Anna Friel: ‘Break-ups happen, but it’s still painful’

Anna Friel has never shied away from emotionally challenging roles. But there’s one thing that always keeps her grounded. She tells Cole Moreton how being a single mother to daughter Gracie has been the making of her.

‘You’re in that character’s headspace more than in your own, for hour after hour. You’ve really got to live it,’ says Anna Friel, of playing Marcella, a cop with serious mental health issues, in the hit crime thriller of the same name.

Marcella is constantly on the verge of discovery in the latest series – the third – of the ITV show. She’s living with gangsters in Belfast. She’s traumatised by the past. She blacks out and becomes violent. So Anna goes deep, dredging up memories to make the emotions real. ‘You have to go to some pretty dark places,’ she says. ‘So I go into a corner, put my headphones on, listen to music and get really sad. Sometimes I’ll bring up hurtful things I’ve gone through, almost like a negative meditation. Normally, meditation takes you to a place of calm, but I relive trauma and that gets filmed. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t picked up on things that have actually happened to me and they were put into the story.’

Anna Friel
Dress, Zimmermann, Rings, Sophia Perez Jewellery. Bracelet, Alex Monroe. Image: Nicole Nodland

What sort of things? ‘I don’t want to break confidences, but there was a tragedy in our family in regard to a baby. I was very close to all of it.’ The trauma at the heart of Marcella’s problems is the loss of her own baby. ‘Then there’s the breaking of relationships, loving your job so much that you put it before other things, or being away from your children.’ This all sounds gruelling. ‘It is, but it’s my job.’

How does she climb out of the darkness again? ‘When I see my daughter Gracie with her beautiful, happy smile, telling me how her day was – it makes everything OK.’

Suddenly Anna’s not an actor discussing her craft but a 44-year-old single mum who is very close to her only child. Gracie was 14 when Anna took her to Belfast with her for five months to film the new series of Marcella last year. Going home every night forced Anna to put aside all the trauma of the story she’d been filming. ‘It’s that mother instinct. Something kicks in that doesn’t allow you to not protect them.’ It also pulled her back to happy reality. ‘So, I’m totally there with feeling: “How the hell is it going to be in two years’ time when Gracie won’t be coming with me any more?” I’ll literally cry thinking of that.’

And she does. Anna’s eyes glisten. There’s a single tear on her cheek. This is not acting. Exams are looming and a change has already begun. Gracie is her daughter with the actor David Thewlis, but the couple split up a decade ago. ‘It has basically been the two of us since Gracie was five, so we’re a little unit. During the third year of her life, she went to ten countries. Everywhere I go, I take her.’

Anna Friel with her daughter Gracie
Anna Friel with her daughter Gracie. Image: Jo Davidson/REX/Shutterstoc​k

Mother and daughter have been all over the world making movies and TV and working for charity, but the teenager has now called time on their adventures. ‘Gracie said: “That’s our last year of travelling.” She’s doing an international baccalaureate and she just can’t be moving schools. It means that when I go away, I’ll be without her.’

Anna is sad but understands. ‘She’s 15 now. Her school workload is huge. She wants to be with her friends. She’s got her first boyfriend. That’s put everything into perspective as to how quickly time goes.’ The arrival of the first boyfriend can be difficult for a parent, can’t it? Anna smiles. ‘She’s chosen really well, so it’s not. He’s a delightful, polite Cuban boy.’

Still, Anna does get nostalgic. ‘Every time a family member says their baby won’t go to sleep, I say: “I’ll take them!” I miss that stage so much. It’s probably the only time in your life when you truly witness complete and utter unconditional love.’

The two live together in a Georgian house in Windsor, Berkshire, but all too soon Gracie will probably leave for university. ‘I’m dreading it. I left home at 16. My brother went to study to be a doctor at St Andrews. My father said the house just went too quiet. You’re left going: “And now what?”’

Anna was born in Rochdale and both her parents were teachers. She trained at Oldham Theatre Workshop and made her TV debut at 13, playing Michael Palin’s daughter in the drama GBH. Emmerdale and Coronation Street followed. She then landed the role of Beth Jordache in Brookside and became a household name at 18 after her character made history with the first lesbian kiss on British primetime TV. Soon she was living the high life, dating the likes of Robbie Williams, leaving mum and dad behind. Kids don’t understand how that feels, do they? ‘I know! I always joke with Gracie: “Mummy will get a house for you and I’ll live in the garden. I can help with the grandchildren.” They look at you as if you’re insane.’

A new look for Anna in the upcoming third series of Marcella. Image: ITV/Patrick Redmond

Has it just been the two of them during lockdown? ‘Yep,’ she says quietly. ‘A relationship I was in for four years broke down after about the first two weeks.’

Her frankness comes as a surprise. Since ending her nine-year relationship with Thewlis, then dating actor Rhys Ifans for three years, Anna has kept her love life under the radar. ‘When we went into lockdown, I remember thinking: “God, there’s going to be so many people breaking up during this.” While I like to keep my private life incredibly private, I think there’s going to be such a fallout at the end of all this that it’s important to say: “I’m human, it happens to all of us and it is difficult.”’

What went wrong? ‘There were lots of things. You’d have to be in a therapy session and talk for three hours to really understand all of that, but it was painful. And it still is.’

She’s being really vulnerable for someone who is, by her own admission, usually guarded. ‘At night when Gracie’s gone to bed I think: “OK, what do I do now?” But friends have been kind in thinking of me and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as they say.’

We’re talking over Zoom. Anna is in her kitchen, dressed in workout gear with her dark hair tied up. ‘Maybe I’m being more reflective because you don’t normally have time to stop and analyse these things. You just keep moving. Now you can really overthink stuff, so nothing feels without worry.’

Lockdown has been hard on lots of people, she continues. ‘Even if you’re in a relationship, some of my friends are still suffering from extreme loneliness because they’re just used to a life of being busy.’

Anna Friel with David Thewlis
With actor David Thewlis, father of their daughter Gracie, 2009. Image: WireImage/Jon Furniss

All this is a huge contrast to her life at the start of the century, when Anna moved to Hollywood and hung out with the stars. ‘I’ve been so fortunate to meet so many incredible people that I haven’t really been starstruck, but the most joystruck was when me and David were with Billy Connolly and Robin Williams. We laughed to the point I’ve never laughed in my life.’

This was just a fortnight after Gracie was born, in July 2005. ‘Billy used to throw these incredible week-long parties. I did two movies with him and he invited David and I over to stay. Robin was there and, I don’t know how, but the four of us just sat up and laughed and laughed and laughed. I felt totally honoured, just to hear two genius comics riff.’

She went on to break America with the dark comedy Pushing Daisies, be nominated for a Bafta and a Golden Globe and, more recently, star in US drama series The Girlfriend Experience. There could have been even more roles in America, but she moved back to this country after splitting with Gracie’s dad in 2010. ‘My agents would love me to go back there, but you choose a career in America and you take your child away from their father,’ she once said. ‘I had to sacrifice that.’

Back home, Anna has made serious, highly acclaimed dramas such as Butterfly, playing the parent of a transgender child – but her biggest hit by far has been Marcella. This British take on the Scandi-noir genre was created by Hans Rosenfeldt, writer of The Bridge. The first two series of Marcella were set in London, but this time it’s Belfast.

Anna Friel
Jumper, Temperley London. Shorts, Ginia, Image: Nicole Nodland

‘This one’s so different that you don’t need to have watched the first two series – it stands alone. Marcella has the name of Kiera now – what she is called undercover – and is blonde not dark. Her clothes have changed, too. It was quite discombobulating because you think you’re making the same show but we were not, really. All the actors now are Irish. At least Ray Panthaki, who plays the detective Rav, comes back from the previous series, so I was joyous, like: “I’ve got a friend!”’

She is executive producer for the first time, so can she please explain why Britain has yet to see the series, when the rest of the world watched it on Netflix in the summer? ‘It’s been delayed here because of the opening scenes featuring refugees who are killed.’

Marcella shows a lorry arriving at Belfast docks with migrants in the back who have died. The story was written two years ago, but is eerily close to the tragedy that happened in Essex last year when 39 men, women and children from Vietnam were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry soon after it had arrived on a ferry from Belgium. ‘ITV thought the storyline was too similar to the court case and they wanted to make sure the jury wasn’t prejudiced.’

A 25-year-old driver from Northern Ireland pleaded guilty to manslaughter at the Old Bailey earlier this year. Two other drivers and two alleged organisers are still on trial on charges connected to the deaths.

‘So we had to wait, which is such a shame because it went out in 34 countries and was a huge success but people here haven’t been able to see it. It’s frustrating, but you can’t help that Hans could seemingly see into the future.’ And not just in that way. ‘There’s a character called Rory who hates germs and washes his hands all the time. I remember thinking it was a bit extreme at the time. Little did we know!’ Then came Covid. ‘Everybody’s Rory now!’

Despite the subject matter, Anna insists there is an uplifting side to the series. ‘I don’t want people to be put off, thinking: “Gosh, Marcella goes through such a hard time.” For me, it’s about how she gets through to the other side. Even though she’s got no one and the world seems to be against her, she never gives up.’

Anna once said she thought the big roles would start disappearing when she hit 40, but they haven’t. ‘Things have changed hugely,’ she says happily. ‘The #MeToo movement and attention to equal pay has changed everything. The shift to streaming has also meant actors aren’t just reliant on big movies and so there are many more opportunities for actresses in their 40s.’

Anna Friel
Blouse, Faune. Playsuit (just seen), La Belle Liberté. Image: Nicole Nodland

Have attitudes to youth and beauty really changed? ‘We’re living longer and therefore having to look younger for a longer amount of time. But there comes a point when you just have to accept: “I’m 44, not 34.” I do feel the pressure of people saying: “Oh look, she’ll never age.” Of course I will. I’m not Benjamin Button. You just do it in the best way you can.’

One of those ways is with a vampire facial, which sounds terrifying. ‘It’s not a big deal. It’s been done for years. It just sounds extreme because of the word “vampire”.’ Needles are stuck in your face. They draw blood which is processed and used to treat your skin. ‘It’s a hugely used procedure that people do with sports injuries. They take the plasma and whip it round and it just rejuvenates.’

If anyone can tell a teenage daughter what it takes to create the illusion of beauty on screen and online it’s Anna Friel. ‘The pressures of social media mean we need to make sure our kids know: “You don’t wake up looking like this. There are filters, make-up, lighting. Don’t try to reach the unachievable, because you’ll always be disappointed.”’

Does Gracie want to become an actor? ‘She doesn’t. Her dad’s such a fine actor, she’s grown up on so many sets, she loves the creative world but she’s more into her music. Playing guitar is her escape. She says: “It’s your job and you get paid for it. I’ve got great parents.” She’s very good at having a positive attitude.’

Has she seen Marcella? ‘She’s watched the odd episode. She was like: “That’s cool. She’s really strong, that character. Well done, Mummy. I know it was tough.”’ Will there be another series? ‘Hans is very busy. He always intended for Marcella to be a trilogy, but I guess people will want to know what happens next – it’s quite a cliffhanger at the end of this new series. But the answer is, I don’t know.’

Nor does she even know what her own Christmas will be like, as it turns out. ‘My mum and dad say: “We have to go day by day, because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”’ She glances up to the room above, where Gracie is doing her homework. With all the changes that are coming to her life, Anna knows it is friends and family that matter above all. ‘I have no idea what this Christmas will hold, but I hope it will be with my loved ones.’

Anna’s loves, life lessons and Christmas PJs

Guilty pleasure? Salt and vinegar crisps.

Career plan B? Producing. It’s actually part of plan A.

Biggest bugbear? Liars.

As a child you wanted to be… A pop star. I had a band called Cal. Our names: Clare, Anna, Louise.

Earliest memory? Falling downstairs in my new Wonder Woman pyjamas and knocking over the Christmas tree.

Secret to a happy relationship? Take a leaf out of my parents’ book.

Your best qualities? Kindness and openness.

And your worst? Impatience.

Most romantic thing you’ve ever done? During our first year together, David and I bought each other a weekly present, even if it was something small like a dice or a guitar pick. Gracie just did the same with her boyfriend.

What would your last meal be? What a depressing thought!

Advice to your teenage self? Don’t run before you can jump. Know that you’ll never, ever be able to kid yourself. You’re born with yourself, you die with yourself. Take everything for what it is and trust your gut instinct.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? It all depends on how much sleep I’ve had.

Biggest lesson you’ve learned about money? Never get in debt, so I haven’t so far. As soon as you can get on the property ladder, do: better to be brick rich than flash-cash rich.

Biggest lesson you’ve learned about women? I’m attracted to the sort of women who can be both strong and wonderful – they don’t want to be either/or.

Marcella will air on ITV in January. All episodes will be available on ITV Hub immediately after the first episode