The Fall star Aisling Franciosi: 'They were really, really hard scenes... you never see skin or two bodies, it's all about the emotional destruction'
Since her breakthrough role as a killer-obsessed teen in The Fall, Aisling Franciosi has been busy making a name for herself Stateside. The Irish-Italian actor talks to Paul Whitington about her most challenging role so far in a controversial film about Australia's dark past
All hell broke loose when Aisling Franciosi's latest film was screened at the Sydney Film Festival. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Nightingale is set in Tasmania in the early 1800s and stars Franciosi as Clare Carroll, an Irish convict whose good looks have attracted the malign attention of a British Army lieutenant called Hawkins, played by Sam Claflin.
She is married, and has a baby, but that doesn't stop Hawkins from coercing her into having sex with him, and when she has the temerity to ask for her freedom, he rapes her and destroys her family.
Strong stuff, and during The Nightingale's Sydney Festival screening, an incensed group of punters walked out, with one allegedly shouting "I'm not watching this - she's already been raped twice". One suspects, though, that the Australian viewers' outrage was inspired not so much by the sexual violence as by the sharp reminder that theirs is a country built on blood and genocide: The Nightingale also documents the systematic extermination of entire aboriginal nations.
"I wasn't there, thank God," says Aisling when I meet her. "It was kind of misreported anyway, it was like 10 people out of 900 who walked out. And I think it hit Australians on a double level, with the injustices of the colonising history and also the aboriginal history, which was so horrendous. But I literally gave my guts to this film, and one of the amazing things about immersing yourself so completely in a project is that I feel nicely removed from the reactions because I know I couldn't have done any more. So if people say they like it, I'm like 'cool', if people say they don't like it, that's fine. I can also objectively understand how it's really difficult viewing."
After her character is raped and robbed of everything, she vows revenge and joins forces with a laconic aboriginal guide called Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who slowly makes her understand the lunacy of racism.
"When I read the script, I obviously knew it was going to be the most challenging part ever if I got it," Aisling tells me, "but I really loved the story, and the way Jennifer had written it. I did this audition tape in Dublin, with my mum reading the other parts in the background. When I got a callback, I wrote Jen this really long email - which isn't like me at all, I'm very Irish like that, I wouldn't want to be annoying people - and I said 'I swear to you I'll give you everything if you give me this part'.
"Thankfully, she took a risk." Thankfully for Jennifer Kent, too, because Franciosi is a revelation in the role, a raging ball of anger and despair whose quivering performance dominates this remarkably powerful film and will surely propel her to mainstream stardom. It was shot in Tasmania, mainly deep in the island's rainforests, but delays involving the commitments of Sam Claflin gave Aisling time to prepare.
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"I read a lot of books about sexual violence, violence against women, I read A Fatal Shore and other books about the historical context, and I started to get really angry about how systematic the colonisation was at a certain point. I mean some hardcore criminals were sent to Van Diemen's Land and so on, but a lot were just committing survival crimes, stealing bread or clothing.
"It must have been awful for women and young girls in particular, especially if they were sent to Tasmania, which initially had a ratio of nine men to every woman. That's not a good ratio, so you can imagine that was a pretty horrendous environment to arrive in, and it just felt like they were essentially being sent there to populate a colony. I was furious by the time I got to the end of my research. And then as we got closer to the shoot I started to educate myself on the whole aboriginal history, which is of course completely shocking and abhorrent."
Before she took to the jungles, there were certain practicalities to get out of the way.
"I had never ridden a horse, I'd never even sat on a horse, so I had to learn to ride. Also how to shoot a musket, chop wood: it was physically quite a gruelling shoot. I was down there for six months, and we had a long prep period as well, because Baykali Ganambarr, who plays Billy, hadn't ever acted before: he's wonderful, a raw talent. When we were shooting, most of the time we were in the middle of nowhere, two-and-a-half hours from anything, which really helped in terms of playing the role."
The film's most controversial scene takes place in the cabin where Claire is living with her husband and child when Hawkins and his men attack. "It took two-and-a-half days to shoot that scene, and in one sense it was very technical, tightly choreographed. But I'd spoken in my research with real victims, and met clinical psychologists and social workers, and (listened to) the stories they told me, it was impossible not to be affected by them. That felt like a huge weight of responsibility, and I hadn't anticipated how difficult I would find it to turn off the tap emotionally speaking, once I opened it. And Sam, poor thing, was like sometimes 'is this you crying, or is this the character', and I really didn't know. It sounds ridiculous but I get goosebumps whenever I think of that scene, even now."
Sam Claflin, who tends to play dashing and chivalrous types, is anything but in The Nightingale, and his demeanour in that crucial scene is truly unsettling. "Yeah he's great," Aisling says. "And you know he really fought for the role too, and I think he wanted to prove he could do something different, he was lovely to work with and amazingly generous on set, but terrifying in character.
"They were really, really hard scenes but I genuinely felt quite safe in them because Jen and I had so many conversations about how it would largely be on my face, or Sam's face, and you never see skin, or two bodies in frame, it's all about the emotional destruction... And I think a lot of times with rapes on screen they can either be objectified or sexualised or made to look like a violent sex scene, and it always feels to me like it's showing something being done to a body, whereas we wanted it to show the destruction of a human being, which is very different. And I think maybe that's why people are reacting so viscerally to it."
Franciosi (26) grew up in Dublin and is Irish-Italian: her father lives in Milan, and she speaks Italian fluently. She first broke through in the acclaimed TV drama The Fall, playing Katie, an attention-seeking teenager who becomes obsessed with Jamie Dornan's killer as he stalks Belfast's streets. Eye-catching roles in Quirke and Game of Thrones followed, but The Nightingale seems bound to put her on the Hollywood radar. She lives in New York, and is currently shooting a mini-series based on the classic film Black Narcissus. So how was she first drawn to acting?
"I did this speech and drama class when I was six," she says, "and straight away I was like, I want to be an actor. From then on, I knew - I just wasn't sure how the hell to get into it. My parents were keen on me going down an academic route, I was good at school, I liked it, and obviously they were like 'please do anything else but act'. And so I did go and study languages at Trinity, but while I was there I got a small part in one of the Gate Christmas shows, and then once I got a bigger part I got an agent and it kind of snowballed from there.
"My first job was The Fall pretty much. More horror! I'm not really sure what vibe I give out, and it's become a running joke with my agent. The Fall was a great learning experience for me, but when you're in the middle of it, it feels horrible."
Her family, she says, have been very supportive. "I think once they saw me do more and more work, they realised I was committed to it. My dad, though, lives in Italy and he'd never really seen anything I'd done. So when The Nightingale was screened at The Venice Film Festival, I invited him down to see it, despite my brother telling me 'you cannot let him see this movie!' Since that day my dad has really become super supportive: I hope he thinks that I'm okay at it now!"
The Nightingale is in cinemas now