Actress Holliday Grainger is only 25 years old, but some might say that she’s something of a veteran in the industry, having been on our screens since the age of six. Cutting her teeth in a score of angst- ridden teenage roles in acting prerequisites such as Casualty and Waterloo Road, the Manchester native reached new heights in 2011 when she was cast as the ingénue-turned-cruel-manipulator Lucrezia Borgia in the historical drama series The Borgias.
And the film world has certainly sat up and taken notice. Having portrayed a string of complex characters in period dramas, Holliday is becoming a poster girl for the genre. First there was Suzanne Rousset, who got her claws into Robert Pattinson’s Georges Duroy in Bel Ami, then there was Baroness Shilton in Anna Karenina, Estella in Great Expectations, and most recently, Bonnie Parker in Bonnie & Clyde.
But don’t get too used to seeing Holliday in a corset just yet. “People always ask me if I worry about being typecast, but I think you only get typecast if people can’t imagine you outside of that role,” she says.
And with her next role, as feisty Northerner Lauren in the film adaptation of Posh, just around the corner, it looks like we won’t be waiting long for Holliday’s next move. “Lauren is the character who reflects my own personality most accurately. So it’ll probably be my worst role yet,” she laughs. Somehow we doubt that.
IN THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS YOU’VE BECOME KNOWN AS THE QUEEN OF PERIOD DRAMAS. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THEM THAT YOU LOVE SO MUCH?
It’s not like I went out specifically to do period dramas. When I get a script I don’t think, “What period is this in?” It’s more about the story and the character, and who I’m going to get to work with. The fact that they’ve all been in corsets is just coincidence! The corsets keep getting more and more difficult, though.
WAS THERE A PERIOD DRAMA THAT YOU WATCHED GROWING UP THAT INSPIRED YOU?
No, I wasn’t a big TV period drama fan. But when I was a teenager, I read a lot of novels. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters… those were the kind of stories that got me into reading. I read a lot of Dickens too, and then I went on to study English literature at university. I was always interested in the 19th century novel. That era captivated me. At university I wrote a feminist essay on Jane Eyre and what Bertha Mason represents. Hearing women’s voices, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, within an era that was so repressive made me think about how much times have changed. I think the reason why I’ve always enjoyed acting is the element of escapism, like you get with a good book. When there’s that added element of being in a different time period, it just adds an extra level of escapism.
IT’S CRAZY TO THINK THAT THAT KIND OF OPPRESSION EXISTED UNTIL VERY RECENTLY?
Society has changed so much. A few centuries ago doctors genuinely thought that when a woman was hysterical it was because her womb was moving around her body! Not because you’ve put her in a corset. That’s clearly not the reason why!
IN YOUR TEENS YOU PLAYED ROLES LIKE ‘PREGNANT TEENAGER’ OR ‘SUICIDAL TEENAGER’ IN TELEVISION SHOWS. WHEN YOU MOVED INTO PERIOD DRAMAS, WAS IT QUITE NICE TO GET AWAY FROM MODERN ROLES LIKE THAT?
Yeah. I feel like there was a change in my career when I stopped playing them. The roles I did in period dramas were a lot more interesting. There was more emotional complexity beyond “Oh no, I’m 16, and I’m pregnant”, which has been done over and over again. Not that Great Expectations and Jane Eyre haven’t been adapted again and again, but there are different levels to the characters. Being in period dramas was my switch from playing teenagers to playing women.
WAS IT DIFFICULT LEAVING BEHIND THE ROLE OF LUCREZIA BORGIA? YOU PLAYED HER FOR THREE YEARS.
The hardest bit was when I realised that we weren’t going back. When we left we didn’t know that that was the last season. It becomes so intense when you’re on location. I spent most of my life in Budapest when we were filming. It wasn’t even a second home; it was home! So when I found out we weren’t going again for the summer I was initially really happy because there were two projects that I really wanted to work on, but then when it came to August and I realised that we wouldn’t be going back at all, I really missed it. I used to think of Budapest as insanity valley because our experiences there were crazy, and I wanted my Hungarian lifestyle back!
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF AS AN ACTRESS THROUGH PLAYING THAT ROLE?
Playing Lucrezia was great because I got to develop her from a 13-year-old to a young woman over the seasons. I felt very in control of her, and I felt like I grew up with her in a way. When I started, it was my first long job away from home. It’s almost like going to university. I don’t know how much I learned as an actress, but I definitely grew in confidence. Sometimes life imitates art with confidence; when I’m playing a character who is very self-assured, I become more self-assured myself because I have to bring it. I was the only young girl in a hugely male-dominated cast and crew, and I think when you have important men around you all the time, you do need to learn how to assert yourself without being the “pretty little girl”.
DO YOU THINK IT’S HARDER FOR WOMEN TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY IN THE INDUSTRY?
I think there’s a switch side to that, in the sense that men in general have bigger egos and sometimes there can be this testosterone contest on set that you’re automatically not a part of. I do sometimes feel like I have to assert myself in ways that I wouldn’t normally, or if I don’t, I have to be happy to take a backseat and watch what goes on around me.
Read the second part of Holliday’s interview in Hunger Issue 6. Buy it here.