If you’ve seen one of Holliday Grainger’s films, it’s likely two things will have happened. Firstly, you would have been slightly awestruck by her rather amazing face. A china-doll like complexion and knack of stealing any scene it’s in, even when those scenes include such stars as Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Helena Bonham Carter and Robert Pattinson. Secondly, she would almost certainly have been wearing a corset. And possibly a bustle.
Over the past two years, the 24-year-old has quietly become the queen of period drama films – as well having as a lead role in Sky Atlantic’s The Borgias, set in 15th century Italy. This month she stars in a huge new big screen adaptation of Great Expectations.
When Grazia arrives to meet her in a London hotel Holliday looks sharp in a black blazer and trousers, and is telling us about a recent Stone Roses gig she went to. ‘I crowd surfed for the first time,’ she tells us. You certainly couldn’t do that in a corset. She still has that face of course – and it’s looking very happy at the moment.
Great Expectations, which closed this year’s London Film Festival, is set to be a huge hit over the festive period. And for Holliday, who plays the film’s emotionally complex heroine Estella, it’s a role that should take her from respected British actress to one of Hollywood’s most wanted. And yet none of it was planned. There’s no stage school background, no RADA training. Holliday (named after Billie Holliday – her mum’s favourite singer) fell into acting by accident when she was just six years old and growing up in Didsbury, Manchester. ‘A friend of my mum’s worked at the BBC in Newcastle and needed a little girl [for a part],’ she says. ‘After that it was just recommendations.’ So, no flashbulb moment when she realised it was her destiny? ‘Nope. There still hasn’t been one. But I remember watching Natalie Portman in Leon when I was 12 and was just blown away by her performance.’
As a teen, Holliday worked solidly with parts in TV shows including Waterloo Road, Casualty, and Where the Heart Is, whilst trying to maintain a normal school life. ‘I would never tell anyone when I was on TV and no-one would ever watch it,’ she laughs.
But, describing herself as a, ‘Jane Austen geek,’ Holliday was always itching for a challenge. ‘If you go down my CV it’s teenage pregnancy in a soap opera, suicide in a hospital drama,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do something classical, I wanted to wear a costume and play that strong complex heroine I read about in all these novels. I didn’t want to just have to play a character that just gets a bit depressed and pops a pill.’
When she hit her twenties, Holliday’s wish came true – and then some. She starred in Jane Eyre as Diana Rivers opposite Michael Fassbender, who she admits is a crush (‘But that's just standard isn’t it?’) This year, she played a Baroness alongside Keira Knightely and Jude Law in Anna Kerinina.
But it’s the role of Estella that’s set to make Holliday a bonafide big screen star. ‘Yes!,’ she exclaims. ‘Estella is such a complex character, with layers of emotional damage of what she’s actually feeling, what she’s allowing herself to believe she’s feeling, what she’s trying to restrain and what she’s showing to the world.‘I was actually studying an Open University degree in English Literature at the time and writing an essay on Charles Dickens when I was auditioning,’ [she graduated with a first this summer].
Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and with a screenplay by David Nicholls (One Day), the big-screen Great Expectations comes less than a year after the BBC’s rapturously received adaptation, starring Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby. But if there’s any rivalry then Holliday isn’t letting on. In fact, after our interview, she is off to see Vanessa onstage at the Young Vic in Chekov’s Three Sisters. ‘Theirs was a very different adaptation,’ she says. ‘It was gritty and slow and ethereal. Whereas in ours, the characters have a lot more of the theatrical colour of Dickens, and there’s a bit more pace to the drama.’ And where Douglas stole hearts as Pip in the TV version, Warhorse star Jeremy Irvine takes the lead here. Lucky her, we say. ‘Oh, yes,’ she smiles. ‘He’s a great Pip because he’s got that leading man, chiselled good looks and charm, but there’s something slightly rugged about him. He’s lovely.’
Fassbender, Law, Irvine. It almost seems unfair that Holliday has Robert Pattinson on her co-star list, too. She starred with him in 2007’s TV drama, The Bad Mother’s Handbook when she was 18, and in last year’s Bel Ami. ‘He’s really easy going,’ she says of the Twilight heartthrob. ‘And open – amazingly so considering he’s so closely scrutinised. He’s still managed to maintain a sense of self. [On Bel Ami] you couldn’t get to set half the time because there were so many screaming girls. Even at 5am. It was mad. He had to change hotels because there were so many fans outside one he couldn’t get in. I’ve watched him live with that and it would send me insane. There’s no way could I cope with that.’
More appealing, is the career of her Great Expectations co-star, Miss Havisham herself, Helena Bonham Carter. ‘She’s famed for being eccentric and is famous, but managed to maintain this level of sanity and normality. I want to be successful and sane. That’s my aim!’
Is she hanging up the corsets and straightening out the ringlets for something more modern? Maybe. ‘It’s not that I’m sick of the period stuff,’ says Holliday carefully. ‘But I’d like to do a job that works in a different style. With period dramas there is a formality to the dialogue. It would be nice to get back to doing something where I can improvise a little bit more and, I don’t know, swear even!’ Look out for her, Britain’s most exciting new actress…cursing on a big screen near you very soon.
Great Expectations in released in cinemas nationwide on 30 November
By Clare Thorp