Didsbury-born actress Holliday Grainger, who TV viewers may know from BBC’s Strike, is about to have two of her films playing in UK cinemas at the same time. We sat down with her to chat about her affinity with accents, the perils of typecasting, and her favourite things to do in Didsbury.
In Tell it to the Bees (out now), Holliday plays a single mother in the ’50s who embarks on an affair with a local doctor, played by Anna Paquin.
The film is set in Scotland, but Holliday plays a character from Manchester. So was that an opportunity for her to use her own accent for once?
“Not really”, Holliday replies. “I’d say she’s a bit more Lancashire. Old fashioned Manchester, is what I think! I made it more Lancashire, because that’s a bit older-sounding.”
Her second film, Animals (released 2nd August), initially seemed like an opportunity to play a full-on Mancunian. Directed by Sophie Hyde, it’s based on the novel by Manchester author Emma Jane Unsworth and centres on the boozy lives of best friends Laura and Tyler.
Holliday acknowledges that the book’s Manchester setting played a big part in her signing on to the film.
“Sophie sent me the book when she got involved,” she says.
“I read it in a day and I really loved it because I’m from Manchester so I knew Laura and I know everywhere that the book mentioned. So immediately, I was just like, ‘oh, these are my people, I want to be involved’.”
Unfortunately, however, the film ended up being shot in Dublin for funding reasons. So, having signed on to play a Mancunian, how did Holliday feel about suddenly playing a Dubliner?
“That was a big conversation”, she says. “I remember exactly where I was – you know, like, where were you when John Lennon died? I remember where I was when I found out Animals was being set in Dublin!”
Despite that initial setback, Holliday was quick to adjust.
“As much as I was attracted to it because it was set in Manchester, I think Dublin and Manchester as cities are quite transferable, and the people are quite similar, so it was an easy pick-up for me.
“But obviously, I then had to learn the accent – which I’d always wanted to do, to be honest. I had never done an Irish accent before and I’d always wanted to, so I thought, well, this is my excuse.”
Holliday is no stranger to accent work, having mastered a pretty decent American accent for ’50s-set coastguard rescue drama The Finest Hours, in which she starred opposite Chris Pine, in 2016. How does she approach learning a new voice?
“I just listen”, she says. “Listen, listen, listen. Listen to people, basically. So I was parroting Saoirse [Ronan] for a few months and then as soon as I got to Dublin I started to wind it down and realised, actually, now I’ve got Saoirse down, I sound like Saoirse.
“And as soon as I was in Dublin, it’s like, ‘oh, you’re north side, you’re not south side, where am I from then?’ And I’m really annoying on set. I’ll listen to people and go, ‘oh, I like your accent’. I’d basically get a member of the crew to repeat my lines and record them. So I had a couple of girls that I picked out and I’d get them to record my lines for me.”
That said, Holliday is quick to point out that she had an accent coach for Animals, too.
“It depends on the budget, basically. On this, I think I had five sessions with the accent coach, which is great to have someone to bandy off, but a lot of the work has to be done on your own.”
Although Holliday doesn’t exactly have what you’d call a distinctive Manchester accent, does she have a proper Manc twang she can slip in and out of when she goes home?
“Yes”, she laughs, “And no, I’m not going to do it! I’m maybe going to do a film in Manchester next year and I’m going to have to get my Manc on for that.”
When asked about growing up in Didsbury (she went to school in Parrs Wood), Holliday says that she loves her home town and still goes back a lot.
“I see friends and family, hang out on Beech Road. I’m really pathetic – I like the little stretch between Chorlton, West Didsbury and Didsbury, I sort of end up not leaving that.
“And it’s very rare I go into town, so whenever I go into Manchester it’s like, ‘ooh, this is exciting, isn’t it?’. I went to Mackie Mayor recently and I was like, oh, this is amazing, why don’t I come into town more often?”
Asked what she loves most about Manchester, Holliday replies: “Home, the sense of home. The people. I think people fall into two camps – there are people that go home and feel a sense of warmth and people that just want to step away from it.
“And whenever I arrive at Manchester Piccadilly or Stockport station, it’s just like, aaaaah,” she sighs contentedly. “And I do think there’s something about Mancunians that’s just a no-bullshit thing, and I like that.”
Astonishingly, Holliday, who is currently filming a new series of Strike, has been acting for 25 of her 31 years, making her first appearance in the TV series All Quiet on the Preston Front at the age of six. Does she remember a specific moment that made her want to become an actor?
“Yeah, I do, actually”, she replies. “Because I was acting already – I started when I was dead little. But I just enjoyed being on set with adults. Basically, I didn’t really think about the art or craft of it.
“And I remember being ten or eleven and watching Natalie Portman in Leon and thinking, ‘wow, you can do that and be that and just transform into a different person – I want to do that’. I think that was when I decided I wanted to get good at acting, rather than just fart around on set.”
As for landing her first job as a child actor, Holliday recalls: “It was a friend of my mum’s, she needed a little girl for a TV series and I auditioned for that and got it. It was one of those things – if I hadn’t got that first audition, would it ever have been something I would have ever done? Probably not.”
Discussion of her acting career brings us to the tricky issue of typecasting. Holliday went through a period where she did four period dramas in a row (Jane Eyre, Bel Ami, Anna Karenina and Great Expectations). Was there a deliberate step away from that?
“Yes, there was”, she says. “It is weird, the shift – you can make it happen yourself. And now, I’ve had enough of a break from doing period dramas – I would love to do some more!
“But there was a time where I felt like I hadn’t been out of a corset for seven years and I was desperate to do some indie films. And now, I don’t get offered period dramas, I get offered indie films.
“You can be very easily boxed. It’s quite funny, actually. It only takes a couple of indie movies for them to go, ‘oh, she does that, does she? Fine, do you want to do this then?’
“And then it’s like, where are my period drama offers, guys? I look great in a corset!”