'Fairytale? I lived in Tesco £4 tracksuit bottoms for two months'
Holliday Grainger has hit the big time playing an ugly sister in a new live-action version of Cinderella. She reveals her own rags-to-riches tale to Julia Molony
At first glance, it's hard to see how Holliday Grainger could possibly be credible playing the role of an ugly sister. Her pillow lips and cupid face recall a young Faye Dunaway. So that helps explain, in part at least, her casting in the 2013 mini-series remake Bonnie and Clyde. She took the role of Bonnie, originally played by Dunaway, and scooped up a number of award nominations in the process. But Anastasia? The square-footed, snub-faced bully we know from a million hammy pantomime performances? What could Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh, director of the new, lavish, live-action reworking of the classic fairytale, have been thinking?
But then, ah ha, 15 minutes in and it all becomes clear. In this post-Shrek era, it doesn't do in popular entertainment to infer to small children that physical appearance can be taken as a convenient short-hand for character. That wicked people are grotesque and good people are pretty. And though this version of Cinderella is largely un-reconstructed, it differs from the original in one important way. The stunning Cate Blanchett is the evil stepmother. And her two daughters are pretty much as fly as Cinders herself. It's not their faces, but their souls that are revolting. Oh, and their taste in clothes.
Anyway, Grainger wasn't offended when she got the call. "We spent hours and hours in make-up for the sisters, because it was so hard to make us look so ugly," she jokes, before explaining more explicitly. "Part of the sisters characters is that they are so preoccupied with their outward aesthetic, that they forget to concentrate on inner beauty. The make-up designer had made us these fake teeth which were hilarious. Sophie's had a gap in between and mine were slightly goofily crossed over. I thought they looked brilliant but in the camera test we did one set of camera tests with them in and then Ken (Branagh) went, 'Hmmm, not sure you need them actually.'"
Grainger grew up in Manchester, was raised by a single mother who works as a freelance graphic designer, and, unlike many of her contemporaries, didn't come through the public school system. She was just six when she won her first role on television, and has been working regularly since the age of sixteen. But she's held onto a touch of a Mancunian accent, and is obviously attached to her home town - she recently bought a house there just down the road from her mum's.
"I think I'm a home-bird in the ideal of it," she explains. "Because I've never been at home for very long. From the age of 16 I was travelling all over the place because I started acting when I was quite young; I went away for uni and was living and having jobs in London. I think since I was probably about 15 I've never really been at home in Manchester for much of a length of time. So I think I still put it on a pedestal - when I'm at home for more than a day. But it's nice to have my own space in my home town."
She remains as down-to-earth as her upbringing. "I don't even live in jeans anymore - I think I lived in Tesco £4 trackie bottoms for about two months last year - I'm actually not even joking," she says.
For Grainger, taking part in Disney's latest big budget, fairytale release sounds more like a school reunion than a daunting new world. She already knew most of the British cast. "We all know each other, I've known Sophie (McShera, who plays Drisella) for years, Lily (James, who plays Cinderella) for years," she says. Being friends with her on-screen sister helped them riff on the pantomime and comedic aspects of the performance. "It does come naturally with Sophie, because Sophie is naturally funny. She's got hilarious banter all the time. In fact, I almost want to show you our stream of text messages, she is hilarious," she says. "I think it could have been really hard getting that dynamic if it had been anyone else, but Sophie is so bubbly, it's really easy to feed off."
And forget Cinderella's demure happy-ever-after. Grainger has just finished shooting the much more adult Lady Chatterley's Lover opposite Prince Charming himself, Richard Madden. Not just that, she knew Helena Bonham Carter, the fairy godmother, from when she played her daughter on the BBC series Magnificent 7. Holliday is part of a new generation of handsome young British talent. Harvested from the entertainment-world finishing-schools of Downton Abbey and various BBC period pieces, they are all poised to go global, but Grainger has no plans to leave her home in Manchester and emigrate to America. "It feels like such a global industry now," she says. "You can audition for American stuff over here. And if I did go to America, I'd be auditioning for British stuff in America. I don't think it really matters where you physically are. Although I think I might go to LA for a little bit just because the weather is nice."
- Cinderella is in cinemas now