Friel was in her teens when she made her first screen appearance as 'Susan Nelson,' Michael Palin's (as 'Jim Nelson') onscreen daughter in the ‘BAFTA’-nominated miniseries 'G.B.H.' She subsequently made brief appearances in two 'ITV' dramas, as 'Belinda Johnson' in 'Coronation Street' (1991) and as 'Poppy Bruce' in 'Emmerdale' (1992).
Friel’s second major TV project was the 'Channel 4' soap opera 'Brookside' (1993–1995). Her character, 'Beth Jordache,' was part of some of the opera’s most popular plots, including a storyline that featured a kissing scene between Friel and Nicola Stephenson, which was the first lesbian kiss in the history of British TV. The scene, however, resulted in Friel being typecast, and she had to reject many lesbian roles offered to her thereafter.
Her performance in 'Brookside' earned her a 'National Television Award' and a 'TVTimes' award, both in 1995. Upon leaving the show, Friel made her TV film debut with 'The Tribe' (1998), which again had a controversial “ménage à trios” sex scene that included her character, 'Lizzie,' and those of Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jeremy Northam.
Friel was seen as the lead 'Bella Wilfer' in the TV adaptation of Charles Dickens's 'Our Mutual Friend' in 1998. She also starred as 'Flora Gilchrist' in the TV film 'St. Ives.' Friel made her feature film debut with 'The Land Girls' (1998), adapted from Angela Huth’s novel. The movie featured her as one of the land girls, 'Prue' (‘Prudence’), a sexy hairdresser.
Friel played 'Hermia' in a film version of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1999). She was seen as the real-life character Lisa Leeson, Ewan McGregor’s (as broker Nick Leeson) on-screen wife, in the biographical drama 'Rogue Trader' (1999).
Patrick Marber’s play 'Closer' marked Friel’s first ‘Broadway’ performance. It ran for a long time at the 'Music Box Theatre' in New York. Friel’s performance as 'Alice' was appreciated by critics and earned her a 'Drama Desk Award.'
Friel made her ‘West End’ stage debut in 2001, with the adaptation of Frank Wedekind's play 'Lulu.' She simultaneously made starring appearances in films such as 'An Everlasting Piece' (2000), 'Sunset Strip' (2000), 'Me without You' (2001), and 'Timeline' (2003).
Friel won a 'Genie Award' nomination for her performance as 'Lily' in the Canadian film 'The War Bride' (2001). She had a starring role as 'Claire Ryan' in the TV film 'Watermelon' (2003).
Friel made her transition to American TV in 2004, when she was cast as attorney 'Megan Delaney' in the 'Fox' legal drama 'The Jury.' That year, she played 'Susie Wilding,' opposite Rob Lowe (as ‘Lloyd Rockwell’), in the British romantic comedy 'Perfect Strangers.'
In 2005, Friel was seen as 'Roz Harmison,' a Geordie nurse, in the sports drama 'Goal!' She later reprised the role in its sequel, 'Goal II: Living the Dream.' In 2006, the 'University of Bolton' honored her with a doctorate for her contribution to the world of cinema.
From 2007 to 2009, Friel portrayed the lead character, a multilingual beekeeping enthusiast named 'Charlotte "Chuck" Charles,' in the ‘ABC’ comedy–drama 'Pushing Daisies,' for which she won five ‘Best Actress’ nominations, one each for the 'Satellite Award' (2007), the 'Saturn Award' (2008), the 'Golden Globe' (2008), the 'Online Film & Television Association' award (2008), and the 'SFX' award (2010).
'Pushing Daisies' was canceled in November 2008, due to low ratings. Subsequently, Friel declined six TV offers to focus on her film career. She earned a 'Czech Lion Award' nomination and won a 'Sun in a Net Award' for her performance as Countess Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman, in the historical horror movie 'Bathory.'
Friel made a controversial but acclaimed appearance as 'Holly Golightly' in a theater adaptation of Truman Capote's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (2008). Staged at the 'Theatre Royal Haymarket,' the ‘West End’ project grabbed attention for its nudity. The photos of the preview performance, showing a naked Friel, led to increased security at the theater.
In November 2009, Friel got an 'RTS Award' for her performance as 'Dee Purnell,' a struggling single mother, in the 'BBC' drama 'The Street.' The following year, she was featured as a chess player in the music video for '(It's Not War) Just the End of Love' by the 'Manic Street Preachers.'
In a 2011 episode of the mockumentary 'Come Fly with Me,' Friel portrayed a fictionalized version of herself. She later earned critical acclaim for her performance as 'Ellie' in the 'ITV' miniseries 'Without You.' Her performance as 'Yelena' in the ‘West End’ adaptation of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya,' too, earned strong reviews.
In September 2013, Friel was cast in the pilot of the 'Showtime' drama 'The Vatican,' but the show was later canceled. In the subsequent years, she had lead roles both in films and on TV. She played 'Sergeant Odelle Ballard' in the 'NBC' drama 'American Odyssey' (2015) and appeared as 'Greta' in the film adaptation 'Urban and the Shed Crew' (2015). She was seen as 'Maggie' in the dark fantasy–comedy 'The Cleanse' (2016), as 'Rose Regan' in the thriller 'I.T.' (2016), and as 'Bev Merridew' in the Irish–Canadian crime drama 'Tomato Red' (2017).
Friel describes her performance as 'Erica Myles,' a ‘Republican’ in relationships with two women, in the second season of the 'Starz' anthology 'The Girlfriend Experience' (2017) as her "most challenging job to date." The project had explicit sex scenes.
Friel earned a ‘BAFTA' nomination (2018) for her performance as 'Christina Fitzsimmons' in the six-part 'BBC' drama 'Broken.' She had previously received a ‘Best Actress’ award at the 'Séries Mania Festival' (2017) for the same role.
Since 2016, Friel has been essaying the title role ('Det. Sgt Marcella Backland') in the British "Nordic" noir detective drama 'Marcella,' for which she has won the 'International Emmy Award' for the ‘Best Actress’ in 2017.
In October 2018, Friel started playing 'Vicky Duffy,' mother of a transgender child, in the three-part 'ITV' drama 'Butterfly.'
Friel has also been part of campaigns for brands such as 'Reebok,' 'Virgin Atlantic,' 'Mulberry,' 'Three,' 'Pantene,' and 'Marks & Spencer.'
Family & Personal Life
Friel’s mother is a special-needs teacher, while her father is a former French teacher and folk guitarist, who now owns a web-design company. Friel’s brother, who is a physician, had previously worked in advertisement campaigns for the British flour and bread company 'Hovis Ltd.'
In 2001, Friel began dating actor David Thewlis. The two had met on a flight to Cannes. They have a daughter, Gracie Ellen Mary Friel, born on July 9, 2005, at 'Portland Hospital,' London. Friel and Thewlis separated in December 2010.
In 2001, Friel had almost died of septicemia caused due to an ovarian cyst blast. It was later discovered that she had two liters of blood in her stomach. Previously in the day, she was doing a cover photo-shoot and was asked to pull in her stomach. The following morning, Friel had two blood transfusions in the hospital.
Friel is a ‘World Wide Fund for Nature’ (WWF, formerly ‘World Wildlife Fund’) wildlife charity ambassador.