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Anna Friel on transgender drama Butterfly: ‘If it was my daughter, I don’t know what I would do’

The actor tells Elisa Bray how her experience as a mother helped inform her performance and offers her own response to the backlash around the ITV series

Friday 12 October 2018 15:22 BST

It is nearly a quarter century since Anna Friel made headlines for the first ever lesbian kiss before the watershed on British television. That role, as the teenage Beth Jordache in Brookside, came to define Friel as an actor unafraid to court controversy by tackling audacious subjects.

Last year she engaged in steamy same-sex scenes in political drama The Girlfriend Experience, and now she is about to star in another “first” for mainstream television. Butterfly – in which she plays mother Vicky Duffy – tells the story of a family coming to terms with the needs of their 11-year-old transgender child Max, who becomes Maxine.

She admits that controversy “kind of follows me”, when we meet at the London headquarters of ITV. “It’s weird because I don’t actively seek it. I just don’t say ‘no’ to really good, interesting projects. I would never have known that [the lesbian kiss] would have caused such a stir. But we’ve come a long way since then.”

Friel apologises in advance for her brain being a “little frazzled”; ours is the final interview of the day to promote Butterfly, and she has had to field questions about whether she is terrified of the reception the drama will get. She refers to the backlash of “we don’t want to see that” when the show was first announced. “It blows my mind how people can have an opinion on something they haven’t seen.”

Friel came to play the role because she was drawn to Butterfly‘s writer Tony Marchant, who is championed for gloomy television dramas exploring the darkest corners of society such as Public Enemies, in which she starred. When she received the script for Butterfly, she was taken by its emotional depth – “I thought Maxine’s courage and bravery was a beautiful part of the story to tell” – and how, as a mother herself to a 13-year-old daughter, Gracie, she related to the character of Vicky.

“Being a single mother, juggling life, how you balance work and being a good mother. The utter love she has for her children I have with Gracie; I’d do anything for her, and ultimately all I want is for her to be happy and healthy.”

But, as will no doubt be the case for many of the parents who tune in to watch Butterfly tomorrow night, Friel found herself asking what she would do, if it were her child who was so uncomfortable in the body in which she’d been born. She was honest enough to admit that she didn’t know. “The debate then starts: at what age should one listen to their child? But when it comes to a point of self-harming and they’re saying ‘I’m born in the wrong body’, you have to listen.”

Butterfly explores the individual responses of all the family members, and their journey towards acceptance: the mother desperate to do the right thing for her child and blaming herself, the father who sees it as a phase and wants his son to toughen up, the big sister who fends off bullies, and, at the heart of it, a child who is desperate to be recognised in the identity they have chosen. I tell Friel I watched the first episode with my husband and she is eager to know how it played out.

“Did your husband sympathise with Emmett [Scanlon, who plays Stephen the father]? Because this is what’s fascinating for me. I think my understanding was what if it’s a stage and they change their mind, but they don’t – I think that’s what we’ve got to be really clear about and educate, is that a sex change is something very, very different to transitioning, and we shouldn’t misuse that. The language surrounding this is really complex and difficult, it’s ever changing and it’s quite complicated.”

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She talks of the great responsibility she and the programme makers bear to discuss such a sensitive topic which is much-talked about but hasn’t yet been portrayed on mainstream television. They sought first-hand experiences through the charity Mermaids, which supports gender diverse and transgender children and their families. “We met all these wonderful families, who were saying, ‘please tell our story and tell it properly’. I said, ‘do you not feel represented?’ And they said ‘no’. People have so many comments and opinions, but they actually can be somewhat ill-informed.”

Who would she like to watch it? “I think a younger demographic will appreciate it. There are certain older generations who are going to have an opinion and they don’t want it changed, but this isn’t about changing people’s opinions. It’s a drama, it’s not an issue drama just about transgender, it’s about a family, it’s a love story, it’s about all the normal family getting through life and what happens when this is thrown into the mix. It’s not ‘you must think this’. It’s about opening debate and asking questions and educating.”

At 42, Friel is often cast as a mother, and working with children makes her miss her own daughter all the more. “I’m going to see Gracie tonight for the first time in two weeks and I’m finding on the personal side of things, as I get older and she gets older, I’ve never liked to be away, but it’s getting more and more difficult.”

She is currently filming Deep Water in the Lake District, playing one of three mothers juggling their hectic lives. “I used to just take her everywhere and home-school, but she’s at the age when she needs to be at school and she’s got her friends. I can’t interrupt that and take that away. You have to be selfless. And I think of all the other mothers that just don’t have the privilege now to stay at home, we’ve got to go out and work, and if you think some parents leave the house at seven o’clock and get in at eight o’clock and just make bedtime, at least in between jobs I get long intense periods with her that I treasure.”

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Gracie will, however, be joining the actor when she starts filming the third series of Marcella, in February. “Because maybe we’re not going to be in England”, she says with a coy smile. “I’m really excited by [writer-director] Hans’s [Rosenfeldt] ideas – they’re incredibly current and somewhat political,” she adds, without revealing more.

She is much keener to talk about Gracie. The pair go travelling together once a year – they’ve done Vietnam and Africa. “She’s of the age we can put face masks on together and we only have to take one suitcase because she’s forever in my wardrobe.” Friel’s current outfit – conservative camel sweater and navy cropped trousers – might not be the mode of choice for a 13-year-old, save for the dainty pointed flats with bows.

“She’s only 13 and she’s a size seven. I’m a four-and-a-half. She takes after her father [actor David Thewlis, to whom Friel was married until 2010] so she’s taller than me now by a good two inches, so she doesn’t get any of my heels which I’ve saved for her. There are some very lucky charity shops awaiting.”

Friel was cast in her first professional acting role at the age Gracie is today. Will her daughter follow in the footsteps of her parents?

“She’s been offered quite a lot of jobs because she’s got the chops; she’s a really fast learner and very naturalistic. The right opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet.”

Would Friel be concerned for her daughter becoming an actor? “I think the pressure on her generation is so much more than there was. Because everything is judged, everything is watched, it’s easier to be bullied. Know that I’m quite protective of young actors. There’s codes of conduct and there are really wonderful people in this industry who are kind and caring and lovely.”

She recalls the support she herself has received from fellow actors. There’s the actor Brenda Fricker, whom she sees as a mentor since they co-starred in 2003’s Watermelon. “She was so kind to me and I try to follow in her footsteps and be there for the children that I play the mother to. People have been good to me.” Michael Palin, who played her father when she was cast aged 13 in her first professional acting job on Channel 4 drama GBH, is another. “I remember even when we’d finished he wrote to me every month for ages. You get older and realise how busy life can get, and you look back on that time and think what a generous man to do that. I try to follow in the way that I’ve been taught.”

Frazzled she may be, but Friel has an infectious energy. Words pour from her. It’s this natural liveliness which caused her to struggle, at times, playing a troubled detective in television series Marcella. She realised just what the role entailed one beautiful sunny day when she came bounding onto the set.

“I came in and did the take and the director said ‘Anna, what are you doing? Sorry, you’ve got to go into the dark place’. So I had to go and put my earphones on and then make myself really depressed. And that’s going to be wearing on anybody to do that day in day out for five months. It’s a mind f***.”

Through her headphones, she listened to the dramatic compositions of Hans Zimmer. “I find that really emotive and it can just,” she snaps her fingers, “put me into a certain kind of concentration. For most things I work through music.” For Butterfly, she listened to synth music in the vein of the show’s soundtrack, written by the Stranger Things composers Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon.

She also uses perfume to help her get into character. “I have a different perfume for every role. People kept saying there’s the smell of you when you leave the set – it’s my perfume, and I thought that could be quite overwhelming, so I try to make it gentle, but it’s quite specific to each character. I found one at the minute that’s called Worship – it smells like Italian churches and it’s grounding and earthy which is the character I’m playing.”

Before Friel finishes for the day, we turn to her dreams for future roles. “I know what it is,” she says immediately, eyes lit up. She’s quick to point out that she’s in the middle of getting the rights, so is unable to divulge further. “It’s a character from history that is quite formidable. I’d like to play her. She was a first to do what she did.” Another “first”; it seems we can always rely on Friel to take risks.

‘Butterfly’ begins on ITV on Sunday 14 October at 9pm

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