Aisling Franciosi never thought she'd get a chance to speak in Irish, one of the three languages she speaks fluently, for a major film (for the record, other two are English and Italian, and she studies French and Spanish).
But then, the 28-year-old Irish-Italian actress probably never thought she'd appear in a film like The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent's harrowing new period piece set in Australia, to begin with. That's because The Nightingale is arguably the first film of its kind: An extremely violent, yet empathetic, movie about rape and oppression.
Whereas the villain in Kent's debut, The Babadook, is a long-legged supernatural boogeyman (turned improbable gay icon), the villain in The Nightingale is an ordinary man — and that's the horror of it. Life for a woman, or for an Aboriginal person, in 1825 Australia was always a moment away from becoming a nightmare because of men like him. We watch that happen to Franciosi's character, Clare, a 21-year-old Irish convict carrying out her sentence in Australia.
When the film begins, Clare's a happily married new mother. Within the first ten minutes, Clare is raped by her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, in a reputation-defying role), and then raped again. Clare's husband and daughter are killed, and she's left to die. She doesn't.
When Clare awakens, it's like she has a new face — and her eyes are fixed only in the direction of revenge. Yet as she pursues Hawkins with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, she finds that revenge offers no cure.
Undoubtedly, The Nightingale is Franciosi's breakout role, though she's also appeared in The Fall and Game of Thrones as Lyanna Stark. Last week, we spoke to Franciosi. Now that she's on the cusp of stardom, it's time to learn to say her name: Ash-ling Fran-cho-si.
Refinery29: I haven’t been able to get this movie out of my head since I saw it. I can’t imagine how you got it out of your system!
Aisling Franciosi: “It took a while. It definitely took a while.”
It’s a movie for the brave. There were reports of people walking out of theaters. What’s that reception been like for you?
“I knew, I think we all did, that this film would be divisive. It’s quite confronting. It makes you feel things that will be uncomfortable. For people who have their own trauma and find it triggering and find that they can’t sit through it, of course...it's not an endurance test. That’s not the point of the film.
“I quite like that our film can have different impacts. Maybe people who are victims of sexual violence found it triggering. But we’ve also had victims come up to us after the screening to tell us, Thank you so much for showing for what it’s really like. Or, Thank you for showing the PTSD. People found it quite powerful to see it portrayed solely from the woman’s perspective.
It’s grounded in reality. That’s what makes it all the more horrifying.
You really fought to be a part of the movie. Why did you want to play Clare so badly?
“I knew that I wanted to be a part of it right from the beginning. Within the first 15 pages I said, This is really different. I had a lot to do that day. I read enough of the script to give myself context, but I didn’t get to the very end. I decided to send an Irish ballad in Irish, because I knew that if it went well they’d ask me to sing.
"Well, in a pivotal, climactic scenes at the end of the movie, the song that I’d sent is the one that’s in the script. Jen and I get on really well — we were on the same page at the beginning.”
The Nightingale really shows things that the camera normally cuts away from. Can you talk to me about filming those rape scenes?
“Jen and I were really clear from the beginning about how we’d film the scene. It was important for us that we not objectify Clare. That’s why we had the camera on her face so frequently and had the scene delivered through her experience. Apart from the physical violence, you understand how emotionally devastating it is. You don’t ever see nudity. We wanted to get away from getting any sexual connotation with [rape] — rape is an act of violence, domination, and power. The sexual part is the weapon."
“Earlier on, there was a discussion that maybe it would be interesting if Sam and I didn’t hang out much on set because of the characters that we play. But as soon as we started workshopping the scene, we realized no, I need to get to know Sam as well as possible. We both have to do things that require us to be extremely vulnerable. We became really close.
“When you create an environment in which your actors can feel safe, that allows your actors to really go to as authentic and vulnerable place as is possible. We had a wonderful crew around us. Jen being Jen, such a thoughtful director, made sure we had a clinical psychologist on set. But those days were emotionally draining. We had grown Aussie men in tears in the room.”
The movie’s been called a rape revenge movie by some publications. Clare does, indeed, seek revenge — but never experiences the catharsis revenge is supposed to bring. How do you feel about the classification?
“I’m wary of it being called ‘rape revenge movie’ for a couple of reasons. In rape revenge movies, there’s a rape, and the the woman goes on to the revenge part. But rape isn’t some isolated incident that happens once and the woman goes, ‘Okay, I can get my revenge now.’ Clare has PTSD, panic attacks, nightmares, and depression. It’s something she has to live with for the rest of her life. I don’t like the idea of rape being a catalyst for a story. That’s a reductive way of describing a movie of this kind. We take a different look at revenge in this film. And how the pursuit of it can be equally damaging to the person who's seeking it.”
This is your breakout role! Looking forward, how do you feel about what’s next for you — and the idea of crossing over into fame?
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen! I haven’t gotten there yet! [Laughs]. The Nightingale was the most satisfying work I’ve ever been a part of. But I realize I’ve been massively spoiled with the material I got to do. The Nightingale isn’t the kind of film that comes along all the time. For a while I was putting pressure on myself to find something that’s equally going to take every fiber of my being as much as this one did. For me it’ll always stem from great writing or amazing creatives that I want to work with.”