Anna Friel in The Look of Love: 'Am I dramatic? You could say that'

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She scandalised the nation as a teenager. Now, as she stars in a racy Soho biopic, Anna Friel is focused on her craft – and preparing for middle age. Nick Duerden meets her

“This is going to sound a little wanky, I know,” says Anna Friel, shifting in the chair beneath her and struggling to stem the proud smile that threatens to spread across her face, “but I really enjoyed school. I got on well with the teachers, I respected them. I felt they were my friends, somehow.”

This is perhaps because she was preternaturally older, or at least more mature-seeming, than her years. One of her teachers, for example, once told her that she was going to grow up to become either an actress or a producer. She was 13 at the time.

The teacher was at least half right. Friel did grow up to become an actress. In a career now spanning 20 years, she has done a little of everything: British soap, American TV, low-budget films, high-budget ones, posh theatre. And by dating certain men in her profession, she has become, however reluctantly, a fairly regular feature of the tabloids too.

“Yes, well,” she says, shifting in her chair for different reasons now, “I never planned for that…”

Next week, Friel can be seen in the new Michael Winterbottom film, The Look of Love, a biopic of the very colourful life and times of 1970s porn king Paul Raymond. Raymond ran the Raymond Revuebar, later the Soho Revue Bar, and segued into the lucrative sex-magazine market with Men Only. He then invested in the property market, and did so with considerable acumen: upon his death in 2008, he was rumoured to be one of the country's richest men, with an estate worth £650m. In The Look of Love, Friel plays Jean, his long-suffering wife, and mother to his daughter Debbie, who was being groomed to take over her father's empire until her drug addiction proved fatal.

“I spent the entire film surrounded by lots of naked breasts,” she notes. “I found I became immune to them in the end.” It's entirely possible her co-stars David Walliams, Dara O'Briain, Chris Addison and Steve Coogan (who plays Raymond) didn't. Starring alongside so many comedians brought other challenges, too.

“They stuck quite tightly to the script most of the time, but not always,” she says. “Every now and then, they would improvise, and of course when one improvised, the others did as well, and then they would just run with it. Steve [Coogan] was very good at that; he was brilliant, and very funny. But I definitely had to be on my toes throughout. It was a lot of fun. I laughed so much.” The film also marks something of a crossroads for the actress: peopled, as it is, with lissom young women, her role is that of matriarch. In its 100 minutes, her character ages from 21 to 58.

“I looked around me at all this youth and realised I'm no longer the ingénue,” she sighs. “Instead, I'm a 36-year-old woman. But you know what? That's what I love about acting, the chameleon nature of it all, and the chance to really lose yourself inside a character.” She tells me that several times directors have paid her the ultimate compliment – that she is a fine actress – but that they consider her too pretty for a role. “And I've always been: No! Acting should be about so much more than the way you look.” Which is why she jumped at playing Jean Raymond.

“It's a curious experience, watching yourself on-screen as an old, or at least older, woman. But it's not necessarily a bad one. Besides, I suppose I'm going to have to get used to it.”

Anne Friel's first ambition was to become a barrister. As a child, she possessed an analytical mind, and loved to talk. This you sense in her still today. We meet on London's Shaftesbury Avenue, where, until recently, she was starring in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya alongside Ken Stott, Samuel West and Downton Abbey's Laura Carmichael. The production became unwittingly notorious after one of its first-night audience members, Sir Peter Hall, heckled. “It's not working, it's just not working,” he is reported to have bemoaned. (“He's 82,” is Friel's diplomatic response today.).

Like most actresses in the flesh, she's tiny but luminescent with it, and everything she says is delivered with a great tumbling energy that makes her eyes shine. When she talks about the actor's craft, she clenches her fist until her knuckles turn white, and when referencing her parents, to whom she is very close, tears spill down her cheeks. This prompts her to laugh at the runaway emotions she seems nevertheless reluctant to stem. “Am I dramatic?” she ponders at one point, grinning. “I suppose you could say that.”

She was born in Rochdale in 1976 to a pair of teachers, while her father also dabbled in folk music. At 13, she began studying at the Oldham Theatre Workshop, a 30-minute drive from home: two hours a session three times a week, and then a full 12 hours on a Sunday. “My parents were very encouraging as long as it didn't affect my studies,” she says. It was for this reason that she was often still doing her homework at one o'clock in the morning.

“It was important to me,” she reasons. “I don't think I ever believed I'd really make a career out of acting. I just liked it; it was a hobby. But I needed to concentrate at school to become a barrister.”

She continued to do well at school, but did better at the workshop, and by 16 she'd landed the part of Beth Jordache in Brookside. In a matter of weeks, the entire soap seemed to revolve solely around her character, who stumbled from one explosive storyline to the next in a way that only soaps, plausibly or otherwise, can manage. First, she killed her father for sexually abusing her. Then she and her mother buried him under the patio. It was when Beth declared herself a lesbian that she fully transcended any limitations imposed by the fact that she was on a little-watched Channel 4 show. The pre-watershed kiss she shared with the neighbour's nanny in 1994 became one of the most talked-about TV events of the decade.

“It was a very strange time,” she reflects. “Suddenly, with no preparation, I was really famous. I couldn't walk anywhere without people shouting 'dyke!' at me.”

She began to feel increasingly stressed, and dating actor Darren Day, whom the tabloids would routinely brand a love rat, hardly helped. “I'm sure I gave my poor parents about 45 heart attacks,” she jokes. A mere 18 months after joining Brookside, she quit. The producers were not happy.

“To this day I haven't talked about [the way I was treated],” she says. “I'll always be grateful to them for giving me a break, but I wish the end had been a little… different. That's all I'll say.” Still just 18, she decided she now wanted to do only films. TV opportunities came her way, as did the offer of a purportedly million-pound recording contract (like her father, she could sing), but she turned them all down.

“I was convinced I was making a terrible mistake, that I had ideas above my station, and for a while I really thought I'd never work again. But then at last Stephen Poliakoff cast me in The Tribe [1998], and suddenly everything clicked. It all took off from there.” After much solid film work – including The Land Girls in 1998 alongside Rachel Weisz and 2001's underrated Me Without You with future Oscar-winner Michelle Williams – she decamped to Hollywood, and landed the lead role in the shiny TV drama Pushing Daisies. By now she was in a relationship with fellow British actor David Thewlis, with whom, in 2005, she had a daughter, Gracie. Friel is the product of a 40-year marriage. She had always craved a union of similar endurance, but by 2010, she and Thewlis had split. Both blamed the pressures of work.

“My parents always said I could never disappoint them, and I've always striven to make them proud,” she says. “But it was so upsetting when David and I split; I wanted my daughter to have what I had. It's three years we've been separated, but we talk all the time about routine and structure for our little girl. Gracie is almost eight, and needs stability in her life. That's why I'm based here in the UK [she lives in Windsor] rather than America. Her daddy's girlfriend is a Parisian, and they live there, and Gracie visits a lot. It's important she does. You know, I could survive without the money, the fame, the work. I couldn't survive without my family.”

She has been dating another actor, Rhys Ifans, for two years now. With him, things seem, at least on the surface, less complicated. “We don't have a child together, and he knows I'm a girlfriend that does have one, and that I can't just get up and go where I want when I want.”

But still she works. She has just completed a big-budget American TV pilot called Vatican for director Ridley Scott, and soon she will head back to Los Angeles to do what all actors, even ones with small children, must: hustle for more parts.

“I'd be a total liar if I said there weren't films that I wanted but didn't get,” she admits, “but I accept there are bigger names than me, names that will get more bums on seats. That's how this business works. I could try to actively pursue more fame for myself, which would get me more bums on seats, but I'm not sure I want to sell my soul in order to do that. And right now at least, I don't need to. I've just worked with Michael Winterbottom, with Ridley Scott. And so my approach is more old-fashioned, I think: that ultimately – okay, hopefully – talent will win through in the end.”

'The Look of Love' opens nationwide on 26 April

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