Anna Friel: The feel good factor

She claims that the public never get to see her films, so why is Anna Friel still smiling?
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The Independent Culture

Written by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, the film appears to be an attempt by the gods of soccer to spread the word Stateside, sell loads of merchandise, and make loads of sequels. "It looks as if this film will have a damn good go at really popularising football in America," says the actress. "But we'll see. They were clever choosing Kuno, who is not the obvious choice, but he's got that sort of Robbie Williams, Antonio Banderas thing and he is kind of warm and sensitive. All the female journalists are loving him."

Friel plays Roz Harmison, Becker's nurse, love interest and link to reality." It was not the most taxing role I've ever done," admits the actress, smiling gently.

"But it came at exactly the right time and I'd never played a Geordie or a nurse and I'd never done a football film or even been to a football match." But, for Friel, such seemingly unchallenging work is a means to an apparently more important end. "There are still a few good American movies being made with the good writers and good directors," she says, her soft Rochdale accent still remarkably intact. "And you need to be a bigger name to be considered for parts, and to be considered you have to be in film that does well, and I want to be considered.

The critics have not been kind to the film, but Friel is upbeat: "Goal! is a nice, all-round feelgood film that the dads can take their sons to and enjoy it. It's very harmless; a nice switch off, don't think too much, sit back and be entertained, kind of film."

For Anna Friel, after years of diligent slog , it might be the break she has long deserved. "I started acting what seems like light-years ago," says the 29-year-old actress, dazzlingly Pre-Raphaelite in a bustier and curls. " My drama teacher at school thought I had talent and said I should go and investigate it, so I did these classes in pure improvisation. I wanted to become a barrister, but acting was something I loved. I was good at it and I wanted to get better at it so I stuck with it.

"I got a part from my first audition, when I was 13, in the mini series GBH."

In 1992 Friel was cast as Poppy Bruce in Emmerdale and, the following year, aged 17, accepted the role of Beth Jordache in Brookside, a part that dominated both the show and, for a while, the headlines. "My family were all cool even though I was halfway through my A-levels." reflects Friel.

"I stayed with my mum and dad and drove to Liverpool every day. They were very concerned that I kept two feet on the ground." As Beth Jordache, Friel's popularity soared, and so did the show's ratings, as the storyline revealed that Beth and her sister had been the victim of their father's sexual abuse. When Beth and her mother killed him and buried him under their patio, Brookside's popularity rocketed. Then Beth revealed her sapphic sensibilities and snogged the actress Nicola Stephenson on prime-time TV.

"My grandma hated me kissing that girl," remembers Friel, chuckling. "She said: 'Now I hope you won't be doing that anymore!' But the controversy that kiss caused was ridiculous. It was on the news and in the papers and, because of that, I am still 'her from Brookside'. But, looking back, the show made people know who I was. I never want people to forget I come from Rochdale but I'd like them to forget I did Brookside."

After Friel left Brookside in 1995 the show never quite recovered, while the actress went from strength to strength, starring alongside Rachel Weisz and Catherine McCormack in her movie debut, The Land Girls and then earning fantastic notices for her performance, as Alice the young stripper, in Patrick Marber's Closer. The play proved so successful in London that, in 1999, Friel found herself performing on Broadway alongside Natasha Richardson, Ciaran Hinds and Rupert Graves. "I was scared shitless," laughs the actress. "But I loved it and I think I handled it well, but wish I could do it again now that I'm a bit more mature. Broadway is something else and New York was life-changing for me, as people started to know me for my work and not all the Brookside stuff and the ex-boyfriends and da-de-da."

That same year Friel, having won the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Best Supporting Actress on Broadway, capitalised on her critical success and broadened her horizons by starring in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I think that sort of changed things for me, especially in America, because the cast was really great - Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christian Bale - and people started to think, 'if she's working with them she must be doing well'."

Back in the UK, after Friel had dated Robbie Williams, hung out with the likes of Kate Moss and dined with Madonna, the tabloid press dubbed her a party girl. "I didn't party that much!," protests Friel. "I went out a few times. If hear that question one more time, you know - 'Are the party days over?' - I will just... just... keel over and die. But, these days, you have to live in a convent if you're in the public eye otherwise you're called a party animal. But I was young, single, and in the big city - what else was I going to do? I had lived a very work-orientated life until I was 20. I didn't go out at all. I was very single and I didn't want to stay in on my own, so I went out and had some fun."

In 2001, maybe as a reaction to the press attention, Friel went back to do what she was made to do. She found herself in a converted bus station in London's King's Cross, playing the title role in Frank Wedekind's disturbing play, Lulu. Written in the late 1890s, the play was formerly split in two (one half was most famously adapted for the silver screen in 1929 by GW Pabst as Pandora's Box and starring Louise Brooks), it's lead role considered by many to be one of theatre's most exacting female roles.

"Going back to the stage to do Lulu was really terrifying as it was such a hard part," admits Friel, taking a big gulp of coffee.

"It was very dark; I got murdered and raped by Jack the Ripper every night and I was physically very sick for a lot of the production, but I liked it all the same. In fact I am determined to get better at stage-work because, if you can be that dedicated and tell the same story night after night after night, it really improves you as an actress. I just spoke to my bloke David [Thewlis], and, although he hasn't been on the stage for 15 years, he is doing a play in LA right now written by Charlie Kaufman - the writer of Adaptation - especially for him alongside Meryl Streep. He rang me and he said: 'When theatre is good it is really good; you have this power in your hand that is indescribable', and I agree and I want to do more."

One thing that Friel doesn't seem that keen on repeating is American television, having recently starred in the Fox network's The Jury." I did An Everlasting Piece in 1999, which was directed by Barry Levinson," remarks Friel. "And he asked me to work with him on a TV show called The Jury, in New York last year. He was producing, directing and starring in it and it was like nothing I've done before. Everyone was saying, 'you will never believe how much hard work it is', and I was telling them not to worry because I'm used to it having been in Brookside and a lot of low-budget movies, but my God were they right. I didn't ever see my trailer. You run off the set from one scene and get changed and run back on. It is so fast and so very well organised but it is hard, hard bloody work.

"But they do it so well," adds the obviously impressed Friel, after a moments reflection. "Especially with shows like The Sopranos, that make British TV look really small. I think they can achieve such great results because they start off thinking, 'this is going to be a hit', and throw money at it. In the UK it's like, 'lets see if it's popular, then we'll put some money into it'. In my opinion the US now makes better TV than movies. I think all the great writers have moved to TV because it makes more money and is more accessible.

"David and me just watched the whole first series of 24 in about a week. It was like, 'shall we watch another one?', 'Mmm, OK!'. It was the same with The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives - the writing is so good, and they are great at creating these hooks that keep us watching."

It's lucky for Friel that she finds such TV so appealing as she and David Thewlis, her boyfriend of five years, will be staying in a lot more now since their baby daughter, Gracie, was born on 9 July.

"Being a mother really puts things in perspective," declares Friel, glowing with joy. "It's not that I couldn't care less about my career, it's just that I now I feel more confident because, if I can cope with this gruelling promotional press schedule on three hours' sleep with breast milk pouring out all over the place and be a good mum then I can do anything. But I adore being a mum. I love it, and seeing my baby's lovely little smile is the best way to start and the best way to end the day. She is upstairs right now and I miss her so much. As soon as I go to my room I will have a little cuddle. I am very happy where I am now. I am at a good stage."

Goal! is on general release