Aisling Franciosi on the Violence of ‘The Nightingale’ and Looking Back on ‘Game of Thrones’

     February 19, 2019


Do you remember rising star Aisling Franciosi in Game of Thrones? You won’t forget her in The Nightingale. Two other European women are shooting to stardom as well in the Berlinale’s Shooting Stars programme.

Each year the Berlin Film Festival’s Shooting Stars programme highlights major upcoming European acting talent and one would have to say that Irish actress Ailing Franciosi’s star is truly on the rise. Norway’s Ine Marie Wilmann, who played Norwegian ice skater and 1930s Hollywood star Sonja Henie in Sundance entry Sonja: The White Swan, is also on a career high, while Germany’s impishly vivacious Emma Drogunova is thriving on home turf.

Franciosi, the vivacious 26 year-old Irish star of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, is now based in New York and is exploring new movie offers. Mostly she has been busy promoting her Australian film, which has engendered strong reactions because of its graphic depiction of the violence of the British military against women and the Aboriginal population in 1825, during the days of the penal colony in Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land.

Photo by Helen Barlow

COLLIDER: In Venice an Italian journalist railed against the violence at the film’s press conference and at the Sundance screening I attended a guy had a seizure.

AISLING FRANCIOSI: He actually said he’d had seizures in the past and it wasn’t because of what happened in the movie. That was what was going around the Festival: Jennifer Kent’s film was so intense that it causes seizures. My attitude is, whatever. He’s fine first and foremost.

How was your experience watching the film?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: I’ve seen it three times and it changes each time I see it. The first time I was in a private screening and like most actors I was tearing my performance apart, but I felt I’d done a good enough job. At the world premiere in Venice I was nervous but I’d already digested it and I knew I was proud of what we had done. The audience weren’t hugely responsive in the room whereas at Sundance they were so engaged you could feel it from beginning to end and I found myself letting go as to what they were thinking. That was my favourite time watching it.

Why did you want to make the film?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: It was Jennifer Kent. Clear as a bell I can remember reading the script for the first time and within the first 15 pages I thought, “Wow there is something really different here, something really powerful” and I found myself excited and moved and that’s unusual to have such an instant response to what’s on the page.

Had you seen The Babadook?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: Yes I’d seen it but only after I’d made the connection with Jennifer.

She’s a mistress of tension.

AISLING FRANCIOSI: And of truth as well which was what really grabbed me.

How was it filming in Australia?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: Filming in Australia was a huge bonus as it’s so beautiful and our crew were wonderful. They were so committed. The ever-changing landscape was like a character in the movie. I was far from home for six months but honestly the actors and crew became my family for that time and we became so close. It’s one of the rare ones that will stand out in my mind for years to come. Obviously we had fun on set. I created a seven-hour playlist with requests from different people and we just danced the night away and we really bonded.

Sam Clafin is known as the romantic guy from Me Before You and My Cousin Rachel as well as the heartthrob from The Hunger Games and here he is such a bastard as an ambitious military man.

AISLING FRANCIOSI: I think that’s one of the things that drew Sam to the role. He knew he could do it, he knew he had that to offer and Jen saw it. He honestly terrified me during our first day of workshopping. We did some improvising and we didn’t really know each other and at one point he turned into Hawkins for a second and I was so scared. We obviously became close, he’s an absolute sweetheart and a very generous actor. For the more emotional scenes he would help me get to that heightened emotional state. He would help me create some tension where I could push against him as hard as I wanted or I could feel his arms constricting around me.

Even if you had a smaller role as the babysitter in The Fall there’s a comparison to be made with Jamie Dornan who went from playing a psycho killer to a romantic hunk in Fifty Shades of Grey.

AISLING FRANCIOSI: That was my first job and it was a great first job, because it really gave me a certain taste for the kind of work I want to do. I loved Alan Cubitt’s writing. I like that it’s not expositional writing. It’s very smart, dark and conflicting and he was really smart in casting someone so attractive.

How did you start with acting?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: I did my first speech and drama class when I was six and I came home and said to my mum, “I want to be an actress”. I think people had that reaction, “Oh sure, you do!” But I always knew I wanted to do it, even though it’s a very tough industry and a very risky career choice. There’s a lot of self-doubt that’s involved, but I was lucky to know what I wanted to do and to be able to do what I dreamt of as a kid. 

The Nightingale has proved to be a big launching pad for your career.

AISLING FRANCIOSI: You know when I read the script my reaction wasn’t that this was going to be the role. I thought maybe if at some point I did a good enough job it might open some doors to slightly bigger projects but I hadn’t anticipated quite the response to the film and my part in it. I auditioned three years ago and I sacrificed quite a few other things. I told Jen, “I swear to you I will give every last drop of everything I have if you cast me” and I said “you can push me as hard as you want.” And she did and I gave her my all. I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.

Were you conscious of the violence as you were acting?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: Yes I was because it was something we talked about an awful lot. I auditioned a year before we started filming and did a lot of research on my own and Jen pointed me in the right direction on some things. Obviously there is no historical context although I knew a little about the convicts and Aboriginal history in Australia but Jen wanted me to be more specific, to look at documentaries and read books about violence against women and PTSD among soldiers. I watched an incredible documentary The Invisible War (Kirby Dick’s 2012 doc premiered in Sundance) about rape in the American army, which blew my mind.

Obviously I was worried about the rape scene as it was so confronting and Jen and I talked many times about how we were going to film it. We wanted it to be completely from the female perspective and I really believe that’s why people are reacting so emphatically to it, because it makes you feel unbelievably uncomfortable, it’s conflicting, it’s brutal, it’s devastating—and that’s exactly how a rape scene should be if you’re going to show it honestly.

I’ve heard people call the film a rape revenge movie and while in some ways that may be true, we wanted to show it’s not just something that happens in this woman’s past, it’s something they have to really live with. It’s a violent, violent act, it’s a trauma and we wanted to show the journey of PTSD after something like that. Actually one of the most gratifying things has been that after the screenings in Sundance and Venice I had women come up to me and say thank you for showing what PTSD can be really like.

You were also in Game of Thrones. How was that experience?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: It was so much fun being part of a show that is so beloved. When I got the part of Lyanna Stark, Jon Snow’s mother, the hilarious thing was it was maximum exposure for minimum time—two minutes of onscreen time, but they’d talked about the character since the beginning of the show. It’s probably the smallest role I’ve ever played but it’s the one people ask me about the most.

What is your background?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: My dad’s Italian, my mum’s Irish and I was brought up bilingual. We lived in Italy till I was four or five and when my parents split we moved to Ireland. I studied French and Spanish all through school and at university as well. I hope one day to act in these languages.

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