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Anna Friel on filming hit ITV detective series Marcella in Belfast

Jenny Lee chats to actress Anna Friel about taking on a new identity in the latest, Belfast-filmed series of Marcella, being a single-mum to a teenage daughter and life as an actress during Covid

Marcella star Anna Friel – ‘I spent a lot of my childhood in both Belfast and Donegal’

HUMAN trafficking, drug dealing, murder and post-traumatic stress all feature in the new series of the ITV crime series Marcella, which was filmed entirely on location in and around Belfast.

The show, which returns to our screens tomorrow, stars Anna Friel as Marcella Backland, a former London detective. Viewers have previously seen her thrown into an old case from the past, while trying to juggle her turbulent family relationships.

Now into its third series, the programme depicts Marcella coming to Belfast as an undercover detective. She has taken on a new identity, Keira, and has infiltrated the infamous Maguire crime family to investigate their activities.

“Anything that could possibly have happened to her happened in series two and the believability factor would be just too much of a stretch of the imagination to have her going undercover in England," Friel says, speaking to me via Zoom from her home in Windsor.

“I think she enjoys playing Keira a little too much and doesn't really want to be Marcella again."

While filming the new series in 2019, Friel lived in Belfast with her then 15-year-old daughter Gracie. It was an experience both thoroughly enjoyed. “I spent a lot of my childhood in both Belfast and Donegal. I have lots of family there which is one of the reasons they wanted to set the third series in Ireland,” says the 44-year-old, whose father was born in Belfast.

Gracie studied at Strathearn Grammar School in the city, an experience both mother and daughter still wax lyrical about.

“Your education system is second to none, so impressive. It was a really brilliant school and when Gracie came home it made her want to move from her old school," says the actress, who first came to prominence in long-running soap opera Brookside in the early 1990s.

Anna Friel and Paul Kennedy in a scene from episode one of the third series of Marcella, which airs tomorrow evening on ITV

The new eight-part series of Marcella sees a host of local actors join the cast, including Amanda Burton, Armagh actor Michael Colgan and former The Fall cast members Kelly Gough, Eugene O’Hare and Martin McCann.

“I adored working with an Irish crew and cast. There's a lot of talent there and it was really nice being able to harness it,” says Rochdale-born Friel, who admits that during lockdown she binge watched The Fall on Netflix.

“I never watched it first time around but I loved it. I introduced Jamie Dornan to his wife Amelia," she divulges, declining to add any gritty details.

And did she enjoy working alongside Amanda Burton?

“Surprisingly we had never met before. She is a marvellous actress and takes her work very seriously. I think she was perfectly cast for the role of matriarch Katherine.”

Never one to shield away from emotionally challenging roles, Friel was delighted to return to the role of Marcella, saying “she’s such a multifaceted and three-dimensional character”.

So how does she cope with playing such a dark role?

“We filmed for five months and there’s not many times [Marcella] smiles. But you have to embrace those dark scenes and see them as a challenge and not let them get you down," she says.

“I remember in series two, when we were filming it was a beautiful blue skies, sunny day. We got to take three and a director took me to the corner and said 'Anna what is going on?'

“I was too happy, and had to go and sit in the corner and listen too dark depressing music and think of really negative things. It's a bit like putting meditation in reverse.”

Marcella star Anna Friel – ‘I spent a lot of my childhood in both Belfast and Donegal’

When it came to climbing out of the darkness again after a day’s filming, Friel was grateful of her daughter’s company as well as “a nice gin and tonic”.

Gracie is her daughter with actor David Thewlis, but the couple split up a decade ago. The teenager is currently studying for an International Baccalaureate and despite showing a talent for performing arts, has chosen not to follow in her parents' footsteps.

Friel made her television debut at the age of 13, playing Michael Palin’s daughter in the drama GBH. She became a household name when at the age of 18 her character in Brookside, Beth Jordache, made history with the first lesbian kiss on UK television.

“Gracie’s American accent is brilliant and if I ever have an audition she reads it for me and I think ‘Oh God, you're doing a better job than me’," Friel laughs.

“She has been offered the opportunity of some really great roles [including the chance to play Friel’s on-screen daughter in the action thriller series American Odyssey in 2015], but she has no interest in it.”

“She is incredibly creative and is a wonderful guitarist and singer-songwriter and I think music is much more her passion. Perhaps she visited too many sets at too young an age and it put her off."

Series three of Marcella, created by Swedish screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt, as already proved to be a global hit, airing to 32 countries last summer.

Friel also executive produced the show and explains that the delay in ITV screening it was due to the human trafficking storyline, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the tragedy that happened in Essex last year when 39 men, women and children from Vietnam were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry soon after it had arrived on a ferry from Belgium.

As the court case into the Vietnamese deaths was ongoing, ITV did not want to risk prejudicing the jury by screening it.

“I think Hans must have a crystal ball. The trafficking storyline was written two years previously. And there's also the character of Rory, who has a fear of germs and he Zoom calls everybody because he doesn't want to meet them in person. He also washes his hands until they are red raw because he is scared of contracting a virus.”

The series once again tackles mental health, with Marcella suffering from post-traumatic stress and dissociative identity disorder. Friel is delighted that from the five years since Marcella began “mental health is something we are talking about more openly now”.

Despite its dark subject matter, Friel believes the series offers hope.

“Marcella is a force of nature and no matter what is thrown at her she has that survival instinct that we have to remember exists in all of us.”

When it comes to Friel’s own plans for 2021, she is hoping to travel to Stockholm to film a new American Scandi crime series.

“It has been pushed back due to Covid, but the plan is to travel, isolate and form a filming bubble. It's as dark as Marcella but it goes into the supernatural world,” she reveals.

Although admitting she is “a little bit disconcerted” about how her job will change post-Covid, she is optimistic about the future.

“It's all about making sure everyone is separate, which is going against what we do – which is joining and collaboration – but we are all just going to have to learn to live with it.

“I think the profession will become more precarious but I also think if this time has shown us anything it's the absolute need for creativity. I have music on all the time and I watched more television in the past few months than I have in the past.

“They are running out of content, so there is hope for every actor out there.”

The first two episodes of the new series of Marcella will air on ITV on Tuesday January 26 at 9pm and 10.05pm. All eight episodes of the series will then be available to view on the ITV Hub.

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