Sunday 23 July 2017

Anna's odyssey: ‘If something doesn’t work out, the pressure is on, and it’s poor heartbroken Anna’

The actress tells Tanya Sweeney why she's leaving her party days behind and refuses to be defined by her age

Friel good factor: Anna Friel. Photo: Stephanie Sian Smith
Friel good factor: Anna Friel. Photo: Stephanie Sian Smith
Anna with her former partner David Thewlis
Anna Friel in a scene from Tomato Red

Tanya Sweeney

If you're an actress, the delicate beauty of the ingénue has its advantages, allowing as it does a woman to shapeshift from one role to the next. It's certainly helped Anna Friel down the years, and her CV has run the proverbial gamut, from gritty Northern drama to Hollywood sci-fi thriller.

Things have been especially diverse of late in Friel's working life, and sandwiched between TV cop drama Marcella and glossy mystery IT is a pitch from left of field: the atmospheric feature film, Tomato Red.

Soaked in Dust Bowl despair and slick tension, Tomato Red - directed by Irish filmmaker Juanita Wilson - is picking up festival buzz, and rightly so. At the heart of the tale, about a loner who slopes into small-town America and befriends a compelling but dysfunctional white-trash family, is feisty matriarch Bev. And on Friel's watch, Bev moves from a woman of simple pleasures to a defeated, resigned husk of a thing.

Friel attended the recent Audi Dublin International Film Festival (ADIFF) premiere, and while she's a frequent presence on screens both large and small, it's quite something to see how luminous and ethereal she is in person. Her wide-eyed intensity, as she curls up in a hotel armchair, is at odds with a bolshie, salty humour. Perhaps the quick wit has to do with being half-Irish - her father Des was born in Belfast and grew up in Donegal.

According to Friel, Tomato Red's four-week shoot in Colorado was eventful to say the least. There was a moment where the vehicle the cast was travelling in was confiscated for speeding, and a chilling episode where Friel's stalker followed her to the outpost where filming took place. Add to this perfecting a Southern accent in just three sessions and dying her hair blonde for the role at a Dublin salon at the start of the project ("thank God for Olaplex, or else I'd look like Courtney Cox in that Friends episode"), and it's safe to assume that Tomato Red was something of a labour of love. And while Bev is 40 - Anna's age - in the Daniel Woodrell-penned novel that the film is based on, Friel's youthful sheen proved more hindrance then help when it came to landing the role of life-weary Bev: "I'd auditioned in LA but (initially) they thought I was too young," she recalls. "There was talk of ageing me up, but in the end we just did what we did."

In a wider sense, we're probably more likely to hear actresses speak out about being too old to be considered for cinema's meaty roles. I mention Amy Schumer's brilliantly incisive sketch Last F***able Day, which went viral in 2015. It stars a cluster of fortysomething actresses, among them Patricia Arquette and Tina Fey, as they gather to celebrate the last day in which an actress can feasibly play a love interest. Schumer brilliantly skewers Hollywood ageism, but Friel is aghast.

"Helen Mirren, Helen Mirren, Helen Mirren," she says decisively. "It's about how you carry yourself, the confidence of a woman. I don't think I'd allow anyone to put that tag on me."

How did she feel about turning 40, a milestone reached last July?

"I went on safari in Africa with Gracie," she says, referring to her 11-year-old daughter with actor David Thewlis, with whom she split up in 2010. "As opposed to having a big shindig, we were in the wilds, running around with elephants."

I skirt around the question of Tomato Red's disenfranchised white underclass - a demographic given much focus of late in Trump's America: "It's happening all over the world," she says. "I saw (producer) Bryan Fuller (with whom Friel worked on the TV series Pushing Daisies in 2007) the other day who'd flown in from LA, and he was saying how people are still in complete shock over there.

"I was anti-Brexit, and I've no problem saying it. I hope to God all the people who voted for it are vindicated and it was the right decision, but I can't quite see it right now. See, my family is Irish so I'm able to apply for my Irish passport, which I should have done," she adds. "I've spent half my childhood in Belfast.

"I did (US comedy film) An Everlasting Piece (jumps into a spot-on Belfast accent) in my daddy's accent. It's not nice when your family tells you, 'your boyfriend does it better'. Like, 'where's the blood?'"

Presumably, Friel is referring to Thewlis, who played a Belfast columnist in Divorcing Jack. The two split after a 10-year relationship, yet have retained an enviably strong friendship, and now delight in co-parenting Gracie - along with a canine addition to the family. "We've just gotten a puppy, Maggie May, and it's our first dog share," she enthuses.

What of the prospect of having a daughter close to the precipice of adolescence? "To be honest, I won't allow myself to go there because I'd worry too much," she admits. "But Gracie is really grounded and unspoiled. She's been offered the chance to do amazing parts on big things and doesn't want to. She knows what hard work it is."

A career as an actress has its downsides, and keeping one's private life just that can be a challenge.

In years past, Friel was pure media catnip, not least because of her alliance with the North London party set, active in the 90s and Noughties, that also counted Kate Moss and Sadie Frost as leading lights. These days, she has swapped the Groucho for the great outdoors.

There's a theory that it's as easy for well-known actors to escape the glare of media attention as not, and I put it to Friel.

"Well, did you know that I had a boyfriend for a whole year and I'm not with him anymore?" she asks, an eyebrow raised in mischievous triumph, knowing that the media has been none the wiser.

"I just don't go to the places. I don't go, 'ooh, I'm not talking about this'.

"But wisdom has taught me not to say anything. Rhys (Ifans, the actor who she dated for two years until 2014) is still my best friend.

"But people seem to get obsessed by it, and if something doesn't work out, the pressure is on, and it's all 'poor heartbroken Anna'." Friel takes it all on the chin. Indeed, I notice that some tabloid reports have referred to her as 'unlucky-in-love Anna Friel'.

"Oh, they love all that," she smiles. "They're hardly going to say, 'she's really happy, doing well… oh, and she just got a puppy!'"

Tomato Red is on limited release in cinemas now

Irish Independent

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