SINCE shooting to fame with British telly’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss, Anna Friel often found herself stripping off to play sexy screen sirens – until hit ITV thriller Marcella came along.
Her role as the tomboy sleuth didn’t require her to remove any of her clothes, which were always a dowdy mix of jumpers, boots and her trademark parka.
But now her character, Marcella Backland, is about to go undercover as blonde bombshell Keira in the third series, which starts this month.
And that meant Anna, 44, had to return to filming steamy scenes — and found the best thing about it was her striking new shade.
She said: “My favourite thing was being blonde, because it just gave her a whole different feel and swagger. I wouldn’t say Marcella is an incredibly sexual person and she doesn’t sexualise herself — but Keira does.
“Keira uses her wiliness and her body. I don’t think Marcella has ever been prepared to do that before. So she explores her sexuality, I think.”
Key to that was swapping Marcella’s drab clothes for outfits that showed off Keira’s cleavage and legs.
Speaking at a press conference, Anna said: “The costumes from series one or two had to change. In the first two seasons we were talking about a woman who had just been left by her husband, who didn’t feel particularly attractive.
“She wasn’t about to walk into an office having very tight things showing off any cleavage or shape, in a fashion that perhaps men would like.
“But being Keira she realises that’s a necessity and starts to enjoy a little bit more being in her own body and using that to her own advantage. She sees what a powerful tool that can be.”
The eight-part series sees former Metropolitan Police detective Marcella travel from London to go undercover as Keira in the Belfast underworld, where she infiltrates the notorious Maguire family.
She does it by becoming the girlfriend of one of the criminal clan’s brothers, Finn, played by Aaron McCusker — who also played Freddie Mercury’s boyfriend Jim in 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
Given that Finn is a gangster, the sex scenes were not always the gentlest, which posed another challenge.
Anna said: “We got on so well and thank God we did, as we had quite a few intimate scenes. He was very respectful. We got it done quickly and didn’t have to do lots of takes.
“There was an element of violence to it. We were just careful with each other that no one got hurt. The aim is to make things look believable.”
Another challenge for brunette Anna was dyeing her hair blonde, which she has previously done for roles such as Jean, the wife of strip club owner Paul Raymond in the 2013 film The Look Of Love.
She said: “I’ve done that three times in my life and it went green and I had to cut it all off. It’s a really hard one to pull off.”
For the show’s creator and executive producer Hans Rosenfeldt, the drastic image change was a crucial turning point for the drama.
He said: “Series three is kind of a reinvention, a new and different take on the show. But it is important that it still feels like the Marcella we know. The audience must recognise what they watched and liked before.”
Filming in Northern Ireland was an added bonus for Anna, whose father Des was from Belfast, which meant she had dozens of relatives nearby. In one scene, a cousin who has the same build as Anna played a body double for her.
She also found that Gracie, her 15-year-old daughter with actor David Thewlis, loved being schooled in the area while her mum was working on the new series.
Gracie usually travels with her mum when she is filming on location but for the first time in her life, Anna’s schedule is about to see her separated from her daughter, as she relocates to Sweden to film a new US TV show, The Box.
Anna said of the Marcella film shoot: “She said to me, ‘Mum, I’m doing the international baccalaureate and it’s a lot of work. I think this is going to be the last time that I can actually move and come with you’.
“It just so happens that because of the circumstances surrounding Covid she couldn’t come (to Sweden) anyway. It’s looking now like I’m not allowed any visitors at all. I think we have to isolate for two weeks before the shoot.
“So it will be the longest I’ve ever been away from my baby.”
Dedication has helped Anna’s career reach a peak, but she has previously admitted she took a huge gamble when she quit Channel 4 soap Brookside in 1995.
A year earlier she made headlines when her character, Beth Jordache, delivered the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British TV, when she laid a smacker on Margaret Clemence, played by Nicola Stephenson.
But Anna said the famous moment “followed her round” and many of the roles she would get offered were as lesbians.
Her profile soared when she starred in US comedy drama Pushing Daisies from 2007 to 2009, a role that earned her a Golden Globe best actress nomination.
In 2010 she split from David and a year later she started dating Notting Hill actor Rhys Ifans, though they split up after three years.
The first series of Marcella aired in 2016, earning Anna an International Emmy Award for Best Actress, and it was such a hit that a second series went out in 2018.
Filming the third series almost brings her career full circle, as it sees her acting opposite Silent Witness star Amanda Burton, who was also a main Brookside character, Heather Black, in the Eighties.
Although the two actors’ paths never crossed on the soap, Amanda was a fan of Marcella before she signed up to the new cast.
She said: “I binge-watched the first two series and I loved it. It’s got such huge production values and I really like the character Anna plays. She’s quite mesmerising and a very unusual protagonist too. It’s a very refreshing series.”
The new series has already been shown outside Britain by Netflix, which co-produced it and made it available last year — leading to a global following for the drama.
Only now is it being broadcast in Britain, which annoyed British fans and was also a source of regret for Rochdale-born Anna.
She said: “We found that out from other countries and other viewers saying, ‘I’ve never heard of Marcella — we’ve watched number three and then we went back and watched one and two’.
“But to the wonderful UK fans of the show, I am so, so, so sorry that they’ve had to wait for so long and it’s so unfair that 34 other countries have got to be able to see it.
“I’m really excited for you all to see it. It took five and a half months to film, and we finished over a year ago. So it’s taken a long, long time to come out.”
Anna, who was executive producer on the third series, has also teased the prospect of a fourth after the show’s success abroad, particularly in the US.
She said: “It was always meant to be a trilogy. I know it’s been very well received in all the 34 other countries. There’s definitely room for it to grow and to continue but I don’t think we’re at that stage yet.
“I love Marcella, I’m very attached to her. I think it would take lots of discussions to say, ‘What now can we do with her?’
“It’s better to have three strong series than a fourth weaker one, but if someone could come up with a really good idea as to where it could go . . . ”
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