Anna Friel: ‘I’ve suffered the consequences of speaking out’
Anna Friel normalised the on-screen lesbian kiss and used her last role to make female mental health a talking point. Her next move? Transgender children. She talks to Hannah Flint about courting controversy, dealing with sexual harassment and starting he
it’s a blisteringly hot day in South-west London and Anna Friel has just arrived in impenetrably dark sunglasses, a black trilby hat covering her face and skin-tight black jeans.
I fear this proves what I’d heard before our interview: that Anna can be… difficult – guarded – especially around any talk of her love life (she famously dated David Thewlis for nine years, with whom she has a daughter, Gracie, and just as famously became part of the Primrose Hill set during a three-year relationship with Rhys Ifans). But then she sits down, the sunglasses come off, and the questions start. Where did you get your hair cut? Should I go short? How old are you? Do you want to try my perfume? ( The Oud Affair by Vilhelm Parfumerie – it’s delicious.) Anna, it seems, is going to be anything but difficult.
It’s a fitting metaphor. On screen, she is well-known for meaty and, more often than not, rather controversial characters. Yes, there was that lesbian kiss on Channel 4’s Brookside, the first ever to be broadcast pre-watershed on British screens. But also, more recently, Broken, a gritty drama alongside Sean Bean; The Girlfriend Experience (a ‘hypersexual’ political drama); and the acclaimed series Marcella, in which Anna played a detective with a dissociative disorder that left her with flashbacks and memory loss (and which
She’s not quite sure why such talking-point roles come her way. ‘I don’t seek them out, particularly,’ she shrugs. ‘It just seems to have become my niche. I think it’s because I’m open-minded about it. It’s about not being shy conveying those things.’ But, at 42 (she celebrated her birthday a few days before we meet with Princess Diana’s niece Lady Kitty Spencer, a good friend), she’s grateful that roles for older women have got better. ‘I don’t think the age barrier is being as enforced as it once was. I’ve got work up until 2021, and I’m not slowing down.’ Still, she’s keen to branch out. She’s one of the producers on Butterfly, which is something she wants to do more of. And she has a plan: she’s in the process of buying up books to develop into films and TV series – all of which she will produce herself.
‘I’m obviously not going to tell you which ones I have bought,’ she laughs. In news that will please her mum, there’s a very light-hearted story, but others will be darker, and one character will be ‘a bit nuts’. I ask if she’s gunning to be the British Reese Witherspoon, who, after years of being cast as a blonde in romcoms, decided to buy up books and produce her own projects, among them Big Little Lies and Wild. ‘Did she? She’s probably a little better at it than me,’ says Anna, rather self-deprecatingly.
What’s interesting, though, is that Anna isn’t doing this for the same reason. Where Reese is all about creating interesting roles for women, Anna says that’s only part of her motivation. ‘It’s not me saying, “I’m a feminist, I just want roles for women,”’ she says. ‘ There’s a book I’ve got that’s got an amazing part for a man.’ So, is she a feminist or not? ‘I just don’t want to be an extreme anything,’ she sighs. ‘I just want there to be equality and fairness and us all working together. I still love the old-fashioned men and women being able to flirt. And I think there’s so many guidelines, we’re not going to be able to know how to move forward.’
Which brings us to the question all actresses are inevitably being asked these days. And in Anna’s case, it’s particularly relevant. In February, she briefly opened up about claims she had experienced ‘unwanted advances’ from an Amazon boss in 2016, but maintained that it didn’t do her ‘enough damage’ to comment on it at the time. Will she today? ‘I think it’s up to each individual how much they want to talk about it, or how much they don’t,’ she says. ‘ There were so many other people who had stories to tell, and such important stories of horror, that they needed to do that.’ She pauses. ‘I’ve always been somewhat a tough cookie, I’ve been in the business since I was 13. I won’t go into detail about how I think things might have had an effect, because I’ve managed to overcome them. But I could say no quite loudly. And I probably did suffer the consequences.’ Does she mean in terms of career advancement, I ask. ‘I think that says enough,’ she replies, shutting down the conversation.
Either way, I wonder how she feels about the position of women on screen. Sure, the roles are getting better, but there’s still an inordinate amount of pressure for women to look good. ‘Oh, it’s getting worse,’ she says, rather nonchalantly. ‘Look at the amount of reality TV programmes. And retouching – I can’t bear it. It just makes it impossible for anyone to live up to. We’re creating a fabricated world.’ She tries not to worry about her body or hair changing as she gets older, especially because she can see it all play out on screen. But she jokes that she is ‘particular’ about good lighting.
Today, Anna lives in Windsor with Gracie, now 13, with a balcony overlooking Windsor Castle (where Anna and friends sat avidly watching the royal wedding earlier this year). She also has a house in LA, where she lived while filming Pushing Daisies, a series that landed her a Golden Globe nomination. Suffice to say, all of this has made for a rather charming accent today: mostly Northern, but with minor hints of the US and posh, Southern English. But she has no intention of going back to the States. ‘It would mean moving Gracie back,’ she sighs. ‘It would be so difficult.’
Now seems like a good time to ask her the obvious: what is the deal with her love life? ‘ That part of my life, I’ve chosen to keep it private,’ she says. ‘Otherwise, I think you set yourself up for a curse. Let’s just say, I’m not not dating. I like love too much.’ Either way, she doesn’t seem at all bothered. Indeed, I get the impression that Anna is just fine with where she is, in her career and her life with Gracie. ‘I’m most excited about the roses in my garden, I keep looking at them,’ she says, without a hint of irony. ‘And I like my Aga!’ Perhaps all that drama on screen is quite enough. ‘ Butterfly’ is coming soon to ITV
i don’t think the age barrier is being enforced as it once was
The kiss: Beth (Friel) and Margaret (Nicola Stephenson), Brookside, 1994
Above: Booth-ford with in Callum Butterfly. Top: celebrating her birthday with Lady Kitty Spencer (top left)