If her recent TV dramas are anything to go by, Anna Friel seems to have developed a taste for a tough role.

In Broken, she played a desperate impoverished mother.

In the US, she entered the glamorous but corrupt Washington financial world in the sexually-charged The Girlfriend Experience.

And then there's ITV's mentally-fragile murder detective Marcella, returning later this month for its long-awaited second series.

While each role has been very different, they are all headline-makers in their own way.

Friel says she "doesn't shy away from controversial topics", but the only deliberate motive behind her choices has been self-improvement.

"With some roles, people say, 'I've never seen anything like that'," she explains.

"But that's because I want to do things that are different and challenging and make me better rather than just attract a huge audience.

"Instead I've taken roles I find interesting and which deal with issues that need a light shone on them."

For those of an age to remember, Friel in fact rose to fame on a wave of controversy at the centre of soap opera Brookside's groundbreaking 1994 lesbian romance storyline.

Friel was only 16, and considered acting more as a "hobby". She could justifiably have run for cover in the glare of the media and public attention that followed.

But after Brookside – and a phase as "wild child" tabloid fodder – took on roles across screen and stage, in the UK and the US.

She even reportedly turned down TV presenting jobs and record contracts from Simon Cowell in favour of acting.

Now in her forties, she's just as committed.

Where Broken – with its depiction of extreme poverty and people at a complete loss – was a difficult watch, the harrowing deaths in Marcella make it grimmer still.

The show's the first English-language drama from The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt.

Think Scandi-Noir but set mostly in the grey sordid underbelly of London.

Marcella is an unconventional policewoman in the Met's murder squad and is up against it on all fronts: tough job, estranged husband and children, and plagued by periods of memory loss, or "fugues".

Marcella is not a drama for when you're down. As well as murder, it tackles social issues including paedophilia, food banks, zero-hour contracts and urbanisation.

And nor should you be lacking concentration as Marcella is multi-layered, befitting Hans Rosenfeldt's Scandi-noir style.

This time Marcella's faced with a child killer. There are scenes that are truly painful to watch, let alone perform, as Friel concedes.

"When you do a second series it has to be better than the first – the audience deserve that," says Friel, who recently won an International Emmy for the role.

"It's going to be very hard for some people to watch but child murder exists. Hans knows of cases and he drew on those. And he made a point of visiting London to get a true feel of how it really was.

"At the end of a day, I felt so exhausted. Your body doesn't connect with the brain that it's not all real."

Friel took special care of the child actors off set to prevent them suffering emotional stress. A child psychologist was onboard too.

But she had to self-heal, particularly for the sake of her own 12-year-old daughter Gracie, with whom she lives in Windsor.

"At the end of filming, I have to pick myself up and go home to Gracie. A lot of people can't say 'cut' in their lives," she says.

She also has her stress-busting strategy. "It's all a question of balance," she says. And while she "likes a glass of wine", she's also committed to her daily supershake – a blend of fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and water. "It does make me pretty bloated though," she says.

Despite the challenges of playing Marcella, one of which Friel says is "she doesn't have any scenes where she smiles. She's always in a state of angst," she wouldn't have it any other way.

There were lighter moments on series two. "The funny thing about being with the children was when they made me realise my age by saying, 'My headmaster really fancies you'," she laughs.

But the real satisfaction was in the imperfect Marcella herself.

"I've always found beauty in flaws," she explains. "No one is perfect. We're all fighting a battle and Marcella is real, a mix of strength and vulnerability, doing her best which is all any of us can do."

But of her recent roles, The Girlfriend Experience was the hardest, she says. With its depiction of lesbian sex and politics, the show explores the meaning of power and gender expectations.

"There was a lot of nudity and sex, yes, but it was the US politics [that made the job hard]. We think our system is complex with Brexit, theirs is shocking," says Friel.

"I really hoped the UK press wouldn't take the lesbian scenes out of context, but some said, 'Ooh, you're going back to your roots'. I was insulted by that."

Tabloid reaction aside, the stand-out thing about the role, and that of Marcella, is they are strong female leads.

And in the light of the debate over gender equality in the entertainment this will be seen as a positive move. Friel says it's what the audience wants.

"Roles for women are getting better as producers are finding viewers want it. Wonder Woman tells us that – we've got a female lead superhero and she's out-doubled the males.

"It's supply and demand and people want strong female leads." As for pay equality, Friel says she hasn't had to tackle that issue.

"I didn't know about it so thought, 'Really, do my male co-stars get paid more than me? I'll have words about that', but luckily I haven't had to confront it."

Next on the horizon is another topical, challenging role as the mother of a transgender child in ITV's Butterfly.

In preparation, Anna went to meet some transgender children and their families. It was an eye-opener, she says.

"I came out thinking just how ill-informed I'd been, I was brought to tears. There's so much to it and you feel such a huge responsibility. The parents would say, 'Please help us, please tell our story'.

"I urge everyone to wait and see it before forming an opinion."

Marcella returns to ITV1 on 19 February at 2100 (GMT). Butterfly is currently being filmed.

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