Anna Friel - Home is where the part is

After cementing soap notoriety and making a few false starts beyond the small screen, Anna Friel has finally found her niche – and a house – in the Hollywood Hills. Gill Pringle talks to Britain's latest star export
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The Independent Culture

I personally think my legs are better than my boobs. What do you think?" demands Anna Friel, kicking a toned bare leg into the air for closer inspection. "I was a little worried at first, but in the end, the general consensus was to go with the legs. I was relieved because all the original sketches showed my character with a little shirt tied barely an inch beneath my boobs with a totally bare midriff. All in all, I'd rather show my legs than my tummy. I find that sexier, and fortunately the director agreed," she says, discussing her cheesecake role in big-budget sci-fi comedy Land of the Lost.

Friel is one of only a handful of actors to successfully make the transition from soaps onto the big screen. In the 14 years since quitting her role as Brookside's Beth Jordache, and one half of the notoriosu lesbian kiss, the Rochdale-born actress has reinvented herself not only as a serious stage actress but also as a film presence.

Upon first arrival in Hollywood, like any self-respecting newbie, she was variously romantically linked with George Clooney and even Christian Bale, although today she's settled in a long-term relationship with British thespian and Harry Potter star David Thewlis, with whom she has a four-year-old daughter, Gracie.

Friel thought she'd hit the jackpot after her highly acclaimed Broadway stage debut 11 years ago as Alice in Patrick Marber's Closer, only for Natalie Portman to be cast, instead of her, in the role for the movie version.

Slowly making career inroads with roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline, she made a greater impression in distinctly British fare like Rogue Trader and Mad Cows as well as the popular Goal! football films.

Frustrated that Hollywood success didn't come sooner, she recalls: "I got so disillusioned because any part I went up for was always between me and another person. The director would want me, but the producer wouldn't because I wasn't a big enough name to carry the film, to put the bums on the seats.

"When I first arrived in Los Angeles, it took some time before I realised that you do have to confirm to a type. You do have to stay slim, and you can't make excuses. Looking good is a serious business and you have to make a decision to go along with it or else you're just not going to get the work. In the beginning, I had such an awful time that I just wanted to run back home. But, looking back today, I'm glad I stuck it out. I never aspired to be just the pretty girl because, if that's all you're known for, then you're going to have a pretty short career. Mature actresses like Susan Sarandon or Judi Dench are far more interesting to me," says Friel, 33, who lost out to Cameron Diaz for a starring role in Gangs of New York and also turned down Rachel Weisz's role in the hit film The Mummy.

Refusing to give up, it was her Golden Globe-nominated role in the recently cancelled US TV series Pushing Daisies that returned her to the spotlight, resulting in a starring role in Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost. It's frothy, lightweight stuff, although heavier fare awaits next year when she stars opposite Laura Linney and Tobey Maguire in the black comedy The Details and with John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling in the First World War drama Angel Makers.

"Land of the Lost might not be Oscar material, but working with Will was a unique, and brilliant, experience. It was hard to keep a straight face because Will is such a great improviser. He goes off on things and you don't want to interrupt by laughing because then he'll have to start all over again, so I practiced deep yoga breathing in order not to crack up."

If Friel seems in awe of her powerful leading man, then she's no shrinking violet, as illustrated when she casually announces how she recently bought a house in Hollywood – without even mentioning it to Thewlis. "We moved to Los Angeles about three years ago while I was working on Pushing Daisies. David had to go back to England, and when he came back I said, 'David, I've bought a house!'; we'd originally just been renting.

"But I don't think he was too shocked, because he trusts me. He was writing his book and I told him I'd found this house and it was really good and it was going to go. So I bought it; it's not out of his pocket, so I'm not going to apologise for it! I've got a good taste in houses, so I didn't think he'd complain.

"Back in Britain, I have my home and he has his home too, but not for any particular reason; we always live together, but we never wanted to give up our own houses when we first met each other. But now our daughter goes to school here and she's loving it. So now, for the first time, I think, 'Oh gosh, I'm actually settled here'. You start to say 'Let's go home', and you realise that home is here, which is something I never thought I'd say, really.

"David and I both had such traditional English childhoods that's its surreal, in a way, to find ourselves raising our daughter in Hollywood. David and I have these conversations all the time, wondering how much we'll allow her to see and is it going to freak her out? We've kind of just let her grow up on The Wizard of Oz, on the set. But we always tell her, 'its only pretend'. She very much understood the word 'pretend' from an early age. And we just think it's fantastic. I would have loved to have had all that imagery in my head when I was growing up. I love being a mother so much, but this is also an important time in my career where things are finally happening for me. I don't ever want to regret not making the most of it, so I bring my daughter to work with me. Like any other working mum, it can be exhausting, but it's the only way to make it work. That said, I had Gracie with me most days on the set while I was filming Land of the Lost, and it was quite weird – having to explain to a three-year-old what a cage was and why her mummy was in a cage! But she wasn't upset at all. She loved it," laughs Friel, who has hired a British nanny in an effort to preserve her daughter's English accent, although, she says, "I feel like we're losing an uphill battle."

Ironically, having jumped off the television bandwagon at an early age, she's grateful to Pushing Daisies for not only giving her a second chance, but also for allowing her to demonstrate a flawless American accent.

"When people hear my real accent, they don't put two and two together. So that gives me a degree of privacy which I haven't had for the longest time in England, where I've been working since I was 13 and in the public eye, although it's starting to happen here now, too. But mostly nobody recognises me, which is fantastic. It means I don't have to bother putting on make-up all the time. And obviously I don't go round using my American accent, so it gives me a little bit of a disguise," says the actress, whose cherished anonymity was recently blown after Lindsay Lohan moved into a house three doors away, making the once peaceful street in the Hollywood Hills a mecca for paparazzi.

And, of course, Friel's cover is blown every time she's spotted stocking up at one of the nearby "ex-pat" stores: "I can't help myself! I've found this little shop where I can buy Ribena and PG Tips, so I can get all those things that I miss from home, although I rarely buy Cadbury chocolate there because it doesn't seem to travel very well; and the Walkers crisps are to be avoided since they're usually all crushed," she cautions earnestly.

Though she laughs a lot, Friel is deeply serious about her career. Making her West End stage debut in 2001 in a fringe production of Lulu, she's excited – and nervous – at her highly-publicised return to the London stage in September, starring as Holly Golightly in Samuel Adamson's adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Despite her impressive credentials, she insists that Thewlis – 14 years her senior – is the "heavyweight" in the relationship. Wary of appearing to hang on to her partner's coattails, she hesitated when the real-life couple were cast together – alongside Keira Knightley, Colin Farrell and Ray Winstone – in the crime drama London Boulevard, currently shooting at Ealing Studios. "I would never agree to do something together just because we're partners. It has to be exactly the right thing. Even though we've been together for nine years, I'm still scared of that stigma of 'if you're together and you do the same job, you get roles because of each other'. I like to do things on my own merit.

"But maybe that's my own pride, and I think we can get away with it because we don't really advertise ourselves as a couple and we keep our lives very much to ourselves. We don't do the premieres together or get photographed together because we're both successful in our own right. I don't think we really feel the need to feed off each other."

'Land of the Lost' opens on 31 July