Laura James meets Anna Friel to talk about her latest starring role in a dark ITV thriller and how she balances, work, motherhood and her home renovations.
It’s a dreary, drizzly and cold Saturday morning in February when I arrive on the doorstep of Anna’s Georgian townhouse in Windsor. I’m at the wrong entrance, one she doesn’t use. She pops her head round the door and directs me to the correct one. Running late, dressed in a bathrobe and her face free of make-up, she looks about 12 years old.
Inside it’s much cosier and, once ready, Anna is chatty and full of energy. The first thing that strikes me is how tiny she is; the second, how she is utterly a girls’ girl, happiest chatting about beauty treatments, healthy eating regimes, motherhood and smoothie recipes.
She’s been working flat out on a new drama to be shown on ITV and Netflix in early April. Marcella is written by Hans Rosenfeldt – best known for the hugely successful The Bridge – and Anna plays the eponymous lead. Set in contemporary London, Marcella – co-starring Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, Nicholas Pinnock from Fortitude, Jamie Bamber from Law &Order: UK, and Ian Puleston-Davies from Being Human – is a noir thriller told with Rosenfeldt’s unflinchingly multi-layered Nordic style.
“It’s England’s first version of a sort of Scandi drama,” Anna says, settling back on the squishiest of sofas. “It’s a psychological thriller. It’s essentially a look into the life of a woman who is kind of broken. Anything that can be thrown at her is.
“She had given up her career because she’d found the love of her life and wanted to be a mother. I think women can really relate to that now, when we have to be a great mother and have a fantastic career the pressures are huge. Marcella decides to go for a family instead. When her husband drops out of the blue that he’s leaving her she goes back to work so she has something to focus on.”
Although she has a hectic work life, Anna is aware of the effect it may have on Gracie and says she is always looking for ways to make her role as a mother work alongside her job. Marcella has been a dream part for her. “It’s always been about my daughter and trying to ensure she can be with me,” Anna says. “She’s 10 now and I can’t just take her out of school. So to have a job not just with a great character, but also more normal working hours is amazing. I leave at 5.30am and get home about 7.30 or 8.30pm, so I have time to put Gracie to bed, cook her supper and do her homework.”Juggling work and motherhood is something Anna knows a lot about. She travels extensively, divides her time between London and Los Angeles and has a 10-year-old daughter, Gracie, with her ex-partner actor David Thewlis, perhaps best known for the role of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films. “He’s a great dad and lives just across the road,” Anna says. “We’re the best of friends. It’s a bit unconventional, but we get on beautifully.”
Anna has also spent the past couple of years renovating the house, which she moved into one frantic Christmas Eve. The process has been fraught with difficulties and has become something of a labour of love.
Downstairs is one long room with a living area leading to an extension housing the kitchen and dining space. The working part of the kitchen occupies the middle section and, at the far end, the dining area looks out on to what, when it’s finished, will be a small but elegant garden overlooking Windsor’s historic Long Walk.
“The kitchen is my favourite room,” Anna says. “It’s the hub of the house. I wanted to create a big open living space that we all spent most of our time in.
“I collect Arts and Crafts furniture and my other house was quite cluttered. I think you get to a point in your life where you just want to get rid of stuff and clear the space. I came across Hunt Bespoke Kitchens and Theresa Hunt came to see this place, which at the time was atrocious. I really liked her. She was very calming. I explained what I wanted and they drew it out.
“I love their colour schemes. My other kitchen was sumptuous, with greens and reds. This is a lot cleaner. I never thought the day would come when I would have a grey kitchen, but I like the individuality of having the two different colours. I have a copper theme going through the house as an ode to the Copper Horse at the end of the Long Walk.”
Central to the kitchen is an AGA Total Control in Pearl Ashes, something Anna had wanted for a while.
“Any house I’d ever been to whose kitchen I’d loved had an AGA. It just feels much like having an open fire. It’s as if there’s another person in the room; I don’t like to be cold at all so it’s just so cosy. My grandmother in Ireland has always had an AGA and to me they just feel historic. They look so beautiful.”
As well as loving the look of the AGA cooker, Anna is discovering all the things every new AGA owner gets excited about.
“It cooks in another way,” she says. “I don’t understand it scientifically. It feels like it cooks food as it should be cooked. You don’t have to rush – you can put a joint in the simmering oven in the morning and come back in the afternoon and you’ve got a Sunday roast. My friends have come round and said, ‘this is amazing, how have you done this?’ I have to reply that ‘I just shoved it in the AGA’.”
Although she’s only just settling into her new house, Anna will be travelling a lot over the coming months. Once Marcella is out she’ll be going to the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, with a new film, MasterCleanse, in which she stars alongside Johnny Galecki and Angelica Houston.
She will also be promoting two other new movies: the revenge thriller I.T. – on which she worked with Pierce Brosnan whom she describes as “delightful and very much a hard worker” – and the country noir feature Tomato Red, an adaptation of the next book on from Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.
Anna, who is 40 in July, seems to have the energy of someone half her age. She is an ambassador for the wildlife conservation organisation WWF. Having already been to Africa on a project to save one of the oldest national parks and last remaining mountain gorillas, her next trip will be to Nepal to raise awareness of the plight of tigers.
“I came back from Africa thinking it was one of the most beautiful times of my life because it gave such perspective,” she says.
Anna has big plans away from work too. Top of the list is the holiday she and Gracie are hoping to take. “She told me the other day she wants white sand and turquoise seas,” Anna says looking rather wistful.
As I leave she hugs me tightly, a refreshing change from an off-hand air kiss. “Sometimes you just need a woman hug,” she laughs, confirming my view that she is the perfect girl to hang out with.
Marcella airs on ITV1 on April 4.