Last night I was privileged to attend The BAFTA screening of the first episode of new ITV drama series Marcella starring the very talented actress Anna Friel. The series is written by internationally renowned screenwriter and novelist Hans Rosenfeld. Anna plays Marcella Backland on the series, who becomes involved in a serial murder case where the killer bares a striking resemblance to an unsolved spate of killings from a case she worked on a decade ago. Marcella can be seeon on ITV on Monday evenings at 9pm from April 4th.
What was your initial reaction when you read the first scripts for Marcella?
I immediately flew over from Ireland where I was filming to meet the writer Hans Rosenfeldt and said, ‘I think this is amazing.’ I just didn’t know whether I could do it. I always go through that process before any new character. I’d never played anything in the crime world before. Pushing Daisies touched on solving crime but in a very different format. I’d seen so many brilliant performances and so many people do it, I just thought, ‘I don’t know what I can offer that is different?’ I was also a little bit intimidated by The Bridge because I thought, ‘How can you do it better than that?’ But I loved the Marcella scripts. So I thought, ‘I’ll go and meet them and see what they say.’ And they wanted my take on her. By the time I’d left the meeting and flew back to Ireland, they’d got on the phone and said, ‘Look, they all think you are her. We would really like you to do it. Your take on it is quite unique. That’s why you can do it and it will be different.’ I didn’t ever really see Marcella as a cop because she’s had more time out for 10 years than she had actually in the force. So she’s a bit more rebel - like and very unconventional. You’re on her side because you think, ‘How can you put this poor woman through this?’ You understand her and want to forgive anything she may have done.
Why are Hans’s scripts for Marcella so special?
We’re honoured to have him write this purely about London and set in London. Everybody has watched things like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge. Audiences don’t like to be treated as if they’re stupid. Sometimes I think we dumb things down and underestimate the intelligence of an audience. We’re not stupid. We don’t need it hammered into our head. We want to work a little bit. And I think this asks that of the audience.
Who is Marcella?
We meet Marcella when she has just been left by her husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock). They have two children who were sent to boarding school, against her wishes. Something has sent her into a very big depression which started a twist within the story that viewers will discover. She responds in quite a shocking way to being left by her husband, who she still very much loved and is very surprised when he breaks the news he is leaving her and simply doesn’t love her anymore. Marcella left a very good job with the police at the height of her career when she was very close to catching a serial killer. She is now very lonely in this house with no kids and no man and decides to go back to work. But never ever as a conventional copper. Marcella couldn’t be more opposite.
Did you do any of your own research for the role?
I did. I went to Charing Cross police station and met this wonderful detective called Liz, who was so glamorous. We met there and then later we met at the Groucho Club in Soho. And if you’d have sat and looked at the two of us, she’d be the actress. Because I was in my sweat pants, doing my day’s work and she was so glamorous. I said, ‘Are you dressed to come out?’ And she said, ‘No, I went to work today.’ Being a female detective as well she was really empowering. I spent the day there and asked lots of questions of people who would be Marcella's superiors, learning about all the different ranks. Then I just concentrated on making her as real and believable as possible.
Is it true you did not want to be told who the killer is?
They asked if I wanted to know and I said, ‘Will it inform my character? Will it make me change the way I play it?’ So I told them if it didn’t help the story I didn’t want to know. We have three blocks of scripts with episodes one to three, three to six and then six to eight. So I said, ‘Tell me in block three.’ Marcella wouldn’t know anyway. And, of course, it might be her! None of us knew how this would end until we got those final scripts. Each and every single one of us could end up as a victim, witness or suspect.
As an outsider, how does Swedish screenwriter Hans view London?
We’re so lucky to have people like Hans interested enough in our country to come and want to do what they do there, here. He found it quite fascinating how two worlds can cross. For example, Marcella’s house is in Battersea. 10 years ago it was bought for £300,000. Now it’s worth £1.4m. And out of the window is a huge council estate. It’s how those two worlds can be so very different yet so close in proximity. The mixture of it all. We’ve been shooting in Peckham and Brixton, real London. The police station doesn’t look out to the London Eye. It looks out on to the the Westway. I’ve spent so many hours of my life stuck on the Westway that it was really good to look down on it and think, ‘That’s why...it’s not wide enough!’ You see a whole other different perspective of London. But it’s real London.
Was it important to film Marcella in London?
That was one of the things I said right at the start. I said, ‘I really don’t want to be doing this and then suddenly we’re in Pinewood and it’s meant to be a part of London.’ If you’re going to do this, it has to be real London. They said, ‘The locations will be authentically London.’ And they stuck to their word. I think Hans insisted on that too. He had an apartment here in Tower Bridge when he was writing. So he has all of that wonderful scenery to set the scene and the tone. A lot of it is London at night. I love the whole thing of ‘London Noir’, rather than ‘Scandi Noir’. It’s about time.
The opening scene in the series finds a confused Marcella naked in her bath. How was that to film?
It’s a bold opening scene. At this stage of my career, of my life, I’m 39 years old, the nakedness doesn’t really get to me and I know they’re not allowed to show certain things anyway. It’s better just not to be self conscious and coy. I find that really off putting when I see actresses do that. I was in the bath for about four hours. Obviously I got out from time to time, otherwise I’d be a wrinkly old prune. The funniest bit was at the end when they said, ‘That’s a wrap.’ They dropped all the curtains and I just found myself in a big studio going, ‘Freezing. All right guys? Closed set? Yeah?’ There I am sitting naked in a bath in the middle of all these people. So I stayed calm and collected and went, ‘OK, let’s put those curtains back up, shall we?’ I’m open but not that open.
What was it like working with Nicholas Pinnock, who plays Marcella’s husband Jason?
I would never have visually put the two of us together because he is so tall and big compared to little old me. But it’s a really good union. In a scene where I have to kiss him, the director came up to me and just whispered in my ear, ‘Eat his face off.’ So I just grabbed him and by the end it was as if a whirlwind had got him. And they said, ‘The chemistry is very good between you two. We’re really happy with this.
That leads on to the bedroom?
He was a total gentleman. We managed to not actually have real physical contact. I was like, ‘You’re well trained.’ We laughed all the way through. With all those scenes, the best way to deal with anything uncomfortable is laugh your way through. We had to choose some music because the director wanted music in the background as there’s no dialogue. I chose really romantic piano music and he chose funky music like a man would. Mine was the sort of music that would make you cry. While his wasn’t.
Marcella also hits Jason. How was that to film?
I hit him and then throw his case down the stairs. The director told me to take a run up to him and push him down. But at the same time he came to run at me. I just went whoof and nearly knocked myself out. I’d knocked my neck down into my shoulder and I couldn’t move. So they had to get the medic on that day. I was a little bit jolted. After the experience of filming Odyssey and being hurt so much, I’ve got a fake bra veness now but I’m still suffering from aches and pains. As I’m about to turn 40 this year, I’m going, ‘No, no, no, that shouldn’t happen to my body until I’m 60 or 70.’ So a day when my knee is OK and my legs are all right, I’m literally thanking God.
Anger bubbles up in Marcella. What makes you angry?
Marcella smashes up an expensive car in a car park. I was handed a crowbar and had to use all my strength. It was harder to smash a windscreen than I thought. She also kicks a metal bin in the police station. The bin was in pieces. She goes absolutely mental. The director just went, ‘Marcella it up!’ So I was like, ‘OK.’ It was destroyed somewhat. In terms of what makes me angry, I’m not the most patient driver when people are driving really slowly, which is as dangerous as going too fast. I get more frustrated than angry. I also get angry about laziness and a lack of work ethic. I don’t like people who don’t work hard. Or people who say they’ll do something and then they don’t.
One of the storylines in Marcella highlights the darker side of the web. Is that something you had thought about before?
Your senses are heightened as soon as you become a mother. I remember being 16 and one of the first people to have a mobile phone the size of a brick. The internet didn’t really exist then for most people. Now you look around and everybody is on their phone or computer. It’s the way we all stay connected. On the one hand it’s fantastic because it gives everybody a voice, an opinion and a right to speak and that can be more easily communicated. But my daughter Gracie has all the child lock safety features on her computer. You have to do that now because unfortunately people abuse it.
Where do you call home now?
I’ve got my home in Los Angeles and I go back as much as I can. This is the first time I’ve worked in England in three years since Uncle Vanya on stage in London. But the last time I filmed here was four or five years ago. I’ve also got a place in Windsor after renting for over two years. I just moved in last Christmas Eve.
Laura Carmichael appeared with you in Uncle Vanya and plays Maddy in Marcella?
It was nice to see her across the room at the readthrough. We only have a few scenes to do together so it wasn’t like in the theatre with day in, day out rehearsals and then on stage every night for four months. But she was on really good form. It’s great to have her in Marcella.
Marcella has kept the original Grove Park Murders files in her garage for a number of years. Are you a hoarder?
It’s so weird. Grove Park was the first place I lived in London. So that has real meaning to me. It was a complete co incidence Hans called it that in the script. He didn’t even know I used to live there. I’ve got two storage units two years after my move. So that might answer your question. I have a big extensive wardrobe as well because I keep things for characters. I think, ‘I might need that.’ But I’ve recently tried to get rid of as much stuff as I could because you end up keeping so much. It’s really freeing just to get rid and go and treat your local charity shop.
One of the characters in Marcella asks her if she has ever taken a step back to reflect. Have you been able to do that in your career?
I reflect, of course. There’s that wonderful quote, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ I think it’s important always to reflect, look at your life and see if you can be doing anything better. But I don’t look back and have regrets. I do have to convince myself to take a break sometimes. That’s just always been me. I’ve been brought up with a very strong work ethic. But I think a better balance of maybe one holiday in two and a half years might a good idea.
How would you describe Hans’s approach to his characters?
It’s right to say Hans doesn’t judge his characters. Marcella is by no stretch of the imagination an innocent. She’s damaged and a bit scarred, but she doesn’t really play the victim. His characters make mistakes and he leaves enough room for us to interpret our characters and put our stamp on them too. They are left open to interpretation.
Marcella goes after a suspect despite being told not to. Is it important to break the rules sometimes?
I think it’s important to have integrity and passion. You’ve got to follow your beliefs. I don’t think anyone should go out of their way to break rules. The rules are there for a reason. Otherwise we have chaos. But when people aren’t listening, sometimes you’ve got to do your own thing to make them listen. That’s Marcella’s character. She’s not a conventional cop by any stretch of the imagination. I think we’re making something very special.