‘Openness and kindness are the key’ — The Big Interview with Anna Friel
Heeding the advice of her fellow Greater Mancunian, Morrissey, Anna Friel has spent the day in bed. With David Attenborough.
Given a rare day off in the middle of a hectic shoot for her new transgender drama Butterfly, which itself has followed on swiftly from a full-on four months filming the second season of the hit ITV Scandi-noir style drama Marcella, Anna has been in her pyjamas all day, vegging out with Blue Planet II.
She’s still wearing them when I arrive to talk to her, breathless and late for our rendezvous, following a monstrous, south Manchester, rush-hour gridlock. Kindly, she postpones her reflexology appointment to make time for our talk.
‘I’m a girl who likes her pyjamas, albeit silk,’ she explains, as she offers a herbal tea and pops a gluten-free lasagne – ‘today’s a cheat day’ – in the microwave. ‘This is how I get balance in my life.’
‘I would stay in bed for the weekend, I couldn’t do anything’
Make no mistake, Anna Friel is feisty and fit at 41. Even in PJs and scarfing down a ready meal, she exudes style and looks years younger.
Her working days are arduous, generally 15 hours long, and she’s been living this life since leaving Bury’s Holy Cross Sixth Form College (she thought for six months) to play patricidal, patio-rearranging, pre-watershed-same-sex-kissing, Beth Jordache in Brookside in 1993.
Twenty-five years on, she seems busier than ever and just as high-profile with her latest drama, The Girlfriend Experience, exciting further lascivious tabloid attention on account of its lesbian sex scenes. Plus ça change, as they don’t say in Bury.
She has a rigorous regime to sustain her, details later, so when it comes to downtime she makes no apologies for going all-in.
‘When we were shooting Marcella,’ she recalls, ‘I would stay in bed for the weekend, I couldn’t do anything. I’d say to Gracie [her 12-year-old daughter with former partner David Thewlis] ‘Do you fancy a pyjama day today?’ And she’d be like ‘No, no that’s fine’. Deliveroo became quite a good friend.’
‘If they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be doing this’
Her route into performing was music rather than acting, with her father, Des, an accomplished folk guitarist, the inspiration.
‘There was always performance in our family,’ she recalls of her Rochdale upbringing. ‘We were Irish and very musical. I’d go into my living room and there would be 10 musicians sitting around.’
Anna doesn’t play an instrument, although she’s delighted her daughter appears to have inherited her dad’s aptitude for the guitar, but she’s always sung.
From choirs and musicals, via the encouraging words of her school drama teacher, she found herself at Oldham Theatre Workshop three nights a week and all day Sunday.
She recognises that for her mum and dad – ‘the absolute opposite of pushy acting parents’ – this was a big commitment.
‘They were the taxi and so they couldn’t have a glass of wine,’ she remembers. ‘If they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be doing this.’
She was cast, in her early teens, as Michael Palin’s daughter in Alan Bleasdale’s acclaimed drama GBH and then landed her life-changing role in the C4 soap Brookside after which she found herself in London and the subject of much paparazzi attention. Was she really the party girl they portrayed?
She smiles. ‘No, I was living on my own, so the choice was: Do I sit inside by myself or do I go out and see some of my friends? I was working every other day and I missed my parents and was lonely, so what do you do?’
Things improved when she moved out of London to Windsor (on the advice of her godparents) where she remains to this day.
‘I think your 20s are very hard to navigate’
‘I think your 20s are very hard to navigate,’ she reasons. ‘You’ve got this weird kind of confidence, you think you can burn the candle and different things mean different things to you then. Now, I love my Aga and my garden.’
She manages to be an intriguing mixture of down-to-earth and distinctly starry. She talks warmly about missing her family – ‘I don’t see as much of them as my brother does, but their simple answer is ‘well move back up north’ and I’m not going to do that’ – and in the next breath reveals that Russian billionaire media mogul Evgeny Lebedev took her and Gracie on a two-week safari holiday to Africa as a 41st birthday present.
‘I’ve basically grown up on set,’ she explains. ‘Where’s the boom? Where’s the kit? It’s my family. When I have to create my own routine it’s hard, but I’m getting better at that. So many people would love my job, so even when I’m knackered I have to find that appreciation every day, as I’m doing something I love.
‘But as you get older the disruption of, say, going to live in Canada for three months, loses its appeal. Your first thought is ‘I’m going to be away from my daughter’ or ‘I’ve got to disrupt her schooling’ or ‘I’m not going to see my friends’.
And it makes relationships nigh on impossible. Think about all the actor-actor relationships. How many of them have worked? You can’t have all that time apart.’
‘Both of those men are utterly exceptional and I love them’
She has, of course, had two much-publicised relationships with other actors, first David Thewlis and then Rhys Ifans. Remarkably, she has remained on friendly terms with both of them. Is there a secret to this?
‘I think openness and kindness are the key,’ she reflects. ‘I was lucky in that I was financially independent so it wasn’t a separation that involved who has what. I had my house and David had his.
‘I gave up being in Los Angeles because that was where we were living at the time and that was my house, but then he and his girlfriend were in England.
‘So I had a career in America and it was going well but I would have had to make that choice: Stay in America and Gracie doesn’t see her father or you go back to England. And actually that’s been really, really good for me. I’ve never regretted that.
‘There’s never been bitterness because both of those men are utterly exceptional and I love them. They’re very, very special men and being with them was incredible in very different, enriching ways.’
She reveals that her last boyfriend was not an actor but won’t say whether she is currently dating.
‘Relationships are difficult. You just have to accept that’
‘I have to keep some things private,’ she says. ‘It’s all about circumstance and timings and what you want out of your life and where you are and there are factors I’m not willing to divulge.’
She continues: ‘When I was younger, I thought I had to answer everything. I don’t. Relationships are difficult. You just have to accept that.’
She’s clearly happier talking about Gracie, who is showing some interest in following in the footsteps of her parents.
‘I’ve said to her, nepotism will never be involved,’ she says. ‘Mummy and daddy can’t help.’ Not that Anna seems worried if her daughter does go into the business. She comes across as a confident mother.
‘They talk about Positive Mental Attitude,’ she muses, ‘and I have never worried about the kind of child I would have because I had such a wonderful childhood and amazing parents. I knew my child would be incredible because all she’s ever gonna see and feel is love, and she’s going to feel so protected. And that’s what she has been.’
‘When they bury me, I’ll be going down saying “No, I’m not ready, I’ve still got to do this!”’
Turning 40 wasn’t a problem. She threw a pyjama party (what else?) for her friends and eked out the celebrations for a year. She considers the future with equanimity. Would she consider plastic surgery?
‘I don’t know. It depends how I age,’ she replies. ‘I don’t think I need to think about that at the moment, but I’ll keep an open mind.
‘As you get older,’ she continues, ‘you get more confident and learn who you are, but you think, “F**k, I’m half way through. I could be more than half way through.
‘Time is so precious and I have so much to do. When they bury me, I’ll be going down saying “No, I’m not ready, I’ve still got to do this!”’
The second series of Marcella, for which Anna’s first series performance won her best actress at the International Emmy Awards, begins on ITV this month. Watch our intimate, exclusive video interview with Anna at balance.media/anna.
ANNA FRIEL’S 5 SELF-LOVE TIPS
- BATHS: ‘I love baths, particularly with Epsom Salts which just sooth your stresses away. Plus Liquid Yoga (£26, Mio Skincare) – an amazing restorative you add to the bath.’
- MACA POWDER: ‘I discovered this in LA when I had bad period pain and it’s fabulous, but I was warned it can make you highly fertile. I recommended it to two women I knew who were trying to get pregnant and within three months they both were.’
- DOGS: ‘I do a dog share with one of my best friends. We came up with the idea while doing dry January last year – you have so much free time! I didn’t understand the unconditional love they give you. It’s like if you’re a kid and given a teddy bear and it comes alive. Dogs are like that.’
- TURMERIC: ‘I’ve been taking turmeric for years. The best trick for sleep is apple cider vinegar in hot water with really strong turmeric. They work wonders.’
- DITCH PALM OIL: ‘Palm oil is in so many things. The thing they put in our food is the same thing they put in motorbike engines. Do you really want that to go into your body?’
Credits: Photography: ©RANKIN. Hair: Luke Benson using GHD & Oribe. Make-up: Lauren Griffin using Mac. Styling: Orsolya Szabo. Anna wears: Grey checked Suit by Sandro, Green Velvet Suit by Rockins, Jumper BY Bella Freud. Props: Velvet Curtains, from £55, Next; Darcey Desk, in Walnut and Oak, £399, made.com.