Anna Friel on playing the mum of a transgender child in a topical new drama…
Sunday / ITV
Beautifully and sensitively written, this topical family drama, which tells the story of an 11-year-old boy, Max (Callum Booth-ford), who identifies as female, packs an emotional punch. Marcella’s Anna Friel and The Fall’s Emmett J Scanlan are superb as Max’s estranged parents, who can’t agree how best to support their child. We meet the cast to find out more...
New Drama Butterfly Sunday / ITV / 9Pm
As rain lashes down in a supermarket car park near Stockport,
TV Times is sitting with Anna Friel inside her Winnebago, which is draped with butterfly fairy lights, while a butterfly mug and an LED light box adorned with ‘Team Friel Butterfly’ stand on a shelf.
The decor is completely fitting, as we’re here to chat to the Marcella star about her thought-provoking and sensitive new drama, Butterfly.
The three-part series sees Anna play devoted mum and teaching assistant Vicky Duffy, whose 11-year-old son Max (Callum Booth-ford) identifies as female.
Max has tried to suppress his feelings, particularly to please his father Stephen (Girlfriends and The Fall star Emmett J Scanlan), who believes it’s just a ‘phase’.
But as Max starts senior school and puberty beckons, the pain he feels at having to conform becomes hard to bear, and he announces that he wants to live as a girl, Maxine.
While Max/maxine’s sister Lily (Millie Gibson) is supportive, Vicky and her estranged husband are at loggerheads over how to deal with the situation. But can they rebuild their own fractured relationship to support their child?
Anna, 42, tells us more… What was the appeal of this drama for you?
I found Vicky very relatable and I loved Max/maxine’s bravery and strength, but the script also made me laugh. It’s a very important story that needs to be told and needs to educate people. I feel a great responsibility. I keep thinking back to 25 years ago when I kissed a girl in Brookside. Everyone was like, ‘Aarrgh!’ and I got called all sorts of names, but now nobody would blink an eyelid – it’s the norm. Let’s hope we make the same progress with gender variance.
What impact does Max/maxine’s situation have on the Duffys?
The script’s so clever, because it’s looking at it from every person’s perspective. At one point, Vicky blames herself, so it’s honest and truthful. It’s about whether we can bring this family together with all these different opinions. You watch them on a journey of discovery.
How do the parents disagree? They’ve separated because of their difference in opinion. While Vicky’s not encouraging it, she’s listening to Max/maxine. But Stephen can’t cope and says that it’s ridiculous. Vicky sees her child is in agony. She’s no angel, but she has a mother’s instinct and thinks, ‘I want an alive daughter rather than a dead son.’
Has the drama made you think how you’d react in her position? I don’t know how I’d deal with it if Gracie [her 13-year-old daughter with ex-partner David Thewlis] said, ‘Mummy, I want to be a boy.’ I’d be saying goodbye to my little girl, and I learnt that the hardest thing for parents is saying goodbye to one child and hello to another.
How much did you know about the subject of gender variance? I was fascinated, but ill-informed. In the majority of the cases I’ve come across, these children have no choice – they say, ‘I’m in the wrong body.’ And it’s about their family being responsible because the biggest question around it is, ‘What if they change their minds?’ Most people don’t know what to do, but there’s a wonderful charity, Mermaids, to support them.
What research did you do? Emmett and I visited Mermaids. When I learnt about the bullying these children received, even from the parents of other children, I was flabbergasted. They were being spat at and having death threats, when they’re already going through trauma. I met many wonderful families and came away with empathy, compassion and respect for their bravery. I felt so touched when they said, ‘Thank you for telling our story.’ What was it like working with Callum, who plays Max/maxine? Wonderful. I first thought, ‘Why can’t we get a real transgender child?’ But it could’ve damaged them, as Max/maxine goes from boy to girl, so you’d be asking a transgender girl to initially go back to being a boy. So we had an audition process and, having been a child actress, I wanted to make the boys comfortable. We talked about the effect it’d have on them, but Callum said, ‘I’m acting – if people don’t get that, that’s their problem.’ His focus and level of understanding is way better than mine was at that age.
Did you enjoy having
Alison Steadman play
Vicky’s mum, Barbara?
Barbara and Vicky have a horrific relationship, and she couldn’t be more anti Max/maxine’s decision. But I was thrilled and honoured to work with Alison – she’s amazing. I’d met her once in London, and we discussed my lesbian kiss because she said she’d had the first TV one! She’s so lovely, and I’m learning all the tricks of the trade from her. It was freezing when we were filming one scene and she said, ‘You’ve not learnt the art of sticking a hot water bottle up your top.’ Now we’ve all got them shoved everywhere!
What would you do if your 11-year-old child felt that they had been born in the wrong body? That dilemma is at the heart of this absorbing three-parter, with Anna Friel on dazzling form as mum Vicky whose son Max (Callum Boothford) is increasingly distressed about having to suppress the fact that he identifies as female. Vicky’s estranged husband Stephen (an impressive Emmett J Scanlan) is uncomfortable about the situation, but as Max reaches breaking point, Vicky and Stephen are forced to confront the matter. A compelling, sympathetic look at a timely subject – and you will end up rooting for every member of the family.
metamorphosis: max/maxine’s family react in different ways
Mum Vicky with the son who wants tobe a daughter