Anna Friel toughens up for ‘American Odyssey’ role

Anna Friel plays Odelle Ballard, a Special Forces sergeant who’s deserted behind enemy lines in NBC’s thriller, “American Odyssey,” airing Sundays on NBC.
Anna Friel plays Odelle Ballard, a Special Forces sergeant who’s deserted behind enemy lines in NBC’s thriller, “American Odyssey,” airing Sundays on NBC. TNS

Actress Anna Friel looks Lilliputian in her black pantsuit. The gold key hangs heavy around her small neck. She seems the kind of woman who’d haunt the petite section of ladies’ wear.

But Friel is one tough cookie. She proves that in her role as the Special Forces sergeant who’s stranded in jihadists’ territory in NBC’s thriller, “American Odyssey” (10 p.m. Sunday).

All that sinew didn’t come easily. A 6-footer accidentally tripped over her when she was tied, hands and knees, and kneeling for a scene. She paid for that episode with a crunched ankle. Her cornea was damaged when a stone flew into her eye, and she dislocated her shoulder from taking a fall more than 22 times.

“I’m called the queen of ailments. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been in shape,” she laughs.

Those who remember her as the girly Chuck from “Pushing Daisies,” will be surprised by her powerhouse performance in the show that is filming in Marrakesh, Morocco.

As soon as she was cast the work began. “They sent a Marine to my house, a soldier, every day. We started walking a little bit every day and Pilates three times a week. And I’ve always been lucky that my frame is (resilient). They said, ‘We have to get you very strong.’

“They had me running in the rain for five miles. I would run one mile and be out of breath. But he’d get me through that boundary and go, ‘C’mon!’ No sympathy, no empathy at all. I said, ‘I ha-a-a-a-te this!’ And he’d just go, ‘Yep. Do it a bit longer.’ When you start to understand what these soldiers go through, particularly a Marine,” she pauses, kicking off her shoes.

“Woken up at 2 in the morning, made to run for 10 miles, going into icy, freezing water. What they put up with is so admirable. They are the real heroes. They’re so strong and disciplined. And I wouldn’t let it beat me.”

She’s determined now, but Friel wasn’t the kind of actress hell-bent on making it in show-business. She always thought of acting as a hobby. She was only 13 when she was cast in her first role as the daughter of Monty Pythoner Michael Palin. In one of their scenes from England’s “G.B.H.” she had to chase a naked Palin down a hill. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” she says.

She is the mother of 9-year-old Gracie with actor David Thewlis. “David and I are not together but we live across the road. And when I’m away he comes and stays in my house, and he just brought Gracie to Marrakesh. It’s an unconventional scenario that works incredibly conventionally,” she says.

Becoming a mother at 29 filled her with an inner depth she’d never imagined, she says. “When you’re protecting somebody else other than yourself, any kind of self-obsessiveness or lack of perspective just goes out of the window because that’s your primary focus. It makes the job easier. I also think you’ve got something to reach deep down inside, because all you have to do is think of them. You know if anything happened to them you wouldn’t have a life. I wouldn’t survive.”