Over the course of the past seven years, Irish actress Aisling Franciosi has amassed quite a resume, counting among her characters Marie in Ken Loach’s 2014 drama Jimmy’s Hall, an award-winning turn as a serial killer-obsessed teenager in the British series The Fall (2013-2016), and Lyanna Stark, mother to Jon Snow, on Game of Thrones. In The Babadook filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s savage revenge thriller, The Nightingale, Franciosi steps into her first starring movie role. Delivering a resonant performance as Clare, a 19th-century convict of the penal colony on the Australian island of Tasmania, Franciosi convinces as a woman pushed over her limits. Forming a partnership with similarly vengeful aboriginal Billy (dancer Baykali Ganabarr in his screen debut), Clare goes on the hunt for Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and other Australian officers who have done her wrong.
In San Francisco in April for the SFFILM Festival, Franciosi was ebullient and expansive as she sat down for a conversation about The Nightingale.
Q: The film is very much in your face in terms of the off-chart-violence. Was that intensity apparent even when you read the script for the first time?
Aisling Franciosi: I knew it would be a tough watch no matter how it was filmed, but what even I was surprised at when I saw it for the first time on the screen and what makes it so difficult to watch is how human all the characters are and how as you watch the violence inflicted on them, you can’t escape the fact that they’re human beings. Whereas in other films, I think frequently we’re quite distant from the people who are being killed or slaughtered or whatever. In this, it’s a very intimate form of violence. And I think that that makes it really, as you say, in your face, but you know, if we’re going to show it and we’re going to, if you want to talk about violence, if you want to talk about sexual violence, well, then here it is. You know, let’s look at it properly.
Q: It’s not just the visuals. It’s the sound design, as well, that really underlines the brutality.
Aisling Franciosi: Yeah. It’s amazing. Jennifer told me, ‘I don’t think we’re going to have music. Actually, I think we’re going to just have sounds.’ We had an incredible sound designer. And I think it really adds to it, because in some moments it just completely feels suffocating and inescapable in the ways it should. And then other times, it just allows you to breathe and you feel that there’s a moment of respite. There’s nothing taking away from that. You know, breathe for a second in the same way that the characters are, the audience has given a moment to kind of go, ‘Whew!’
Q: You’re Irish, so you were not raised with that history.
Aisling Franciosi: I knew a little bit about the convict history of Australia, but you’re right, I definitely didn’t know the extent to which I know now. And also I didn’t realize how systematic it was, you know, or how particularly, at a certain point, women and girls were sent there. Lots of convicts were sent for extremely petty crimes, like survival crimes, stealing bread, stealing food. But women and girls were sent very, very young and essentially to populate the island of Tasmania in particular where there was an extremely low ratio of men to women. So, you can imagine what happened when these women stepped off the ship. They were sometimes bartered for a bottle of whiskey. They endured terrible violence and terrible lives.
I remember reading one book that said a British officer there to do a survey noticed that if you were a convict, you were, you know, the lowest of the low. But if you were an Irish convict, you were like dirt. Like you were at the lowest rank of all the convicts just for being Irish. And so, if you can imagine, not only are you Irish, but you’re also a woman and you’re a convict. I found learning about it so interesting, but also found myself getting very angry. You would be sent to to Australia and frequently you would finish your term, not in the jail, but you know, working for a sergeant or whoever and if you were raped and became pregnant by him, you would go to prison and your baby was taken away. And nothing would happen to the rapist. It was just a constant battle for survival for these convicts. I find it so incredible how resilient they all were to then go on and essentially, you know, build a nation.
Q: Well, it’s that idea of institutionalized rape, some that goes on in places even now.
Aisling Franciosi: What I’m really proud about in this film is if you don’t want to acknowledge it for what it is, we’re going to make you acknowledge it for what it is. I think it’s often brushed aside, whether it’s because of shame or just not wanting to accept it for how brutal and violent that it is or how destructive it is. But like, even as part of my prep, I was watching a documentary called The Invisible War. It’s fascinating and it’s about sexual violence and rape in the US military. It was appalling, it was shocking to me. And one of the quotes that you see on the screen at the very end of the movie was from a very highly ranked officer, and he says, ‘Rape is a hazard of the job.’ Getting shot, maybe, getting hurt in battle, maybe, but rape should never be a hazard of the job.
Q: One of the things that struck me about Clare is how strong she is. And I don’t mean just after everything happened, but even before, she’s much stronger than her husband.
Aisling Franciosi: Yeah. It’s so interesting people say to me, ‘Oh, she goes from timid to Joan of Arc.’ But if you really think about it, she is actually enduring so much for the sake of her family. It’s not that she’s not strong enough to stand up to Hawkins. I mean, it would probably cut her life short, but I think she would do it if she was just on her own. But she’s trying to protect her dream of a future with her family, the safety of her husband and the safety of her baby. It’s all on her shoulders and all just kept safe by her enduring, enduring, enduring. Endurance might not be the most glamorous type of strength, but it’s a strength and she has it in spades. Then it becomes a different kind of strength going forward. But yeah, I don’t, I don’t see her as going through this transformation. I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s just her unleashing all the rage.
Q: She also undergoes a different kind of transformation, because at a certain point, she’s just like every other white person in Tasmania looking at the aboriginal people through racist eyes until she’s thrown in with Billy.
Aisling Franciosi: Well, I think it’s beautiful that it’s two very traumatized and hurt souls kind of metaphorically holding each other’s hands and just going through it together. Yeah, she absolutely does (change). She initially is quite awful to him, but I like that Jen has portrayed Clare as being a human being with her flaws and showing the not-so-great sides to her personality. You know, I like that she’s a fully formed person. And I love that it’s essentially Billy and the compassion she gets from him and then the friendship that they have that makes Clare choose survival. –Pam Grady