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A very British beauty who is acting very beastly


Holliday Grainger

Holliday Grainger

Getty Images

Scene from Cinderella

Scene from Cinderella


Holliday Grainger

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 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, fairy-tale 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 just naturally so bubbly and bright and funny, that 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, and seem to be genuinely firm friends. "Sophie and I shared a car so then we'd gossip in the car on the way home, and then we'd be like, right, ok babs, see you tomorrow," Grainger says.

There was even a moment on Cinderella when this highly social atmosphere spilled over into working hours. "I once held up shooting for about 45 minutes because I went to duck into Lily's tent because she had mates in, and I got my hair caught in the zip in the tent. And, I'm not even joking, it was one of those situations where - like it's hair caught in a zip, you'd think it would be really easy to get out. But no-one could get it out," she says, doing an amusing impression of the perplexed expressions on the faces of the ADs sent to rescue her from the jaws of the zip.

Given all this, it must have been Cate Blanchett, arguably the film's biggest star, who was the odd-man out among the chummy British cast. "Sophie and Lily and I had all watched Blue Jasmine the week before so we were all like completely in awe. And we were actually all sat together in Lily's tent when we heard that Cate was coming in for her camera test and we were all like - she's here, she's here."

Did she find it awkward, I wonder, playing the risque Lady Chatterley opposite Northern Irish actor Richard Madden when the pair were already friends? "Our version isn't that racy," she says. "When it comes to actual sex scenes, we can't get naked in it and it's really hard to do a sex scene when you can't. But I'm glad that it wasn't that racy actually, because as much as you sometimes think it's easier to do those scenes with someone that you know, sometimes it's not actually. It's far more awkward. Because you'd just go like, 'Hi Richard, do you mind just looking away for a second while I get undressed?'"

She seems to have thoroughly enjoyed being an ugly sister, and thinks their appeal endures because, "everyone's had experiences of - they're like the school bullies, but I also think that everyone has had their own experiences of jealousy as well. So I think people can relate to their jealousy but also relate to the feeling of being bullied and, psychologically they're very good for children because they offer them an outlet for their hate and anger." She knows a thing or two about sisters, despite being an only child herself. "Two of my best mates are sisters," she says. "I grew up with them. And I've lived with them, either together or either of them individually for years so I've lived very closely with that sibling rivalry. With the absolute love and devotion and complete hatred mixed into one."

She 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.

Sunday Independent