Actor and comedian Jessie Caves talks to The Edge Film Editor Barnaby Walter about her role in Mike Newell’s big-screen version of Great Expectations (out of Blu-ray and DVD now), working with Jeremy Irvine, playing Lavender Brown in Harry Potter, and having the world’s keenest mum.
With your role of Lavender Brown in Harry Potter and in Great Expectations, and to some extent in some of your comedy short films you’ve written, you’ve played the girl who doesn’t get the guy quite a bit. Do you ever yearn to one day play the girl who gets the guy in the end?
It’s funny you say that, because recently I’ve done a couple of things where I have got the guy and it’s felt so strange! But yes, it would be lovely to one day play a normal person!
Could you tell me a bit about how you got this role in Great Expectations? Was there a big audition process?
I’m afraid it’s quite a boring story. I guess it’s quite a big audition process because of Mike Newell and you know it’s going to be a big British film. Mike Newell was at the recall, which I was amazed at. I kind of get quite a kick out of auditioning – of course I love getting the part but I’m quite used to not getting them. So to get to go to the audition where you meet someone like Newell, that’s quite a cool thing! So it doesn’t matter if I don’t get the role, I got to meet Mike Newell! It was very unexpected, but felt quite right, so fortunately an indication is that if the audition feels right you tend to get the role, and auditions don’t often feel right for me so I thought I’d get it as I thought ‘This feels right!’. When you audition you have your CV printed out and the agents or casting people have it in front of them, and Mike Newell had a print out of my CV and at the top I had my Pin Dippy email address [PinDippy.com is Jessie’s comedy site] and he was sweet and asked what it was.
Mike Newell has directed many wonderful films, how was your experience being directed by him?
He’s really fun and joyful. You just want to hug him! When I first started I was so scared of everybody and needed lots of reassurance. With him it was reassuring as an actor because he makes you feel so liked and lets you be yourself, which I’m really bad at, and he really was transformative. I know it sounds so cheesy, but he really made me feel good about myself, which is a great gift to give an actor I think. I really genuinely love him!
From the cast, one could argue this version of Great Expectations is actually Harry Potter 9 – Bellatrix, Voldemort, Hagrid and yourself all turn up and it seems like a nice reunion. Was it like that on set?
It was a very familiar feel for me to see their names, and it would feel familiar for them, but not so much with me as I’m so peripheral! It was a nice thing to have more time, like to have a proper conversation with Helena [Bonham Carter]. I guess the other distinction was that, even though I was an adult when I played Lavender Brown on Harry Potter it was as if I was a child, because that was the role I was playing, and you look young, and this was one of the first roles where I didn’t have to look like a 16 year old, so that was quite nice! Having said that, I’ve just got a role where I’m playing a 16 year old!
By coincidence the film came out just a matter of months after a major TV series of Great Expectations on BBC One…
I know! That was fucking annoying! (laughs)
Did you watch that version at all or did you try to stick with just the one interpretation?
I did, it was great! They are two totally different takes on it. I think the story in ours is about Pip and about him leaving behind his humble beginnings but in the TV version it was more about love and him and Estella. So there were two different ways of doing it. And of course Biddy wasn’t even in the TV one! But that was a decision and it was an apt decision to choose a different way of approaching the story.
Your comedy creation is called ‘The Bookworm’, and I have to ask, were you much of a bookworm when it comes to Great Expectations? Had you read much Dickens before you got the role?
The ironic thing about ‘The Bookworm’ is that she isn’t a very good reader and falls asleep when she reads, and that’s kind of me! But I have got some GCSEs and have read some books! I read Great Expectations only because I thought I’d get a role out of it (laughs) – no I’m only joking! I did actually read it and I love the book. It’s quite a nice job in a way because you have to use your brain when you do are playing a role which is based in book form. You have to read! It forced me to read and I just loved it. And with the film, so much gets cut, and fifty pages get put into one page of dialogue. You need to read the book to get a sense of context, and Biddy is a huge part of the book, though only a token role in the film. But the book shows you how much love she has for Pip.
To get that close to Jeremy Irvine [actor of Pip, pictured above with Jessie]as you do in the film will I’m sure make girls and some boys deeply envious of you across the land.
Yeah, he is very attractive!
What’s it like working with him?
He’s really nice. He’s been on such a trajectory since he started – he’s so young, you forget how young he is because he’s so cool! And it was a nice thing because his younger brother played the young Pip and my sister played my younger self, so all our mums were there and it was just such a lovely thing! It was very happy.
As I’ve mentioned, you do a lot of comedy as well as big films like this. How well do you find straight acting and comedy complement each other?
I think it’s easier to do drama into comedy than do comedy into drama. I don’t think there’s any serious role that doesn’t have comedy in.
Your role as Lavender Brown had a lot of comedy in it, it was very funny.
Yeah, but then again, some people read something and it’s just not funny! (laughs). And then someone reads it and it is. I think I’m just so lucky as an actor, as I wouldn’t have been able to do the Edinburgh Festival if I didn’t have an acting background. They have both helped me. I’m comfortable doing both and I think they merge.
I’ve seen some of your smaller video work and it is hilarious, and I think one could say you are the British answer to America’s Lena Dunham.
Ah well, she is an idol and she has opened doors for us here – for women, young women, to do comedy – and she’s referenced in every single meeting I go into. And until a year ago that didn’t happen. So within a year I’ve seen the impact she’s had on my life and she’s opened up things for me. She’s done something incredible. And I think that also comes down to Judd Apatow. If he didn’t champion her she wouldn’t have got [HBO TV series] Girls made. So it’s down to him really! And her, obviously, being amazing.
Could you see yourself writing a big TV series like she did with Girls, or maybe a feature film?
I am! I’m actually writing one at the moment. I’m writing a sitcom which has me starring in it y’know (laughs) and my little sister, and it’s about my mum.
Was it nice working with your little sister Bebe in the film with her playing the younger version of you?
I would love to work with her all the time. I didn’t work with her on set but I had costume fittings with her. And my mum is so keen. You cannot meet a keener mother than mine! So ever single step of the way my mum was there and I’m not very good at reporting back at what happened on set so it was good to have Bebe to do that. But Bebe, kind of annoyingly, has just got job after job! It’s really annoying! (laughs) And she’s playing the young Helen Mirren in the play The Audience at the moment, so I’m like ‘I got you this, Bebe! You should be paying me!’
You should be her agent!
I should, I really should be her agent! In fact, I got her an agent, she’s got my agent! But what’s so nice about the whole thing is that I watch her and I can live vicariously through her and get happiness from how good she is, and that’s nice as it means I don’t worry about my life as I can enjoy her life!
And I can empathise with having one of the keenest mothers in the world! Mine is overjoyed I’m talking to someone from Harry Potter right now.
(Laughs) Oh that’s so sweet! I think it’s a default with mums to be keen. And they can’t be cool about it too! Have you ever taken her into work? Sometimes I just take mine somewhere and she’s happy to sit in the corner and watch everything going by!
Great Expectations (2012), directed by Mike Newell, is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate PG.