You were born in Rochdale. Do you still feel connected to the north of England?
I’m 35 and left the north when I was 18, but I go back as often as I can. Even though accents don’t define who someone is, it’s weird for me to hear very different sounds coming out of [my daughter] Gracie’s mouth. We live down south but my roots are still very much there. For my last two jobs, I’ve been using my northern accent for the first time since Brookside.
How has Rochdale changed since you left?
The saddest thing is that the local butcher’s isn’t there; the local fishmonger’s is gone; so is the little newsagent. The school that I went to has closed. The accents are as thick as ever and the people are still as warm. It was a beautiful town to grow up in and home to [the actress] Gracie Fields. My daughter was named after her.
You started acting at 13. Do you feel that you missed out on anything in your childhood?
All the friends I went to school with say that the best time of their lives was at university. I did a year of my A-levels and then I went to do Brookside. It was absolutely guaranteed that I would go back to finish them . . . but it never quite happened.
What subject would you have studied?
I loved history and English. I didn’t do drama at school, so I have the excitement of discovering plays, rather than having studied them.
Do you have a favourite writer?
Because he’s my namesake, Brian Friel. I’ve recently been reading Dancing at Lughnasa and a lot of Shakespeare plays. I would love to play Juliet before I get too old.
Are you worried about the parts that are available to older actresses?
It’s a worry for any actress, no matter what position you’re in – whether you’re an A-lister earning £20m per picture or you’re treading the boards in Wolverhampton. It’s all about longevity. That’s why I try to mix up the roles as much as I can. In the big blockbusters, all the lead characters are getting younger and younger. I grew up watching Back to the Future – Michael J Fox was 24 and he played 18. Now, it’s 16-year-olds playing 18.
What do you look for in a script?
You have to like the story and want to be part of telling that story. Also, things are dictated at the moment by Gracie being at school.
Have the roles you’ve taken changed since you became a mother?
When I got pregnant, I had a weird sense that I’ll never be lonely ever again. I felt really, really strong, like nothing would ever affect me as long as that thing inside me was OK. It changes your outlook on life and makes you a little braver.
Is your family life affected by fame?
We wouldn’t let [Gracie] watch the Harry Potter films, because we thought that they were too scary – but she’s now starting to get a sense of all of that and she says: “Yeah, my dad [David Thewlis] is in Harry Potter.” And she comes out with funny lines about the paparazzi and stuff. She says things like, “The paparazzi come and they photograph me all the time, because my mummy is Anna Friel and because I was in Bathory,” which is a film she was in when she was a little baby.
You’re starring in Neverland, a prequel to Peter Pan. Why are we so obsessed with the idea of not growing up?
Everyone is trying to look as young as they possibly can, because they’re living to a much older age yet the body is still ageing.
Did you base your character, a female pirate, on anyone in particular?
No, but there was one pirate I came across, called Gráinne Ní Mháille. Elizabeth I allowed her to sail down the Thames on her ship, because she found this woman who controlled the Irish Sea fascinating. I think her sons were kept in the Tower [of London]. She insisted that Elizabeth board, and they spent three hours chatting. She left with a pardon.
Do you vote?
I haven’t always. I was encouraged to vote Green as a kid – Margaret Thatcher was not popular in our household. Whenever people would say, “How do you vote?” and I’d say Green, they’d see that as a cop-out – but I don’t. What’s the point of political parties if there’s no planet left?
Was there a plan?
Definitely not. I wanted to get better and, to do that, you work with directors who you think will be teachers.
Is there anything you’d like to forget?
Until we have a time machine so we can go back and redo things, what’s the point? I think that meditation is the way forward: allowing your mind to be still.
Are we all doomed?
I’m an optimist, but there are times when I’ll choose not to put the news on. I wish there was a programme called The Good News.
1976 Born in Rochdale
1994 Films the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in UK history as Beth in Brookside
1999 Stars in Closer on Broadway
2001 Begins relationship with David Thewlis, who goes on to play Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films
2005 Her daughter, Gracie, is born
2008 Nominated for Golden Globe for the television series Pushing Daisies
2011 Films Neverland for Sky Movies