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Interview with Anna Friel, star of Me Without You

Call it the anti-Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Tracing the relationship of two British schoolgirls over twenty years, numerous hairstyles and countless mutually inflicted injustices, the new film Me Without You makes a case for female friendship as competitive sport. Anna Friel plays Marina, a wounded bird/budding slut given to crashing house parties wearing a trash bag, experimenting with drugs and sleeping around; Michelle Williams is Holly, a bookish mouse alternately jealous of and disgusted with Marina. When Holly falls in love with Marina’s brother, and Marina sleeps with a professor Holly fancies, an emotional turf war ensues. Friel, who has polished the role of vulnerable provocateur to perfection, recently sat down to talk about the art of toe-smoking and playing a bitch.

What do you make of this cultural moment, this female friendship thing, with your film and Ya-Ya Sisterhood? I’ve spoken with one writer who thinks it’s another way to make women feel inadequate — she hasn’t had a close female friend since junior high.

I’d have to disagree. I felt I’ve had that since I was a kid. And I just think it’s interesting to look into the lives of girls and girl friendships. Normally, if something’s about women — I haven’t seen Ya-Ya Sisterhood — it’s “We don’t want men,” or “I’ve been divorced, and we’re going to do the self-help books now.” Our film isn’t about that; it’s much more complex.

Female friendship is portrayed as something that works in childhood, but in adulthood, it becomes something you grow out of, a drag.

I don’t think it becomes a drag. It becomes much more complex, because you’ve witnessed both of the growing-ups, and you know so much about each other, more than your parents maybe do. I think the major change for a friendship to work, after you get to a certain age, you become best friends with a boyfriend, someone you have sex with. Meanwhile, you and your girlfriends go to different colleges and get different friends and you start to become a bit more competitive. I think this film deals with this quite well.

The relationship is pretty believable; I liked the scene where you held a cigarette between your toes and stuck it in Holly’s mouth. What did you do to establish that?

At the beginning of the shoot, the first day, Michelle got off the plane from L.A. and we were at Sandra’s house and she left us with a few objects to improvise with, and she said, “All right, now discuss sex at seven,” which was a little bit intimidating with someone you’ve just met.

How do you discuss sex from a seven-year-old’s perspective?

The whole thing was pretending that you had it. You’d think that at seven you wouldn’t be that open, but now, teenagers — they’re all having sex by twelve, it seems.

What was the nastiest thing a female friend did to you?

I was massively bullied when I was younger. It’s because I was off school doing my various stage things, and I got, “Who do you think you are? You think you’re special.”
You know, a lot of jealousy involved. I didn’t date boys until I was sixteen, so consequently all my friends were male. They never fancied me the ones I longed for, it never happened.

Were you the one stealing the boyfriends or the one getting them stolen?

I’ve had two boyfriends, and they’ve both been faithful. I think that answers your question.

So you’ve played a number of sexually assertive but tragic characters, from the first lesbian kiss on British TV, a lap dancer on Broadway in Closer. Why do you go after these characters?

I think it’s fascinating how certain people deal with their bodies in certain ways, why certain people have inhibitions and others don’t, and the way we use our sexuality gets us back to the very beginning of attracting one’s mate.
Anyway, I think I tend to play characters that are strong yet vulnerable, that double-edged sword, and that comes from not knowing how to use their bodies in the right way — in the way that they’ll be OK and not hurt themselves.

What did you think of the way Marina uses her sexuality in the film?

I think, at first, it’s great. But the story really changes in the middle. When they’re young, I think I support Marina, I think,”Well, she’s right. Get Holly out of her shell. Make her have more of a life.” But Marina takes it too far. She doesn’t think she has more to offer people than her body. She gets so used to other people not looking at her mind or asking her questions that she doesn’t care about herself.

As someone who’s had two relationships by the age of 25, how did you relate to Marina’s promiscuity?

I’ve had three. I had a three-year hiatus between the second and the third, and I got up to a lot of things in that time. I won’t get into a lot of detail, but I know about feeling lonely and wanting to be with someone and knowing it’s not the right thing but continuing to convince yourself that it is. Until you wise up and say, “All right, you don’t need to do that. You haven’t got to prove anything.

The turning point for Marina and Holly’s relationship seems to be when Marina seduces the teacher Holly’s in love with.

I think, even stronger than that, is when Marina goes to kiss the father. She thinks, “I’ve taken it a step too far this time,” and she starts to become more manipulative. For her, it comes from copying her mother [played by Trudie Styler] who is very sexy and drinks too much and just craves and longs for love. That’s how I could justify her bitchiness and her meanness. It’s actually hard to play a bitch. I would say to the director, “Oh, please Sandra! I’m sure she’s not that horrible. I’m sure that no one is this awful.”

I love the scene when Holly gives Marina hickeys to make her look more experienced.

We used to do that. I’m so embarrassed. I try to do it with my boyfriend, he hates them. And I say, “C’mon, let me do it.” He’s so not into it at all. I wonder where that fashion came from, where everyone wants to walk around with burst blood vessels in really obvious places. It’s really ugly. I remember my first one; I wore polo necks every day. I thought I’d get shouted at by my mum, she just looked at me and said, “What a stupid thing to do. You really think that’s attractive?” And I said, “I’m not as experienced as everyone else, so people will think I’m experienced, mum.”

Did you ever do stuff like that with girlfriends — practice kissing?

Practice kissing? My God, did we. Yeah. Me and my girlfriends were 10 or 11; we weren’t getting any kisses from guys, and all the others were. And we practiced on our hands at first, but it feels so unsexual. So we practiced on each other. And then you’re so disappointed when you have a kiss with a boy for the first time, and you think, “Ooh, that isn’t what we practiced. That’s not right!”

How do you approach seduction?

It depends on how good or not they are. Some women, they can’t seduce, they don’t know how. They give the man what they want — not what you think they want. You get into their head, and then you have control, then you have power. And that’s really all that seduction is: I’m going to reel you in, I’m going to go fishing.

Is it true that Jack Nicholson saw you in Closer and became obsessed with sleeping with you?

It’s really embarrassing. When I was in the play, some magazine interviewers were following me around. And Nicholson just bumped into me. I don’t know if he ever saw the play, but he was just chatting me up. It was sweet, and some of the interviewers heard him say, “I’d really like to sleep with you.” But I’m sure he’s said that to ninety million women. I’m just one of ’em. [laughs] Not to be blown out of proportion, please. Otherwise I’ll look like a twat.

Me Without You opens on July 5 in New York and Los Angeles, and in other cities at later dates.

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Michael, a New York native, was raised in Kansas, where it was never quite
established whether he was a prisoner or a detainee. He was previously a
senior editor at Gear, where he oversaw the magazine’s pop-culture coverage.
His writing has appeared in Dutch, Paper and the New York Observer.

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