Committing To Brutality: Aisling Franciosi’s Thoughts On ‘The Nightingale’

by Jonah Desneux on August 12, 2019

in Blogs,Features

At the beginning of the year, The Nightingale became a must watch at the Sundance Film Festival and has now finally made its way into theaters across the country. Many have eagerly awaited Jennifer Kent’s follow up to her acclaimed debut The Babadook and the writer/director succeeded at making her second showing a strong one. The Nightingale is one of those rare films that leaches into the audience’s mind as an emotional experience, opposed to an entertainment event. The film is all at once educational, thrilling, at times humorous, soul crushing, but most importantly honest. The Nightingale is cinema at its most confrontational. The film demands audiences to not sweep uncomfortable history under the rug like we are prone to do.

The film is set in the Tasmanian wilderness in the early nineteenth century. The conquered area is ruled viciously by British soldiers who take whatever they desire without serious repercussions. Under the command of the soldiers are convicts and the remaining aboriginal men and women of the land. Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish Convict has served her time and attempts to gain her deserved freedom from a vile British Officer (Sam Clafin). It is in this instigating incident that Kent steers away from censorship in place of a haunting reality. When there is no justice to be found for Clare, she is determined to gain it on her own. With an unlikely partnership with Billy, an Aborginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) the two set out to right the wrongs that have become them and discover the inherent faults in the “us vs. them” mentality that they have grown accustomed to. 

Even though the subject matter is dark, Aisling Franciosi lights up the screen as Clare in a career-defining performance. In fully committing to the character, Franciosi adds the authenticity that the film strives for, as she embodies the song bird to perfection. I was privileged enough to speak with the star to find out her experience in such a demanding role. Franciosi opened up about her process in becoming Clare and gave her assessment on the importance of the film. With much conversation surrounding The Nightingale and if crossed a line, it is crucial to hear from the woman who experienced it all first hand.

How did you come into this role? It’s obviously a very intense part, so I’m curious about your preparation after the discovery and what drew you to it.

I was sent the script much like any other project by my agents. I read it and was instantly drawn to the writing. As an actor you read tons of scripts and it’s rare for one to jump out quite like this one did. I’ve heard of it happening and you really do you know within the first 15 pages. So this is really my at-instant love affair with a project. It appealed to me because it wasn’t geared towards entertainment; it was geared towards telling an important story and dealing with very big and important themes, so that really appealed to me. Obviously working with Jennifer Kent was a huge draw. Frankly as well,  just as an actor getting the chance to play a character like this; they do not come along all that often, so I really wanted to try and prove myself and just show that I could do more than what I have been doing. 

You’re right, there’s a lot of material to deal with in many different ways. I mean just the sheer scope of the performance and what you have to go through, but also thematically it’s very heavy and sensitive. Between getting the role and shooting, nine months past and within those nine months, actually even before I got the role, I was already just devouring books on convict history, colonalism, PTSD, violence against women, sexual violence. Basically getting my hands on every piece of research I could that I felt could play into the role. Obviously I was guided to a certain extent by Jenn and what to do for that. Then once I got there to Australia, I spoke with a clinical psychologist. I met with real rape victims. I met with women who worked in centers for domestic abuse and sexual violence, and then on a practical level, learned how to horse ride and shoot a musket and chop wood. There was a lot; there was a lot to prepare.

Was there anything specific in your preparation that really helped you get into those very brutal scenes? I feel like that would be a daunting task for anyone. Did you have the one breakthrough moment that you felt as ready as could possibly be?

I don’t know if there was a moment I knew I was ready as can be, but I definitely know that people sharing their stories with me about their experiences and talking with the women at the center for domestic violence abuse, I instantly felt a massive weight of responsibility. Responsibility to be as authentic as possible in those scenes and also honor the people who’d been good enough to share their stories with me. I find it really moving that people were willing to share their stories for the purpose of telling ours. That in itself even when I think about it just gets me a little bit emotional. That definitely helped and I’m sure all the research I had done. Documentaries and interviews I watched really set into the emotional well. And of course as an actor you draw in your own experience, and you draw on your own trauma, and also sometimes your imagination. It’s all a combination, but definitely the thing that really stuck out with me the most was people’s generosity and bravery in telling me their stories. I’ll never forget that.

You said that you had that big responsibility and I think you handled it incredibly well. It’s a very important film and I think the discourse that’s happening with it right now is from the people who it might be a little too intense and then those who say it needs to be watched for its honesty. What do you personally see as the importance of the film for those who can handle the subject matter?

There are a few things we show with our film. We’ve become very desensitized to violence. I think there is a really interesting discussion happening around violence and I find it quite fascinating to watch removed from it all. People talk about the violence in our movie. Well, I just came out of a movie that came out recently that’s a massive film and there’s a scene that’s incredibly violent, so bloody, really in-your-face violent and people were laughing at the screen. I’m not judging them. I can get it because it’s framed in the way that kind of makes it comical, which is fine in one way. But in another way, it’s kind of dangerous. The fact that we can sit back and look at someone with whatever it is that’s happening to them and laugh, I think just shows that we’re so used to violence being part of the entertainment side of cinema that we can’t then handle it as well when we see the emotional ramifications. I think that our film is emotionally extremely violent, but I don’t think graphically it’s extremely violent. Ours is not graphically violent in the way we’re used to on screen. It really goes for you emotionally. It highlights how emotionally damaging violence is, and how hard it is, and makes us really face up to what you’re doing to a human being when you inflict pain or suffering or violence on them. I think that that’s something that people are struggling with a bit because you know it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s confronting. It’s harrowing. And if you’re going into the movie theater for entertainment, that’s not what you’re gonna be getting with our film. You’re going to be getting a study of violence, a study of why it is to be human, and how important it is that we realize that we need to become more empathetic with each other and how important it is for us to evolve as a society of the world. That’s definitely something I think is really important.

I think highlighting the horrors of colonialism and really looking at them in order to be able to move forward. I think you have to with any kind of history, acknowledge it first in the clear light of day for what it is. That aids healing on a much deeper level, but in order for that to happen I do think you have to look at it without it being sugar coated. I think this film does this and also looks at the fear of the other and how we’re really way more similar than we are different. Clare initially is racist; she’s a product of her upbringing. She’s a product of her society, so she is of course going to be racist at the beginning of the movie. It’s deplorable, but she is, and through the journey she goes on with Billy, her eyes are opened. He’s also sexist towards her at the beginning. Everyone has their prejudices of course. She as a white person towards an aboriginalist is terrible at the beginning, but she goes on this journey where they’re forced to realize that they’re both human beings, that they both have traumas that aren’t necessarily comparable, and I really don’t think that our film conflates feminism and racism in the film. I don’t believe that because Clare has to come to realize that she was prejudiced and was blind to the plight of the aboriginal people. She’s really taught that by being with Billy and he’s ultimately the one that leads her to save herself, and save her humanity, and can choose humanity for her own survival, but again it’s Billy that leads her to that conclusion. She goes on an arch, on a journey, and a character is entitled to have an arch whether it be uncomfortable or not.  

Possibly the most important element of the story is that we tell the story of the aboriginal history. Our story deals with the aboriginal people of Tasmania, but this is the first time this story of the Tasmanian Aboriginal has been put on screen. It’s important for us to remember that because I don’t think it’s even taught properly in Australian schools, let alone anywhere else. There’s a lot, there’s a lot. As I said, the importance of empathy and clinging onto and not perpetuating the circle of violence, but as you say that there’s that there’s a lot to take from it.

How has this performance of a character with such a divisive mindset possibly influenced your future and how you look at roles?

I think it was more so with the project then just Clare specifically. One of the really nice things I discovered was how liberating it is at the end of a project like The Nightingale. I went into it wholeheartedly ready to give it everything. I gave it everything. I know I couldn’t have given it anymore, like I literally couldn’t give anymore. To be able to work like that is amazingly liberating because when it comes out, well I’m certainly finding with this experience, I don’t really, not that I don’t care what people think, but I’m not emotionally vulnerable to people’s opinions. What I mean by that is if people love it, I’m like “cool,”  but if people don’t like it, I also don’t find myself being attacked by that feeling, I just go, “Okay, yeah, it wasn’t for you.” That’s something that I would love to try and do as much as possible going forward with my career. To choose projects I completely believe in because no matter what happens then, whether they go the way that you hope they do or they don’t, you know that you went into it for all the right reasons and because you believe in it. So that’s definitely something I will try to take with me going forward

Last quick question not related to the movie, but just about yourself.  What’s a movie that you love that you would recommend anyone reading this to watch?

Two of my favorite films just off the top of my head, I mean I have so many I don’t think I could choose one, but one film that really had an impact on me was Magnolia, PT Anderson’s Magnolia. That really struck a chord with me because I came into film education pretty late. What I mean by that is that I didn’t grow up watching tons and tons of film. So I was already I think twenty when I kind of started trying to educate myself in film and that was definitely one  stuck out for me. Just the emotional intelligence and all the performances was something that I really was drawn to. I also love Barton Fink. I think it’s my favorite Coen Brothers film. I just love the kind of dark humor, and I also just love John Turturro’s performance in anything usually.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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