Marcella star Anna Friel: “I like to tackle controversial things”

The actress discusses the return of Marcella, occupational hazards and why she nearly pulled out of playing the detective

Anna Friel, Marcella (ITV, EH)

Marcella is having a tough old time of it in series two. Not only has her husband run off with a woman half her age and taken the kids with him, but she’s also investigating the gruesome murder of a schoolboy who was a friend of her son’s. Oh, and she’s suffering from violent black-outs.

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Anna Friel, the actress who brings this tormented anti-heroine to life, admits that playing Marcella takes its toll. “I had to prepare for four and a half months of not being the happiest bunny,” she says. “But when you’re a mother [Friel has a 12-year-old daughter], you go home and you need to be, because that’s your job.”

There is one thing, Friel confesses, that brings her back down to earth during filming – and it’s an old British favourite: traffic.

“God damn traffic helps to wind you down,” she says. “I get so frustrated by the f***ing traffic. It used to take me 45 minutes [to get to set] from Windsor.” Cooking, too, helps her to decompress. “I find chopping very therapeutic,” she grins.

Friel could have dodged all the baggage that comes with playing Marcella, it turns out, as she reveals she almost withdrew from the role. “I nearly pulled out of it after I’d accepted it,” she says, “because I just thought, ‘Oh God, how can I do this? There are so many amazing female detectives that have done it so well, I don’t know what I can offer differently.’

“I had to really work hard on that, so when it was received as well as it was, I thought maybe I had done something that is different and I’ve put my own ownership and my own stamp on it.”

Anna Friel as Marcella and Ray Panthaki as Rav in Marcella (ITV, EH)
Anna Friel and Ray Panthaki in Marcella (ITV)

Friel names Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, Gillian Anderson in The Fall and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch as the three actresses she admires as female detectives: “I have great respect for so many actresses, but you have to not get obsessed because you want to make sure you keep your own thing.”

Of course, Friel did not pull out – far from it. She threw herself right into the part, winning an Emmy for her performance as Marcella last year after Netflix brought it to audiences in the US, and even sustaining numerous injuries during filming.

The first, widely reported in 2016, happened while making the first series, when Friel smacked her head into her on-screen husband’s chest and suffered concussion. The second series has not been without occupational hazards of its own: she broke off half a fingernail when shooting a fight scene on day one.

But we all know it’s not presentable fingernails that matter in scandi-noir – it’s winter clothing. Just as Sofie Gråbøl’s knitted jumper was a character in its own right in the Danish series The Killing, the green parka worn by Friel in Marcella has its very own following.

Sofie Grabol and Anna Friel (Getty, ITV, EH)
Sofie Gråbøl and Anna Friel (Getty, ITV)

Fans of the show should brace themselves, because Marcella’s signature green parka does not feature in episode one. In fact, she has a different coat altogether, because it’s summer and it would have looked “a little bit ridiculous” otherwise. Don’t worry, though: Friel confirms that the parka does make a cameo later in the series.

Another change for series two is that Marcella will really begin to delve deep into why she suffers from dissociative fugues and how to cope with them. In Marcella’s case, the disorder causes her to black out and enter an amnesiac, often violent state at moments of intense stress. Friel has done research into prisoners who have no recollection of the crimes they committed, but is keen to emphasise that Marcella’s experience is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of the disorder.

“Of course, here, it is used for dramatic effect because we’re not making a documentary, it’s a drama,” she explains. “Hans [Rosenfeldt] likes to heighten things and take it to the forefront because he can and he’s very good at it.”

Marcella screenwriter Rosenfeldt also writes The Bridge in which the lead character, Saga Noren, is thought to have Asperger’s syndrome.

Anna Friel with her Emmy (Getty, EH)
Anna Friel with her Emmy (Getty)

Friel says she thinks having a character with mental health issues on screen is “really brave”. “It’s a very good time right now when we’re all talking about mental health issues, bringing it to the forefront and not being ashamed of people who have depression, anxiety or fugues.”

Friel’s next project also takes on a delicate topic: it’s a drama about transgender children. Butterfly, which will air on ITV later this year, centres on Max, a schoolboy who identifies as a girl. Friel plays his mother, and the actress has become very involved with the issue. “I would urge anybody to not voice an opinion without doing their proper research,” she says, “because I didn’t have any idea the trauma that some of these poor angels are going through, and their parents.

“It’s a continual battle and a struggle, and it’s hugely controversial but we have to all have empathy, heart and compassion.

“I went to a meeting with Mermaids [a charity for transgender children] the other day,” she adds. “Hearing all the individual stories is heartbreaking. When you see how certain parts of the media portray this – I’m not going to mention certain publications, but go to a Mermaids meeting and then see how you talk about it.”

It seems as though Friel’s next role is not going to be any more restful than Marcella.

“Yes,” she admits, “I like to tackle controversial things.”

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This article was originally published in February 2018