“This is the longest I’ve not worked since I was six,” muses Holliday Grainger, sipping at a green health drink as we sit in the California sunshine outside a vegan restaurant in Venice. It is a long way from Manchester where the actress was born and still lives most of the time, but the 27-year-old, who is currently starring in big-budget Hollywood film The Finest Hours, has things she has to do in the US.
It may not be her idea of work, but as soon as we finish lunch I drive her to a meeting in Santa Monica, and her ensuing days are booked up with auditions, interviews and more meetings. After several highly regarded TV series and films, The Finest Hours (in cinemas from Friday 19 February) is Holliday’s first American movie.
Filmed in Boston, it tells the true story of how two oil tankers split in half during a ferocious storm off the coast of New England in 1952. Holliday has the leading female role of Miriam, the girlfriend of sailor Bernie Webber, played by Chris Pine, one of a four-man crew sent out on a near-suicidal rescue mission. Her scenes with Pine provide the movie’s emotional resonance as it cuts back and forth between the rescue efforts and Miriam waiting anxiously on dry land.
Holliday landed the role in an unusual way. In LA trying to find herself an agent, a friend recommended a cooking class to while away the hours. By coincidence the film’s director, Craig Gillespie, was also attending. They hit it off and he hired her.
Between rehearsals and shooting, she flew back to England to squeeze in her role in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, returning to Boston on a night flight to begin filming a dramatic scene with Eric Bana (as the lifeboat station commander).
She was struck by the differences between filming in the UK and in America. “The working hours are totally different,” she says. “In Britain you work 12- or 13-hour days, while here in America you can work 18 hours a day. On The Finest Hours, sometimes we only stopped because it was getting light and we were supposed to be shooting in the dark.”
She did, however, have her mother and her boyfriend, actor Harry Treadaway, with her for some of the filming, and Harry is with her while she does her promotional work.
Holliday is engaging and fun, and has a delightful sense of humour that enables her not to take things too seriously. She pours some of her health drink into my empty glass. “Here, have some vitamins. I’ll share it with you,” she says with a distinct Mancunian accent.
Until recently she lived with her mother in Manchester, but has now bought a house of her own. She also rents a flat in London because she has to spend so much time there.
“There was a two-year period where I felt I never left Pinewood Studios,” she laughs. “I filmed Riot Club (Wednesday Sky Drama/Romance), Cinderella and Tulip Fever there one after the other
Her parents were separated while she was still a baby and she was brought up by her mother, who enrolled her in piano, ballet and gym classes.
She had her first acting job at the age of six. “One of my mum’s mates worked at the BBC and knew a casting director who needed a little girl who looked right,” she recalls. “I went for the audition and got the part in All Quiet on the Preston Front. I really enjoyed it and was recommended for other parts. But I never thought it would lead to anything because in my mind it was just something I did for fun.”
She went to Leeds University to study English but her career switched into high gear and, she says, “I was thrown out for missing too many seminars.” So she finished her studies at the Open University and earned a First Class degree in English literature.
The roles continued to come her way and she worked steadily in a string of TV series and mini-series, including Where the Heart Is, Waterloo Road and Casualty, and period roles beginning with Jane Eyre, then Bel Ami, Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, The Borgias, Bonnie & Clyde and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Fully fledged stardom beckons but the down-00to-earth actress takes it all in her stride, including handling the essential Hollywood trappings of a publicist, agent, manager and stylist.
“My life hasn’t really changed but if you’d told me a few years ago I would ever have a stylist I’d never have believed it,” she laughs. “But I have to say having a publicist to say ‘No’ for me makes things a lot easier; and dressing up for a red carpet makes me nervous and a bit sick, so it’s so good to have a stylist picking the clothes for me.”
She has the movie Tulip Fever, set in 17th-century Amsterdam, awaiting release and she hopes to begin filming another period movie in England soon but doesn’t want to tempt fate by talking about it.
“I’m so looking forward to starting work again,” she sighs, finishing her avocado toast.
An A-lister in the making.