Anna Friel: The Friel-good factor?

Anna Friel has big plans. She wants to stay ahead of the hot young competition, expose the dark side of Gracie Fields and have a baby. And on top of all that she wants to slow down. Matthew Sweet tries to keep up
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The Independent Online

Anna Friel is having her photograph taken, and I'm hiding behind the sofa with her agent, trying not to appear in the shot. We're in the penthouse suite of the Dorchester hotel: a mirrored chamber done up with gold fittings and electric candles in a style marooned somewhere between the Palace of Versailles and the Uxbridge Odeon. While we lie low under the soft furnishings, Friel tries out the photographer's first idea, and wraps her legs around a faux-Rococo dining chair like some belle époque Christine Keeler. Then it's up on her feet to try out a second pose: leaning against the mantelpiece, bathed in the soft candle-effect glow. Her agent and I pop up from behind the sofa like George and Zippy, and agree that this one will be perfect if K-Tel ever ask her to record an album of her favourite Christmas songs. Friel responds with a two-word verbal memo. "Gracie Fields," she says.

Gracie, Friel reports, has been much on her mind since she took a guided tour of Rochdale town hall in the company of her partner, the actor David Thewlis. Although Rochdale is Friel's home town, it was Thewlis, Friel says, rolling her eyes in mock horror, "who got all the recognition." On the tour, they were told Hitler coveted the hall's stained glass windows. They were also shown a cabinet full of Gracie Fields memorabilia, the town's most celebrated daughter. Friel bought up all the postcards in the souvenir shop, located a copy of Fields's autobiography, Sing as We Go, and devoured it. Now she wants to play her in some kind of biopic.

I ask her about the state of her coloratura, and she drops the name of a retired opera singer under whom she once studied. I ask her for a bit of "The Biggest Aspidistra in the World", and she responds by belting out the chorus of "Sally" with the correct amount of bone-shaking vibrato. She bears no physical resemblance to Fields, who had a jaw like a longshoreman and shoulders like a scrum half: some Nicole Kidman-style prosthetics, she concedes, might be necessary. The lives of these two women, however, offer a number of common points. Fields and Friel both began performing in their teens, both cultivated a take-me-as-you-find-me public image, both went from British films to Hollywood, and both found their love lives being used to furnish material for newspaper gossip. "I've got to be careful," Friel reflects, "because your readers in Rochdale won't hear a bad word said against the woman. But she had a darker side, a massive craven need for fame."

We're supposed to be talking about Friel's latest film, Timeline, a trans-temporal romance (released next week) in which she plays a 14th-century Gallic princess whose campaign against a British occupation force is complicated by the arrival of an away-team of 21st-century archaeologists. The cause of all the trouble is David Thewlis, a sneaky, scruple-free physicist who has zapped them back in time and - when the experiment goes awry, as these things tend to - intends to strand them on the battlefield. Friel and Thewlis had hoped that they might be able to spend some time together on the shoot but the production schedule - and 700 years of history - kept them separate. Thewlis flew back from the Canadian location as Friel flew out to begin her contribution.

The film - which, for reasons I don't quite understand, is having its premiere in Ashton-under-Lyne - kicks against current American sentiments by making heroes of the French. It also gives Friel a chance to show off her language skills: her father was a French teacher who, on family holidays, was always badgering her into putting Unit 12: À la Boulangerie into practice.

Ten years have passed since Friel came to public attention as Beth Jordache, the heroically patricidal lesbian who, after doing in her dad, concealed the body under the textured concrete of Brookside close. In that time, she has barely stopped working. She breathed brassy life into Bella Wilfer in a BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend, spent a season in New York in the cast of Patrick Marber's Closer, and trolled about King's Cross in her undies in Jonathan Kent's production of Wedekind's Lulu plays. Most of her energies, however, have been expended on adding a string of feature films to her CV.

Some of these have done her justice - Sandra Goldbacher's Me Without You (2001) made intelligent use of her characteristic mixture of warmth, bolshiness and panic. Others have relied upon her to enliven their so-so scripts - her pair of wartime dramas, The Land Girls (1998) and The War Bride (2002), for instance, would have been dreary affairs without her. One or two have suffered from badness beyond remedy: I'd challenge anyone to sit through Mad Cows (1999) (in which she plays an Australian in London sent to Holloway for stuffing frozen peas down her blouse) without running out of expletives to yell at the screen. (Some of the cast have already begun to omit the film from their résumés.)

She has marked the decade by leaving London to set up home with Thewlis in Windsor, changing her agent, and taking a sabbatical from acting. "I wanted to learn how to spend time when I'm not on a film set," she explains, "because I've never done that, and you can start living vicariously through your characters if you don't have a break or time to assess things. The first few months I was really, really down. I was thinking, 'I don't like this, I just want to work, please let me work.' But it was really important to know what to do with my life when I wasn't working. I wanted to be calmer." She takes a sip of cold coffee from the cup in front of her: she's been offered a fresh one, but declined. "I'm so - I don't want to say highly strung - my energy is quite frenetic, and it's always, 'do this, do that.' I wanted to just wake up and go for a walk in the morning. Or to - and I never thought I was ever going to say this - go to the gym."

She jitters off down a different track, her eagerness to express six thoughts in one sentence reducing her monologue to a pile-up of colliding clauses: "And cooking, I've really liked cooking. I discovered books again. I caught up with my films. I got to spend more time with David. I suppose you reach 27 and you want to take yourself more seriously. I needed to find a bit of inner confidence, the strength to say, 'I've got an opinion, too.' I'm ready and I'm hungry and I really want to do good films. And I want to get better, and how do you do that? And before you know it you look and there's the new, younger people coming up, and they're all hot, and it's all about the heat that's around them. And you have to spend more time in America." She comes to a halt, aware that she's stopped making sense. "Sorry," she says, "I do tend to speak rather quickly. Slow down, slow down."

Friel's soapy past has ensured that she is one of the few British film actresses the tabloids like to keep under friendly surveillance. Her lesbian kiss in Brookside inaugurated the affair, but she's since given them plenty to write about, and they have rewarded her accordingly. The red tops offered her their weird form of printed sympathy when she was given the unceremonious elbow by her boyfriend Darren Day. (And look how it turned out: she's still making movies, he's best known for swallowing live Australasian grubs on an ITV game show.) They offered her encouragement during her dalliance with Robbie Williams. They were delighted when she went through a period of sharing her Saturday nights out in the company of Met Bar homegirls like Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Meg Matthews - and could hardly contain their joy when someone secured a shot of her locking lips with another woman at the first night party for The War Bride.

They also adore her because she doesn't seem to censor her thoughts in the presence of journalists. With Friel, there seem to be few no-go areas. "You can be honest," she says to me, as I tiptoe around some slightly tricky area of her biography. "You don't have to mince your words so you don't insult me." Friel's official website has most of her interviews logged and archived - even the ones for Best and What's On TV. Clicking through these is a good way to measure her occasionally alarming frankness. It's all here: the story of how an ovarian cyst exploded on the set of Me Without You; an account of how her doctor told her that she would be wise to have children before she reaches 30; the tale of how her father walked in on her having it off with Darren Day; and confessions about her sex life with David Thewlis. Perhaps this is what she means about living life vicariously through her characters: she often plays the hedonist surrounded by prudes and prissy types. When, during our conversation, she looses an accidental burp from the middle of a sentence there's a pause as we both reflect on the inevitability of its appearance in this piece. Then she grabs herself the punchline, "at least it wasn't the other end."

The next three years of Friel's life may well determine what she does for the next three decades. She's clearly looking to America for inspiration: a stint in a good HBO series would suit her fine, she says, if the contract was right. (On her last visit to Los Angeles, she held a meeting with the producers of Six Feet Under.) "You've got to take responsibility for your own reputation," she says. "I don't want to be just arm-candy and do Scream 3 and teenage things. I want to be a better actress, somebody who's going to be around for a while." And then there's the question of children, which, as she's said in interview after interview, would be best addressed sooner rather than later. One aspect of this, at least, has been settled. As I leave the hall of mirrors, she volunteers a happy ambition. "If I have a girl," she says, "I'm going to call it Gracie."