There are legendary soap moments and there’s that Brookside kiss – a teenage lesbian lip-lock that shook the nation’s watercoolers back in 1994. But that seems like a chaperoned walk in the park next to Anna Friel’s more recent screen adventures. Last year the actor spent three months in Toronto filming The Girlfriend Experience, which was executive produced by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh.
Friel describes it to me. “I dare you not to blush when you watch it!” she grins, delighted at the prospect of my discomfort. “It’s very dark, minimal, one of the scariest jobs I’ve ever done. All natural light, all brutalist buildings, not one prop, not one extra. And no rehearsals. It was like doing live theatre. And the biggest full-on lesbian scenes that you’ve seen in your life! It’s all about submission and dominance. You want to take a shower afterwards.”
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It’s possibly a good thing that The Girlfriend Experience was “only” available on Amazon Prime. If it had been on terrestrial telly… Friel nods, her eyes widening. “If that little kiss 24 years ago caused the hugest storm, whoa, imagine if this was on back then!” She hoots as she chomps on a reviving late-afternoon cookie in an office at ITV HQ on London’s South Bank.
Still, she’s doing her utmost to make sure that primetime terrestrial viewers, as well as on-demand subscribers, see her working on material that’s both challenging and rewarding. Almost three decades into her career, the Rochdale-born actor – still only 41 – is making strong choices. Not for Anna Friel the easy option of feel-good dramedy, a Britflick romcom or a return to Soapland. Equally refreshingly, she’s upfront and bold in interviews, too, not to mention affably down-to-earth.
Describing 2017 as “a good run”, she mentions her role in the first episode of the acclaimed Jimmy McGovern drama Broken, in which she played a poverty-stricken mum forced to desperate measures. She also signed on for Butterfly, the latest heavyweight project from Tony Marchant, with whom she made 2012’s Public Enemies (Friel was a parole officer working with a convicted child killer). As you read this, she’s filming the drama in Manchester, playing a mother involved in an acrimonious separation and battling the challenges of a gender-variant adolescent son. She’s co-producing the drama, too, which she calls “a timely transition”.
More punishing still is her role in Marcella. Friel is the titular detective in the pitch-black, London-set police drama from Hans Rosenfeldt, Swedish writer/creator of cult Scandi-noir series The Bridge.
The opening of the first episode of the first series of Marcella found her character in the bath, naked, bruised, bloodied and bewildered as to how she got there. Friel recently won the best actress International Emmy for her performance in the ITV show, which went global courtesy of Netflix.
After 2016’s first, eight-part outing of Marcella, in which the detective ended up investigating both her estranged husband and herself on suspicion of murder, the second run enters new territory. We now know that much of Marcella’s trauma, not to mention confusion, results from a neurological condition called dissociative fugue.
“The best way to describe it is if you’ve had a hangover, which we both have had many times,” she cheerfully points out – clearly remembering the first time I interviewed her for RT, an encounter during which wine may have been drunk – “and you think, ‘Oh my God, what did I do last night? I can’t even remember going to bed…’ So it’s like that, times 30. I did a lot of research into prisoners who can’t remember the crimes they committed. And it comes from extreme trauma.”
The big reveal of Marcella’s blackouts, she insists, doesn’t rob the second series of its punch. “There’s the threat of having her children taken away unless she faces her demons. So she starts to have hypnotherapy, and she regresses – we see the really awful things that happened to her to cause this trauma. Things just get worse and worse and worse, and lonelier.”
Friel admits that she was apprehensive about revisiting Marcella, especially in the wake of Broken and The Girlfriend Experience, which were both “very demanding” roles. But with scriptwriting that good, she’d never say no. Plus, she’s as aware as anyone that, finally, strong roles for women in their 40s are there for the taking.
“I did wonder about turning 40 and being thrown on the scrapheap. But apart from the shell changing, everything else changes in a much more positive way. Wisdom, compassion, empathy, values, being parents – we’re learning that people want to watch people they can relate to, not just the unachievable. We’ve got enough of that with the superhero movies.”
Friel began acting aged 13 and appeared in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH on Channel 4. She’s worked steadily ever since, in TV and film, in the UK and the US. There was the odd one that got away: she missed out on the part eventually won by Cameron Diaz in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. But when I ask her to imagine how her career would have turned out had she landed that huge role, she replies: “Well, there was another part…” Pressed, she admits it was in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 period mystery thriller The Prestige. “But I got that part. It was the lead. But something stopped me from having that part,” she says quietly of a role that, in the end, went to Scarlett Johansson.
She cheerfully declines to elaborate (“They’ll shout at me if I do!”), but will just say: “I feel like I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve not had a leg up. I’ve not had a silver spoon. I’m a middle-class northern girl who was determined to work in America and have a worldwide career. I’d like to do more movies, but with television now the line between the two has blurred. We get great scripts for television.”
It seems sadly inevitable that, having started acting so young, she will have encountered instances of abusive behaviour. And lo… “So many,” Friel sighs. But, she states bullishly, “It’s not had an effect on me, apart from it’s made me very, very strong.”
In fact, she was no-nonsense from the start. “I’d been bullied at school so I knew how to hold my own. And I never played into that idea of, ‘Oh you should go and talk to that person, he’s very important.’ No!”
Why not? “Because it’ll look I’m trying to get something out of it and I’ll feel like a knob’ead. So I didn’t do myself any favours.”
She was lucky, too, that in her youth she had the support of “older actresses who were amazing mentors and told me what to watch out for”. Brenda Fricker, for one, played her mother twice (in the films Watermelon and The War Bride) and offered invaluable guidance.
“Then in my early 20s I was on Broadway [in Lulu], completely on my own in New York. And Maggie Smith and Judi Dench were on stage at the same time. They had dinner with me quite a few times, gave me advice and looked after me, and called to ask how I was doing. I’ll never, ever forget that kindness. So, I wasn’t really one to mess with,” she concludes with a smile.
Nonetheless, last year she found herself dragged into the headlines over a story of sexual harassment. As she puts it, “I was on the cover of The Sun with the headline ‘Anna & the Amazon sex pest’.” She’s referring to a tabloid story last October alleging she “fled a showbiz dinner” during the 2016 Edinburgh Television Festival after receiving “inappropriate sexual advances” from the former Amazon Studios president Roy Price.
“I refused to comment. It wasn’t something that was big enough to talk about,” is her assessment. “I’m a very strong girl, I know how to handle myself, and I didn’t report that story, it was bystanders and onlookers. But I don’t want to add fuel to the story. I am very, very, very much in solidarity with anybody who has been put into a horrific situation, in all areas of life, but it wasn’t something that damaged me enough to give comment to. I’ve got my own way of handling things. I don’t feel I should be pressured… You’ve also got the right not to speak about something.”
For all of the above reasons, she and her ex-partner David Thewlis, the father of her daughter Gracie, 12, are taking a softly-softly approach to Gracie’s acting career. She was offered the chance to play Friel’s daughter in the drama series American Odyssey (2015), a short-lived, post-Homeland thriller, “but she would have been shooting in New York and I would have been in Morocco and I don’t want to be away from her that long.”
Now, however, she says that she and Thewlis, “aren’t averse to it. If there are auditions for something that’s really right for Gracie, it’s her prerogative to try it. Because I was allowed to at that age. But, being the daughter of two teachers, I was also told that I wouldn’t be allowed to do it unless I kept up my good grades. So I became a bit of a workaholic.”
Gracie has a great role model in this (currently single) working mum who, through graft, intelligence and talent, has managed, it seems, to have it all. Friel is a child acting prodigy who became an adult acting force. “Without becoming one of those child actors who goes off the rails and loses the plot – we hope!” Friel laughs. “But there’s still time… I’m only 41!”
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine in February 2018