‘To tackle an is­sue like this ... it’s a huge thing to take on’

But­ter­fly fol­lows sep­a­rated par­ents, di­vided over how to sup­port their trans­gen­der child. Ge­or­gia Humphreys caught up with star Anna Friel

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - WEEKEND TV -

Anna Friel is used to be­ing part of ground­break­ing TV. Back in 1994, the Rochdale-born ac­tress (42) was one half of the first les­bian kiss to be broad­cast be­fore the wa­ter­shed on Bri­tish screens, in Chan­nel 4 soap Brook­side. Her lat­est role, in ITV’s But­ter­fly, sees her play the mum of an 11-year-old who was gen­der as­signed male at birth, but has iden­ti­fied as a girl from a young age — a topic that has never been ex­plored by a UK drama be­fore.

And she hopes the show can help change per­cep­tions about trans­gen­der chil­dren in the same way that her les­bian kiss on Brook­side did for all-fe­male cou­ples.

“I keep go­ing back to 25 years ago when I was on Brook­side and it was ‘dyke’, ‘lezzer’ ... and now no one would blink an eye­lid,” she notes.

But­ter­fly, penned by Bafta award-win­ning screen­writer Tony Marchant, looks at a fam­ily in cri­sis — in par­tic­u­lar, the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween sep­a­rated par­ents Vicky (Friel) and Stephen (Em­mett J Scan­lan) as they work out how to sup­port their youngest child, Max (Callum Booth-Ford).

Max iden­ti­fies as fe­male and dresses as a girl at home, but the so­cial tran­si­tion­ing of Max to Max­ine is ini­tially thwarted be­cause of the clear di­vi­sion of opin­ion be­tween Vicky and Stephen.

As their child’s feel­ings be­come in­creas­ingly dis­tress­ing, Stephen seizes the op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to live at the fam­ily home, with the hope of en­cour­ag­ing male bond­ing and prov­ing him­self to Vicky.

“To tackle some­thing like this is a great re­spon­si­bil­ity, but I think they’ve gone at the script re­ally clev­erly, be­cause it’s look­ing at it from ev­ery sin­gle per­son’s side of it,” says Friel.

The show, she says, ex­am­ines “what would hap­pen to a reg­u­lar, nor­mal work­ing mid­dle-class fam­ily that are just thrown into ab­so­lute dis­ar­ray be­cause they don’t know what to do.”

Friel is a mum her­self, to 13-year-old Gra­cie, who she shares with her ex, Harry Pot­ter ac­tor David Thewlis.

“I said, ‘This story is go­ing to teach me some­thing,’” she re­calls of read­ing the script. “Be­cause, if this was my daugh­ter, Gra­cie, I don’t know how I would deal with it. [the pro­duc­tion com­pany] said, ‘Well, surely that’s the rea­son to do this?”

Film­ing the show was cer­tainly an in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence for both Friel and her co-star Scan­lan, as they im­mersed them­selves in the trans com­mu­nity.

It was up­set­ting vis­it­ing Mer­maids, a char­ity for chil­dren and fam­i­lies who are deal­ing with gen­der di­ver­sity, where they heard shock­ing sto­ries of bul­ly­ing.

“To be called a ‘tranny’ and a ‘man-boy’, or ‘boy-girl’, it’s just aw­ful for any child. But it’s more about the par­ents of some of the other chil­dren: ‘We don’t want them in our class, they might do some­thing to our child.’

“Adults were be­ing spat at and hav­ing death threats and you think, ‘They’re al­ready go­ing through ut­ter trauma and you’re just mak­ing this 10 times worse.’”

The star was asked if she wanted to be a co-pro­ducer on But­ter­fly, mean­ing she was in­volved from the very be­gin­ning, from cast­ing to work­ing on the scripts and de­cid­ing how it was go­ing to be shot.

“My first thing was, ‘Well, why can’t we get a real trans­gen­der child [to play Max/ Max­ine]?’ ” she dis­closes. “I was ed­u­cated on the fact that it would re­ally dam­age them, be­cause in our story you’ve got to go from boy to girl and you’d be ask­ing a trans­gen­der girl to go back to be­ing a boy.”

Dis­cussing the chal­lenges of the cast­ing process, Friel adds: “Be­ing a child ac­tress my­self, I wanted to make them feel as com­fort­able in the room as pos­si­ble be­cause I know [au­di­tions] are daunt­ing, even at this age.”

Friel’s first pro­fes­sional act­ing job came, aged 13, in Chan­nel 4’s GBH, where she played the daugh­ter of Michael Palin’s char­ac­ter. And she’s pos­i­tive about what roles are yet to come.

“There was a time of think­ing in your head that, in your 40s, there’s less women’s roles avail­able,” she says. “But we’ve seen in the face of me­dia that you don’t just be­come bor­ing and un­in­ter­est­ing be­cause you turn 40.

“In fact, you ac­tu­ally be­come more in­ter­est­ing. You’ve got more life and story to tell.”

She also knows the im­por­tance of hav­ing a break from work some­times. Af­ter shoot­ing ITV’s Mar­cella for five-and-a-half months to­wards the end of last year, she re­veals she made her­self have a “re­ally dis­ci­plined” two weeks.

“I didn’t go out, I didn’t see friends. I sat and thought to my­self, ‘Right, it’s now time just to be a mother and be ev­ery­thing to your lit­tle girl.’” But­ter­fly, ITV, Sun­day, 9pm

CLOSE BOND: Anna Friel as Vicky Duffy and Callum Booth-Ford as Max/ Max­ine Duffy in ITV’s trans­gen­der drama But­ter­fly

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