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Interview: THE NIGHTINGALE actress Aisling Franciosi

August 16, 2019

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Aisling Franciosi stars in “The Nightingale.” (photo: Deirdre Hayes)

 

I’m compelled to start off by mentioning that this interview contains spoilers for “The Nightingale” and it would be best to read it after you see it. If that doesn’t deter you, by all means, read on. On that note…if you see the latest film from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent (writer/director of “The Babadook”), you will have seen a very special albeit challenging film about the desperate need to hold on to the light during very dark days, something that’s sadly quite relatable. I emphasize “if” because “The Nightingale” will be undoubtedly be a challenge to take in – as witnessed firsthand this past May at the Music Box Theatre where the film screened as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, when I witnessed some viewers walk out of the film due to its harrowing and wrenching depiction of violence. That response is understandable, but it’s only after watching Kent’s film in full is it possible to understand that she is aiming at communicating much more than provocative images.

Serving Kent’s compelling story is actress Aisling Franciosi, who takes on a challenging role as the titular character and winds up delivering an uncompromisingly raw and real performance, unlike any other I’ve seen this year. The Irish-Italian actress is probably best known for work in television, playing Lyanna Stark in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and as Katie Benedetto in the BBC crime thriller, “The Fall”, but it’s her memorable work in “The Nightingale” as 21-year-old Irish convict Clare, who endures unspeakable brutality from an abusive British soldier during the colonization of Australia in 1825, which will earn her accolades and her widest audience yet.

Clare’s hopes and dreams of freedom with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their baby daughter are destroyed when Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) refuses to release her, despite serving seven years in his charge. When an indignant Aidan retaliates, Clare suddenly becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of Hawkins and his underlings, leaving her life in utter despair and desperation. Finding no justice from the British authorities, Clare sets out to take matters into her own hands by pursuing Hawkins through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, who seeks a higher ranking position in a northern outpost. Knowing she cannot journey alone, she forces the assistance of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a young Aboriginal tracker who begrudgingly agrees to serve as her guide through the difficult terrain. At first, the pair are hostile towards each other – both having suffered their own traumas and mutual distrust – yet as their journey deepens they begin to find empathy and understanding for one another as they face their own pain.

With “The Babadook”, Kent delivered something beyond the conventions of the horror genre and now with “The Nightingale” she provides us with another compelling story that so much more than the standard tropes of any genre. Much of the film’s strength comes from its immersive atmosphere which often feels like a dreamlike fog or a nightmare vision, but it’s Kent’s focus on character, particularly Franciosi’s Clare, which ultimately makes this one of the finest films I’ve seen all year. Again, it’s a film that’s quite challenging to watch, but I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the horrors and beauty of a film that looks at the ramifications of violence, long after viewing.

I spoke with Franciosi at the Chicago Critics Film Festival on the Sunday evening “The Nightingale” was screening, which coincidentally was also the same night the series finale of “Game of Thrones” aired and she was an absolute joy to meet and a pleasure to discuss her experiences portraying Clare and working on this powerful film with Jennifer Kent.

The film returns to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre today and will no doubt be one of the most memorable theatrical viewing experiences of your year.

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Let’s start out with how you got attached to the film. Was it you seeking Jennifer Kent out, her seeking you out or was there an audition process?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: Yeah, I’m not quite at the point yet of being sought out. I hope that will change soon, but it was just normal for me actually. I got sent the screenplay, which is a normal process for me, I started reading it and within the first ten pages of it I thought, “This is really something special here,” and it’s incredible how quickly you can tell a great script from just an okay one. And so yeah, I sent a tape and then I sent a song as well, because I saw that the character sang, so I sent an Irish ballad. The funny thing is, I was really busy that week with a lot of tapes, so I read enough of the script to know what I was doing in the scenes that I had been sent to give myself context. So, I sang the song because I had seen that the character could sing and I thought, if this goes well they’ll ask me if I could sing. So, I sent the tape and I left it at that.  And then the said, “Oh, Jennifer really responded to your tape. She wants to Skype this Saturday”. So, I thought, “Okay, great. I’ll read the rest of the script.” So, I got to…have you seen the film?

DJF: …oh, yes. Yes. 

AF: …okay. So, I got to the scene where she’s in the bar confronting Hawkins and that was the song that I had sent, without knowing that was in the script! (laughs)

DJF: That’s one of the questions I had actually…the songs in the movie, did Jennifer pick those out or did you bring those to the table?

AF: It was a mix. Honestly, that one was in there already. And when we Skyped that Saturday, she said, “I’m so impressed that you learned this song”, and I thought, “Do I lie? Do I tell the truth?” And I said, “Honestly Jennifer, it’s weirder than that. I just, I love that song”, and I sang it in Gaelic and it’s in English in the movie, but yeah it was just a coincidence. Obviously, we had to check and make sure that everything was accurate in terms of timing and timelines, but we kind of collaborated a little bit for the song that she sings at the start when she’s walking through the forest with her baby, like a lullaby. And the one where she’s at the campfire with Billy and their singing their songs. So, that one we kind of discussed back and forth a bit, but Jen is super meticulous and she had a whole catalog to consider.

DJF: Before the audition tape, did she know that you had this opera background?

AF: She might have known that I had trained classically. I don’t really consider – it’s so funny how these things snowball – I had appeared in an operas in the chorus and I had trained classically but I don’t consider myself an opera singer (laughs), it takes so much work to get to that point.

But, to go back to the process, so then Jennifer Skyped and we get on so well and were instantly on the same page and she asked, “Would you be up to coming to Los Angeles to do a call back?” So, I said, “Yes”, but that took a while and I flew myself out to L.A. and I did a two and a half hour call back with her. I was exhausted by the end of it. And then I remember just writing to her and I think it’s quite an Irish thing to not want to step on people’s toes or annoy them or whatever, but I just thought, “Fuck it”, I care too much about this role and I wrote her a long email saying, “I swear to you, you have to know how much this project means to me and I swear to you I’ll give you everything if you cast me”, and she did. And she did take everything and I was happy to give it!

Sometimes I find that, you know, your agents obviously say that you’re interested if you are, but it’s hard to convey without being able to put it in your own words just how much it means to you. Yeah, so I auditioned for the movie now…three and a half years ago! (laughs) So, it’s been quite a process.

 

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Aisling Franciosi stars in “The Nightingale.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

 

 

DJF:  Going back to what you just said, so what was it about the role that meant so much to you, a role that motivated you to send a follow-up email to Jennifer? 

AF: I haven’t quite found the answer to this question yet. I’ve been asked it a couple of times. What I look for in a script, well what resonates most is truth and honesty and it just drips off the page with Jen’s scripts. So, there was part of that. Obviously, I wanted to work with Jen (laughs), that was a huge part of it, but also I just felt ready to – you know, I’ve played a lot of teenagers and I loved those roles – but, I was just so ready to kind of have this cathartic performance. You know, there’s so much scope in the performance that she wrote and it’s just an incredible opportunity as an actor. Those roles don’t come along that often. And also, I think as soon as I started dipping my toe into the history of it,  I was aware of some of the history – you know, of convicts being transported to Australia, but I didn’t really realize how kind of systematic it was and I just found myself getting angrier and angrier and angrier. And the more research I did into other avenues of what we were exploring, like PTSD or violence against women or against the aboriginals, I just found myself getting incredibly angry and so it mean a huge amount to me to be able to play a part in what I truly – even in the last couple days it’s resonated with me even more – just how important it is.

DJF: Well, it’s good to channel that anger for the role. 

AF: Yeah, exactly! (laughs)

DJF: I’m curious, since Jennifer is an actor as well, did you find that she had a specific approach to working with you and the other actors – maybe shooting certain horrific scenes first or last or developing camaraderie on the set in a certain way?

AF: I had a particularly long prep period. Myself and Baykali in particular, but the other actors were done about three weeks before we started shooting. And you know, initially we had this discussion with regards to myself and Sam in particular – should we hang out? Should we not? Would it be kind of interesting to have us not really know each other that well? And then the more we kind of delved into it, we just thought, “No, we cannot film these scenes as strangers”, you know, we have be completely comfortable with each other. It’s really…I was…I knew it would be difficult, but it was SO hard filming those scenes and I don’t think we could’ve given everything we did – I’m speaking for everyone here – if we weren’t so close. Jen is wonderful and she organized a lot of improv sessions and workshop sessions. We never actually rehearsed scenes, I mean we rehearsed the technicality of those kinds of scenes so that no one got hurt, but we never rehearsed the lines. It was all very much about energies and the character relationships and myself and Baykali as well, she wanted to make sure that we became very good friends before, because he never had acted before, which is just mind-boggling.  So, it was important that we had these very strong personal relationships before being so horrific to each other all of the time. Also, I think she’s just a wonderful actor’s director. Even on set, she would come to me and would just know exactly what to say to bring me to a very heightened emotional state or she would organize boxing classes for me, because I’ve found that when I have to do an emotional scene, it helps me to be very physical. So, you know, the stuntmen would have pads there and before we go over a take, I’d beat the crap out of the pads to kind of get myself riled up. She’d put moments aside for that. She would say, “Whatever you need”, or “Push against me as hard as you can”, and sometimes I would almost knock her over and it was all just to get the kind of energy needed for the shot.

DJF: Well, it really shows in the performance. So, you have Jen taking care of you, but also an actor has to prepare for a role on their own. How do you prepare for a role this demanding and complex, especially someone who is dealing with such immense grief and loss? 

AF: Thankfully, Jen and I struck up a relationship pretty quick. We kind of, I think, knew that we were meant to work together from that first Skype meeting that we had. We were just so in sync with our thoughts about everything. So, we just did a lot of research and Jen pointed out to me certain documentaries that weren’t necessarily of the time we’re talking about in history, but things like, there’s an incredible documentary called “The Invisible War”, which is about sexual harassment and rape within the American army or a documentary on the horrible acid attacks on women that take place in Pakistan. Violence was one of our main things, but also PTSD, I read this amazing book called Trauma and Recovery and I think anyone should read it, it’s so fascinating. I’m a bit of a nerd as well, so as soon as I start, I just like to accumulate more and more information. Then Jen went above and beyond and she got me to meet Dr. Elaine Bart, who is a clinical psychologist and she deals with pretty heavy cases and she is an amazing woman. She actually worked with Jen as a consultant while Jen wrote the script to make sure that it was believable in the world of PTSD and trauma. So, I would meet up with Elaine and we would discuss things and she came with me to meet a rape victim who shared her story with me, which was just incredible and I met with social workers in domestic violence centers, which again was pretty harrowing. So, there was a lot of both book learning but also just the incredible experience of being able to talk to these people and that helped me a lot, but it also put a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

 

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Baykali Ganambarr, left, and Aisling Franciosi star in “The Nightingale.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

 

 

DJF: I was going to say, you have the responsibility of portraying an Irish convict and making that depiction accurate, but there’s also what she goes through and that’s a lot.

AF: I feel that when people are good enough to share their experiences with you to help you achieve something, you really have to honor them and what they went through by sort of ripping out your soul in so far as you can.

DJF: Right. What kind of responses have you received from female viewers who have experienced similar abuse and/or immense loss? 

AF: In San Francisco a girl came up to me and said, “As a victim of sexual abuse, I just want to say thank you,” which still gives me goosebumps. Another woman at Venice came up to me and said, “Thank you for showing the PTSD”, you know, I’ve heard this movie as being described frequently as “rape revenge” and I can understand where that comes from, but what I’m really proud of with our film is, you know, in a lot of rape revenge movies it’s kind of like the rape is this thing that happens and there’s it’s this moment in time that’s stuck in that moment in time and then she goes on her revenge quest. But, you know, it’s not that. It’s with you for the rest of your life in most cases. And so, I’m really proud of what we did in showing how it can almost destroy some people and that it’s a weapon. I always think there’s a reason why rape and war go hand and hand. It’s a weapon. It’s a very very destructive, dehumanizing weapon. It’s not just this sexual act.

DJF: Going back to that whole “rape revenge” label…usually the rape occurs and then it becomes this action film, wherein the protagonist is now capable of killing. What I appreciate and respect about this film is how Clare is not a killer. She has to go to extreme measures, but it’s mainly out of grief and loss, yet without a real plan. Did you recognize that when you read the script or did you really click into that while you were filming? There’s that moment where she has a clear shot at Hawkins, but she can’t bring herself to take it and it’s that kind of moment that reminds us who she is and draws us closer to Clare and relate to her. Is that something that you and Jennifer were aware of, that what you’re doing is subverting expectations here?

AF:  Yes and for us it was really important that we kept it that way. Im gonna give you a bit of a longer answer, but just to give it a clearer picture. So, a lot of people react kind of strongly obviously to the kind of horrific catalyst for her journey, particularly in response to what happens to her baby, I think. And the reality of it is, Elaine the psychologist was explaining this to me early on, is that when you’re dealing with a woman who is already in a traumatized state – you know, she’s been living this trauma with Hawkins for a very long time, it’s not just something that’s happened once or twice. The time that we worry about a woman’s welfare and what she might do to herself or to others is when she loses a child, particularly in a tragic circumstance, because at that point there is literally nothing for her to live for. Nothing matters. Nothing matters anymore. So, she needed to lose everything in order to kind of just be able to go there and it was very important that we kept her human, because our point is that ‘an eye for an eye’ doesn’t really work. You see her try that approach and it almost kills her. She tries to commit suicide and really only the beautiful and saving relationship that she develops with Billy – it’s obviously fraught at first, but it’s just them getting to the point where they can be humans to one another and just respect the humanity in each other – which is ultimately what saves her.

And when I tell you that we did so much research into PTSD and how people react around their abusers and stuff, it’s really interesting – I really strongly recommend reading Trauma and Recovery, it’s so fascinating – but, you know, there are survival mechanisms when you’re experiencing something traumatic, particularly in Clare’s case because she’s enduring. People say, “Oh, she goes from this kind of weaker, meek character, to a strong Joan of Arc”, and I’m like, “No! Resilence and endurance.” I mean, she had to endure all of that to protect the dream of her family – of having a family, of having a life. She was enduring. It wasn’t that she was doing it because she couldn’t fight back. We can see that that’s definitely within her, but she’s enduring for someone else, constantly protecting someone else and so there are ways that you cope with that moment and sometimes it’s complete detachment or sometimes it’s freezing out of fear because you don’t want to provide the person any further, and so that moment when she sees Hawkins – someone who has had complete control in a way of her and she’s had to endure that so many times and it’s not something that you can just break that easily, you know, it’s a very realistic response that she had to seeing someone who has not only consistently been abusing her probably for a long time, but also has taken everything from her. So, I love that Jen put in that moment of her just running away.

 

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Aisling Franciosi stars in “The Nightingale.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

 

 

DJF: Yeah, it’s a great scene. A real and truthful moment. My favorite moment though that really impacted me was the scene that you brought up early on and that’s the final confrontation with Hawkins. Typically in a movie like this, that’s when she wakes up to her abuser, says a few lines and shoots him dead. That doesn’t happen here thankfully. Instead we get Clare’s speech and I love her speech. I just wanted to reach in and hug her and congratulate her…

AF: …that means a lot!

DJF: …because that is huge. What she is able to convey in that speech is impressive – there’s boldness, there’s courage and it’s all there on the screen. Can you talk about that part of the film?

AF: That was actually one of the more emotional scenes, I think. It was also towards the end of the shoot since we shot most things chronologically actually. Almost, anyway. You know, there are some people who act in a frustrated way when they see that scene and I think it’s because when we’ve seen that a horror has been committed against this woman and she’s finally able to do something and she chooses not to and it just doesn’t kind of wrap things up the way we’re used to. It’s not a conventional ending to the “rape revenge” story, but apart from the fact that Clare having already tried the “eye for an eye” approach and finding that it made her unravel even more, I think she realizes then, “You know what, it goes further than me getting Hawkins. It goes beyond that. I have to save myself and if I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna let you just wallow in your own horrendous evil/misery”. And I think it’s really the upper hand. She knows that if he were in her position, he would definitely have shot her and she’s kind of saying, “Look, I’m not you”, and, “I’m gonna save myself, but there’s no hope for you.” And so that one was really…I loved it. I loved it, because you kind of see everything that she’s gone through.

DJF: At the end of the year, that scene will be one of the most memorable that I will recall. It will stay with me. 

AF: And also that she’s singing that song. She’s not saying in front of eveyone, “This man killed my husband”, but it’s like, “I’m singing this song for me” (pauses), I get so emotional just talking about it. “I’m singing this song for me and for everything that you took from me. I’m not singing for you”. Yeah, I really love that scene.

DJF: Obviously you learned a lot shooting this movie. What are some things as an actor that you would take with to other roles in the future? 

AF: It’s not something you can always do, but if I can do this I will. I walked into this movie in the very beginning, knowing I would give it absolutely everything and I was totally in. There was no voice in my head questioning certain scenes, you know, sometimes you ask yourself how people will perceive it, but there was none of that. And I give it literally everything I had. I’m glad you’re meeting me now and not at the end of shoot. And the thing that I love about that is that now that the film is being seen by people and being released and people are gonna have divided opinions about it, it’s so liberating, because I am so proud of that film. I’m proud about what we did and why we did it. Honestly, if people like it. Great. If they don’t. Cool. I don’t get touched by any of that because I know why I did it and I gave it everything. So, it’s not always easy – first of all there’s not always those projects where you want to give everything to, they’re hard to come by. But, if I can continue to walk into projects with my head held high, thinking, “I’m doing this because I absolutely want to”, it’s very nice then to have that liberation and not wondering what people are thinking about it. So, that’s definitely something to use going forward.

DJF: Finally, last question…you’re Jon Snow’s mother. Somebody is going to sit on the Iron Throne tonight. I don’t know or care if you know who that would be, but who would you like to see sit on the throne?

AF: I mean, family’s got to stick with family, right? (both laugh) My boy!

DJF: Thank you so much. 

AF: Thank you.

 

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A chat with Aisling Franciosi, star of “The Nightingale.” (photo: Deirdre Hayes)
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