Friel the force: Anna Friel's stage incarnation as Holly Golightly proves to be a high point in her career
The actress shares more than a few traits with Truman Capote's feisty heroine
Thursday 24 September 2009
It must be rather nice to be Anna Friel, I think as I round the corner of London's bustling Haymarket and see her – all glistening cheekbones and doe eyes – surveying Theatreland from an enormous billboard outside the Theatre Royal. Parachuting in to a plum role in Breakfast at Tiffany's, she arrives in the West End fresh from Golden Globe-nominated success in America and a burgeoning Hollywood career which has seen her work with everyone from Woody Allen to Will Ferrell. Not to mention the houses in London, Windsor and in the shadow of the Hollywood sign in LA, a solid nine-year relationship with actor David Thewlis and a cute-as-a-button toddler daughter, Gracie.
The wistful envy continues as we climb up and up into the unseen reaches of the theatre to the actress' dressing room, quite the most palatial home for greasepaint-and-mirrors I've ever seen – a double set, heady with the smell of vases overflowing with flowers and expensive burning candles. Vintage movie posters cover the walls, the dressing table groans with sable make-up brushes, lotions and potions, the hearth is piled high with stilettos and in the corner a hat-stand is draped with a tribesworth of fur coats and extravagant hats. "Now the paps are hanging around the stage door every night I like to put them on to leave the theatre... "
Friel – girlishly chic in a pretty 1950s Balmain flower-print silk dress and sparkly turquoise mules – is chattering away about earache, whether the milk in the fridge is off and vintage sunglasses. "Do you like vintage clothes?" she gasps, rootling in a drawer to give me a flyer for a fair she's discovered near Thewlis' flat in Clerkenwell. The whole family went on Sunday, picking up an Edwardian white dress for Gracie and a "stunning" 1930s opening night number for Friel. "I'm as happy as a pig in shit in a vintage store," she summarises, finally flopping down on the sofa with an enormous mug of tea.
Yes, it must be rather nice to be Anna Friel – except for one tiny thing. Mid-way through our interview, an odd thing happens. I begin a question about whether she feels at home in Hollywood, having just played Ferrell's leading lady in Land of the Lost and filmed London Boulevard (from the writer of The Departed). "The Street is the thing I'm most proud of," she snaps, apropos of nothing. "Did you see that?" She leaps up and starts fiddling with the bottles on her dressing table. "Only because I'm hearing in your voice, and, I can absolutely imagine in your shoes, you're thinking, 'A little girl from Brookside, why should she have the respect? Why should she have a part like Holly Golightly?' Well, I don't know, I think I've worked hard enough to deserve it." I never said that, I say, and I haven't even mentioned Brookside yet. "Ok. No, I know. I'm asking you, please, please, please will you see The Street?" She curls, a kittenish ball of defensiveness, on the sofa. "I like the work I've done in the last few films. I like my work in Pushing Daisies. I think over the last three years I've got a lot better. I've been a lot more focussed. I've found a different confidence and self belief. You're as good as your belief – if you don't have that for yourself, no-one else is going to have it for you."
Ok, Anna, breathe. It seems that, beneath the veneer of perfection, Friel is still haunted by the spectre of Beth Jordache, the part she played in Brookside ("For a year-and-a-half, 16 years ago," she chides), famously sharing the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in television history before burying her abusive father under the patio and croaking in prison. "Now we just laugh. David says, 'When you're 80, it will be Brookside...' No matter what I do, like a big massive anchor round my neck." The 33-year old actress is also aware, to the point of paranoia, that she owes her career to the role. "I'd be an absolute idiot to say, 'gosh I don't realise what that did for me'. It would be so ungrateful. I thank the day when they said 'You're going to play Beth Jordache'. To do something that's still remembered now, I suppose I have to think there are not many things like that." Despite the acclaim Stateside, perhaps there's a fear that, on her home turf at least, she'll always be thought of as a soap star. That's surely why she's so keen to push her appearance in Jimmy McGovern's seriously gritty and critically acclaimed BBC drama The Street. I watch it, as instructed, and she's good, maybe Bafta-nominee good, as Dee, the struggling yet doughty single mother who sells her body for the sake of her son's schooling.
Next up on the British charm offensive is Breakfast at Tiffany's, her first time on the London stage since her debut in 2001's Lulu. Though Friel is keen to impress that it's a stage adaptation of Truman Capote's 1958 novella and not of the rather cosier 1961 film, director Sean Mathias must surely have had Audrey Hepburn's elfin face and grace in mind when he cast Friel, over the phone, from LA. "There's no-one could do it like Hepburn – she played that role so perfectly. No-one can copy that and I would never even think about doing such a thing." Rather, Friel's Holly, in a platinum blonde wig, is closer to the racier, rawer creation of Capote who wanted Marilyn Monroe for the film. "She's the bravest, most courageous woman I've ever seen written," says Friel. "She says if there's merde on your shoe, wipe it off."
Taking the part has meant uprooting her household from sunny LA (where she counts Lindsay Lohan as a neighbour), though it sounds as though the family timetable is a constant round of upheavals. Thewlis is filming the final instalments of Harry Potter until March and Friel is choosing between scripts which could take her to New Zealand or back to LA in the new year. "I adapt really easily," she says. The only "pain in the arse" of her transatlantic lifestyle is finding a good time to call home to her family in her beloved Rochdale. She hasn't, thankfully, lost her warm Lancashire accent, her vowels still as flat as pancakes, although she kept in character as Chuck while filming Pushing Daisies, hiring a Northern nanny to nurture Gracie's British accent.
Still, there's definitely an LA touch to Friel these days. There are the bleached teeth (she held out for a while then saw herself on a test film and realised her smile looked "green" when compared to those of her American counterparts). There's her "body conditioner", hired to get her in shape for Holly's nude scene and who makes her eat every two hours. There's her careful insistence on a healthy diet. "I miss my juice bar! There was a place that I could go into and say, 'I have an earache, what should I have for that?' They put in some great powder and, pring!, you'd feel immediately healthy."
It's a long way from her Northern beginnings, the daughter of two teachers growing up in a large, Irish, musical family. A teacher spotted her "flair" early on and packed her off to the Oldham Theatre Workshop, where she landed her first job, aged 14, opposite Michael Palin and Julie Walters in G.B.H. before starting Brookside at 16. A keen student ("I did well, yes"), she had ambitions of becoming a barrister, diligently doing her homework on set. "I was adamant. I said I'd go and do Brookside for four months, just to see what it's like. And I never, ever went back because I loved it so much."
The post-Brookie years were a whirl of lads' mag shoots, not one but two offers of a record contract from Simon Cowell, high profile nights out with Kate Moss and even higher profile relationships with love rat Darren Day and Robbie Williams. "I was judged quite early on: 'Gosh what's she doing that for?'," she says. "I'm a 16-year-old girl thinking, 'I don't know, I thought this was going to be a hobby. I didn't realise I could actually make a job out of it'." Acclaim – and awards – came when she appeared in the Broadway run of Closer, a performance which famously led Jack Nicholson to declare that he couldn't concentrate until he'd slept with her. She was still only 23 years old and, unsure of her next move, fled back to the UK to appear in a string of forgettable movies. "Maybe some of the film choices weren't the best because people didn't get to see them. If it was absolutely planned out, I would have stayed in America after Broadway, I would have made a different choice. I was young, scared and I wasn't ready for America. I grew up really quite quickly, working solidly from 16, earning my own money."
Three years ago came Friel's big "relaunch", as she calls it, pitching up, bold as brass, in LA, where agents and scripts flung themselves at her feet. She eventually settled on Pushing Daisies, a kooky romantic comedy which scooped 7 Emmys before being scuppered by the writers' strike. "Don't forget, I work in America and they know nothing about Brookside. They've never seen it. They know nothing about my life, about Darren Day or Robbie Williams, nothing. They simply watched a girl on Broadway and gave her quite a few awards for it, a lot of really good reviews and a lot of respect. It was just me as an actress not all the other crap. In interviews, they say 'what is this Brook thing? You kissed someone?' It would literally take up about 30 seconds and then it's, 'can we talk about working with Barry Sonnenfeld?'"
Part of a "British invasion" of actresses, Friel found herself up against Lena Headey and Sophia Myles for auditions, bumping into them on the Warner Bros lot. "We'd see each other and say, 'how are the bags under your eyes doing?' But we'd also say, 'this is fantastic isn't it?' Getting in your car and seeing the Hollywood sign at the top of your drive every day... '"
This is, says Friel, "phase three" of a determined career which has led her from soapland to Broadway and now to Hollywood. If further proof that she's arrived were needed, she's just squeezed in a role in Woody Allen's latest, bunking off theatre rehearsals to do so. "He gave me one of the biggest compliments I've ever been given in my entire life. I couldn't believe it. I thought I must be doing something right if someone like that is saying that." She beams. As we leave her dressing room, she grabs my wrist and spritzes me with perfume, a musky patchouli . "Look! It's custom-made for me. It's got my name on it. Everyone will ask you what you're wearing... " Like I said, it must be rather nice to be Anna Friel. Just don't mention the B-word.
'Breakfast at Tiffany's', to 9 Jan, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0845 481 1870; www.breakfastattiffanys.co.uk)
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