The Irish-Italian actress is Clare in Jennifer Kent’s new distressing film about the violence of colonisation.
Are you familiar with Aisling Franciosi? The Irish-Italian actress is still unknown to many, but if you look closer you may recognise her from Game Of Thrones in which she played a young Lyanna Stark (Jon Snow’s mother for the uninitiated).
While Aisling knocked on the door of fame with appearances in Game Of Thrones and The Fall, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale looks set to be the actor’s breakthrough on the big screen.
Unlike her acclaimed film debut, The Babadook, Kent’s second film isn’t part of the horror genre, but it’s definitely horrific in its own right – probably even more so. A harrowing tale of rape, injustice and revenge that uses colonial 1800s Tasmania as its backdrop. A historical slap in the face that will definitely leave a scar on everyone watching.
Here, Aisling Franciosi shares the good and the difficult of playing Irish convict Clare in The Nightingale.
The Nightingale is painful to watch. Acting in it must have been even worse. How long did you have to work on the character before filming?
I had a nine-month wait between being cast and starting the filming. At the time, having all this time was anxiety inducing, always thinking of the possibility that the production could be stopped (for lack of funding). Looking at it in retrospect though, it was a huge advantage and a blessing, really. It’s so rare to have so much time to prepare for a role, I could really get the character to sink in to my bones.
How did you prepare for this difficult role?
Me and Jen (Jennifer Kent) would talk all the time about the script and I did a lot of personal research, not only just on the historical period but also about the themes of the film. I watched tons of documentaries about sexual violence, violence against women and especially PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I worked with a clinical psychologist, I got to meet with real victims and social workers in centres for domestic abuse so there was a lot of preparation even before arriving in Tasmania.
Did you have a therapist on set as well?
Not at all times but the same clinical psychologist who worked with Jen on the script and who I worked with to prepare the role was there. She was on set when we were filming those particularly harrowing scenes (Clare, played by Aisling, suffers horrible violence in the film) and I checked in with her at the end of shoots as well.
How was the atmosphere on set while filming those harrowing scenes?
Honestly, those were some of the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever had to film – it was the same for all of us. But, in a strange way – and I know this might sound crazy – I think it was also one of the most special two days of filming. Everyone was so respectful to each other, everyone was trying to get the most truthful performance possible, we were all supporting each other and there was a lot of love on set as well.
Was it painful to watch for you?
Not the first time but the second time I watched it just brought me back. My legs started to shake at that scene (a rape-murder scene) without me even thinking about it. It was really brutal to have to do them but we really felt like we were trying to tell a story for a reason and it kind of took on this extra importance, or it certainly did for me. I talked to these victims who were generous enough to share their trauma with me and their stories with me so I really felt like I had to honour them and their generosity and what happened to them so it was super challenging and really exciting but also quite humbling. It was an honour to be able to be the voice of these women in a way.
Most people know about that period in history but there is not much storytelling around it. Was it difficult to get the film made?
Everything was difficult, the funding, the location and getting everyone there. Of course Jen casting an unknown actress in a lead role didn’t help with the funding! But Jen is fearless and completely uncompromising on things that shouldn’t be compromised. I think she is really brave and sometimes it seems disingenuous to use the word ‘brave’ when talking about filmmaking but when you see some of the visceral reactions she got, to having put her neck on the line and put out this story, to show the truth for what it is, she really is brave.
Do you think we need more bravery in films today?
So much film is about pleasing everyone, not saying anything troubling just to make as much money as possible but that’s not truly what the purpose of storytelling is. Of course even I like to go see a movie that just lets me check out and get entertained for two hours but I think we need more than that. A really huge part of what makes a healthy society is having art that actually says something, that tries to spark conversation and I think despite the backlash that the film got, it did spark conversation. We have got people talking and I think it has been a thought-provoking film experience and I am really proud of being a part of it.
The backlash could seem ridiculous as the violence in The Nightingale is nothing compared to some other films.
Yes, like any Tarantino film! In one way it seems ridiculous but in another way it points to a much deeper societal conversation. The fact that we got so much heat for the violence in our film while, for example, I watched Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and people were laughing their way through a scene where someone gets her face smashed against a wall. It’s a very strange moment when you think ‘why is this type of violence ok?’. Yet, I understand it – and I am a fan of Tarantino so it’s not me doing him down – but it’s an interesting moment to go ‘oh you are ok with this guy making this film with these horrific violent scenes but you are not ok with us actually really showing very little of the violence but showing you the emotional pain’.
What do you think is different?
It’s a very interesting double standard that we have and it’s not necessarily a double standard between men and women – even though it is probably a little bit of that – but I mean double standard as: it’s ok if I am able to disengage but it’s not if you actually make me feel something. It’s fascinating.
Do people fear empathy?
People fear being made to experience uncomfortable feelings. Watching things that have actually happened and are happening.
Some of the scenes are quite intense for you and your co-stars as well, how did you keep the balance during filming?
We didn’t try to keep a balance. Initially there was a conversation about keeping me, Sam and Damon quite separate so that you could have this kind of strange distant dynamic but as soon as we started workshopping some of the material we realised that we really needed to know each other as well as we possibly can. We had to become friends and really trust each other for being able to be in the incredibly vulnerable positions we were in during filming. Not just me but them as well – it’s awful what they have to do. We really got to know each other very well and we were able to do these horrible scenes all the while knowing that we cared about each other and that we trusted each other.
The really interesting relationship in the film is the one you have with Billy. You start from being quite mean to him and then your relationship grows to become a friendship and also a co-dependence. How was building that during the filming and before?
The relationship between us is the most beautiful part of the film and it’s also the most important part. It’s through him and him being able to treat Clare with a bit of human decency and respect that she ultimately decides to save herself and not just go down a road of self-destruction through violence. That was one reason why Jen had Baykali and I arrive six weeks before the filming started, while the rest of the cast arrived three weeks later. She wanted us to build a trusting relationship because of the nature of our relationship in the film. Baykali had never acted before so it was important for him to be comfortable with me in terms of acting but also comfortable with me off screen. I think if you have a good relationship off screen it makes the scenes so much easier.
That friendship also makes for one of the best scenes of the film…
Yes, the moment at the campfire where we sing. In that moment we see that they are both the result of colonisation which strips people from their culture, their music, their dance, their language. Through these two traditional songs, Billy and Clare are really marking their own identity but also realising that the person on the other side isn’t what they thought he/she was. It’s a nice moment of realisation for the two of them.
About the songs, which are in Gaelic and Palawa Kani, did you have the help of a linguist?
I understand and speak Irish so I had to learn the song but it wasn’t too bad. On the other hand, Baykali had to learn Palawa Kani which is a Tasmanian Aboriginal language. At the time of the colonisation, they experienced almost a genocide but the Tasmanian Aboriginals feel very passionately about letting the world know that they are still there. They are piecing back together this ancient language and of course Baykali had to learn it.
We had an Aboriginal advisor on board the whole way through the film and the edit. People can be a bit antsy about who can tell which stories but unfortunately there is intersectionality in life, different stories will intersect. Jen was very aware of that and had Jim Everett, an Aboriginal elder, working with her on the script. He was there every day of the shoot and he was there during the edits to make sure that Billy’s story is truthful and just as valid as Clare’s is.
On to Jennifer Kent, did you know her before?
I had seen The Babadook but I didn’t make the connection straight away when I got the script. I wanted to do the part anyway but realising that it was her script was just another reason to do it.
The way the film is shot feels claustrophobic. Jennifer Kent concentrates on the characters’ faces, almost to force the viewer to look at them.
She wanted to make the public look at the characters as people. She didn’t want them to become dehumanised. She wanted it to be very obvious that you were looking at a human being with a soul, a life and a spirit and not just at a thing or a body that events are happening to. You can’t look away from their humanity.
The Nightingale is in UK and Irish cinemas now.
Alessia Armenise is picture editor of Stylist and Stylist.co.uk. In her free time you'll find her tasting vegan street food around east London and sharing her (many) opinions on London Fields Radio. Instagram