Anna Friel: the northern soul now starring as a Nashville queen

Anna Friel started out singing. Now she is back, doing it again, for all America to hear. As a child in Rochdale she listened to her Irish father playing folk tunes on his guitar, and with her friends Clare and Louise started Cal, a band named after their initials.

This month Friel’s image is up on hoardings across LA because she is at the centre of Monarch, a new, all-singing small-screen drama about another musical family – fictional country music stars the Romans.

Friel, 46, plays Nicky, or Nicolette, the daughter of Susan Sarandon’s Dottie Cantrell Roman, the matriarch who is reluctantly stepping aside as the queen of the Grand Ole Opry scene in favour of her child. The tension in the drama, which goes out on Fox and was created by up-and-coming screenwriter Melissa London Hilfers, emanates from the fact that Dottie’s other daughter, played by Beth Ditto, believes she is the more natural heir to the throne. And then there is an unexpected bit of murder too.

Long anticipated, as the show was pushed back due to the pandemic, so far it has received a mixed critical reception. Hailed by some as a rhinestone-studded spectacle, complete with big hairdos and cowboy boots, others have queried whether it can fulfil its ambition to do for country music what Fox’s show Empire did for hip-hop.

Anna Friel in a yellow period dress, bareheaded, standing next to Timothy Spall in colourful Victorian clothes and a battered top hat
Friel with Timothy Spall in BBC Two’s adaptation of Our Mutual Friend (1998). Photograph: Peter Lea/Shutterstock

Monarch does, however, mark a fresh push into the American entertainment market for one of Britain’s most recognised stars. And Ray Panthaki, her co-star in the hit British crime drama Marcella, believes any new attention is well deserved: “Anna’s a fearless leader and has instincts that are up there with anyone I’ve ever worked with,” he told the Observer this weekend. “Whether she believes it or not, I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do as an actor. Truly. She immerses herself deeply in characters, emotionally, physically – she puts the work in and goes there. And I keep telling her: with that kind of instinct, taste and commitment to truth she needs to be making films as well as being in them.”

Monarch is not Friel’s first big American TV role. She was in the black comedy Pushing Daisies and starred in the second series of The Girlfriend Experience, as well as appearing in several big budget films. But early on in her career she pulled back from making a life for herself in Los Angeles because she wanted to raise her daughter Gracie in Britain, close to actor David Thewlis, Gracie’s father. “My agents would love me to go back there, but you choose a career in America and you take your child away from their father. I had to sacrifice that,” she said soon after the move.

The show is the latest sign of mainstream interest in the world of country music. The genre has gained some kudos since Taylor Swift decided to step away from it in favour of pop, with Jessie Buckley strutting her stuff on stage in the British film Wild Rose and the television series Nashville belatedly spinning off from Robert Altman’s acclaimed 1975 drama.

But perhaps more significant is the chance Monarch gives British viewers to look back at Friel’s career and at the ways she has been packaged over her long stint in front of the cameras.

When she began to perform as a teenager in the 1990s, her direct expression and earnest manner were her youthful trademark. She was in the television magazine programme 8.15 from Manchester, appeared in Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street, and secured a part in Alan Bleasdale’s television drama GBH.

Then followed the part that gained her those first newspaper headlines. As Beth Jordache in Brookside, Channel 4’s Liverpudlian soap, she pushed forward the boundaries of early evening viewing in a celebrated scene where she kissed another woman, challenging the audience afterwards with the line: “Well, neither of us has been struck by lightning yet.” From then on, Friel’s plain-speaking manner was reframed as sexually provocative and her romantic life was deemed fair game for redtop reporters. A relationship with the winsome West End musical lead Darren Day was bait for the columnists. A Hello! magazine cover splash saw them promising “to make it work” at any cost. And when that love story ended, a brief interlude as the girlfriend of Robbie Williams saw a lurch into the lurid end of the limelight spectrum.

Although she had good serious roles, including in a BBC Two serialisation of Our Mutual Friend in 1998 opposite Paul McGann and David Morrissey, and a part in a starry 1999 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, her image as someone of sexual interest persisted. When she was cast in the Broadway production of Patrick Marber’s play Closer, it was part of the deal. Variety’s critic picked her out as the “real discovery here” – she was “the nihilistic core of the play” due to her combination of toughness and fragility.

These qualities have often defined Friel’s performances and yet it is the focus on her appearance down the years that is intriguing to look back upon. Now, as the star of Marcella, Friel is regarded as an established talent. Back then it was her slim figure, her smoking, her clothes and her gamine looks that were her main claims to fame. When she was 22, a senior male journalist commented on her “pert” nose and “more or less perfect skin”, then summed it up: “She is truly beautiful, in a way which appeals to women as well as to lecherous men.” He went on to say that even her blunt language didn’t stop her being attractive. Clearly Friel was the sort who made jaded men feel … invigorated.

This perception may have helped her secure the lead role in an Almeida production of Frank Wedekind’s bleak classic Lulu that went on to play in New York. At 24, she inhabited the part of the doomed and promiscuous waif, although she failed to convince several critics that she was as at home on the stage as she had been on the set of the Merseyside close. “Anna Friel never looks less than delectable,” wrote the Observer’s critic, “but the underplaying that made her seem natural in Brookside makes her appear flat here: her voice is thin, and her gestures mechanical.”

The Daily Mail simply delighted in her skimpy costumes and noted her apparent unease on opening night. “As she took her final bow she smiled nervously and waved to her friends and family in the audience, covering her miniskirt and tiny top with a gown.”

Actors, like models, are used to being judged that way, but it is a rough trade. When Friel left Brookside she said she had “felt incredibly undervalued”, although the experience had strengthened her “because I realised that, as long as I am doing this job, I am going to be a commodity”.

Related: Anna Friel: ‘I thought acting would be a hobby – never a job’

In truth, there has been an increasingly benevolent tone to coverage of Friel’s life. A rather mawkish wish to see her settle down lent a sombre tone to news stories about the end of her time with Thewlis and her subsequent relationship with the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans.

Coping with such personal scrutiny and yet remaining emotionally open as an actor must be hard. Friel admitted as much when talking about her role in Marcella. “You have to go to some pretty dark places,” she said. “So I go into a corner, put my headphones on, listen to music and get really sad. Sometimes I’ll bring up hurtful things I’ve gone through, almost like a negative meditation. Normally, meditation takes you to a place of calm, but I relive trauma and that gets filmed.”

There is a steely determination that marks out this kind of star – more so, possibly, than their ability to change persona for an audience. Unlike the chameleon type of actor, these are performers fixed on a goal. Her teacher parents, Des and Julie, have spoken of Friel’s keen ambition as a child, first settling on law and then taking theatre classes three nights a week and all day on Sundays.

Friel, happily, remains a confrontational screen presence, a kind of northern English Sigourney Weaver. She has an aura of boldness, even bravery, that makes a person stand out.