Interview: Anna Friel; When the whole nation knows you as one half of British soap's first lesbian kiss, and men's mags have declared you a babe, what hope for a grown-up acting career? Yet Anna Friel is undaunted
MOST journalists will tell you that interviews with young actors are pointless because the subjects generally have so little of interest to say for themselves. You might as well, they'll say, warming to their theme, interview a piano about its part in a concerto. The only purpose of such interviews is to provide some grey stuff to go round an attractive picture of the exquisite person in question, and to tell us about what they're going to "be in", which is when, of course, they come into their own and one can absolutely see the point of them.

On the right, we have a delightful picture of Anna Friel who, to be blunt, I suspected would fall into the category just described. She is, after all, a 21-year-old ex-soap star - however gritty, exfoliating even, that soap may have been. Well, you know what I'm going to say. It's not just that she's clever and funny, although she is; it's that she's so passionate you fear for her. If she's this committed and alive and engaged in interview, what on earth is she like on set, or in love? Absurd as it may seem, I was inspired by her. And this bit sounds terrible on so many levels, but she also reminded me of myself when I was her age. That has to be down to some spooky, star-quality, charisma-type thing. Aren't actors supposed to arouse a misguided feeling of identification in their audience? And isn't being famous the same thing, on a bigger scale? I don't know whether she's going to be any good in Our Mutual Friend or Rogue Trader (of which more later), but she certainly does it for me.

So, we're in Soho House, a private London club for film and telly people, of which the publicist is a member. Anna is smoking roll-ups prepared for her by the chap from the Express who, clearly besotted, has just left, and we are drinking white wine (very good signs, these; it's most unusual for young actresses to endanger their health and complexion). Friel grew up in Rochdale; both her parents are teachers and "we never wanted for anything", as she quaintly puts it. She has a younger brother who has also done some acting, but aside from a strong musical strain (her Irish father writes and plays) there's nothing theatrical in her family. In fact, at one stage she wanted to be a barrister: "Acting didn't seem the right career if you required routine and planning and you don't like insecurity. My ambition was to have a family and children and a nice wage coming in. But unfortunately, I also get bored very easily and I need challenge in my life." So, at 13, Friel was appearing in productions by the Oldham Theatre Workshop and by 16, when she got the part of Beth Jordache in Brookside, she'd already been seen in Alan Bleasedale's GBH, In Suspicious Circumstances and Coronation Street.

The role, as you might remember, caused a furore. Not only does the porcelain- featured, heartbreakingly pretty Beth help her mother murder her abusive father, she also comes out as a lesbian. "I had no idea the impact it would have," says Friel. "I was fine about it as long as it was handled properly and she always remained lesbian; otherwise it would have looked like 'Don't worry, it's only a phase'." She says it was the best training she could have had. "I've spent more time in front of a camera than most 30-year-olds." She stayed with Brookside for two years and gave the producers plenty of warning when she felt she'd learnt as much as she could and wanted to move on. She's not sure they entirely believed her, which is one explanation for the anti-climactic ending to the storyline which gripped the nation (Beth and her mother are convicted for the murder of her father and Beth mysteriously collapses and dies in her prison cell).

Friel, however, was headed for bigger and better things. She was now an official babe and there was intense tabloid interest in her private life. Game shows, the pop charts and dodgy parts must have beckoned, but Friel found herself a decent agent and waited for the right script. "It was really difficult to earn respect," she explains. "I'm from the North, I haven't been to drama school, I started on Brookside, people thought [puts on posh accent] 'She can't do that, she hasn't been trained'. Well, give me a voice coach and I'll learn phonetics in five hours and I'll do the voice. The important thing [back to Rochdale] is to have the ability. It's about bein' able to empathise and bein' natural and truthful and real, and open to things. It's about absorbin' your surroundings and watchin' and notin' things."

It was Stephen Poliakoff who gave her a break with a part in The Tribe, in which she plays a free-loving, commune-inhabiting hippy and Jeremy Northam a yuppie developer. Parts in Land Girls, St Ives (an adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson novella), Our Mutual Friend and Rogue Trader (as Mrs Leeson, opposite Ewan McGregor) quickly followed. Filming them back to back might have been exhausting, except that Anna "hates sleeping"; "I want to be doing things all the time. I try to cram things into every single day. I think you should live as if you haven't got very long."

If it's successful, Rogue Trader will mean real stardom, but in a curious way, Our Mutual Friend is more impressive. The competition for the lead in the BBC's big spring costume drama must have been fierce; it's not as if there's a national shortage of spectacularly pretty, Rada-trained, RP-speaking girls.

At around the same time as the filming of Land Girls, Anna split up with her then boyfriend Darren Day. Hours later, it seemed, he took up with Tracey Shaw "out of" Coronation Street, causing much fuss in the papers and heartache for Friel. The only explanation for the patently unsuitable and low-rent Day is that Anna was young and trusting and had never lived away from her family before. They met at a first-night party in Manchester and "liked each other for what we were," as she told the Sunday Mirror at the time. "Neither of us knew who the other was." A lot of people still don't know who Darren Day is, fortunately for them, you might think. "It was the first really bad thing that had happened to me. It was the public humiliation, of being treated like that by someone I'd trusted and totally relied on. I felt angry with myself, that I could misjudge someone so badly."

She's now bought her own house in London and is enjoying the feeling of not needing a relationship. "When I've achieved something, I know that I've done it on my own. I'm an over-sensitive person and hopelessly romantic and passionate about everything I do and I get very disappointed by people. The biggest burden of this job is not about losing anonymity, it's about not being able to trust people, because that limits when you can be true to yourself. So, something I've decided to live by is when I'm not on camera, I'm always the same Anna. I like Anna and it's up to other people to see whether they like me or not."

'Our Mutual Friend' goes out on BBC1 on 11 March