was absolutely fine.
Do you feel uncomfortable doing straight sex scenes? Alice Ward
No. I usually get a little rash though, because my skin's not used to kissing stubble.
Was it uncomfortable being the only lesbian in the cast? Alana Bowman
Yes, a little bit at first. Because I did an interview for DIVA about a film I did two years ago, and I was struggling with whether to tell Laura Fraser. Would that make it really awkward, because we're going to have to simulate sex, so do I make an issue out of it, or do I not say anything? But what if she finds out - it's awful, right? But I didn't need to do any of that, because when I walked into work on the first day, they'd all gone and bought that issue of DIVA for research! So really, it was DIVA who outed me to the entire cast of Lip Service. Thanks - it saved me a job!
How is it as the only gay woman on a male-dominated show, like London's Burning? Em Farrow
It actually made it easier being gay. I was the only female on set, so we'd have cuddles. I gave the boys lots of cuddles and girliness in between the big butch stuff, and they could say to their wives, "It's alright, she's a lesbian, it's fine". And they could still get a cuddle, or someone to tell them what to buy the wife for her birthday. It actually made it better, because none of them played that sexual game with me, but I took the edge off the machismo, so it worked better. They were lovely.
Does it bother you being cast as butch? Nicola Cummings
No. My mum would like to see me in a costume drama. Don't laugh! I've done it onstage. I do actually play femme as well, you know. The Chase - nobody recognises me - when I say I was in The Chase, people go, "What?" I was one of the three leads with Nicola Stephenson and Gaynor Faye and everyone goes, "Oh my god, that was you!" Because I do play straight and I had really bad curly hair.
Do you think that Lip Service gives a true reflection of being a lesbian? Holly Dawn
No, because it's a true reflection of certain people's lives. You can't ever have a show that's a true reflection of what it means to be a lesbian, really!
Are your characters like you: very capable and authoritarian? Tessa James
Sam's the person I would like to be. I'm a little less cool and a lot more hot-tempered, and I speak before I think.
When will we next see you on screen? May Lincoln
I'm in a film coming out called Screwed, which is about the prison service, so I'm in another uniform.
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, January 2010.