Interview with Holliday Grainger, Star of BBC One’s “Strike”
by Taryn Strella · Published · Updated
Later this month, BBC One’s adaptation of Robert Galbraith’s Strike premieres on television, and we had a chance to sit down with Holliday Grainger, who plays Robin Ellacot, and chat about her experience working on the show.
Speaking effusively about her role, Grainger believes everyone has a bit of Robin in them. While reading the books and later the script, she couldn’t help but feel like she was really meant to play the part and subsequently really enjoyed getting a chance to dive into Robin’s backstory and her characterizations.
Everyone is wondering how much contact Grainger had with J.K. Rowling during production, but Grainger says not a lot. She was aware of edits J.K. Rowling had made to the scripts, and there were notes passed down to the actors through other producers, but she wasn’t very hands-on and didn’t offer any insight into Robin’s character.
I think she does write in such a way that is just so clear. I mean, we all love the world of Harry Potter because it’s so meticulously written and well-rounded and believable, and it’s whole and it’s solid. And the same with the characters in the Strike series – it’s like we know who Strike is and we know who Robin is. And I think that there’s a clarity in that that really doesn’t need much discussion.
As for stunts in the show, Grainger was more than thrilled to do them. She recalls her favorite moment on set, driving around in the woods in Robin’s Land Rover and filming a car chase for a later episode. She likened it to driving a go-kart but in a real car, and she really enjoyed being able to “get out from behind [her] desk.”
For everyone wondering which Harry Potter House Robin would be Sorted into, Grainger has contemplated it and come up with an answer for us!
The Sorting Hat would probably have a bit of a chat to itself about whether to put her in Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. Had she have been Sorted before uni, she’d have probably been put in Ravenclaw. But if she’d been Sorted after uni, she would be put in Gryffindor.
You can read the full transcript of the interview below, although there are spoilers in it from the later Cormoran Strike novels. Don’t forget – Strike premieres on BBC One later this month, and we have a spoiler-free review of the first episode!
Transcribed by Jessica Mitton, Charles Kelliher, Korina Cotter, and Tracey Wong
What would be really good for us is if you could tell the readers that haven’t read the book about Robin, so tell us about her character.
Okay, so Cormoran Strike novels… Strike is a private investigator, and Robin enters his world as a temp, as a temporary secretary, and we sort of discover – or the audience discovers as Strike discovers – that she’s pretty good at her job. She’s very practical, and she’s quite intelligent, and she’s quite quick – she quickly becomes invaluable to him in terms of workplace assistant. And then we find out later that Robin has always secretly wanted to be an investigator [and] it’s what she’s always wanted to do, so that’s why she’s… And she’s got an aptitude for it, and so slowly as the novels progress, she moves from temporary secretary to full-time secretary to slowly becoming his partner, really, his detective partner.
What’s she like as a person? How would you describe her?
She’s very warm, she’s very likable, but she’s also very driven, and I think she’s someone that has a lot of confidence, that way when people have confidence in themselves that they can deal with anyone in any situation. And she definitely never feels like a fish out of water even though she’s from small-town Yorkshire, and she’s kind of at the world that she’s learning about through Strike, even though she’s in her mid [to] late 20s. It’s, I guess, one of the first times that she’s been experiencing a lot of the sets of society that she is privy to through her work with Strike, but she’s definitely got this likable comfortability, and I think she’s got a strong sense of her own morals and that drives her through and that sort of moral backbone drives all her actions and how she thinks about things, and she’s got a sort of goodness. But she’s also… She’s driven, and I think she can be quite honest. There are some sections where she can be quite self-defensive, actually. She can be quite “jump to being defensive” if she’s criticized because… and if she feels undervalued, and I quite respect her for that. She’s got kind of this ballsiness – that I don’t have, anyway. [laughs]
In what ways do you most closely identify with her as the character?
It’s funny. Reading the books, I was just thinking, “Well, she’s just me.”
But I think that so many women reading the books think that about Robin because we can all identify bits of ourselves in her or bits that we want to be. I mean, we all want to be as confident and self-assured and driven as Robin, and we all want to be as moralistic and as good and as true to ourselves as she is. So sometimes I think she’s like the best of me on a good day. [laughs] And I think there’s an awful lot of women who do think that. I mean… I haven’t spoken about this with Jo, actually, but I have heard that people have said that there is a lot of Jo in Robin or that Jo has said that there’s a lot of her in Robin. But it’s amazing how many women I’ve spoken to that see themselves in her. So in that respect, she’s sort of… I think we all know her either in ourselves or in our friends.
What does she like about Strike? Because there’s a real spark between them even though she’s engaged to someone else. There’s a spark between them. She seems to admire when he goes back to work, doesn’t she?
Yeah, absolutely. I think Robin is a woman of integrity, and I think she admires people of integrity, and Strike definitely is. He’s someone [who] is unashamedly true to himself, and I think this kind of… So Robin admires his drivenness and also his discretion. It’s this… There’s no showiness to him, there’s no falsity, and that’s what she admires. And I think Robin and Strike, because of that, they’re both similar in that way. They get to know each other quite slowly, and the readers get to know them slowly, too, through that. And I have always… Even right towards the end of Book 3 or the end of the first [season], I always still question how much Robin is even aware that she is probably in love with Strike.
I don’t think she knows because her admiration of him is so caught up with the kind of freedom that he is allowing her by becoming herself and by doing what she’s good at. It’s like her admiration for him is so caught up in her love for the job, and I think they’re two things that she… You can’t quite separate their feelings, even in Book 3. So yeah, I’m dying to know what happens in Book 4
What have you talked with J.K. Rowling about? You mentioned you hadn’t talked to her about how that worked with her being part of Robin’s character, but what did you talk to her about?
Yeah, we haven’t talked a load, actually. Well, we’ve met and chatted, and I’ve heard her notes through producers or whatever, but everything has always seemed to be very positive, and I think she does write in such a way that is just so clear. I mean, we all love the world of Harry Potter because it’s so meticulously written and well-rounded and believable, and it’s whole and it’s solid. And the same with the characters in the Strike series – it’s like we know who Strike is and we know who Robin is. And I think that there’s a clarity in that that really doesn’t need much discussion.
I loved what you said earlier about when identifying with Robin or wanting to identify with Robin. Do you see any other particular women’s issues coming out through the narrative of the stories?
Yeah. I mean, I sort of don’t know how much we’re saying now, but we’ve all read them and you know what we find out about Robin by Book 3 and how the strength that she must have in herself to have pulled herself out of that experience. And that’s something that, as much as in Book 1 and Book 2, it’s like I’m reading Robin and seeing lots of myself in her, and then it was only when that experience came out that I realized there’s a lot about Robin that I don’t know, that I don’t understand. So I read a couple of rape memoirs that [were] very… I mean, I don’t know what kind of research Jo has done, but it was so… Like Alice Sebold’s memoir and a memoir by this woman called Nancy Venable Raine, and their experiences and their feelings as a woman post that assault and the way that you can beat yourself up for not getting on with it, and it’s like it’s so associative with post-traumatic stress disorder. I mean, it is in the way that… And a lot of Robin’s character that I don’t associate with myself all of a sudden started to make sense when I read a lot of… Particularly Alice… In fact, both of those memoirs, actually, were very apt in terms of Robin’s character and a lot of her self-defensiveness and her drive and it’s even more of a drive because she’s not going to let this experience affect her and she’s not going to let this experience define her. And so it’s like she becomes more driven and unafraid in her fear of feeling like she might not be driven or it might have affected her.
What’s it like taking on a character that people are so passionate about, where they’ve seen her and they’ve read her and they want to see her again. Is that quite different?
Well, you know what? It’s so funny because I didn’t… I hadn’t read the books… I mean, I knew that they were successful, I knew that they were bestsellers, but I didn’t know very many people [who] had read the books when we started. I was also reading the books… I was doing a film in eastern Europe in Georgia…
… [and] I was reading them. It wasn’t… And it was only… And then I was thrown straight full on into work. I went to a wedding at Christmas when we’d shot most of the first block, and then I met so many women at the wedding [who] were just like, “Oh, you’re playing Robin! I’m so excited! She’s just like me! She’s just like my sister! She’s just like my mate! Isn’t she amazing? Don’t we all love her?” And then I was like, “Oh God, pressure!”
I was like, “Oh, yes we do. I thought that was just me! Oh no, she’s just like you, too?” [laughs] Yeah, so then I was just like, “Oh, crap.” I hope everyone thinks I’ve done her justice and I’m not just playing it like I see her. But I am playing it like I see her, but that’s my job, I suppose. [laughs]
So of the three stories, which do you prefer, or do you have a preference?
<p>It was definitely Book 3 – it was the most gritty, “teeth into” as an actor to portray. But there’s something about… I mean, they all… Each novel has a complete[ly] different tone and a different atmosphere because it embodies different social levels of London. I love Book 2 for its… It’s got this slightly grotesque, garish, glamorous feel to it. And then you jump to Book 3, and you’re back to a grittier realism and that sort of dirty, grungier London that feels more real, even though it’s… And I don’t know which one, though. I don’t know which one I prefer.
Have you had any stunts to do? Because I know in Book 2 in particular, there’s a big car chase and all that kind of thing. Do you enjoy those kinds of things?
Oh, I love that. I love it. I mean, driving the Jeep – Robin’s Land Rover, that’s in Book 3 – I loved that. I was very much attached to it. It was one of those Land Rovers that was… It was a 1960s Land Rover and it was really hard to drive, [laughs] so I was quite proud of myself. I knew how to drive it. Once on the first day, Lee [Pellett] got in to try [to] reverse it and he couldn’t do it, and I’m like, “Get out, I’ll show you how it works.”
It definitely felt like my car [laughs] because I knew the tricks of how to start it. Also, there’s a rent-a-car chase in Book 2. It’s so rare that someone goes, “Can you just drive as fast as you can across this muddy pit field and swerve a bit?” and then you’re like, “Okay!”
It was like go-kart in a real car. So that was fun. There were some other bits of stunt in the second book as well, like Robin getting hit over the head and having to battle Elizabeth Tassel to the ground and… I love that stuff. I mean, especially when we’re filming, and you do read… We’re in the studio a lot, and of course it’s like there’s a lot of plot so there’s a lot of narrative that is out through talking, so there’s lots of… Particularly scenes in the studio, it’s lots of Robin and Strike talking, and there’s lots of exposition of story and it’s all very dialogue-heavy. So when you get out from behind your desk and [laughs] you get to drive a car in the middle of a field, this definitely breaks up the working week a bit.
What do you think makes it different from other types of detective shows?
I think that we, Robin and Strike… I think it’s quite a sort of character-driven piece. I mean, I know a lot of detective novels are, but quite often the detectives have their quirk. I suppose Strike’s quirk is that he’s got one leg. It’s that he has a history. When we get to know… He is a product of his history, and I feel almost like the detective story comes as almost secondary to the story of Strike and his life. And I think it’s quite accessible in terms of the fact that Robin isn’t a detective. She hasn’t trained – or she has done slightly as the series progresses – so from the beginning, as an audience, you’re seeing these cases through Robin’s eyes and you’re learning with her, in a way. It’s not a story about two honed and polished detectives – it’s a story about an interesting damaged man and a young woman [who] is learning this craft, and so you’re more open for mistakes. And it’s not a story about a detective that gets it right all the time – it’s two people learning about each other.
Do you have a favorite moment from the set?
I mean, driving around in the car was pretty fun, to be honest. That was pretty great, driving Tom through the woods, being trusted. I’ve got to say, he’s very bloody trusting with me in the car, [laughs] in both the rent-a-car and the Land Rover. Tom was happily sitting there while I’m like tootling off down the roads, trying not to kill him. [laughs]
So you were talking earlier, of course, about women’s issues and then you were mentioning how these stories are incredible because they are so multilayered. And I know that veteran’s issues are addressed, the nature of fame is addressed, family relationships, the definition of love. Other than what you were talking about with women’s issues, what other issues did you find most interesting, or topics?
I always love a love story and a relationship drama, and it… I think a lot of Robin’s issues or Robin’s story is this young woman – almost a girl, really – learning to be herself. And because of that horrendous rape that happened at uni to her, it’s almost like her career and her self-progression as a young woman has been stilted. And so even though she’s in her mid to late 20s, it’s like she’s someone [who] is just leaving uni now and just learning to be who she is. And so I find her relationship with Matthew really interesting because there is this element of Robin that is like she’s come from an area of safety with this long-term relationship and this loving family and this small town, and she’s only just breaking out of that in her late 20s. A lot of people do that in their late teens, but it feels like she’s just learning things about herself or having this bravery to step out of that, and I think Strike – this new job and her friendship with Strike – is helping her develop her sense of self. So that gets into issues of growing up being yourself and having the bravery in relationships to be yourself and to grow up. A lot of Matthew and Robin’s relationship is [that] you’re watching them grow apart and when will they admit that to each other.
Are there any guest stars whom you particularly enjoyed working with?
Monica Dolan, she is so brilliant. She is so [censored] good. A lot of that story, Book 2, is quite… The story in Book 2 is quite out there. It’s quite big, it’s quite grotesque, it’s quite… It’s not total realism and reality about them that you have in different aspects of Book 1 and Book 3, and so I think Book 2, in order for you to even care about the outcome of the story – the central character of Leonora and her daughter Dodo – you need to invest in the characters, so the actors portraying them need to be great. Monica has so many complex levels to Leonora that I almost… It was amazing. You always know J.K. Rowling’s characters when you read the books, but I almost didn’t quite know who Leonora was until I watched Monica play it, and you’re like, “Oh, wow!” She’s great. She’s really great. And so is Sarah Gordy, who plays Dodo, her daughter. So just the heartstrings tugged in that relationship, I think, really worked.
What do you think was gained from doing it as a little miniseries instead of doing it as one long episode?
Well, you kind of have to because that’s what the books are. The books are so different [and] they have such different tones, and so hopefully… We have different directors, different DoPs, quite a lot of different crew, actually, between the books. And I think producers were… You get a lot of long series, especially the American series, and it’s like the tone is set. And even sometimes the directors might set up the first episode, and sometimes they even have lists of what they’re allowed to do – in this room, we have the lighting like that, and this is how we shoot a mid-shot on this lens and whatever. This was definitely not the case. Each director and DoP was given free rein between each book to create the tone that they wanted, and I think that’s important because the novels are all very different and I think they do have different tones and that only through line really is Robin and Strike. And I think that’s what’s sort of interesting about it, is you get these two people that you’re getting to know and you’re getting to know them through different situations and even different levels of London, really. Yeah, so I sort of think it wouldn’t have… I couldn’t imagine it working as a full series. It wouldn’t have been as interesting. I think there’s something interesting about embracing the fact that they’re totally different stories.
A bit of a Potter question now. How would you Sort Robin? Which House would you put her in? Harry Potter House.
[laughs] How would I Sort Robin in a Harry Potter House? She’s definitely not Hufflepuff, and she’s definitely not Slytherin. I’d say she’s probably… She definitely has the bravery of Gryffindor… What is Ravenclaw about?
Yeah, the Sorting Hat would probably have a bit of a chat to itself about whether to put her in Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. Had she have been Sorted before uni, she’d have probably been put in Ravenclaw. But if she’d been Sorted after uni, she would be put in Gryffindor.
You’ve done a lot of period stuff. Was it lovely to see some things that are contemporary?
Yes! Jeans, trousers… You know what? This sounds so ridiculous, but the practicalities of having pockets and having a handbag. Because I always get… If you leave your trailer at the beginning of the day, you don’t go back to it at night. If you have your phone or your book or your purse… To actually be able to carry my own purse with me so that I’m not asking runners if I can borrow petty cash every time I want a cup of coffee… [laughs] Actually. When you’re filming in London and you can have your money and your phone, it’s so liberating, I tell you. [laughs] “Thank God Robin has a handbag.”
Was there a location that you really enjoyed specifically?
Oh, it’s great being in Soho. It’s such a weird novelty, working in Soho. Sometimes being in your work clothes, like Robin’s clothes, in Soho. It’s slightly abstract and sort of out there because you associate that so much with it. It’s like your character stepping on your turf is really weird. [laughs]