ANNA Friel is sitting in a hotel suite high above London’s Berkeley Square.
In a cinema several floors below we’ve just seen a cast and crew preview of her new ITV1 drama series Without You.
It’s late evening and there’s a post-screening get-together to attend just around the corner.
But first Anna takes time out to give a small group interview.
As ever, she’s not afraid of straight-talking – as you’ll discover in my MEN feature from yesterday (Thursday Nov 24) below.
With some added extras from Anna under that.
Including: “I’m an actress after all, I’m not a model. I can look pretty and I could look ugly.”
ANNA Friel had to seek out her darkest emotions while filming a heartbreaking TV role as a grief-stricken wife.
“It made me really appreciate my life. I went back and just held my daughter as tightly as I could every single night,” reveals the Rochdale-born actress.
Gracie, aged six, is Anna’s child from her former relationship with Harry Potter star David Thewlis. She says being a mum helped her cope with the emotionally draining part.
“It’s a wonderful thing being a mother and an actress. It keeps you sane because you know at the end of the day you’ve got to get back and you’ve got to be a mum – no matter how hard your day’s been.
“After filming I’d get in the car and pull the window down and look at the sky and feel the wind in my face, going, ‘Oh my God, I’m so glad I’m not her right now.’
“Gracie would say, ‘Come on mummy, hug me!’ And I’d say, ‘I’m happy now I’ve seen you.’”
Anna, 35, plays happily married Manchester primary school teacher Ellie Manning in ITV1 drama series Without You. The three-part thriller also stars Marc Warren as her accountant husband Greg.
When he is killed in a car accident, devastated Ellie is overwhelmed by grief and an obsession to uncover the truth. Another woman – a party planner in the city – died with Greg in the crash. Was he having an affair and was this really an accident?
Anna took the role after splitting from David. “What did I draw on? I’ve been through loss and I’ve had love and I can draw on both those things – I felt like I had a lot of raw emotion,” she explains.
“I used Gracie quite a lot. Thinking of not being with her. Or I think of my father. I think of the things that are closest to me and if I was to have those taken away, how would I be and how would I feel?
“I met with a grief counsellor before we did it. She said there’s no particular way to grieve. Everybody handles it in different ways.
“I talked about my own personal things of what I fear about death and the people that I could lose and I can’t even imagine to go there. She showed me that we all have to at some points of our life.”
Does Anna think the experience has left her better equipped to deal with grief in her own life? “God, I don’t know. I’d love to be able to say, ‘Yes it will.’ But all the people in my life are so dear to me.
“I find it the most frightening thing, losing people. As will all of us, it terrifies us. The tighter the bonds that all of you have, the harder the loss.”
With homes both in Windsor and under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, Pushing Daisies star Anna has come a long way since her days as Beth Jordache in Brookside.
“After going to America, people had forgotten where I’d started. My roots are as a gritty, naturalistic northerner,” she points out.
Her 2009 role as Dee Purnell, a single mum forced into prostitution, in Jimmy McGovern’s Salford filmed and set The Street convinced the producers of Without You that she was perfect for the role.
“I loved that character. People you can relate to. And I love shooting up north, being in those actual houses on that real street. When I got the script for this and she was a northerner I thought, ‘Oh great, I’ll be home. I’ll be in Manchester, which I hardly am.’”
But sadly, while the city forms the backdrop to the new drama, Anna’s scenes had to be filmed in London.
“It was the first TV job I did after a break-up but I was dealing with that perfectly well. I’d just played a pirate, so that cheered me up – having fantastic costumes and the biggest hats you’ve ever seen, jumping around on ships and using swords.”
Anna is now with Notting Hill star Rhys Ifans. They met after her split fom David on the set of Peter Pan prequel Neverland when Rhys played Captain Hook and she was Irish pirate Captain Bonny.
Without You was very different. “The role of Ellie took massive concentration. Usually I’m really bubbly and talkative on set and I’ll be the one going, ‘Alright guys, come on, let’s go and have a drink after work.’ On this I didn’t. I just kept very much to myself and in between each scene I’d find my own little corner.
“I’d often go on the set on my own before the whole crew came so I could have a sense of being in this big house, although it was a set. Of feeling that alone-ness.”
Anna has also filmed the role of a probation officer in forthcoming BBC1 drama Public Enemies, due on screen early next year. Her West End role in Breakfast At Tiffany’s may transfer to Broadway and then there’s the issue of trying to fit in her LA career with Daisy’s schooling.
“It’s hard to juggle. The time you have to be away, if you’ve got family. Particularly with the separation, you can’t just do what you want when you want. You’ve got to take a lot of things into consideration.”
About to fly back to Los Angeles, she smiles: “I’ve been away for about a year and if I spend any more time here my agents are going to go mental. They’re like, ‘Come on!’ It’s been my time with Gracie for the last few months and David’s been off working.
“I came back to England just to do the theatre when I had another two films waiting for me in America. I got offered another job here and I had a break-up.
“It would have been completely impractical and very selfish of me just to immediately jet off. It wouldn’t have been good for Gracie. And the jobs that came up here I really liked. I love England. I love the work that we do. It was nice to come and do that again and be home.”
Welsh actor Rhys helped her get over the ITV role. “Rhys was like, ‘That’s a hard job for you. Let’s go and do something fun.’ So he picked me up from work and Gracie and I got in the car and we went and stayed in a teepee in Wales for four days, burned fires and jumped around the wilderness. That kind of helps.”
He will also be with Anna and Gracie when they spend Christmas at home in Rochdale with her parents and family. “I’ve been there every single year of my life apart from one, when we all went to Colorado skiing.”
Does being back in Rochdale take her back to the days when she was a young girl setting out on her career? “Yeah. I’ve got my place in front of the fire where I lie on the floor and cuddle up with my cushion and my cat.
“It’s all exciting again. Christmas becomes a whole new thing when you’ve got a child. You just see it through their eyes again. And my wonderful mum and dad. I can’t wait to see them.”
*Without You begins on ITV1 at 9pm on Thursday Dec 8.
*Neverland is on Sky Movies Premiere on Friday Dec 9.
Does she feel refreshed after these recent roles?
“It’s kind of hard. High definition is a killer, isn’t it, now? You’re just going, ‘My God.’ You have so many bounces and great light and you’re in hair and make-up constantly when you’re doing things. And from that just to go, ‘No, I’m very raw,’ it’s liberating. I’m an actress after all, I’m not a model. I can look pretty and I could look ugly.”
Watching that tonight on a big screen with lots of emotion and close-ups?
“Uhh! Raw! I’ll get a little bit of the Vaseline now and cover the screen. No, but it was truthful. It’s like grief is ugly. Grief isn’t beautiful. If I was there going, ‘No, I want my lights and I want it all to look stretched and perfect’ then I wouldn’t be doing justice to the emotions that I’m trying to relay and convey.”
Is she OK with watching herself on screen?
“You always judge yourself. I think the minute you stop judging yourself you stop trying to get better. But it’s good. I think sometimes you’ve got to go, ‘No, just sit back and watch it.’
“And my mum and dad are a really good judge of that. Whether they see Anna or they see the character. I always ask them to give me a truthful answer of that.”
Her Irish accent in Neverland is convincing”
“My daddy’s from Belfast, so the whole family’s from there. I’ve just been offered to go to Belfast to the Lyric. I literally just got asked yesterday. So that’s one of the considerations.
“I’d love to go and work there. There’s that and the West End and Broadway. It’s scheduling them all, But also because Gracie’s at school now you have to think, ‘Do we take her out and have a tutor for her and then I can’t be away from her for that long? And then do we move back to LA where I’ve still got my house, and David’s partner is in Paris…’ Everyone’s got their own things to do.”
Possibly taking Gracie to Belfast?
“I’d like her to have a bit of her heritage and my granny’s getting on now, she’s 93. So I want to go and spend some time with all my cousins. I love Ireland. I feel very at home there. I’m very proud each time I see the light on my hair and it comes out red. Look, I’m Irish!
“I want to do more in Ireland. I think there’s many stories that are yet to be told. It’s a wonderful fantastic nation.
“I’ve got so many friends and family there and I love their attitude. Every filming experience I’ve ever had with an Irish crew have been nothing but fantastic memories. The Shankill Butchers have to be done. There’s a story there. There’s lots of Irish history that I think people don’t know enough about.”
Where does she consider home?
“Windsor, because we’ve been there for 12 years, although we were away for two and a half. And this time last year I was with Gracie in South Africa for seven weeks and then she was home schooled.
“It’s really odd. When I’m in LA I feel completely and utterly at home and get on with my life and England seems very far away. And then when I’m here, the exact same thing happens. I think it’s very animalistic. You just have to adapt to your surroundings, even though I’m the truest Cancer possible, known to man. I take six suitcases, literally. It’s an hour getting things off the converyor belt because I’m like, ‘I need that.’”
Some of her scenes in Without You were particular upsetting to film?
“Sometimes I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m sick of being depressed. I’m sick of having to be this sad.’ I’d go off on my own and get to a point where I was just about to go…and then you hold it in and you start your day. And that was for the whole day. And there was no release. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t come in sometimes going, ‘I want to be able to cry. I just want to cry.’
“I felt a massive sense of frustration. I just wanted to cry.”
Working with Marc Warren?
“He’s such a great actor to work with. We did a week of rehearsal which, in the days of television now, is a rarity. And we did lots of improvisation and we gave ourselves back stories. So even though they’re some of the most upsetting scenes, they were some of the most easy to do. We just had a wonderful working relationship both Marc and I. He’s very calm.”
Did the part of Ellie stay with you?
“We did a continuous day from five until five so I’d get home to be able to spend some time with Gracie. So I’d get home and sometimes go, ‘Hi!’ But you have to leave these things at work. But in the day I stayed in it all day. So I wasn’t the most jolly, happy, talkative person.
“You live it. You draw on whatever you’re feeling. Everyone has experienced loss and love. You use and utilise whatever is around to make the most natural and realistic it can be.”