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Wednesday 12 December 2018

'I hope we don't take it to a point where there is no allowance for flirtation' - Anna Friel on #MeToo

Anna Friel tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about the journey from teenage soap actress to Hollywood starlet, being on the receiving end of unwanted advances and her concerns around the #MeToo movement

Straight talking: Anna Friel remains true to her Northern England roots. PIC: Ril Schroer
Straight talking: Anna Friel remains true to her Northern England roots. PIC: Ril Schroer

Julia Llewellyn Smith

A strange realisation struck Anna Friel a couple of years ago. Having long been used to being one of the youngest people on a film or TV set, she suddenly realised she was now one of the "older" actors.

"Now all of the crew are in their 20s and 30s, and you think 'okay, how did that happen?' " says 41-year-old Friel. "I don't tend to think of it as a midlife crisis, more of a midlife wow. You're at the halfway point and you think 'okay, half of it's gone, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?'"

To date, Friel's career has followed a peculiar arc. She made her TV debut aged 13 playing Michael Palin's daughter in Channel 4 drama GBH. Three years later, she became a household name in the channel's soap, Brookside, with her character Beth Jordache's lesbian kiss (Britain's first pre-watershed) a moment of such cultural weight it featured in Danny Boyle's 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

Since then she's been in constant work - both here and in the US - but never landed that breakthrough part that would grant her A-list status. But in the past couple of years, there's been a definite sense of Friel's morphing from ingénue to established name, with acclaimed roles in - among others - Jimmy McGovern's BBC series Broken and Steven Soderbergh's Amazon political drama The Girlfriend Experience. Most notable, however, has been her eponymous role in Marcella, the ITV crime drama created by Hans Rosenfeldt, the man behind the Scandi-noir smash The Bridge. The part of violent and unpredictable cop Marcella Backland won Friel an International Emmy, her first major acting gong since the 1995 National Soap Awards.

"It's been a good run," she acknowledges huskily.

But even when basking in glory, filming series two, which begins next month, took its toll on Friel. Series one - which featured a serial killer who suffocated his victims with plastic bags - was stomach-churningly gory, but that darkness was nothing compared with this follow-up, which centres on child abduction and murder.

"You have to be very careful how you sell it," she says. "In the current climate, where the news is so negative, you worry people will say, 'I don't want something that will make me go urgh!'."

Friel is a mother herself, to 12-year-old Gracie, her daughter with ex-partner David Thewlis, and her experience of parenthood only intensified the impact the show had on her. "For me, working with those kids for five months just made me want to make sure they were okay. When you're a mother, the thought that there are people who would do those things to children is just horrible and, even though it's patently drama, you know Hans always bases it on something or someone he's read or seen. It's very brave of ITV to do it."

Friel is an engaging and warm presence, even if her perspective of her industry has become - inevitably - jaded.

"I feel for actors when they say 'Ooh, I'm going out to Los Angeles for pilot season'," she sighs. "They're all geared up and excited, you think 'Uh-oh, it's not as easy as that'."

Like them, Friel left, aged 21, for the US (although for her it was to star in Patrick Marber's Closer on Broadway), eager to shake off her reputation as a former soap star and - for a period - member of Kate Moss's louche Primrose Hill set. "No one in New York knew about Brookside or [ex-boyfriends] Darren Day or Robbie Williams, it was just about the acting and I did very, very well," she says. Awash with job offers, she moved to LA, but there her career stalled. "I was ill advised, told to do a romcom, which I didn't like at all and I thought I couldn't get out of it because I'd signed a contract, but I managed to, so I came home."

The romcom in question was produced by Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged sexually abusive behaviour last year scandalised Hollywood, though she says he was not the reason for her return. "Why I left America had nothing to do with Harvey.

"I've been in this industry since I was 13 and there's lots of things I've come across, but I'm lucky enough to know how to protect myself and to say 'No, f*** off!' and not care about the consequences. I have a strong 'no' ethic. Sometimes I think I said 'no' too often. There are things I should have said 'yes' to, but I err on the side of caution: 'No, hand slap, don't want to, not done this, not done that.'"

What she came across in her early career included Jack Nicholson - 40 years her senior - announcing that he wouldn't rest until he slept with her (she didn't) after seeing her in Closer.

"And when I was 19, in 1997, I made a film during which I was completely on my own for eight weeks living in one of those Stalinist blocks in Moscow with Mafia guys calling me for sex," she says.

Just last year, she walked out of a dinner at the Edinburgh Festival after Roy Price, who was then boss of Amazon Studios, allegedly made "unwanted advances" towards her.

"It didn't have enough of an effect to make me stand up and talk," is all Friel will say about that today. "There have been things in my life which have been much more dramatic."

She is behind the #MeToo movement - "what's happening now is absolutely necessary and we should have a debate" - but doesn't feel compelled to speak up, she says.

"I think it's wonderful and courageous and empowering for the people who have talked, but I don't want to feel under pressure that I have to."

She also has some concern about where it might lead. "I hope we don't take it to a point where there is no allowance for flirtation and for men and women to be natural with each other, because there are beautiful and natural differences between the sexes and we want to live in a world where we can all coexist, rather than going from a base of fear."

In my opinion, Friel's far too straight-talking to have engaged in the flattery and flirting that movie moguls would consider their due. She attributes her down-to-earthness to her upbringing in northern England. "Rochdale people just say it like it is, sometimes people say to me 'You're pretty tough, Anna' but that's all I've known."

She also credits her parents, both teachers, with instilling in her a healthy sense of self-worth. "Then I was bullied as a kid, and missed nearly 10 years of school [doing acting work], so I just know how to handle myself."

Despite her initial bad experiences there, she returned on and off to LA for much of the noughties with her ex-partner, the actor David Thewlis, 13 years her senior, whom she met on a flight to Cannes in 2001. While in LA, she made the Emmy-winning comedy Pushing Daisies, which brought her fame Stateside, and she still owns a house there.

However, after she and Thewlis split eight years ago (she subsequently had a long relationship with actor Rhys Ifans, but is now single), she based herself in Windsor so that Gracie can be near Thewlis. "You don't choose your career over your child; she has to be with her father," she says crisply.

The relocation back to the UK seems to have boosted Friel's career - she's currently filming Butterfly, Tony Marchant's forthcoming drama in which she plays the mother of a transgender child, and she radiates confidence. "I feel more grounded at this age, more settled in myself," she says. "If someone said would you like to be 20 again, I'd say 'no'."

With her high, freckled cheekbones, thick dark hair and delicate build, Friel may not feel 20 but she scarcely looks older. Previously she's spoken of having "vampire facelifts" to look younger; now she harrumphs that was exaggerated and her looking-good secrets are sleep, water, "my cold-pressed juices" and exercise.

"The more secure you get with yourself, the less all this seems to matter; you want to grow old gracefully but this is our industry and people look at you and you want to look after yourself," she says.

"I've had someone say to me 'You want that looking at'," she adds, patting her non-existent stomach. "I just very strongly swore and looked them in the eye and said, 'You're really, really lucky I haven't got an issue because that could have made me have one'. Then I walked away and ate my doughnut."

As I said, perhaps Friel was too candid for the old Hollywood, but now her time may be coming.

The second series of Marcella begins on ITV on Feb 19


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