Anna Friel on her career, Rhys Ifans, pirates and Neverland

"If my career can't survive bits of tittle-tattle, then I've not got much of a career and I obviously don't believe in myself"

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Anna Friel re-enters the overlit make-up room horrified. “I look kinda mad,” yelps the gowned actress, having clocked in the mirror the heavy cosmetics trowelled onto her 35-year-old still-elfin face for that afternoon’s photoshoot. But now, after what tennis players call euphemistically a comfort break, she’s ready to rejoin the conversation, armed with her packet of fags and a chilled bottle of chablis premier cru.

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Blunt

Friel is candidly relaxed and fruitily gobby company. Working on American television may have helped soften her Rochdale accent, but it’s not smoothed out her authentic – and admirable – northern bluntness.

This is how she reflected on appearing in a recent US box-office hit Limitless, alongside Robert de Niro: “Didn’t meet him, did I! The day I finished, he started!” Or on the leap of faith required when Woody Allen asked her to play a mystery part in last year’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: “What if I’m naked the whole way through and I have one arm?” (She wasn’t and she didn’t). 

And her reaction to being dumped by Martin Scorsese in favour of Cameron Diaz for Gangs of New York: “Maybe if I make myself better and I grow as an actress, then I’ll have a chance of working with Scorsese again.”

And in response to the long history of media coverage of her on- and off-screen lives, from Brookside’s “lesbian kiss” to her relationships with Darren Day, Robbie Williams and David Thewlis, the father of her six-year-old daughter Gracie, Friel insists: “If my career can’t survive bits of tittle-tattle, then I’ve not got much of a career and I obviously don’t believe in myself.”

Working

We’ve been talking for almost an hour and already covered a lot of ground. There’s Friel’s dad who doubles as her financial guru. “Lulu”, he’ll caution her by her middle name, “get your gold credit card bill in – you need to pull back your spending…” 

We have chatted about her property portfolio (houses in Windsor, the Hollywood Hills and Majorca); the 17-hour days she put in working on Golden Globe-nominated US series Pushing Daisies; and her enthusiasm for tweaking the “social realism” string of her acting bow – via plum jobs such as playing a part-time prostitute in Jimmy McGovern’s The Street in 2009 and the forthcoming BBC1 drama Public Enemies by Tony Marchant playing a probation officer who has a relationship with a man (Daniel Mays) newly released from prison.

We have also discussed Friel’s secret nutritional weapon. “My brother is a doctor, and he was concerned about my diet when I was working all those hours. He wanted to make sure I got all the right nutrients, so he created this purple juice. And I can’t tell you the difference it made – it’s literally brain food. I still crave a sausage sandwich, but only as long as I have the juice first.”

Neverland

But the main reason for our meeting in a north-London photographer’s studio is to talk about Friel’s role as a badass pirate in Neverland, a two-part TV special that tells the story of how an Edwardian street urchin becomes Peter Pan. A prequel to JM Barrie’s classic children’s story, it also stars Bob Hoskins as Smee and Keira Knightley as the voice of Tinker Bell and was filmed in Dublin and Genoa earlier this year.

“Hook starts off as a Fagin-esque character with all the boys who become the Lost Boys,” explains Friel. But after the “crooked fencing instructor” known in earthbound London as Jimmy Hook (played by Rhys Ifans) is transported to Neverland, “he becomes influenced by the beguiling powers of Captain Elizabeth Bonny, who I play – she’s been stuck in this world for 200 years and she wants to rule Neverland. She’s after this magic fairy dust that will give her the ability to fly.”

The sudden arrival of mortal visitors creates another obsession for the heavily tattooed, extravagantly coiffured and ruthless Bonny: “Jimmy Hook arrives and turns out to be the most fascinating man she’s ever met…”

“How interesting…” I say.

“Yeah!” laughs Friel, sucking sharply on a ciggie, “interesting…”

Rhys Ifans

You see, during the filming of Neverland, in January this year, Anna Friel and Rhys Ifans became an item. Friel is understandably keen to refute the snarkier rumours about the relationship. She and Thewlis, her partner since 2001, had in fact split up the previous July. Her natural tendency, she admits, is to blether away freely (“there’s loads of things I’d love to say”), and she’s clearly flushed with love, but both Thewlis and Ifans are stoutly private individuals and “there’s a child involved”.

She says that after she and Thewlis separated, they were both very calm and clear as to how they would do things for their daughter’s benefit. “You both still have to instill the same ethics as parents. And you make sure they never, ever feel the separation is down to them. And that they know their mum and dad will always love each other.” It is, she affirms, about civility and respect. “And manners – I’m a stickler for manners. And love never really does wither. There’s a ‘love’ and an ‘in love’ that is very, very different. And it’s what you decide for your future that matters. And I will forever have ultimate respect for David, forever and ever.”

Equally, given the slightest nudge, she can’t hold back on displaying her affection for Ifans, who, she insists, is far from the hedonistic hellion portrayed in the press. “I have to say, in the little time I’ve known him, he’s incredibly responsible and he’s got a memory like an elephant. He’s a poet and he’s a beautiful man.”

Holidaying

The couple have recently spent time in New York, where Ifans has been filming The Amazing Spider-Man in which he plays a villain to Andrew Garfield’s web-slinging hero. And they’ve been in Wales – Ifans took her camping in Cardigan. It was Friel’s first proper time under canvas, and it showed.

“Instead of a rucksack, I brought a suitcase!” she shrieks. “I didn’t know what we’d need. And I learnt that being out there with nothing was the important thing. We had such a good time, with just the elements and the phone not working.” As the rain lashed down, good Welsh boy Ifans immediately impressed and took the initiative. “Rhys made heat!” she beams, coming over all cavewoman. “Man made fire!”

It was, it seems, a reversal of their roles in Neverland, which is the first time the pair had ever worked together. When the director offered her the part, an uncertain Friel asked him if he was sure: “But Captain Bonny is so nasty! Can you believe that little me can control this big mass of burly, terrifying men?”

Pirate

But once suitably dressed for the part, Anna Friel did manage to get her pirate face on. “I had bucketloads of hair and a hat that can’t be big enough! I was like: ‘make my hair as big as you can…’ To the extent that Rhys would call me Brian May. So I was like, ‘all right, Peter Stringfellow…'” 

Does she mean that the actor, like the nightclub Lothario, favours a thong?

“Don’t! That’s our joke! ‘Alright Brian?’ ‘Alright Stringy?’ We both take the mick out of each other constantly.”

Beyond finding romance on Neverland, is Friel aware of what else the fantasy adventure might bring about? I’m thinking she’ll inevitably be compared to this year’s other female screen pirate: Penélope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

“Of course I won’t be!” she splutters. “How can I be? What’s the budget on that? It’s a different thing.” But surely there will be compare-and- contrast pictures of the “Lancashire hotpot” and the Spanish firecracker…

“Shut up!” she yells. “I like her, I think she’s gorgeous. And she’s got guts and a richness to her. But please don’t compare me to her. I’ll fail!” But what an interesting ‘failure’ she makes.

Anna Friel stars in Neverland (6:30pm Friday Sky Movies Premiere) and also new drama series Without You, 9.00pm Thursday ITV1

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This is an edited version of an article published in the issue of Radio Times magazine published on 3 December