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Interview: Anna Friel

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It’s an overcast Wednesday at the legendary British photographer Rankin’s north London studios, and a crew of around 15 people are awaiting Anna Friel’s arrival.

She’s due at midday for Stylist’s cover shoot, and although she arrives unfashionably on time, it’s in style. Dressed in red drainpipe jeans, Jackie O sunglasses and a big, shaggy cream fur coat with a cropped top underneath baring her midriff, she looks like something out of the swinging Sixties.

“Hello!” Anna breezes, flinging her arm around each person she’s introduced to before planting a kiss on their cheek. She then flits through to the dressing room, where she sets down her leather holdall. “I brought some props with me,” she says crouching down and withdrawing items from the bag, magician-style. The first one is a red trilby, which she will later position on her head in one of the shots by Rankin (who has shot everyone from the Queen to Kate Moss). “I want to channel a Twenties Vogue cover,” she explains, before pulling out a big Minnie Mouse-style bow to tie in her hair.

Ever the creative, she’s particularly excited about shooting for Stylist today because it will see her working with her old friend. “I first met Rankin on a shoot for Esquire years ago and we just really got on,” she says while adding that they share mutual friends (including the Harry Potter and Naked actor David Thewlis, the father of Anna’s six-year-old daughter Gracie and her partner of a decade, whom she split from last year). “Rankin just knows how to make people look beautiful so you want to give him everything.”

This Anna does; each time she emerges from the dressing room, she’s clad in a totally different look (electric blue Emilio Pucci dress one minute, billowing chiffon Lanvin dress the next) and gets to work in front of the camera like the ultimate professional. With the mark of a true actress, she also frames each outfit with a different expression and mood, as if she’s creating a scene, not just a shot. “Do I look too done up?” she asks worriedly as she pauses to tie her shoe strap. Little does she know that it’s at this unguarded moment that we are about to get our cover shot. As the flashbulb goes she looks up, eyes wide, before she reverts back to Rankin’s camera lens. Not one to ‘faff’, she’s then in and out of the dressing room, only stopping for the odd banana. “I don’t stop eating them,” she laughs when we remind her that they were the only request from her representative. Next thing you know, Rankin has got her posing for a picture while peeling one from its skin.

Hours later when we sit down in the dressing room for our interview, Anna’s less energetic. She confesses she’s tired now, having spent the last five days working between London, New York, Hamburg and Bristol. Sipping from her glass of white wine, she also makes an admission: “It’s my first interview I’ve done [since the split from David],” she says with a hint of pleading, “and my defences are down, so please be considerate.”

It’s a request that I later learn isn’t so much a warning to me but a contingency plan she’s put in place to prevent herself from revealing too much information, perhaps because, in the past, she’s possibly been too open. Since rising to fame in Brookside at the age of 16, the actress has been probed by just about every kind of journalist there is, but her experiences haven’t made her any better at successfully deflecting personal questions, which have ranged from enquiries about her friendship with Kate Moss in the Nineties to her sex life with her first celebrity boyfriend Darren Day in 1995. “I used to think if I was asked a question I had to answer it,” she tells me, “but now I’m learning from the experience.”

Despite this vow, our conversation is still littered with references to her ex, Thewlis, and her current boyfriend, the Notting Hill actor Rhys Ifans – whom she worked with on Neverland, a Peter Pan prequel for Sky Movies HD that’s airing later this year – even though she professes she doesn’t want to talk about either. It’s almost as if the 35 year old is bordering on being her own worst enemy, wavering between bringing her private life into focus, before telling me it’s off limits.

This inability to remain guarded may be down to tiredness but I also think she’s just human. Despite almost 20 years in the spotlight, there’s no pretence about her and refreshingly she doesn’t look or seem all that different from the Rochdale schoolgirl who first burst onto the showbiz scene as a soap star in 1993. She also has the same thick, glossy brown hair, thin, petite limbs and English rosiness she had when she first started out. “Oh my god,” she says with a theatrical gasp when I show her a picture of herself on the cover of the now defunct Sky Magazine in 1995. “I remember this so clearly. I was playing Beth Jordache in Brookside [the wayward teen who plotted to murder her abusive father Trevor and buried him under a patio before embarking upon a lesbian affair] and it was just ‘Beth, Beth, Beth,’ everywhere I went.”

It would be silly for me to pretend I don’t have the hunger to be a leading lady in the big movies

Her role saw her perform the first lesbian kiss in British soap history, creating a media frenzy that got even more intense when she started hanging out with the original Primrose Hill set. Was she was glad to step away from the attention after two years? “I’m so glad, I was totally unaware of what was happening,” she says. “I was working so hard, I wasn’t aware of the peripheral excitement.” Nevertheless, she knew that leaving Brookside would be crucial to her future success. “I felt that if I stayed any longer I’d get a bit stuck and be stereotyped as somebody who wasn’t a serious actress.”

Turning down TV presenting gigs and even record contracts by a certain budding music mogul called Simon Cowell (“He offered me two,” admits Anna, “as I’ve always been able to sing.”), Anna has since managed the rare feat for a British actress of negotiating an international career, traversing between TV, film and theatre projects on both sides of the Atlantic. After starring in The Tribe, a 1998 TV film by acclaimed director Stephen Poliakoff, that same year she wisely chose a small independent film, The Land Girls, co-starring Rachel Weisz, before heading to Broadway in 1999 for a much-lauded stint in the play Closer [it was later made into a film starring Natalie Portman in Friel’s role in 2004].

“I got a new start,” she says of the time. “I was 22 and fortunately America didn’t know who I was. They didn’t know Brookside and they didn’t know any of the tabloid stuff, Darren Day or Robbie Williams [who Anna also dated]. I was given a chance and I had to prove myself.” It was something of a surprise, then, that she chose to return to Britain just when she was piquing interest internationally. “I made a really bad decision, I should have stayed,” she says, in retrospect, before confessing that the process of trying to raise her profile in Hollywood since then has proven something of a catch-22 situation. “You can either do the smaller parts in bigger movies, or you can show what you can do on a smaller scale and do great television.”

Although she has starred in successes like 2001’s critically acclaimed coming-of-age story Me Without You with Michelle Williams (which she says remains one of her top five projects), the 2005 Goal! series and Land Of The Lost opposite Will Ferrell in 2009, she’s otherwise a supporting actress in Hollywood and is happy to admit this. “I think you can either be positive or negative about it,” she says without flinching. “The way I look at it is that I’ve been doing the job I love since I was 16 years old and I make a living out of it. It would be silly for me to pretend I don’t have the hunger to be a leading lady in big movies – there are scripts I read and I’m like, ‘I long to do that part, please’ but it doesn’t work out. In fact, it often comes down to you and another actress who is a bigger name and they get it.”

A DIFFERENT TAKE

Her approach is to frequently “mix it up”, with her most recent film role being a modest part in this year’s blockbuster thriller Limitless, led by Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish and her TV project before that, Pushing Daisies. A project that garnered her a Golden Globe nomination and great reviews, but was shelved in 2009. Was she disappointed? “It was a difficult time because of the writers’ strike and it just lost its momentum,” she rationalises. “But no, it wasn’t disappointing, I was doing it longer than I was Brookside, put it that way.” Lighting a cigarette, she adds, “I don’t dwell on things. If something happens, I deal with it – I get that from my parents. And if it hadn’t ended I wouldn’t have got to do a Woody Allen film [this year’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger] or [the 2010 play] Breakfast At Tiffany’s [in which she played Holly Golightly].”

Moving back to Windsor has also been good, she says, because it has enabled her and David to send Gracie to the same school for longer than a year. “Gracie’s got that stability and as far as the break-up goes, she’s unscathed by it,” she volunteers. I ask how Anna is managing as a single parent. “We juggle it and Gracie is always our biggest priority, and I think that’s all I have to say about that,” she says before revealing that she has always managed to juggle motherhood and acting with the help of two part-time nannies, one of whom is northern and 66. “Her name’s Eileen and she’s sailed around the world on a yacht and does Pilates four times a week,” she says affectionately. “Apart from my mother and my grandmother, those two ladies are the two women I respect more than anyone I can think of. They’ve given me everything.”

Is there ever a part of her that misses Hollywood and being away? “I feel like I’ve got a life in LA and a career there when I want to,” she says. “I have a house there,” she adds, rolling her eyes and laughing, “as you can imagine, I thought I’d be there for six years, so now I take all my actor friends in when they visit LA. We call it Britwood.”

Right now, she says she’s going through “a period of going back to doing very British things” in her career. This is despite being offered “more than” six US television pilots following Pushing Daisies. She pinpoints being in the UK more as a reason for the decision, combined with the fact there just wasn’t an offer that excited her. Plus, she feels 2009’s The Street “a very gritty Northern drama” written by Jimmy ‘Cracker’ McGovern in which she starred as a desperate single mother who turns to prostitution was significant. “People responded to it so well I thought, ‘Right, I’ve got to introduce a bit more of that. Let’s use my [Manchester] accent again.’ I started to think that maybe people missed what I started off doing.”

Keeping it Private

One thing’s for sure, her next two projects, Neverland and an ITV1 adaptation of the bestselling novel by Nicci French, What To Do When Someone Dies, both due to be shown in the autumn, showcase her talent and depth as a leading actress, with the latter – the story of a widower grieving the loss of her husband – being Anna’s most challenging yet.

“We shot it in six weeks and the director pushed me to the point of breakdown,” she says. “But I had to hold it all in until the end, because I wanted to demonstrate these various stages of grief.” I comment that I’ve always liked her best in things that are emotional and gritty. “I feel like that sort of role really broadens my horizons as an actress and you need that to sustain longevity and get better,” she agrees.

She says the timing of the project was “weird” and from this I presume it was filmed around the time of the split with David. However, Anna won’t go into this except to later say, “We were together for 10 years and I’ll always love him very much.” Later, she reiterates how much she loves him and that he’s a brilliant father. “He’s a dear, dear man, and we’re great parents. He’s always got his eye on Gracie, as have I.”

The topic of Rhys Ifans remains tricky. “He [Rhys] won’t talk about it at all,” she says of their relationship. “Because if you don’t keep something private for you, your life’s a reality programme. I don’t go to places and go, ‘Come and pap me’. We go to a little pub or camping to Wales. I won’t put myself in that position because I want to keep my private life private; we don’t even walk together at airports.”

Still, she ends up slipping his name back into the interview later, as if by default, before retreating into herself again. “We both have houses in the same part of Spain. We have done for years – I put every penny from Pushing Daisies into renovating a 300-year-old house out there – but we didn’t really know each other then. But really,” she says, switching from fond to tense, “I think I’m giving too much detail.”

Later, she volunteers that they first met at the BAFTAs one year. “We were presenting and were like, ‘Hi, how ya doin’?’ But I didn’t know him then really.” And the mentions keep coming, with Anna even calling Rhys from the shoot (she reveals he’s in America filming the new Spider-Man movie), only for her to grow nervous at the mention of his name. I gather, towards the end of our chat, that she very much admires him as an actor. “I’ve heard he’s incredible on stage,” she says, and I share the fact I saw him in the West End years ago, in the play Accidental Death Of An Anarchist. “Oh my god! Everyone keeps talking about that,” she says excitedly. “I’d love to have seen it; he makes such brilliant choices and I’m like ‘What the hell is he going to do next?’ I’d love to see David on stage as well,” she smiles before refusing to allow me to press her any further on the first topic. Finally I just ask her outright: does she want to talk about Rhys officially in any capacity? “It’s very private,” she says firmly and I take this as her final answer. And then she teases: “Well, what do you want to know?” It’s at this moment I realise that Anna is someone I could easily be friends with. She’s funny, intelligent, disarmingly open and, like all of us, a little bit contrary.

ITV1’s What To Do When Someone Dies and Sky Movies HD’s Neverland are both due to be shown this autumn.

Watch our exclusive behind the scenes video from Anna's shoot (shot by Rankin's film team) here.

Photography: Rankin. Words: Megan Conner.

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