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Jessie Cave Looks Back: ‘When I See That Photo, My Instinct Is To Grab That Girl And Protect Her’

Jessie Cave in 1991 and 2023Jessie Cave in 1991 and 2023. Later photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Hair and makeup: Sadaf Ahmad. Archive image: courtesy of Jessie CaveBorn in London in 1987, the second eldest of five siblings, Jessie Cave is an artist, author and actor. Her first major role was as Ron Weasley’s girlfriend, Lavender Brown, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She went on to appear in TV programmes including Black Mirror and Grandma’s House, before establishing herself as an illustrator and comedian, taking confessional shows such as I Loved Her and Sunrise to the stage. In 2021, she published her bestselling debut novel, Sunset, and is currently starring in sitcom Buffering on ITV2. She lives in London with her four children and partner, the comedian Alfie Brown.

I was four years old and painting in our house in west London in this photo. I can’t quite figure out what I’d drawn – it looks as if it’s the word “rent” bleeding out from another piece of paper. Which would be a strange thing for a small person to write, but also funny, because decades later, rent remains a huge bleed on my life.

If you were to zoom out of this photo, you would have seen toys and mess everywhere. I loved being the big sister and helping my mum look after my siblings. Around this age, I never stopped asking for a baby sister, and I’m so grateful they did have [Cave’s sister, the actor] Bebe, because she is my everything and gave me a purpose from a very young age.

There were five of us in total, but my mum was very good at maintaining calm in the chaos – letting it be – whereas I am quite anal and tend to tidy up my kids’ toys constantly throughout the day. There’s a pot on the stove behind me, but I am pretty sure the house wouldn’t have smelled of dinner; there wasn’t much cooking going on, and there isn’t much going on in mine now, either – we eat the same thing most nights. Which is mostly nuts. There is always a bowl of wholesome nuts on the table – pecans and walnuts for the hit of zinc, and cashews as a treat.

I find it very comforting to see photos where I am little and busily drawing, because I don’t remember being overly creative at all. I was never a child prodigy type when it came to art, so when I hear about kids who were “always writing or painting”, I think: “I must be a fraud, because that wasn’t me!” My parents never pushed us into doing anything, it all happened organically, and to this day I believe that creativity for the sake of it is beautiful. Making something for the fun of it is my favourite thing. As you get older, it becomes very easy to lose sight of that.

Growing up, we were an active group, almost like a sporty Von Trapp family. Mum would have to take me and my siblings to different sporting tournaments, all five of us tagging along. To make it fun, she would create a play area for the younger ones. Those are some of my fondest memories. To this day, my mum and babies come with me for whatever job I’m doing. We make a home wherever we are.

As I got into my teens, I stopped doing sport [Cave was a former county-level swimmer and national tennis player]and decided I wanted to focus on art. I chose to do an art foundation, which mainly happened as I was following a boy I liked on to that course. I am so grateful that I did, though – not because of the boy; that didn’t work out – but because it’s something I now do for a living.

I was a little bit odd when I was young. I was an extroverted introvert, which has carried on to this day. I was never very lucky at school in terms of finding a nice group of friends. As well as terrible peer groups, I wasn’t too compatible with education either. While doing my art foundation, I felt it was unrealistic – I couldn’t be an artist! So I dropped out and did English at Manchester instead. Within six months, I realised I couldn’t write essays either. I was also terrified of the social drinking at university. I was frightened of how feral it felt to see everyone losing control.

While I was studying, I started considering acting, and totally lucked out with getting a role in Harry Potter on my third audition. It was a perfect experience of what being on a film set could be; so friendly and fun. It was, however, a totally inaccurate representation of the industry in general. It was a shock to the system when I went for jobs after that, and those negative experiences shaped and haunted me. I was very innocent, and there was not enough safeguarding – unlike today. Nothing serious happened, but there was an unpleasantness to the auditioning process [when it came to focusing on appearances] that made me very self-conscious and cynical. Thankfully, I’ve had way more joyful acting jobs recently. I’ve had two babies in the pandemic, both of whom joined me on the set of Buffering, and it has been a reminder of how great working as an actor can be.

I got pregnant with my third baby a year after my brother Ben died [in an accident in 2019, aged 27]. While wanting another child felt like a primal urge – my way of having some kind of control over life – a sudden death also makes you distrust the world. When I got pregnant I had no faith or hope that it would be OK. I thought something would go wrong. Then it did go wrong [Tennessee was born prematurely and contracted Covid], but everything worked out in the end. That was a hugely educational experience: just because something bad happens once, it doesn’t mean it will happen over and over again.

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There was a special significance to the birth of my fourth baby [Becker] as well. The induction was scheduled to fall on the anniversary of Ben’s death, and it became a hugely emotional experience as a result. I was determined that the baby would arrive on the exact same day, so when midnight approached and he hadn’t arrived yet, I became frenzied, obsessed by the symbolism. Gradually I learned to trust the process, to let go. I now appreciate that both births have been hugely healing. That said, I hope it doesn’t mean I’ll keep going, that by the time I have my 10th I’ll be fully healed.

Ben’s death changed my life in so many ways, and especially the way I approach my creativity. It’s now important to only do things that are meaningful. It’s taken me a long time, almost four years, but I feel ready to start working on something new. I finally have the courage to stand on a stage and not feel that the audience will be looking at me, thinking: “You shouldn’t be funny, because your brother died.” It’s as if I am opening up to myself again – trying to be brave and not to let the darkness win.

My instinct when I look at this photo is to grab that girl and protect her, her social awkwardness, in the same way I want to protect my little girl who is six and identical to me. But I also want to tell her that good stuff is around the corner. That you have to make the most of what is left and ride the wave of uncertainty. Life is tough and amazing, rent is expensive, but there is so much happiness too.

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