Anna Friel on her challenging new TV role

Anna Friel has become a familiar face to TV viewers over the past two decades. The actress talks to Phil Penfold about her latest, challenging role in new TV drama Butterfly.

Anna Friel as Vicky in Butterfly.
Anna Friel as Vicky in Butterfly.

Actors, says Anna Friel, “always bring something of themselves to a role”. She pauses for a moment. “Well, what I mean is, if you are offered a part with any substance to it, you try to look at your own personal history, to see if there’s something that you know about from your own experience that will inform what you are doing.”

In the forthcoming drama series Butterfly she found two things. “The first was that I was quite badly bullied at school – but I managed to hold my own. I’m the daughter of two teachers, so I somehow found a way to cope. Bullying is vile, and it should be eradicated, but it goes on long after school has ended.

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“It happens in the workplace, in politics, in every strata of life. The one thing that you learn, if you stand back and look at it, is that bullies all have one thing in common. They are, basically, cowards. And the other thing? It’s that ignorance can actually be useful.”

An odd thing to say? “Not at all”, says Friel, 42, an actress of note ever since she played the feisty Beth Jordache in Brookside.

Her latest TV drama Butterfly, which starts on ITV this month, is likely to cause a bit of a stir – and create much debate. “It is probably the most challenging thing that I have ever done in my career to date. It is a story about parental support – or lack of it – for a young child [called Max] who feels uncomfortable in their own body”.

His parents, played by Anna and Emmett J Scanlan, have separated and they decide that the best way to help their young son is to reunite, and to work through the problems together. But they cannot agree on how to help and guide him.

Young Max has always identified as a girl but has suppressed his natural feelings because he wants to get his dad’s approval. Male bonding is the solution, according to his dad. But his mum is unsure – and unconvinced, and a complex test of love and understanding begins.

“It is deeply distressing for everyone and I really needed help to comprehend the background to the story,” says Anna. “This has been going on for generations, throughout history. It’s just that today there are some courageous people who are willing and articulate enough to be able to talk about gender identity.

“They are the lucky ones, because there have always been people who have been unhappy within their own skins. Society has forbidden any discussion. It has been a taboo, a no-go area”.

Anna found help when she was directed to contact the Yorkshire-based charity, Mermaids, and its CEO Susie Green – who joined the organisation when her own young son revealed his uncertainty about his gender. Jack is now a very happy and fulfilled Jackie.

Mermaids, based in Yeadon, gets 5,000 calls and emails a year and has 500 young people in its youth group. “We hold four residential weekends a year for families to come together,” explains Green. “We’ve got eight local groups, and we want to expand those.

“Our young people and their families often don’t have a voice because they don’t want to ‘out’ themselves. So they don’t want to talk to other people about being trans. And they certainly don’t want to put themselves into the public view of press or TV, because it is just too dangerous. There are some very deep-rooted prejudices out there, and I know that from personal experience.”

Friel is full of admiration for their work. “Mermaids has a caseload of thousands and this is just the tip of an iceberg,” she says. “There are so many more out there who just feel completely trapped, and Susie tells me that there are so many parents who refuse to acknowledge what is going on. They sweep the subject under the carpet, and hope that it will go away. It won’t.

“It never will. So many, like Max’s dad, think that this is all a ‘phase’. His mother believes differently. Both of them, in our story, just want the best for their child, but believe that will be achieved in different ways.

“There are so many parents who are scared and they just hope that these problems will, in time, all melt away. But nothing gets any better by just ignoring the issues. I was horrified to learn that 45 per cent of children in Max’s position have attempted suicide, and that many of them have also self-harmed.”

In the drama, Max faces hate and also prejudice. “Children can be wonderfully kind, but there are some who can be appallingly cruel. His rock is his sister Lisa who is always by his side.”

Anna sat with her own daughter Gracie, who is just 13, and watched the three-part series. “She loved it, and she could identify with a lot of the school scenes. In fact, we want as many people as possible to see Butterfly, because it will open many eyes. In a lot of ways Butterfly is the Queer as Folk of a couple of decades back,” says Anna.

“Schools have always had trans kids, just as they’ve always had (and have) gay ones – it’s just that they find it difficult to talk about it. This is the perfect drama – it entertains, it educates, it informs. All of the elements are based on fact, from massive amounts of research from everyone involved – I can’t even begin to thank Susie Green enough for all the help she gave me – and from talking to families.”

As one of the programme’s producers Friel has been deeply involved from the outset. “I’ve always believed that a drama like this works because the viewers believe in what they see – that this is a real family. In effect, you aren’t watching three hours of a boy hoping to become a girl. You are watching a story of a family in crisis, people that are honest, and confused – and credible.

“I know that there will be a lot of people who think ‘Oh, good God, I’m not going to watch that, I just don’t want to know about transgender’, but there will be many others who will think ‘OK, let’s have a look’, and I’d urge them to see it because it might change your mind, and you might discover some empathy and compassion.”

Friel’s acting credits include films like Land Girls (1998) and Limitless (2011) alongside Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro, and TV programmes such as Public Enemies and the hugely popular ITV/Netflix crime drama Marcella. However, she admits she’s itching to get back on stage again.

“I always promise myself that I’ll do a good chunk of live work every few years, but it’s been four years and more since I went in front of a theatre audience, but I’m filming various things until 2020 – after that, I’m open to offers. Something challenging would be fun.”

Casting departments at the Crucible, Leeds Playhouse and Hull Truck et al, please make a note in your diaries.

Butterfly starts this month on ITV.