'When a role scares me, I want to do it'
Anna Friel tackles the Nordic Noir genre in ambitious new thriller Marcella - but it's left her pondering far more than crime-solving. The actress talks ageism, raising children and equal pay with Keeley Bolger
A firm fixture on the screen since her teenage breakthrough in Brookside, Anna Friel's 40th birthday is approaching this summer. But while she can happily shrug off the milestone, she can't abide the way women are so often passed over as they grow older.
"I hate the idea of men trading in women for the new younger version," says Friel, who is massaging her feet after a morning in leopard print heels.
"I think it's something women face every single day; where men seem to age so beautifully and get better, but with women you think, 'If you don't get someone by that age, you'll be ... '," she says, eyes widening, referring to negative perceptions more frequently aimed at females.
She references the "Dickensian attitude" that "the flower eventually fades".
"But as you get older, you think, 'I'm not fading, I'm getting better - I'm getting wiser and stronger and much more interesting, because I've seen and know so much more'."
It's a subject close to the Rochdale-born actress's heart, after spending five months working as the lead in ITV's new thriller Marcella.
Written by The Bridge's Swedish writer Hans Rosenfeldt - and marking his first series exclusively penned for the UK - the eight-part thriller sees Friel playing Marcella, a heartbroken mother whose husband, played by Captain America actor Nicholas Pinnock, unexpectedly leaves her for his mistress.
After a long absence from work to take care of their children, she is lured back to her role as a detective to investigate the case of a serial killer, whose crimes bear a striking resemblance to an unsolved spate of killings from a decade ago.
Despite initially "convincing" herself she couldn't play such a character, Friel relished the challenge the role presented.
"Anything that scares me - that I think I can't do - I want to do," she adds with a smile.
"My biggest fear was how to do it differently and make it new. But I thought this had something new about it."
She hopes the idea of a strong female character isn't one of those things that marks the series out.
"At a time of women fighting for equality and equal wages, maybe we can get over going, 'It's a strong female protagonist'," she explains.
"We didn't for years go, 'It's a strong male lead'. No, it was always, 'It's the hero', so why haven't we had heroines? The Greeks used to call us Gods and that was slowly forgotten.
"I think it's been shown that people are as interested in women's lives as they are men's. We're complex creatures, we are multi-faceted, so why not dramatise us?"
The daughter of two teachers, Friel has been in steady work since her iconic role as Brookside's Beth Jordache, tackling UK dramas like The Street, West End hits in Breakfast At Tiffany's, and spreading her wings to star in US series Pushing Daisies and geo-political thriller Odyssey.
She now lives in Windsor but still has a home in Los Angeles, and is on good terms with her ex, David Thewlis, with whom she has a 10-year-old daughter Gracie. ("He's in close proximity, so it works very well.")
Balancing work and family commitments - with Gracie "growing up on the set of Harry Potter" when Thewlis starred as Professor Lupin - is something "we all have to do now", she adds.
"I reside much more here than in America, but Gracie's schooling is of the most importance. She's in an international school doing the International Baccalaureate, so it means if we do go to America, she can take that same syllabus she's doing," Friel explains of how she makes her career and parenting work.
"I could never bear the idea of putting my child through boarding school. I understand why lots of people do, but it would break my heart."
Although trips back up north to see her family aren't as frequent as she'd like, she was upset to see the damage suffered by Rochdale, the town she grew up in, following the severe floods over Christmas.
Her parents' house wasn't affected - "Thank God" - but she was still moved by the scenes.
"I'd love to get behind Rochdale, because the lack of money that's gone into that wonderful town," she begins. "It used to be thriving and there's not even a bookshop there anymore.
"It was a very safe and lovely town to grow up in, and had a great influence on my life, so I'd like to support it."
Much as Friel loves her home town (and named her child after fellow Rochdale star Gracie Fields), she'll be heading farther afield when she and Gracie enjoy their first holiday together in a long time soon - though mother and daughter initially had different ideas in mind for the escape.
"I'm really in need of a break," says Friel, adding that her last holiday was more than two years ago.
"I want to plant my garden, use my Aga and see friends I haven't seen in ages. Gracie's like, 'Mummy, please can we have turquoise sea and white sand', and that's the thing I'm trying to make come true for her."
Marcella, ITV, Monday, 9pm