Marcella star Anna Friel: I love playing “more womanly” roles

The actress who earned her big break when she was just 13 years old says she relishes being given more mature roles, and says she is still proud of the impact her lesbian kiss on Brookside had

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Anna Friel is turning 40 in July and it seems she is embracing the prospect with a spring in her step.

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She and her young daughter Gracie have settled into a new home in Windsor (she owns another property in Los Angeles but has been so busy she hasn’t been there for more than two years).

More importantly, she is now getting the kind of roles she has always hankered after.

“I am getting more womanly parts because I am one. I am almost 40; I am a mother,” the actress, who is starring in new ITV drama Marcella, tells RadioTimes.com. 

“And I am playing mothers much more frequently; perhaps maybe I have come more into my own. I think the opportunities I have been given now, perhaps 20 years ago I wouldn’t necessarily have approached them in the same way or handled them as well, because these roles require maturity.

“It’s also about the experience I have had,” she adds. “I have probably spent as much time on a set as I have off a set in my life. It’s really what I am familiar with and what I know. I think it’s having a bit more innate confidence in myself which allows me to be more bold in terms of certain choices I make as far as characterisation goes.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGJLiwXTrww

She is talking about Marcella, a dark crime drama set in London but written by a Swede – The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt

Friel’s character Marcella Backland is a detective who has left her job to concentrate on bringing up her family. When the action begins, however, her marriage to Jason (Nicholas Pinnock, of Fortitude fame) has faltered; with their children away at boarding school against her wishes, she is at a low ebb.

So she returns to her job as a detective, partly out of desperation and a feeling of rootlessness, but partly because her interest is piqued by a series of killings which have the hallmarks of an unsolved case from her earlier time on the job. She begins at rock bottom and her return to work, especially given her unconventional methods, does not make life easy for her or her colleagues.

“I thought she represents many women’s lives,” adds Friel, who broke up with Gracie’s father, fellow actor David Thewlis, in 2010. “A lot of my friends are going through break-ups and still have to go to work, and I like her gung-ho attitude and the fact that she’s a bit mad. She’s unpredictable.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Friel’s professional career has been immune from the many ups and downs which afflict her latest incarnation, but you’d be wrong. It’s not, she says, been an easy ride for her ever since she broke through as a child actress (when she was 13) on Alan Bleasdale’s Channel 4 drama GBH (as the daughter of Michael Palin’s likeable headmaster character Jim Nelson).

“Nothing in my life’s been easy! Being the daughter of two teachers and growing up in northern England with a very middle class background, I was never given a leg up. Could I look at people who have and feel bitterness or resentment? I could choose to, but I don’t. I know my own path. And I think diversity is what will save us. You want people from all different classes and all people from England to come together.

“I think there’s a lot more competition [now] and there would be more people who would say they want to be famous at my age. I learned on the job – through sheer work and integrity that it’s taken the path that it has and I can say that with pride.”

Her breakthrough role was as Beth Jordache in the Channel 4 soap Brookside where she (and Nicola Stephenson who played her lover Margaret) made TV history with Britain’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in 1994.

In fact it was such an iconic moment it featured in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics – a celebratory emblem of this nation’s progressiveness, tolerance and diversity. But she admits that its inclusion was still a massive surprise at the time.

“It puzzled me when Danny Boyle said could they use it in the Olympics. I thought, ‘What!?’ They asked me for permission for the clips so they called my agent. I was quite honoured that it was very much part of our culture.

“I was with a friend the other day who was gay and she said, ‘You’re part of our movement’. Because at that time – look at how far we have come – it was shocking. Now we would find it, like, nothing. I think it represents a certain time.

“I am proud we took on such controversial storylines and it was new and innovative.  I’m proud to be part of that movement. I am proud we got it in the contract that Beth would always stay gay; it wasn’t because of her sexual abuse. I was savvy enough and understood what could or couldn’t happen with that storyline at that time.”

Since then she has enjoyed roles in a variety of shows, mainly in the US with Pushing Daisies (as teen sweetheart Chuck who is brought back to life), American Odyssey (where she played kick-ass soldier Sergeant Odelle Ballard) and The Vatican as the troublesome sibling of a senior Roman Catholic.

Friel says she has only had two weeks of holiday in two and a half years. Is she exhausted?

“You have to look after yourself extra hard. I only have time this job to be on set working or go home and be a mother. And I haven’t had much opportunity to do much else. And I have moved house as well.

“If you’re still working now and you have been going at it for all this time then you can’t be that bad. I think we all suffer – I think everybody does – with insecurity and questioning, and then you think, ‘What does all that do?’ Do what you do and do it as well as you can.

“I think naturalism and focusing on making something as believable as possible its one of my strengths. And playing completely different characters so you are not pigeonholed and it’s not down to just age and skin – that keeps you working.” 

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Marcella starts on ITV on Monday 4 April at 9pm