From TV’s first lesbian kiss to her latest role as the mother of a transgender child, Anna Friel never shies away from tackling controversial issues. She talks to Richard Godwin about getting jeered in the street, shared parenting with her ex and being happily single in her 40s.
Anna Friel has never backed away from controversial roles. She performed the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British TV while still in her teens and faced the public’s judgment. ‘I did this with a woman…’, she brushes her lips against the back of her hand, ‘and I would walk down the street and people would call out things like, “You dyke,” and, “That’s disgusting”. People had really strong opinions about it.’
That was in Channel 4 soap Brookside in 1994. Now, after nearly 30 years as a professional, Anna is more prepared for any audience reaction when her new drama Butterfly, which is certain to be highly controversial, airs on ITV this autumn.
Anna plays Vicky, the mother of a transgender child. The butterfly of the title is 11-year-old Max Duffy (Callum Booth-Ford), who wants to be Maxine. He has dressed as a girl at home for as long as he could express an opinion on the subject and his distress at being ‘born in the wrong body’ only intensifies as puberty approaches.
Vicky is a single mum who is determined to do right by her child even as she blames herself, wondering if something she did in pregnancy somehow altered his genetic make-up. The family tensions have already caused Max’s macho father to walk out. ‘He’s just gay,’ he insists, assuming his son will grow out of it if he plays enough football. Meanwhile, Max’s grandmother (Alison Steadman) makes archly unhelpful comments. Yet Max’s elder sister appears willing to accept Max for who she really is.
‘It’s a delicate subject,’ Anna says. ‘But what I hope this drama does is say, “Try not to be so opinionated if you don’t know anything about it.” Imagine how confusing it must be to get to the age of four and realise you’re a boy but you like girls’ dresses; being told that you’re not to do this or that, but you have this desperate need. And imagine how many people must have gone through that before transgender was something we talked about openly.’
Anna, 42, is dressed in a black playsuit, sipping a lime and soda in her local in Windsor, her Rochdale vowels pleasingly still in place. The pub is just a short walk from the home Anna shares with her daughter Gracie, 13. ‘She’s my angel,’ says Anna. ‘Every mum will feel that about their daughter but when you go through a separation, you really cling together.’ Gracie’s father, actor David Thewlis (Naked, several Harry Potter films, series three of Fargo), lives only 20 minutes up the road. He and Anna separated in 2010 after nearly ten years together but still see each other regularly.
The daughter of two teachers, Anna won her first role playing Michael Palin’s daughter in Alan Bleasdale’s 1991 Channel 4 drama GBH and has worked more or less constantly since. She breezed past her 40th birthday, spending it travelling around Africa before returning home for a ‘week-long pyjama party’ with close friends and family. ‘You have trepidation about growing older – mine was because I loved my 30s. But I’m all right with it. I really do believe you’re as old as you feel.’
On screen, Anna has managed the transition from doe-eyed ingénue to woman of the world with skill. Last year, her role as blackout-prone Marcella in the ITV detective drama of the same name won her an international Emmy and she has been turning heads in season two of the US political drama The Girlfriend Experience, as high-powered Republican financier Erica Myles who is not above using sex to get what she wants. If that kiss in Brookside was racy then you should see what she gets up to with her female lover here. But it is Butterfly that currently means the most to her.
To prepare for her role, she met transgender children and teenagers with their parents, through the gender-diverse children’s support charity Mermaids. Many of them went on to have minor roles in the drama. Anna recalls, ‘One little girl came up with this wonderful sentence, “The day God made me, he had a half-day off”. I asked, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, he didn’t finish me off because he didn’t know which body to put me in”.’ Adults often find this much harder to deal with than other children, and react with disgust. She’d had her nose broken twice, once by an adult who pushed her to the floor. She’d been spat at. She had to move house and schools.’
Butterfly arrives when transgender people are becoming far more visible in society but, Anna points out, when there are also ‘lots of people who do not want to normalise it’. In the media, especially online, debates about the Gender Recognition Act, which aims to allow trans people to determine their own gender, often turn toxic. Many wonder why a very small minority (estimated at significantly less than one per cent of the population) take up such a large amount of attention. They see all the talk about pronouns and gender-neutral school toilets as evidence that the world has gone mad. But sensitivities are understandably high given 35 per cent of young trans people have experienced physical assault, 27 per cent have attempted suicide and 72 per cent have self-harmed (as Max does in the drama).
But behind the stats and internet chat, the human stories are often missing, which is why Anna thinks a drama such as Butterfly is so important. And she is hopeful that change will come with time. Recalling that Brookside kiss, she says, ‘Twenty-something years later I’m doing full-on lesbian scenes in The Girlfriend Experience and no one blinks an eye. All it’s going to take is time. Eventually people will have to be more accepting.’
Butterfly is the first project Anna has co-produced. When she went to read the script, she was invited to get involved in research, scriptwriting and casting. She helped assemble a strong, female-centred crew – but choosing a Max was the first challenge. Scarlett Johansson recently withdrew from the upcoming film Rub & Tug, where she was set to play a trans man, after experiencing criticism on social media for taking the role when transgender actors are so under represented. With child actors, there are even more factors to consider.
‘We wanted to find a transgender actor to play Max,’ says Anna. ‘But the story goes from when they first start to question their identity through into the transition. After much consideration, we decided it would be unethical to ask a transgender child to go back to what they’ve escaped from.’
The project has even affected Anna’s opinions on the subject, particularly regarding the medication. Max is prescribed (reversible) drugs to delay the onset of puberty until he is old enough to make an informed decision about full gender reassignment and Anna says, ‘My first instinct with medication is that you want to give children as little as possible. I wanted to know what such powerful hormones did and what the side effects were.’ But she says when she came to realise ‘how miserable a life’ the child will have, she started to think, ‘Well, thank God for this medication.’
And when it comes to her own family? ‘Would I find it easy if it happened to Gracie? Absolutely not. I’ve seen the hardship these parents have gone through. But when I went to Mermaids, I saw what to me looked like happy little boys and girls. I’d had no idea that they had ever identified as the opposite.’ She also hopes the storyline will dispel the idea that it is possible for the child to ‘snap out of it’ or that the decision to change gender is taken lightly. ‘A lot of people think you have a sex change at 14. Of course you can’t. But you can be prescribed puberty blockers which basically press pause. Once you’ve grown a beard and dropped your voice, it’s much harder to change. If you take blockers early enough, it makes the transition easier.’
It is also ‘easier’ when authorities and parents are supportive, but transitioning is never ‘easy’. And it is not just the trans person who is affected. As Anna says, ‘The hardest part for parents would often be saying goodbye to the boy they loved. They’d be saying hello to Sally, for instance, but saying goodbye to Matthew. That was the worst, to think you’ll never see your boy again.’
Ready to move on to other subjects, she orders us a couple of Peronis at the bar and soon our conversation is ranging freely. She introduces me to Robert, the landlord and her ‘honorary godfather’ since he took her under his wing when she moved to the Royal Borough of Windsor 20 years ago. ‘The Queen does drive past occasionally,’ she says. ‘She likes to drive herself, but mostly they keep themselves to themselves.’
On the sex scene she had with Jared Leto in the film Sunset Strip: ‘He’s mesmeric, isn’t he? Like Jesus.’ The time she was the only English girl on a shoot in post-Communist Moscow: ‘There I was, on my own in this hotel. Every night it was [she puts on a thick Russian accent], ‘‘Anna, Anna, you want sex?”’ Her ambition to go to Oxford or Cambridge, before she landed the Brookside role: ‘I was an A-student. I wanted to be a barrister…’ she says wistfully.
But back to the now. Anna has a home in Los Angeles and another in Deià on Majorca but plans to remain in Windsor for the foreseeable future. ‘This is a lovely place to grow up. They can walk into town at 13 and you haven’t got to worry,’ she says, in reference to her daughter. But there is a plan B, as Gracie is studying the baccalaureate at an international school which, theoretically, allows her to transfer seamlessly to American schools if Anna has to be away filming.
Anna had once considered staying in the US, in Los Angeles, after her success in the award-winning 2007-9 black comedy series Pushing Daisies. But when her relationship with David ended and he settled in England with his new partner, Anna decided to move back too. ‘I couldn’t possibly take his daughter away from him; he would never have got to see her,’ she says. That sounds like a positive conscious uncoupling, I remark. ‘Yeah,’ she says with a smile. ‘You don’t have animosity if money isn’t involved. I had my house, he had his; we shared a daughter we both adore, so it was amicable. It can be done.’ She speaks of David with fondness. They met in 1998 on a plane to Cannes soon after her film debut in The Land Girls. ‘There was everyone on that plane: Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Kate Winslet… If it had gone down it would have taken half the British film industry. I went over and said, “Hi. I’m a Northerner, are you a Northerner too?”’ It took a while to turn that initial attraction into a date but after that they didn’t spend a night apart for a year. She says he ‘saved’ her from the tumult of life in the spotlight. ‘I was only 23 at the time and he was 13 years my senior. He grounded me.’
After they split, Anna went on to have a three-year relationship with Rhys Ifans, but now seems to be enjoying life as a single woman. Last year, she was photographed in close proximity to Stranger Things actor Charlie Heaton, 24, at a Bafta after-party. She professes that she feels more comfortable in her skin than she has ever felt, saying, ‘I would take my 40-something confidence, wisdom and knowledge over a perfect 18-year-old body any day.’
Which is not to say she did not have a lot of fun back then hanging out with Oasis, dating the likes of Robbie Williams. ‘Can you imagine if social media had existed then? We used to say, “Don’t worry about the media, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”. But the pressure on the new generation must be exhausting, constantly having to monitor yourself. The 90s were such fun. We worked hard and we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. If you were going to be young in any decade, that was the one to choose.’
She reflects that she would like to show a bit more of her fun-loving side again, having played a succession of ‘dark, heavy’ characters. ‘I’m going to lighten it up next time,’ she says. ‘Maybe it’s time to find another ingénue,’ she adds, hinting she is ready to pass on the baton to a younger actress. But I suspect that, however she decides to use her talents, there is still a lot more to come from Ms Friel.
Butterfly will begin on ITV next month.