Anna Friel talks ground­break­ing roles, suc­cess in the US and why she’s not go­ing to let fear rule her love life

Red - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAVID GU­BERT Styling NI­COLA ROSE

After 20-plus years of in­hal­ing Marlboro Lights, Anna Friel has re­cently taken up vap­ing. ‘I’ve started go­ing to a shop near where I live in Wind­sor,’ she says. ‘And what I’ve dis­cov­ered,’ she adds, sti­fling a gig­gle, ‘is that I like creamy, milky tex­tures. None of these fruity ones!’ she grins, wag­ging a French fry in the air like a fin­ger. ‘But yeah, if you’re won­der­ing who’s keep­ing all the vape stores in busi­ness, it’s the likes of me, go­ing, “Ooh! What turbo is that, then?”’ We’re sit­ting in an old-school Maida Vale pub; Friel with a glass of Diet Coke in hand, hav­ing lunch. Al­though she hasn’t had a ci­garette to­day – or a vape, for that mat­ter – the ac­tress is, she ad­mits, still smok­ing. ‘Just the odd one. Mostly it’s when I’ve had a drink or when I’m on set – that’s a join­ing thing,’ she ex­plains. ‘It’s al­ways when you go for a smoke with some­one that you end up hav­ing a big old con­ver­sa­tion. But you know,’ she says, as if rea­son­ing with her­self, ‘I am drink­ing less.’ Lately, she’s started wa­ter­ing down her wine. ‘Just the white. It’s a good tip, ac­tu­ally – swap the soda in your spritzer for S.pel­le­grino or Per­rier.’ And to fur­ther off­set any wrong­do­ing, she’s still drink­ing her sworn-by daily morn­ing shake – an an­tiox­i­dant-rich com­bi­na­tion of wal­nuts, veg­eta­bles, flaxseed, co­conut oil and frozen berries. So, who’s she try­ing to per­suade? Friel pre­tends to groan in­wardly. ‘You sound like my brother – he’s a doc­tor. He thinks I’m a com­plete id­iot. But there can come a point when you feel too good,’ she says, chuck­ling. ‘I gave up smok­ing for two years, but it got to the point where I said to David [Thewlis, her ex and fel­low ac­tor], ‘I don’t do any­thing. I go to bed at 9pm. I wake up at 6am. I eat well, I ex­er­cise…’ At which point, we turned to each other and said,

“Oh go on, let’s have one, then.”’

After all these years in show busi­ness (29, to be ex­act), Friel hasn’t lost her sense of hu­mour. On screen, she’s best known for playing a string of se­ri­ous, of­ten shad­owy char­ac­ters – most re­cently, a psy­cho­log­i­cally un­hinged de­tec­tive in the TV se­ries Mar­cella – but in per­son I’m re­minded far more of her rebel child of the 1990s, fall­ing out of clubs with the Prim­rose Hill set. ‘It’s prob­a­bly why I’m still a mem­ber of the Grou­cho,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘I can’t let that go. I’ve been pay­ing my an­nual fees since I was 18, al­though I haven’t prop­erly lived in Lon­don since I was 22. I lived in LA for years and still paid the di­rect debit,’ she says, mak­ing an amus­ingly baf­fled face.

These days, home is 20 miles from the cap­i­tal in Wind­sor with Gra­cie, 13, her daugh­ter with Thewlis. But ev­ery now and again, she’ll still find her­self at the bar, ‘drink­ing the most ex­pen­sive glass of red wine I’ve had in two years’. Has the clien­tele changed? ‘Not mas­sively – it’s the same old crowd, mi­nus the pa­parazzi.’

At the height of Friel’s tabloid hey­day – the postBrook­side years of her late teens – there was barely a day when she wasn’t seen through a long lens. Things calmed down when she ini­tially moved to New York to ap­pear on Broad­way. ‘They were such rocky years,’ she says now, her Rochdale ac­cent more in­tact than any US in­flec­tion. ‘And then I met David. He sort of took me by the horns and res­cued me,’ she says, en­velop­ing her­self in a hug to ex­plain. After four years to­gether, they had Gra­cie then, in 2010 – after nearly a decade to­gether – they split. For some years af­ter­wards they lived op­po­site each other in Wind­sor, but Friel tells me Thewlis has since mar­ried, and di­vides his time be­tween an­other nearby house and Paris.

Now, at 42, she’s sin­gle. She won’t quite talk about the specifics of who she’s been dat­ing, al­though I men­tion that when Red last in­ter­viewed her, there had been some­body. She’s try­ing to do the maths. ‘I’d still say

I’ve had only three very se­ri­ous com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ships: Dar­ren [Day, who she dated when she was 18], David, and then Rhys [Ifans, whom she dated for three-and-ahalf years and split from in 2014].’ Then there was ‘army guy’ – some­one she was see­ing for two years – and then ‘some­body else’. And now? She raises an eye­brow, a coy


smile creep­ing on to her face. ‘Let’s just say I haven’t made my mind up yet.’

We meet at a time when it seems there’s lots to be fig­ured out in Friel’s life. At home, she’s set­tled – ‘the house is fin­ished. Gra­cie’s gor­geous’ – but at work, there’s a ques­tion hang­ing over her about whether to re­sume where she left off 10 years ago, liv­ing and work­ing out of LA. Two days ago, she took a call re­gard­ing an of­fer for a new US role based there, ‘And the first ques­tion they asked me was, “How can we make it work for you?”’ she says. It’s ev­i­dent from her ex­pres­sion that this hasn’t hap­pened be­fore. ‘No way! Ever since I had Gra­cie, no one has re­ally said, “We know you’ve got a daugh­ter, what can we do to get you out here again?”’

It’s in­dica­tive, she says, of how the land­scape for ac­tors who are par­ents is chang­ing. ‘I think so many more ac­tors are open about the fact their lives are dic­tated by chil­dren now, men and women. They don’t want to go away and work for long stints on TV se­ries filmed in places they don’t live, and so a lot more of the work is com­ing back to LA.’ As a re­sult, there are bet­ter terms: ‘It’s not, “You have to de­cide to­mor­row about a six-year con­tract and you’ll have to live in Al­bu­querque,” as it once was.’ And so, after a pro­longed pe­riod fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on Bri­tish TV, she’s started think­ing again. ‘But Gra­cie’s 13,’ she frowns. ‘A part of me just says, “I can’t.”’

It’s clearly a de­ci­sion she’s los­ing some sleep over, at a time when Gra­cie is build­ing her own life and crav­ing in­de­pen­dence. This sum­mer, they hol­i­dayed sep­a­rately for the first time ever and Gra­cie is ‘grow­ing up’, Friel says. ‘Emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally, we’re at that stage.’ The night be­fore we meet, they stayed to­gether at a Lon­don ho­tel. ‘We try to make a thing of that. She comes when I’m work­ing, and we do room ser­vice… this time, we had hot choco­late and whipped cream and fell asleep in each other’s arms, and we woke up that way. But I’m aware that can’t be for ever,’ she says, frown­ing again. ‘Al­though I’d like it to be. I did say, “If we can still do this, if you’re never too old for a cud­dle with your mum, it will be okay.”’

Al­though Friel would clas­sify her­self as a sin­gle par­ent, it’s clear that it’s been im­por­tant for Thewlis to play an ac­tive role in Gra­cie’s up­bring­ing. When they sep­a­rated, Friel had been star­ring in the US drama se­ries Push­ing Daisies but moved back to the UK for the sole rea­son of be­ing near Thewlis. ‘The sim­ple fact is I couldn’t take my child away from her fa­ther,’ she ex­plains, ‘and that meant giv­ing up Hol­ly­wood.’ Not that she’s one for re­grets – or is, at least, too philo­soph­i­cal to say so. ‘We all have those Slid­ing Doors mo­ments,’ she muses. ‘When I was in my 20s, there were roles I turned down that I shouldn‘t have, and things I missed out on.’ When I ask what those roles were, she cites Cameron Diaz’s part in Gangs Of New York, and the fe­male lead in Fight Club. ‘I lost out to He­lena Bon­ham Carter on that one, and quite rightly so. In fact, I think they were both cast cor­rectly – I wasn’t ready.’

In­stead of one big, life-chang­ing mo­ment, she seems to have achieved suc­cess in Hol­ly­wood on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, with her most re­cent ex­po­sure to in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences com­ing through Mar­cella. After be­gin­ning life as an ITV drama in 2016, the se­ries found its way on to Net­flix, and the fol­low­ing year Friel be­came the re­cip­i­ent of an Emmy Award for Best Ac­tress. To say win­ning her first ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ac­co­lade came out of left field is an un­der­state­ment: ‘But that’s TV for you now. I started off do­ing some­thing I thought was very Bri­tish, but it turns out ev­ery­one’s got lit­tle cin­e­mas in their homes, and the Amer­i­cans liked it.’

Her lat­est project, But­ter­fly, is an­other for ITV. In the three-part drama, she plays the mother of an 11-year-old boy who wants to per­ma­nently change gen­der, only to en­counter re­sis­tance from his fa­ther (Em­mett J Scan­lan) and the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity. It’s the kind of gru­elling, gritty role that Friel ex­cels in, but she talks of a dif­fer­ent con­nec­tion with the script. ‘For me, it just

took me back to Brook­side and the kiss,’ she says of the now-iconic les­bian clinch that be­came a na­tional talk­ing point when she played Beth Jor­dache, after join­ing the show at 16. ‘It took me back to that mo­ment, and the let­ters I’d get ev­ery sin­gle day, from peo­ple say­ing, “Please, please write back to me. I can’t speak to any­body.”’

‘It’s funny,’ she adds, ‘be­cause now be­ing gay is noth­ing. But back then, just that lit­tle bit of time ago, I’d walk down the street and it would be, “Lezza, you big dyke.” It was lit­er­ally this,’ she says, kiss­ing the back of her hand fleet­ingly, ‘but the ho­mo­pho­bia was mas­sive. And that’s sort of where I feel we’re at [ac­cept­ing the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity]. We’re be­ing open and talk­ing about what it is to change gen­der, but I don’t know that there is true ac­cep­tance yet – not for the peo­ple liv­ing it.’

Writ­ten by Bafta award-win­ning writer Tony Marchant, it’s a heart­warm­ing, emo­tional beast, and for Friel, a chance to play a more sym­pa­thetic par­ent than the one we see in Mar­cella – here, she’s staunchly pro­tec­tive and in­stinc­tive. In some ways, she says, the char­ac­ter is in­cred­i­bly close to her­self, and the younger ac­tors that play her chil­dren are a sim­i­lar age to Gra­cie. ‘Which blows my mind, be­cause that’s the age I started act­ing. I was 13 when I did my first TV drama [playing Michael Palin’s daugh­ter in G.B.H.], the same age as Gra­cie.’

In what seems the per­fect cliché for a child of two ac­tors, Gra­cie is al­ready show­ing signs of want­ing to fol­low her par­ents into the in­dus­try. ‘She has a tal­ent, and can sing beau­ti­fully,’ en­thuses Friel, ‘but I don’t know if she’s ready. Ev­ery now and again, David or I take her on set and after two hours it’s, “Can I go home now?” We’re try­ing to show her that if she wants to do this, she’s got to re­mem­ber how hard it is.’ It doesn’t help, she thinks, that when it comes to fame and celebrity, she’s part of a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion. ‘Now it’s al­ways more, next… the new Kar­dashian. I hear so fre­quently, “I just want to be fa­mous,” and I say, “Do you re­ally? I re­ally think you should think about that.”’

Those seek­ing fame would be wise to heed her ad­vice, given she en­coun­tered it all so early on in her life. At cer­tain points – no­tably the pe­ri­ods she dated Dar­ren Day and Rob­bie Williams – Friel seemed to be fol­lowed in­ces­santly by the red tops and, to some ex­tent, there has al­ways been me­dia in­ter­est in her re­la­tion­ships. But if there was any bit­ter­ness to­wards the press, she’s since learnt to be san­guine. ‘I think for us, the old school, the Prim­rose Hill set, that sen­tence, to be able to say, “It’s to­mor­row’s fish and chip pa­per,” well, it ac­tu­ally was,’ she says. ‘Now there’s so­cial me­dia, and I think for youth to have to live in a gold­fish bowl and present a con­tin­u­ally per­fect life, that must be a huge stress and strain. I can’t say I would swap,’ she shud­ders. ‘No, def­i­nitely not. And any­way,’ she laughs, ‘what is there to say about my re­la­tion­ships? I’m best friends with my exes.’

This much is true: in pre­vi­ous in­ter­views, she has spo­ken about how much she adores Ifans and Thewlis, and of the fact that she re­mains close to Ifans, speak­ing to him reg­u­larly. So, does this make her that rare species of woman who can stay mates with ev­ery­one she’s slept with? ‘Ha, maybe!’ What does she think is the se­cret? ‘I don’t know,’ she says, quite se­ri­ously. ‘I mean… with David, there was no money in­volved in our sep­a­ra­tion and we have a daugh­ter, so maybe that helps things. But in both re­la­tion­ships, things didn’t break down be­cause there was no love there. In re­al­ity, it was just be­cause we’d be­come friends, or we were spend­ing too much time apart, and that’s ac­tors for you – that’s our in­dus­try. I mean, how many ac­tors do you know that stay to­gether?’ It’s sad, I say. ‘It is, but then, we’re ideal­ists,’ says Friel. ‘We love the ide­al­ism of love and what we think we are, sort of in the same way that you can have it with so­cial me­dia – you can por­tray any kind of life you want.

And so, I just think we have to be more hon­est. I’ve def­i­nitely re­alised I need to com­pro­mise as I’ve got­ten older – I was never very good at it.’

Clearly, there are lessons she’s learnt, and if there’s one thing she’s look­ing for in a re­la­tion­ship now, it’s ‘kind­ness’. She says com­pla­cency is ‘the death of any re­la­tion­ship’. But along the way, she’s also had to ‘get rid of fear’. What does she mean? ‘Well, that was a big thing. I’d al­ways gone for men that were a lot older than me [Thewlis is

13 years her se­nior]. I used to think, ‘Oh my god, what if they leave you and go off with a 20-year-old?’

So, I think dat­ing older guys was partly to avoid that.’

Now she’s in her 40s, of course, she sees friends in all dif­fer­ent kinds of sce­nar­ios and they’re still get­ting di­vorced. ‘So, I try not to make rules for my­self. I’ll be in a re­la­tion­ship for love – I’m not go­ing to make a de­ci­sion based on fear. I mean, look at He­len Mir­ren – I’m pretty sure she set­tled down in her 50s, so maybe that will be me.’

She grins. ‘It will all fig­ure out,’ she says. It al­ways does. Al­though you get the sense it won’t be to­day. For now, she’s off to at­tend to a cou­ple of work mat­ters be­fore head­ing to the ho­tel spa and then she’ll be dash­ing to meet Gra­cie – maybe en­joy­ing a lit­tle vape on the way… But­ter­fly airs in Oc­to­ber on ITV1


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