She began her training as an actress at Oldham Theatre Workshop. Her performance led to a series of appearances on various British television shows, including Emmerdale.
At age 13, she was hired for her first professional acting job in the Channel 4 drama serial G. In 1992, she was added to the cast on the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside, where she increased her exposure in the role of Beth Jordache. Friel's on-air lesbian kiss with Nicola Stephenson was the first in British soap history, In 1996, Friel gained even greater exposure when she appeared in the television film The Tribe by Stephen Poliakoff, which included nudity and a much discussed ménage à trois sex scene between characters played by Friel, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jeremy Northam.
The first episode was held back by a week following the terrorist attack in Manchester, in which 22 people lost their lives.
While the events of the episode didn’t actually resemble the tragedy, the show’s official synopsis described ‘a series of tragic events’ in a Northern city which the BBC might have felt was inappropriate for TV schedules the day after the attack. ) and brilliant with a scene-stealing performance from Anna Friel as destitute mother Christina Fitzsimmons. You couldn’t tell if her wit was genuine or hastily developed as a defence mechanism to stop her from bursting into tears.
Friel made her film debut in 1998 in David Leland's Land Girls and has since made a number of films such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999), Timeline (2003), Land of the Lost (2009) and Limitless (2011).
She has also appeared in music videos and television and print media advertising campaigns and is the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Bolton. Her mother Julie (née Bamford) is a special needs teacher, and her father Desmond "Des" Friel was a French teacher who now owns a web design company.
When it comes to her relationship and affair, she is known for her long affair with David Thewlis and Rhys Ifans.