Tack­ling a story about trans­gen­der kids is a great re­spon­si­bil­ity

But­ter­fly fol­lows sep­a­rated par­ents di­vided over how to sup­port their child, who was gen­der as­signed male at birth but has iden­ti­fied as a girl from a young age. Star Anna Friel talks to GE­OR­GIA HUMPHREYS about the sen­si­tive sub­ject mat­ter, her ex­pe­ri­ence

South Wales Echo - - Tv Highlights -

ANNA FRIEL is used to be­ing part of ground­break­ing TV. In 1994, the Rochdale-born ac­tress 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.

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, no one would even think about that at all, it’s the norm,” notes the 42-year-old.

“With any new topic that you’re deal­ing with, you’ve got to think time changes ev­ery­thing. We all talk more, we dis­cuss things...”

But­ter­fly, penned by Bafta award­win­ning screen­writer Tony Marchant, looks at a fam­ily in cri­sis – in par­tic­u­lar, the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween sep­a­rated par­ents Vicky (played by Anna) and Stephen (Em­mett J Scan­lan), as they work out how to sup­port their youngest child, Max (Cal­lum BoothFord).

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 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,” sug­gests Anna, star of dra­mas such as Push­ing Daisies, Bro­ken and Mar­cella.

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. And most peo­ple don’t know what to do.”

Anna is a mum her­self, to 13-year-old Gra­cie, who she had 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. And I don’t know what my views are be­cause I’m so illinformed.

“They (the pro­duc­tion com­pany) said, ‘Well surely that’s the rea­son to do this? That’s what we want. We want peo­ple to ques­tion, open their eyes and not be ig­no­rant’.” Film­ing the show was cer­tainly an in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence for both Anna and her co-star Em­mett, as they im­mersed them­selves in the trans com­mu­nity.

It was up­set­ting vis­it­ing Mer­maids – a char­ity that helps chil­dren and fam­i­lies who are deal­ing with trans­gen­der is­sues – where they heard Anna on the red car­pet shock­ing sto­ries of bul­ly­ing.

“To be called a ‘tranny’ and a ‘man­boy’ 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’,” says Anna.

“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 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 says.

“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, Anna adds: “Be­ing a child ac­tress my­self, I wanted to make them feel as com­fort­able in the room as pos­si­ble be­cause I know they (au­di­tions) are daunt­ing even at this age.

“We’d go out and meet their par­ents, and think, ‘What ef­fect is that go­ing to have on them, and are you ready to take this on?”’

Anna’s first pro­fes­sional act­ing job came aged 13, in Chan­nel 4’s GBH (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’.”

On that note, what does Gra­cie think about see­ing her mum on TV? “Well, she finds go­ing to set re­ally bor­ing, she’s like, ‘I can’t be­lieve you’ve got to do it again’.

“But then lately, for the very first time, she has started to ex­press a lit­tle bit of in­ter­est say­ing, ‘I’d quite like to do that’.

“When she reads lines with me, she has a per­fect Amer­i­can ac­cent. She spent two-and-a-half years in Amer­ica.” “She’s more fas­ci­nated about play­ing gui­tar,” she con­tin­ues proudly. “She’s an ex­cel­lent singer and gui­tarist and won­der­ful at writ­ing as well, which dad’s very pleased about.”

■ But­ter­fly starts on ITV to­mor­row at 9pm.

Max/Max­ine, Vicky, and Stephen in But­ter­fly

Anna Friel as Vicky and Cal­lum Booth-Ford as Max/Max­ine (L-R) Sean McGin­ley as Peter, Alison Stead­man as Bar­bara, Anna Friel as Vicky, Cal­lum Booth-Ford as Max/ Max­ine, Em­mett J. Scan­lan as Stephen and Mil­lie Gib­son as Lily

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