Anna Friel: “I had to learn to be a tough cookie. I don’t take any nonsense.”

Anna Friel is wearing a jumper with the word HAPPY emblazoned across it in large, bright letters. Which feels like a bold statement from an actress whose recent successes have largely come from mining the depths of human misery.

“I don’t know why I seem to be attracted to those parts, or those parts are attracted to me,” muses the 44-year-old, who earned a Bafta nomination for her role as a desperate, poverty-stricken single mum in Jimmy McGovern’s 2017 drama Broken, and won an International Emmy for Marcella, in which she stars as a traumatised murder detective with a neurological condition that causes her to suffer terrifying blackouts. “I think it’s perhaps because I can give a vulnerability to the heart of someone who is otherwise quite strong,” she suggests when Weekend catches up with her over a Zoom call. “But I’m actually quite a bouncy, up person.”

Filming Marcella – a British spin on the Scandi-noir genre from Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of Swedish hit The Bridge – is an emotionally draining experience, she has admitted, and the third series, which starts on ITV this month, certainly offers precious little comfort for the cold winter nights.

Having infiltrated the inner circle of a Belfast crime family (whose wicked matriarch is played by fellow Brookside legend Amanda Burton), Marcella finds herself drawn into a mazy, violent tale of murder, drugs and people-trafficking, while also dealing with her own fragile mental health. (There’s even a new take on the show’s signature shot – of a confused, terrified Marcella shivering in the bath while caked in blood). 

“These things happen in the world, and we’re here to tell those stories,” says Anna of the show’s unflinching approach to its dark subject matter. “We can either choose to look at them, or pretend they don’t happen.”

She nearly talked herself out of the role before the first series in 2016. “About a month or so before we started filming, I said, ‘I don’t think this is right. I don’t think I can do it.’ There have been so many brilliant detectives, I just thought: I don’t know what I can do that’s new or refreshing. And it was the director who said, ‘No, Anna, I think we can make her really rock and roll.’ So we gave her quite an androgynous look and walk. I gave it everything I’ve got, and it’s been really good to me, that role.”

Indeed it has. The show has proved a worldwide hit since being picked up by Netflix, where series three began streaming last summer (its return to ITV was deferred until after the people-smuggling trial that followed the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in 2019). Its success – and that accompanying Emmy – caps a successful career resurgence that has seen the Rochdale-born actress bounce back from a string of frustrating near misses (she narrowly lost out on roles in Fight Club, Gangs of New York and The Prestige) and box-office flops (dino caper Land of the Lost, anyone?). 

It feels like she’s riding on a high, suggests Weekend. “I don’t think anyone in our industry’s riding on a high right now,” she deadpans. Fair point. “But careers have their ups and downs, things fluctuate. I don’t think you should ever be complacent.”

Her decision to come home from America – where she’d found success on Broadway in her early 20s, and later starred in two series of the whimsical TV fantasy Pushing Daisies – was largely so that Grace, her daughter with actor David Thewlis, could be near her father. Did that feel like a big sacrifice?

“It’s a sacrifice I was happy to make for Gracie,” she says. “It wasn’t even a choice. You don’t choose your career over children seeing their father, do you? Would it have changed things? I think yes, it would. But it’s a sacrifice I don’t regret. And I’ve still got my house in America,” she says. “My last two jobs were American, and my next job is American.”

Despite being the daughter of two actors, and named after another of Rochdale’s most famous performers, Gracie Fields, Anna says 15-year-old Gracie shows no interest in going into the family business. “I don’t know what David and I have done to put her off, but she’s like, ‘No, I don’t care, I want something more secure.’”

Anna, whose parents were both teachers, made her own professional acting debut aged 13, playing Michael Palin’s daughter in Alan Bleasdale’s political drama GBH. But it was Brookside that turned her into a household name: as teenager Beth Jordache, she fronted arguably the Channel 4 soap’s two biggest storylines, firstly conspiring to kill her abusive father and bury his body under the patio, and later sharing British television’s first ever pre-watershed lesbian kiss.

The latter was so iconic, it even featured in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. “It seems like absolutely nothing now,” says Anna. “I don’t think tongues were even involved. It was just a…” She obligingly recreates said iconic kiss, albeit alone, in her living room. “To cause such a stir would be unthinkable now. I’d like to think that maybe we helped start a kind of movement.”

“I’m glad I seem fearless, because I get absolutely petrified before any job and convince myself I can’t do it…”

Anna Friel

More recently, she appeared in a series of considerably less chaste lesbian sex scenes for Steven Soderbergh’s TV series The Girlfriend Experience. “It certainly takes the kiss to whole other level doesn’t it?” she laughs. “It’s like Beth part two – what might have happened to her next.”

Anna has form in this area, having first made headlines more than 20 years ago when she stripped off for a ménage a trois in Stephen Poliakoff’s The Tribe. She seems pretty fearless as an actress, suggests Weekend. “I’m glad I seem fearless, because I get absolutely petrified before any job and convince myself I can’t do it,” she says.

“I’m fearless when it comes to nakedness, for some reason. I don’t really get intimidated by that, unless I’ve been eating too many packets of crisps. It’s more difficult as you get older, but we’ve all got bodies, and we shouldn’t really be ashamed of them. And the sex scenes in The Girlfriend Experience are so unsexy. I needed lots of ice.’

The throaty chuckle that follows is very Anna Friel – as candid, earthy and warm interviewee as you could hope to meet. She even brings up the subject of relationships – a topic most actors contort themselves into knots to avoid – by cheerily announcing: “I’m not ashamed to say, I’ve had my first hypnotherapy sessions of late. Just to assess and look at stuff. I’ve not given enough time to relationships, maybe, so that might be on the horizon for 2021.”

She’s resilient, though – partly, she thinks, as a result of being badly bullied at school. “It very much shaped who I am, I don’t take much nonsense,” she says. “There were six of them and one of me, so I had to learn to be quite a tough cookie. Now I’m fiercely protective of anyone who’s bullied, because I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. I don’t know how parents are going about protecting their children from being bullied in the social media age. Anyone who bullies someone from behind a computer screen is just a coward, and they can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.”

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on TV and film production has been frustrating, she admits. “But I’ve used this time quite well, developing my own projects and buying the rights to certain books and going more down the producing side of things. I’ve also produced the latest series of Marcella. I’m really grateful, at this age, that I’m working. I think even five or six years ago, there were very few parts for someone who’s 44. There was that big lull – you could make it ‘til your late 30s, then you’d be reintroduced in your 60s when you can play a grandma. Now people are saying: ‘No, people in their 40s are actually interesting.’ Thank God.

“The good thing about this job is you can never stop getting better. Do I look back sometimes and think, ‘I wish I’d been better managed and handled’, because I was a child actress, thrown in at the deep end without much protection? I think things could have gone a bit differently. But I believe in fate, I think things happen as they should. It’s just being given an opportunity. And if not, you create your own.”

MADONNA AND ME

“I’m glad people think of me when they hear it,” laughs Anna of Madonna’s Ray of Light, and its oft-misheard chorus of ‘Anna Friel, like I just got home…’ “We actually hung out for a bit when I did Broadway, and she was incredibly kind to me. I’m glad I hadn’t heard that song at the time.” 

Weekend points out that Anna’s fellow Rochdalian Bill Oddie also appears in a popular parody of Madonna’s Erotic (“Bill Oddie, Bill Oddie, put your hands all over my body”). “That’s brilliant,” she laughs. “We just need a Lisa Stansfield one!”

Watch all series of Marcella on BritBox

An edited version of this interview appeared in the issue of Waitrose Weekend published February 4, 2021
© Waitrose Weekend

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