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Interview: Aisling Franciosi on "The Nightingale"
by Peter Sobczynski

Aisling Franciosi sits down to talk about her lead role in "The Nightingale," director Jennifer Kent's intense follow-up to her cult favorite "The Babadook."

In 2014, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent made one of the more striking directorial debuts in recent years with "The Babadook," an intense horror film about a recently widowed woman who is already on the edge of emotional collapse when she and her inexplicably aggressive and excitable young son find their lives under siege, seemingly from a creepy figure that appears to have leapt from the pages of a mysterious children's book they have discovered. The film was a hit around the world with critics and audiences alike--the titular creature even went on to become an oddball symbol of LGBTQ pride after Netflix accidentally listed it in their LGTBQ section--and horror buffs were keen to see what she would do next. As it turns out, her followup film, "The Nightingale," is not technically a horror film per se but that does not mean that it isn't horrifying in its own way--there are several moments in the film that are so brutal and despairing that even the most hardened moviegoers may find themselves wondering whether it might be too much even for them to take.

Set in 1825 in Australia during the period of British colonization, the film stars Aisling Franciosi (perhaps best known for portraying Jon Snow's mother on "Game of Thrones") as Claire, an Irish convict who has served her sentence but who continues to be trapped in servitude to Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a privileged and entitled type who exploits and rapes her at will while waiting for his expected transfer out of the wilderness post. When the promotion is denied him, he, along with a couple of fellow soldiers, takes his rage out by raping her, murdering her husband and infant child and then leaving her for dead before setting off into the woods to make it to a nearby city to make his case for promotion. Claire survives the attack and though absolutely shattered, she is determined to track down Hawkins and his men to make them pay for what they did. To help guide her through the forest, she hires Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr), an aboriginal who ranks even lower in then-current social terms than an Irish woman, and the two form a certain bond as they track down their prey and begin killing them off one by one.

On paper, "The Nightingale" may sound like a standard-issue rape-revenge exploitation thriller--sort of a strange amalgam of "I Spit on Your Grave" and "Walkabout." Although the film is perhaps a little too long for its own good and a little too unsparing in the miseries that befall practically everyone key character at times, it is still a pretty powerful work of cinema that will leave you feeling shaken long after it ends. Much of this is thanks to the extraordinary central performance by Franciosi as Claire. This is a character who endures so much physical and emotional brutality through the course of the story that I can imagine many actresses not wanting to have anything to do with it. Franciosi proves that she is more than up to the challenge—the movie puts her through the wringer throughout but she always comes across as a real and recognizable person still reeling from an unfathomable tragedy and not just a one-woman wrecking crew. (Intriguingly, the film also shows that she has her own flaws, especially in regards to her relationship with Billy, instead of painting her as a pure innocent.) "The Nightingale" is not exactly a fun night at the movies, to be sure, but if you are in the mood for a gripping, intense and powerfully drawn drama that includes one of the year's very best performances to boot, it is worth seeking out.

"The Nightingale" screened last May as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival (whose organization I am a part of) with Franciosi herself in attendance. (Coincidentally, the screening was the same night as the "Game of Thrones" finals.) The next morning, I sat down with her in a hotel coffee shop to discuss the film and her powerful performance.

Ever since "The Nightingale" began screening for audiences, it has been inspiring intense reactions around the world. Even at the screening last night, there was one person who came out of the theater in tears, calmed down and then went back in because she wanted to see the rest of the movie. What is it like to appear in a film that has been able to truly provoke moviegoers in such ways?

My dream has always been to do work that makes people feel something. That is what I love most when I go to a film--when I come out and feel something. A film like that is not as easy to find as you might like to think--one that shakes people out of their detachment. I think that the themes that we touch on are really important and if they can provoke strong reactions on both sides, then i am grateful to help spark a conversation about those themes. I am very proud and I would much rather be in something that provokes a strong reaction than something that is just meh.

How did your participation in the film come about?

The script was sent my way and I started reading it. They asked if I wanted to go on tape and I said "Yep." I sent a tape off and Jen and I Skyped the next weekend and we were really on the same page right from the beginning. I then had to wait a month and then went to L.A. for a callback that was 2 1/2 hours long. Then I waited a little longer and wrote her a long email where I told that while my agents might be telling her that I was interested in the part, I was obsessed with it and promised that if she gave me the role, I would give her everything that I had for it. It was a real challenge. It was only my second movie and my first lead but I think it is the most creatively satisfying work that I have done thus far.

What specifically was it about the script that particularly grabbed you?

I still don't have a perfect answer for that question. I think the thing that grabbed me initially is that I was feeling something early--that I was actually moved by these characters and felt compassion and empathy for them very early on, which is rare. I also think that Jen doesn't do anything half-assed. She is so so committed to getting to the essence and the truth of the story and that really came out on the page. I think that is what fascinates me most about projects that resonate with me--the truthful moments. They were all over the place in her script, so that was the first thing. Also, it was pretty much the role of a lifetime and I am worried that I won't see any more like it. I kind of wanted to prove myself. Don't get me wrong--I had a great time playing teenagers and had some cool roles but I wanted to show that I was more than that as an actor.

Much of the discussion surrounding the film, especially in regards to you character, is the physical violence that is depicted in the most brutal and unsparing of ways. What struck me as being even more interesting is the way that the film explores the equally devastating results of the emotional violence that your character deals with practically from the beginning. As an actress, what is more of a challenge for you to play—the scenes involving physical brutality or emotional?

I think in this film, because it has these moments of extreme physical violence that tie in directly to the emotional things, I don't know if I can clarify which of them was harder. I think it may have been the emotional side--actually, it definitely was. Apart from the fact that I was thinking about these women who shared there stories with me--and I felt a huge amount of responsibility for that--to get to the dark places in the story, you have to go to some pretty dark places yourself. I was very surprised at my inability at times at turning that off when they called "cut." I found it much harder to come out of that than I had expected from that dark place.

While watching "The Nightingale," i was struck by the fact that this was a film that almost had to be made specifically by a female filmmaker and that it would not have had nearly the same amount of impact otherwise because the very elements that keep from being just another rape-revenge exploitation movie are the ones that I cannot imagine a male filmmaker thinking of. For example, there is the brief moment in the middle of the pursuit where we see that your character is still lactating, a bit that makes her feel embarrassed and vulnerable but also serve as a painful and powerful reminder of everything that she has lost and everything that is driving her on her quest.

I'm not saying that it would be impossible but yeah, I do think that having Jen focus so much on the female perspective was important--if we are going to look at violence against women, then we might as well have it told from the female perspective. I think you are right. I don't think that in a blaming way. Obviously you are a product of your environment and who you are but why would a man think of that necessarily? It just gives it another level of intensity and truth.

Had you seen "The Babadook" before getting involved with this film?

I had. Generally I am not a big fan of horror but I loved "The Babadook." I loved that it was more a story about grief and depression, which is how I read it. So then, I didn't go "Oh, this script is so different" because that wasn't my reaction at all. It isn't a horror film, though it is horrific. I think audiences have so much material at their fingertips that sometimes they think "Why didn’\'t I get what I expected?," particularly when they have loved something so much that they only want more of that. I love that she decided she is not just a horror director and I was really intrigued by the fact that this was so different but still so human.

What was it like shooting the film, which looks as if it might have been a tad arduous?

{laughs} A tad. It was really hard for everyone--the crew, the actors, Jen. I don't know how Jen survived it because when you are a director, your day is obviously not done when a wrap is called. You have to go home and prep for the next day and be in charge of so many things. We were in a lot of pretty inhospitable locations for most of the time, the weather was inclement and the material was very heavy going. We had a wonderful crew and everyone was there because they absolutely wanted to be there and that helped to form a great camaraderie. I don't want to make it sound like it was all doom and gloom--there were moments when we were all cracking up laughing--but there were definitely days where it felt like a constant barrage of challenge after challenge and obstacle after obstacle.

Considering the intensity of "The Nightingale," what was your initial reaction when you saw it for the first time in its complete form?

I went into the bathroom and I cried. I would not describe myself as a crier--not that there is anything wrong with that--and I am not quick to tears. I was just thinking "Oh my God, we did it." I was really proud of it. It isn't a rape-revenge movie, though it may sound like that on paper. What I don’t like about "rape-revenge" stories is that it is just rape and revenge and that is not how it works. Rape is a brutal act of violence that leaves you traumatized and dealing with all kinds of symptoms of PTSD. It isn't something that happens in a single moment of time and then you think "That happened. I'm going to get my revenge now." It is something that people have to deal with, frequently for the rest of their lives, and I am proud that we showed that, that it is not just a thing that you can forget about as you set off to kill someone. I also liked that we showed that the road to revenge is not a straightforward one emotionally.

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originally posted: 08/16/19 03:07:27
last updated: 08/16/19 04:47:06
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