Jessie Cave on body image, bereavement and being relentless: ‘I don’t have any secrets’

The actor, comic and writer talks about her bestselling debut novel, the cruelty of costume fittings, how it felt to be in the Harry Potter franchise – and finding hope in small things

As a compulsive diary writer – she has kept one since she was eight – Jessie Cave knows that, unless it gets written down, life gets forgotten. She is glad, then, that she wrote her debut novel, Sunset, because the way she felt at the time “would have just gone, and then you’re in a different place and you don’t remember”. This book, says Cave, was “absolutely the only thing I could write during that period”.

In March 2019, her younger brother Ben died in an accident aged 27. Her book was written in the aftermath, that manic feeling that sometimes comes with grief pushing her on. It went straight to No 1 on the Times’ bestseller list after being published in June. “I don’t know if I would have that energy now,” she says.

In Sunset, it is twentysomething Ruth who has to deal with destabilising grief after the shocking death of her older sister in an accident – their close bond is inspired by Cave’s relationship with her younger sister Bebe. “It was a complete outpour at the beginning,” she says of the first draft. “It was thrilling and cathartic to write someone else’s story and to have a different accident and a different set of family members and friends and situations. I could come away from my own shit for a bit, my own sadness, and pretend. That’s the luxury of creating: you can just forget for a bit.” It isn’t a depressing book – it is funny and a warm portrayal of sibling love. But, she adds, holding a cup of tea in a London cafe, “it did get really hard at points and I would have to take a step back from it”.

Cave, 34, is best known for her role as Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films – and she is about to star in an ITV2 comedy, Buffering – but in recent years she has created a successful career as a writer, comedian, performer, illustrator and podcaster (all this plus raising three small children).

She comes across as kooky and a bit dreamy – it is partly the Rapunzel-like hair, today piled on top of her head, and an eccentric approach to fashion, as if a creative child has dressed her – but she is sharp, clever, funny and driven, if prone to self-deprecation. “I constantly feel like a failure,” she says. “I constantly worry about how I’m going to make money. I also have to prove that I’m working hard, because I hate the thought of someone thinking that I’m not grafting for what I’ve got. So I’ve always been quite relentless in generating stuff, because I need …” She pauses and smiles. “I’m just desperate by nature.”

Cave with Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Cave with Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Within six months of finishing the Potter films in 2010, and after a load of “terrible” auditions, she felt she didn’t fit in anywhere and turned to writing. She used all the money she had made to film some sketches for YouTube, “which were awful. It was a very scary time, and it wasn’t until I’d done my first Edinburgh show that I was like: OK, I’m writing, and I have to perform, unfortunately, to get the writing seen.” As the performer, she is, she says with a laugh, “the last resort”.

She continued to get acting work, though – smaller roles in good stuff such as Grandma’s House, Black Mirror, the E4 drama Glue and the Sky sitcom Trollied. In Buffering, she plays Rosie, a dippy landlady in a millennial houseshare. The sitcom is written by the comedian and Love Island narrator Iain Stirling, who also stars. She says she loved working on it, especially with its ensemble cast. “I’m so solitary with my work, so having people around me who were funny … it didn’t really feel like a job. It was lovely,” she says.

Cave had always wanted to write a novel, having had TV scripts in “development hell” for almost a decade. “I kind of got to the end of that process, and another rejection, and I was just so tired of writing for no reason. I’m not saying you have to write for it to be published – I definitely believe in creativity for the sake of creativity – but I had got to the stage where I felt as if I needed to have a beginning, middle and end to something,” she says.

In the months after Ben’s death, Cave read a huge number of books and memoirs about grief, but couldn’t find anything that accurately reflected her experience of losing a brother: “It was really important to me to write truthfully about what it’s like to be in shock after a traumatic, sudden thing.” She wanted, she says, “to have something out there that would help people who’ve lost a sibling”.

In her new sitcom, Buffering (far right).
In her new sitcom, Buffering (far right). Photograph: Mark Johnson/ITV

What surprised her most about grief? She takes a long, unselfconscious pause and looks across the room. “The hardest thing to accept is you have to let go of your life before,” she says. “You’re not living the same life any more. The sooner you accept that, the easier it is, but it’s so hard to accept, and I still don’t think I have. I’m surprised by how brutal it is, that separation of before and after.” She hasn’t had therapy and she doesn’t want to. “It’s something I’m just taking with me all the time. It’s something that I have accepted in my life, and that helps me, because I’m confronting how awful it is, rather than pretending it’s all OK. Being truthful and confronting it helps me, and not needing everything to be glorious and happy all the time. It’s going to be shit a lot of the time, but I am good at finding joy in little things, and hope, and having things to work for.”

There is something appealingly open about Cave. “I just wouldn’t know any other way,” she says, when I mention it. “I like open people. I respond to people who are open in their work.” She related her experience of getting pregnant after a one-night stand with the comedian Alfie Brown in her show I Loved Her (their son is six). Then, in her next show, Sunrise, as critically acclaimed as the previous one, she explored, with excruciating honesty, her heartbreak and neuroticism when they broke up after the birth of their second child, a daughter. They got back together and last year had another baby, while also home schooling their two older children with the help of Cave’s mother. Cave delivered her second son in the week she was supposed to deliver her novel (it is an understatement to say she has a lot going on).

Does she ever regret being so honest about her life? “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t have any secrets and I feel a bit safer in that way.” There is a liberation in everyone knowing everything. Her novel, she says, “was the first try at doing something veiled. It’s definitely fiction, but it is rooted in truth, and I loved that.”

Towards the end of her show Sunrise, Cave reveals she was raped as a teenager (she says she had just turned 15 and he was her tennis coach). “After I did that show, I did feel exposed suddenly, because people knew everything about my relationship and people got in touch about their rape,” she says. “That was quite overwhelming. Even if I got one message saying: ‘You helped me talk about my rape,’ or: ‘You helped me talk about my brother,’ or whatever, that’s enough.” She pauses and smiles. “If it were only one, actually, I’d be like: ‘Come on!’”

With Bebe in their podcast We Can’t Talk About That Right Now
With Bebe in their podcast We Can’t Talk About That Right Now. Photograph: PR Handout

When she brings up the rape in her show – it is in the context of coincidentally bumping into someone who was involved with the rapist when Cave was already at a low point – she makes it clear that the show is not about being a survivor of sexual assault and says that it takes up mere minutes of the total runtime. Likewise, when Cave mentioned it in the first episode of We Can’t Talk About That Right Now, the podcast she does with Bebe, it was so casually dropped into their conversation that they were criticised for not having a trigger warning.

It seems similar to how she has treated their brother’s death – folding it into her life, not flinching from the trauma of it, but also not allowing it to overshadow everything else. “It absolutely hasn’t defined me, and I’ve chosen for it not to define me,” she says of the sexual assault, although she is very careful to stress that this is not possible for every survivor. “Other people don’t have that choice. It’s so massive that it absolutely is going to define them.”

It helped, she says, that she had strong support from her family. “I never felt ashamed and was encouraged to seek justice.” The man was jailed; many other survivors don’t get justice (only 1.6% of rape cases are even prosecuted). Being so open about it also probably helped, she thinks: “Everyone at school knew, because the trial was happening and I talked about it.” She says she was aware people were viewing her as a victim, but that, too, could be something she could control. “I learned to joke and deflect. Even if I was hurting, I was like: ‘I don’t want to be seen as this figure.’ I always fought that label off.”

It is not that she likes talking about it – of course she doesn’t – but she points out rape is more common than we would like to think. She says it is “something that people don’t talk enough about. Because if there were more stories of people who’ve been raped, and then been able to not have it define them, then it makes it easier for people to deal with. Hopefully.”

Cave grew up in London, the second eldest of five. Her parents were doctors, but it was a creative household and she was encouraged to do whatever she wanted. There are 10 years between her and Bebe. She had wished for a baby sister; when she arrived, Cave was thrilled. “When I dropped out of university, I was 19 and I had this kind of safe space at home with this child,” she says. “And she’s been there throughout.” She started writing and doing sketches, which she had put on YouTube, with Bebe, “because she was available. I did my first Edinburgh show [Bookworm, in 2012] and she was in it. Now I think, because of Bebe, it meant I didn’t have to conform.”

Bebe, also an actor, has become something of a muse and collaborator. Even though they sometimes go for the same parts, there is no rivalry. “All I care about is working with her, because I become a better version of myself with Bebe. I don’t know if she does; maybe she becomes a worse person with me,” she laughs. “But I definitely rely on her hugely for creative purposes.”

When she got the Harry Potter job, chosen from 7,000 girls, it was only her third audition “and it was like winning the lottery”. One of her brothers had signed up with a children’s talent agency and, with nothing much to do, Cave signed up, too. So, having not given much thought to it before, and still at art school, she became an actor. “But I was not a right fit for the industry at that time. Lavender Brown is conventionally pretty, no glasses, small. By the time I went back to do the last film, I had gained a bit of weight and I wasn’t that person any more.”

Nobody ever suggested she lose weight, but it was implied – she remembers one costume director (she won’t say on which job) who grabbed her stomach. “Which was just horrible. And I laughed. You’re like [she puts on a placating voice]: ‘Oh, you’re hurting me. Actually, it’s fine.’” That kind of stuff stays with you, she says. “Now I go into the costume fitting for any job and I’m terrified. I’m prepared to be told something unkind. You’re treated like a different type of thing; you’re not somebody with feelings who has thought about what pants they’re going to wear that day because they’re going to be seen.” Things have improved a lot in the past five years. “Now when they’re nice to me, and they are sensitive to how I may be feeling about my body, or that I may be breastfeeding or whatever, I almost cry.”

‘I’ve definitely considered losing weight – and when I have lost weight, I tend to get a part.’
‘I’ve definitely considered losing weight – and when I have lost weight, I tend to get a part.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Having not been desperate to make it as an actor at any cost has given Cave a healthy perspective. Did she ever consider giving in to the pressure, losing weight, getting laser eye surgery, whatever, to go for the leading roles? (I say this as if she isn’t in fact beautiful, with phenomenal bone structure and possibly the most perfect skin of anyone I have met.) “I’ve definitely considered losing weight – and when I have lost weight, I tend to get a part.” She smiles. “I mean, it’s not rocket science. But I eat healthily, I’m a normal-sized woman, and I’m still regarded, probably, as a fat actress.”

Instead, with her eccentric clothes and creative pursuits, the industry decided that she was “quirky”. “I’ve just kind of stayed on the quirky path, and that’s fine.” If she has become a bit typecast, she doesn’t mind. “I realised the other day that the last four roles I’ve been cast in, I’ve worn these glasses,” she says of her pale-green owlish specs. “Someone’s going to realise I’m [playing] the same character.” One day, she would like to act in “something completely different”. But, she adds, she would probably have to write it.

Cave sells illustrations through her website – “that’s my day job, and as long as I’ve got that I feel quite safe” – and she is working on her second book. “I want to, eventually, maybe in 30 years’ time, have something made for TV or film. I have tried so hard, so hopefully that does pay off.” She laughs. “Or it will still be in development when I’m 60: ‘It’s gonna happen this year!’” When I ask what drives her, she says she used to want to be respected as an artist, but the warm response to her book has made her rethink. “I think it is down to creating work that people enjoy,” she says. “Just making them laugh or making them think, and that’s the most important thing to me.”

Buffering premieres with a double episode on ITV2 on 5 August at 10pm. All episodes will then be available on ITV Hub. Sunset is out now.

• This article was amended on 2 August 2021. Cave’s novel, Sunset, debuted at No 1 on the bestseller list in the Times, not the Sunday Times, as a previous version stated.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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