Anna Friel, 20 years after Brookside: 'Please don't mention the B word’
Actress Anna Friel on her complex family life, boyfriend Rhys Ifans, broodiness and her gritty new TV drama
Anna Friel is nestled deep inside a voluminous Joseph sweater that prettily swamps her waif-like frame. Her hair is a chestnut tumble, brow smooth as a milkmaid, yet her wide green eyes are watchful as a startled cat.
She is, I fear, tense and waiting to spring. Will she proverbially claw my face if I mention either her personal life or the “B” words; Brookside and Beth Jordache?
Jordache is the character she played in the Liverpudlian soap and whose lesbian kiss (the first on British television) has haunted her ever since.
On the personal side, media coverage of her split from actor David Thewlis, with whom she has a daughter, Gracie, and her subsequent relationship with actor Rhys Ifans at one point threatened to eclipse one of her finest performances, namely as Holly Golightly in the West End version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“It does get me a bit down when the press wants to go on and on about my private life while I want to concentrate on the work I’m doing,” she says, with unexpected mildness, given her reputation for unblinking intensity when it comes to her craft. “I can understand there’s some degree of interest, but the public pay to see Anna Friel the actress, not Anna Friel, the mum, or Anna Friel, the girlfriend.”
Nor indeed, the Anna Friel of almost two decades ago. As a 16-year-old, she appeared in the Liverpool soap Brookside for 18 months in the early Nineties and scooped the 1995 Most Popular Actress title at the National Television Awards.
She is now 35, with a considerable body of work, including the multi-award-winning US series Pushing Daisies. But the spectre of Beth Jordache is always lurking in the wings.
“I think journalists always bring it up in case their readers don’t know who I am,” she says flatly, trying very hard to suppress the hint of a moue. “But I’d like to think that the public recognises me for some of my other work. I was in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH before I ever set foot in Brookside Close.”
If it’s any consolation, I say, her utterly gripping new ITV drama, which begins this Thursday, had me riveted and ought to jettison any memories of her as a soap starlet.
“Thank you,” she says, accepting the compliment with the sort of solemn graciousness with which the Japanese swap business cards. In Without You, Friel plays Ellie Manning, the happy wife of Hustle star Marc Warren. One evening, as she waits for him to return home from work, two policewomen come to the door. Her husband has died in a car crash. His female passenger was also killed; does she know the identity of the mystery woman?
Friel’s character has no idea. And so her torture begins, her descent into madness all but assured as she wrestles with the appalling suggestion that her husband may have been living a lie.
As Ellie turns detective to discover the truth, Friel bravely looks an absolute fright most of the time; no make-up, gaunt, a diminished shell of a person.
“I hated watching myself afterwards, but grief is ugly and raw, and it would have made a mockery of the part if I’d been wearing foundation or lip gloss. You have to stay truthful, although living in a state of sadness – even artificial sadness – really took its toll on me. I was quite relieved when filming ended.”
After several years in Hollywood, Friel’s stock couldn’t be higher. She gestures to a bag literally crammed with scripts she must read on the plane back to Los Angeles, where she has been summoned by her agent.
“I have been back in Britain for three weeks and now I really have to fly over to the States and talk about the various offers that have been made – and there have been an awful lot,” she says in her distinct Rochdale accent; the daughter of two teachers, she had originally planned to become a barrister.
“It’s all very exciting, but because of Gracie every decision I make has to be weighed up carefully. She didn’t ask to be from a broken home, so she must be my priority in all things.
“I don’t want her schooling to be disrupted, so at the moment I’m paying two sets of school fees; fees here in Britain and fees to keep her place open at her school in LA. Fortunately, she’s happy in both environments and it’s quite funny to hear her accent change accordingly.”
Reports that Friel employed one of her two nannies (no wonder she has barely aged!) specifically because of her Lancashire vowels, are wide of the mark – a happy coincidence rather than a deal-breaker.
Interestingly – happily – now we’ve discussed The Work, Friel is sweetly eager to talk about her home life and offers a vivid portrait of a complex, but loving, extended family dividing time between Britain, France and Los Angeles. She and Thewlis went their separate ways 16 months ago, after 10 years together, on the grounds that through work-enforced separations their relationship had evolved into one of friendship rather than passion.
“We both sat down and said, 'this isn’t working any more’. Maybe we just grew apart, and I certainly suspect if we had stayed together any longer we might not be friends,” she observes quietly.
Although she had known Ifans for a long time, their romance didn’t start until months after the split.
“David and I promised each other we would stay friends and we have; he has a house opposite us in Windsor and when we can, we do the school run together or if Gracie needs new shoes, the three of us go off shoe-shopping together,” she says.
Gracie, she stresses, is accustomed to travelling – she chalked up 10 countries in her first year of life – and to spending time with one parent or the other, which has greatly lessened the impact of separation, and Friel claims (one hopes not hubristically) that her daughter is entirely unaffected by her parents’ break-up.
“Rhys is a lovely, lovely man and brilliant with Gracie, but he’s not her dad and he’d never try to be. He’s more of a mate, a companion in crime, to her; they’re always playing silly tricks on me and we generally end up in a heap tickling each other. There’s a lot to be said for taking time out for a tickle.”
But juggling the busy diaries of three actors is far from easy and requires meticulous planes, trains and automobiles planning.
“We use a lot of chalkboards to coordinate our movements; David, for example, has three films he’s promoting and now spends half his time in Paris with his French girlfriend, Emile, whom he dated before we got together.
“Rhys has his own schedule and at this stage I honestly have no idea whether I’ll be moving back to LA or not.”
Broody thoughts of having a baby with Ifans are another complicating factor and Friel is upfront about her plans.
“I really would love more children, but I have three mortgages to pay, I don’t know where I’ll be and I honestly have no idea when I’ll find the time…” she trails off, helplessly and looks – improbably – even more ethereal than before.
After huge acclaim, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is transferring to Broadway, with a cast change – but, tellingly, the producers are adamant they want Friel to take this most iconic role across the pond.
“Doing theatre is fabulous when you get older,” she sighs, wistfully. Why? Because you have so much more experience to draw on for your character?
“No, it’s because you’re so far away, no one can see the wrinkles!” she bursts into peals of laughter. But as I look at her porcelain complexion – which she credits to Fraxel, a pricey laser treatment that claims to rejuvenate the skin – I find it hard to believe her concern could possibly be genuine.
“There is a lot of pressure in the US, because in LA especially people look really good well into their fifties – but it has as much to do with lifestyle; people exercise more, and they certainly don’t drink very much,” she says. “You can’t keep playing the ingénue when you’re in your forties, and there’s not a mature actress alive who hasn’t had to deal with the disappointment of losing out on a role because of the way she looks.”
I think Friel, the eternal girl-woman, has a few years yet before she needs to worry about the encroachment of liver spots. In the spring, a hard-hitting criminal justice three-parter, Public Enemies, will be screened on BBC One, in which Friel stars as probation officer Paula, a character as beset by demons as her charge, Eddie, released on life licence from prison after serving 10 years.
It is the sort of gritty role at which she excels and such stints on the small screen will re-establish her at home. But will the glister of Tiffany’s abroad prove too great to resist? Friel stands, uncertain, at a career crossroads; let’s just hope the transatlantic tug of love doesn’t tear her apart.
'Without You’, starring Anna Friel, is a three-part drama starting this Thursday at 9pm on ITV