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Take two: Anna Friel makes her career comeback in a new Scandi-style drama

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After 20 years away from UK screens, Anna Friel makes her career comeback in a dark and complex new Scandi-style drama

Words: Colin Crummy
Photography: Rankin

A female detective with a strong collection of chunky knits. Cityscapes painted various shades of grey. A serial killer on the loose and a complex web of sociopolitical and personal intrigue that leads to them. Sounds like The Killing. Except it’s not.

Marcella, an original new ITV drama from the pen and mind of The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt, has the same tropes we’ve come to expect from Scandi-noir drama, but this time the setting is closer to home: the streets of east London to be geographically specific. But the show also welcomes an invigorating, homegrown talent to the genre: Anna Friel.

It might be a surprising career move for Friel, but it’s certainly a very smart one. The eight-part drama, also starring Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, fuels our insatiable appetite for grip lit – psychological thrillers such as The Girl On The Train and Gone Girl – with the boundary-pushing, stereotype-breaking nature of Scandi noir. A maverick male detective struggling with life is not for this genre; instead it’s gifted us layered female leads from Borgen to The Bridge. Women who are ambitious and career-orientated, strong and independent, yet flawed and real. Whose presence has added a layer of humanity to dark crime stories. Which is just what we see in Marcella. The series is centred around a serial killer case that has reopened after a fresh batch of similarly gruesome murders. Friel plays a police officer who left the force to bring up her two children, but is drawn back into the fray. 

As well as indulging her own personal love of Scandi dramas (“I watched all of them. The Killing, Borgen, all of those things,” she says in her still fresh Mancunian accent), filming the show also meant a chance for the Rochdale-born actress, now 39, to stay in London for an extended period after a 20-year transatlantic career across film, TV and theatre. Now Friel lives in Windsor with her 10-year-old daughter Gracie, who she had with her former partner, actor David Thewlis. But with homes in LA and Mallorca and a career defined by big US primetime parts in shows such as Pushing Daisies (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe) and most recently, thriller American Odyssey (Friel starred as an American Special Forces soldier), she has felt more of a British success abroad than a familiar face on our screens. But that’s about to change.

Step aside then, Sarah Lund. And welcome home, Anna Friel.

For a British audience, this feels like a homecoming for you? Do you sense that?
For British TV, yes. And I knew it had to be something really, really good for me to accept that. It was a new agent who said, look you haven’t done British television for a long time.

Is it nerve wracking?
I’ve done my best, I’ve worked f***ing hard. I’m really, really tired and I deserve a holiday now. Is it nerve wracking? I hope people like it. I hope people relate to Marcella.

Friel as Marcella: I see your jumper Sarah Lund, and I raise you the parka

Friel as Marcella: I see your jumper Sarah Lund, and I raise you the parka

Were you disappointed when two of your recent US projects were short-lived?
I did a pilot for a show in the US called The Vatican, directed by Ridley Scott. I thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic’. But it didn’t get picked up. You can’t expect everything to succeed. It’s sometimes easier to be mainstream. It’s why people watch reality programmes – because they are easier. Of course, it’s disappointing. I feel more for the people who created it, it’s their baby. I can just do another job. Family and being happy are more important than anything. As long as you can continually try to find perspective, you’re going to be the winner.

What intrigues you about the character Marcella? 
She’s without doubt one of the most difficult characters I’ve played. What I liked about her is that she is completely unpredictable. Each character [in the show] is a suspect and could be capable of being the killer themselves. Marcella is an anti-heroine. The audience will be very split on whether they like her. Is she absolutely mad or can we come to understand what has driven her mad?

Does it worry you that your character might split audience opinion?
God, never. I think that’s all I ever do. No-one is perfect, far from it, and our faults and ailments, that lack of perfection, are what make a human beautiful. We can only strive to be the best that we can and sometimes life can get in the way. This woman has happened to hit an extraordinarily bad time. I also liked the fact that she chose motherhood and love over her career.

You say Marcella’s priority is her children. Is that something you connected with? 
I think anyone who is a good parent would find it hard to do anything other than that. She [Gracie] is the lifeblood of my soul and my heart. But also I knew when I had her I wouldn’t just become a mother, that I would be a working mother. Even when I found myself in long relationships, I paid my own way. I was always thinking why should a man pay for me when I’m earning well and can be the breadwinner? 

Are there any TV crime solvers you’ve always loved? 
As a kid I loved Robbie Coltrane in Cracker. Who didn’t like Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect? But for Marcella, I tried not to think of other people. Because I’ve been away from the UK there is lots of stuff I haven’t seen. I watched the first episode of Happy Valley and Sarah Lancashire was very good in that.

Anna in Brookside in 1994, with the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British TV

Anna in Brookside in 1994, with the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British TV

What do you think our ongoing obsession with dark dramas says about us? 
Recently I’ve been doing interviews and they bring up the whole Brookside thing and the kiss and why [the producers] did it. Maybe because it was seen as darker and controversial and not a switch off; not a superhero movie with big green screens. If we want to look at the dark underbelly of society and deal with stories that are relevant, these Scandi dramas deal with it well. 

We enjoyed your recent Instagram throwback to your Nineties partying days with Liam Gallagher. Did it make you feel nostalgic?
Someone just sent me that picture and I was listening to some Beady Eye and thought, ‘Hey!’ And I’d been talking to a friend about the Nineties – we were trying to work out what would be [considered] Nineties fashion. I’ll be 40 in July and that would have seemed so old to me as a kid. My daughter has been listening to Nineties music. She’ll be singing a song and ask me if I know it. I’m like, of course I do!

Do you have any plans for your 40th?
I might go to a festival. I’m more a girl in wellies in the mud at a festival than in a posh club. 

Has your ambition changed as you’ve got older?
I love my job as much as I ever did. There are other things that I want to do. I’m not sure I have as much energy, without sounding like an old woman. I was much more daring when I was young; I’m more sensible now.

Do you look back at being young and wonder how you did it?
If you look back on your 20s you think of yourself as really brave, invincible at that age. Even hangovers last two days now, so you wonder if you can be bothered with going out. Also, I’m a mother, so that changes priorities.

Where is home now?
I have a house just under the Hollywood sign which I rent out now. I try to get back when I can but with Gracie’s school… I have to consider that first. I will probably spend more time out there in the future. But I have re-fallen in love with London. It’s a great city, apart from the weather and the traffic. See, I’m sounding 40!


Marcella starts on Monday 4 April at 9pm on ITV

Photography: Rankin/Trunkarchive.com, itv.com

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