Anna Friel: ‘I always promise my daughter that as soon as I’ve finished filming anything we can go on little adventures... we’ve done Uganda and Vietnam together’
Anna Friel is back on our screens next week as tortured detective Marcella. She talks to Gerard Gilbert about the physical toll of filming harrowing scenes for the ITV drama, why her daughter always comes first ... and that kiss on Brookside.
Anna Friel brushes the back of her hand with her lips and says: “That’s literally all it was.” The actress is demonstrating the kiss that launched a thousand newspaper column inches, not to mention her career — teenage lesbian Beth Jordache’s tentative puckering up with nanny Margaret in a 1994 episode of Brookside. It seems sweetly chaste now, especially when compared with Friel’s latest role in Steven Soderbergh’s bleak American web-drama The Girlfriend Experience, in which she plays Erica Myles, a Republican fundraiser engaged in multiple relationships with other women.
The Amazon Prime show is so graphic indeed that when British tabloids printed salacious screengrabs from The Girlfriend Experience in their “family newspapers”, the pictures were remarkably tame given what they might have chosen...
“I’d say it was the most challenging job to date,” she says croakily, in the aftermath of a bad cold. “We shot the whole thing in 38 days with no rehearsal and the sexuality of it all ... I knew exactly what was in it ... there was going to be no preciousness. You’ve seen what it’s going to be in the script, it’s going to be exactly that.
“Anyway it was more about the power dynamics of submission and dominance rather than the explicitness of the sex,” she continues. “Some people find that gratuitous and salacious whereas I didn’t at all. And just because it was two girls it was, ‘Gosh... going back to your roots are we?’ I think that’s quite insulting because how many heterosexual characters have I played since Brookside?”
The quarter century between Beth Jordache and Erica Myles has seen a revolution in cultural attitudes, says Friel. “I can’t believe how quickly time has gone, and literally a kiss that was (this is the point where she kisses the back of her hand) that — that’s literally all it was and I was 16 years old — and I’m now 41 .... 25 years ago, how far we’ve come it’s unbelievable. Imagine if there was The Girlfriend Experience then.”
The short answer is that there wouldn’t have been a Girlfriend Experience back then — at least not beyond certain specialist video shops, while Friel’s career has proved remarkably durable given its origins in soap opera, the exposure from which she cannily used as a springboard. Quitting Brookside a year after the publicity storm caused by that kiss, she appeared in a string of film and TV roles that included David Leland’s The Land Girls, Stephen Poliakoff’s The Tribe (once again in a controversial sex scene), and opposite Ewan McGregor as Nick Leeson’s wife in Rogue Trader.
By 2007 she had landed her first leading role in an American TV series, as a murder victim brought back to life in Bryan Fuller’s fantasy drama Pushing Daisies, while more recent offerings have included playing a US army sergeant lost behind enemy lines in Islamist-controlled Mali in the Homeland-influenced American Odyssey; a Scandinavian TV drama about the wartime sabotage of the Nazi atomic-bomb project; and as a hard-up single mother helped by Sean Bean’s priest in Broken.
And now she’s back playing the eponymous London detective in the second series of Marcella, the ITV crime drama written by Hans Rosenfeldt, the Swedish creator of The Bridge. Like Saga Noren, the autistic policewoman in The Bridge, Friel’s Marcella Backland has a mental condition — one which makes her blackout when stressed and which is based on an actual condition, the nature of which will be revealed in the new series.
“I know it can be frustrating when audiences have to wait 18 months and questions aren’t answered but Hans does that,” says Friel. “I was adamant that the audiences need answers now — why the blackouts started. She gets incredibly angry and violent and unless she gets to the bottom of that she will lose her children.”
The new series begins with Friel’s character apparently suicidal, standing on a rooftop ledge with a gash to her forehead, before reeling back 12 days to fill in how she reaches this desperate state. The body of a boy has been found bricked up in the cavity of a wall and it soon transpires that this is a lad who was abducted three years earlier and that he was friends with Marcella’s own son.
The supporting cast includes Nigel Planer as a superannuated drummer for a rock band who happens to live on the other side of the wall in which the dead boy was discovered. It’s a grisly tale involving grooming and paedophilia and that includes scenes in which boys are subjected to strange medical interventions on their eyes. “It’s going to be hard for some audiences to stomach,” says Friel. “But child killers exist and Hans based it all on cases that have happened.”
This didn’t stop Friel from wanting to jump in and help protect Marcella’s young cast. “As soon as there were any harrowing scenes I’d literally take their hand and take them and we’d go and put music on, and I’d say, ‘I’m sorry I had to do that to you’ and we’d make little videos that their headmasters could watch,” she says, before adding: “You realise your age when they say, ‘My headmaster used to really fancy you’.”
However harrowing her own scenes — and Friel admits to being a bit “method” while filming — she shakes off the character at the end of a day’s filming and before she heads home to Windsor. “I feel so completely drained and exhausted whenever I complete filming Marcella — the body doesn’t understand that it’s not real so the camera sees the thoughts that you have and the thoughts you have to have to be the thoughts that Marcella has. But I lift myself up at the end because I’m going to go home to Gracie and Gracie doesn’t want to see Marcella she wants to see Mama.”
Gracie is Friel’s 12-year-old daughter with Harry Potter actor David Thewlis — her partner for nine years before separating in 2010. “I always make sure Grace is my priority,” she says. “I travel back to Windsor every single night, even though she’ll be in bed and hasn’t finished her homework so we can have a snuggle and Mama’s there in the morning and she can feel me.
“I promise as soon as I’ve finished filming anything we can go on little adventures, we’ve done Uganda together, we’ve done Vietnam. We try to choose a destination that we’ve never been to before and it’s going to be challenging so the two of us have to work together.”
In fact, when we meet Friel and Gracie have just returned from a holiday in St Lucia, although Friel immediately succumbed to a virus that has left her throat with its croak. “I’ve been running on adrenalin,” she says. “Even in St Lucia the first seven days you get sick because your body just knows it can stop.”
A talented singer and guitarist, Gracie has apparently been showing an interest in her parents’ profession recently. “But she knows that nepotism would never ever be allowed,” says Friel. “And she sees how hard we work — at least she’s had that insight. I’d encourage her to do whatever she wants, but the academic side is important and she needs to read more. I’m the daughter of two teachers so it was ‘you get your grades or you can’t do it’. For me it was a hobby. When I signed my first Brookside contract I was adamant that I was going back to university and this was only for three months. I ended up doing it for 15 months and never went back to university.”
If she has any fears about Gracie entering a profession now exposed as deeply abusive to young women, Friel doesn’t say so.
In the only interview she’s given since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, she showed a reluctance to join the #MeToo movement, despite her name being linked to the resignation of Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios.
She is open now on the topic of equal pay, however, albeit only to say that she wasn’t aware that female actors were being remunerated less than their male counterparts. “I just didn’t even know that,” she says.
“Really, do my male co-stars get paid more than me? I’ll have words about that. Generally though, women are getting better roles because I think people are understanding that audiences want it.
“Wonder Woman tells us that — we’ve got a female lead superhero and it’s kind of outdone all the males. It’s supply and demand.”
And Friel is in demand. She is arguably assisted in a looks-obsessed industry by a slight figure and pixie-ish face that make her seem younger than her 41 years, but also a willingness to take on challenging roles and to work her socks off. “All I’ve ever cared about is getting better,” she says.
“I’ve worked since I was 13 years old and I chose jobs that would challenge me and make be better rather than having a massive audience. Each one has been an incredibly different character. It was always a plan I had: I always wanted longevity and I took the slow-burning route.”
Her next role isn’t any different. Two days after our meeting she is due up in Manchester to start rehearsals for an ITV drama written by Tony Marchant called Butterfly, in which she plays the mother of an 11-year-old boy who identifies as a girl.
“I met some transgender children the other day and came away thinking I was so ill-informed by all the books I’d read. The whole thing about puberty blockers and what that does to your hormones, you feel so much responsibility because every parent was ‘please tell our story ... please tell our story’.
“I don’t really shy away from controversial topics, do I? It’s not through choice it’s just things that I find interesting and feel need a light shone on them and television is an incredibly powerful medium. Those that don’t want to read a newspaper, they can learn through drama.”
Marcella, Monday, ITV, 9pm