Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is not an easy watch. It’s a brutal truth. Set in 1820 Tasmania, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) ventures out into the Tasmanian forest, seeking vengeance on the British officer (A brilliant Sam Claflin). She meets an Aboriginal native, Billy who also has scars from the past and together they form a friendship.
Franciosi who excelled as Jon Stark’s mother, Lyanna, found out about The Nightingale and set out to pursue director Jennifer Kent for the role. Franciosi was determined to play Clare. “This one is mine, and I will fight to the death for this one.” She got the role and the rest, as they say, is history. I caught up with the actress to talk about playing Clare, and delving into the mindset of this character and why it holds a special place in her heart.
What a performance. I was blown away. What was it like for you to read the script for the first time?
My very first reaction was, I want to do this. It was a really instantaneous thing. Reading a lot of scripts – I know a lot of agents and managers say the same thing to you, you sometimes come across a script and you instantly know it’s just different. I instantly thought, “This one is mine and I will fight to the death for this one.”
The chance to work with Jen made me want to do it even more. I remember saying to Jen after I did my callback, three years ago. I remember writing to her. It’s not something I would usually do, but the Irish person in me is afraid of bothering them or stepping on people’s toes, but I said that it didn’t matter with this. I wrote her a really long email saying, ” I swear to you I will give you every single drop of everything I have if you let me play this part.” She held me to that. I think it’s one of the experiences I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It was difficult, I’m not going to lie. I was completely exhausted by the end of it, both physically and emotionally. I knew it would be hard, but I was surprised at how hard I found it to bounce back afterward to be honest.
I don’t regret any single part of it. I’m so proud of the movie, and regardless what anyone thinks of it. I personally am so proud of it, and I’m so proud of our reasons for shooting everything the way that we did. I think it’s going to have a special place in my heart.
When you’re singing at the beginning, were you nervous to sing, and also at the end when Clare has that scene too?
That was interesting. I wasn’t nervous because I’ve sung for years. It was interesting coming to a point where we were finding Clare’s voice. The way I sing in the movie is not how I would sing at a party. It’s a different voice. It was an added layer of character for Clare because Jen was very specific. She didn’t want her to sound polished or that she had training in any way. So, that was fun. Jen and I spoke about different kinds of songs. Jen was great about letting me hear them and letting me see if they were right. They had to be historically accurate.
When I read the script, I only had enough time to read enough to give myself context for the scenes I was sending. I thought, “the character sings, so if things go well, they’ll probably ask me to sing a song.” I thought I’d sing one of my favorite Irish ballads. I sang it in Irish, and I sent it.
When my agent told me that Jen wanted to Skype with me, I read the last few pages of the script and I realized that the song that Clare sings in the bar, at the end, was the song that I had sent her. I didn’t even know that was in it, and she said, “I’m so impressed you learned the song.” I said to her, “I could lie and leave you impressed. But, I actually sent that one because I happened to like that song, and it’s weird that you had envisaged for the scene.”
Talking about the historical side and accuracy, what research did you have to do for this?
I did a fair bit. I did enough so that I wasn’t completely ignorant. I left a lot of the more intricate Aboriginal history until close to the time. For my prep with Clare, it’s very interesting at the start. She’s in a very different point in her relationship with Billy compared to the end. She’s racist and judgmental. I didn’t want to get too much into knowing the details of the Aboriginal history until we were much closer and I had done the majority of my prep for her.
I read up about the horrific atrocities against the Aboriginals. I did my research about convict history. I was aware of the convict history so when I started delving into that, I found myself getting really angry. I knew that they sent criminals, but I didn’t realize how systematic it was. The British Empire was trying to populate Australia. Women and girls were sent and so were men, but women and girls were sent for stealing bread and clothes. They were sent for seven years, or maybe a shorter sentence, but knowing that they’d never be able to make it back.
If you think about it, a lot of them were illiterate and couldn’t write, and they would know that they’d never see their families again. It made me think about it.
A very dear friend of mine, when I got the part, had been keeping an eye on Australian auctions, and he bought me what they call a “Love token.” When people were separated from their families and friends, they would have a message inscribed on a beaten coin. They’d give it to their loved one. These coins would say, Your Brother or Remember Me. I have one from 1828, and I had that sewn into my costume. To think that a convict relative held that was pretty powerful. I had sewn into the undergarment of my costume every day. I could feel it there, but to have a physical piece of history that reminded me of how far away these people were from their families was pretty powerful.
I did research into PTSD and sexual violence and violence against women. A lot of documentaries and books.
What conversations did you have with Jen about shooting those scenes of violence?
I knew from talking with Jen; I knew she was a perfectionist and I knew that anything in that film had been researched for years. I know as well, that she is motivated only by morally very honorable intentions. I knew that when we were shooting those scenes or the racial motivated violent scenes, I knew it would never be for gratuitous reasons. I knew there was always an important and educational message behind it. She was so good to the cast and us.
For the guys and me, we had a clinical psychologist. She was on set when we were filming those scenes, and she was amazing. We’d take breathers, and she’d check in on us to make sure we were okay.
At the end of the shoot, Jen got me to go and talk to Elaine, the clinical psychologist to make sure that I was okay. It might sound dramatic, but when you’re putting yourself in a traumatic headspace every day for 54 days, away from home, it can take a toll.
It’s been proven that if you try to change your mindset and thought pattern, you can feel better, but the same is true for the opposite way around. If you constantly start thinking negatively, it can have an effect on you.
I’m really proud of the way we shot those scenes. We both did huge amounts of research. I spoke with real victims and the clinical psychologist. She works very heavy clinical cases, especially with women. We went to a center for domestic violence and sexual abuse. We spoke with the social workers there. We were adamant to show the human being and the victim in these attacks. Not just the body, the nudity or the glimpse of a face. It’s important we show that it’s an act of dominance, destruction and humiliation. It’s no surprise that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s a weapon of domination.
It’s really interesting about the reactions, is, we really have pushed sexual violence and we don’t really want to analyze it properly because if we did and if we were used to looking at it for what it is – I’m not saying we become desensitized to it, but I find it so interesting that people react really viscerally and sometimes aggressively in their reactions to the scenes of sexual violence. Yet, you don’t have that reaction when you see two Aboriginals hanging from a tree.
Or there’s that scene where Clare kills Diego, you have to ask yourself are we desensitized to certain kinds of violence and find others so abhorrent that we don’t even want to look at them. I wonder why sexual violence is the one we don’t want to look at, and I think that’s because there’s so much shame attached to it. I think there’s a lot of discussions that could be sparked by this film.
That is what made this powerful, she never shot for the gratuity.
Yes. It never was glamorized. Clare almost unravels and self-destructs after Diego. She doesn’t linger when Hawkins meets his demise, she doesn’t want to glamorize it and give them their moment. There’s so much thought behind every single moment. She’s completely uncompromising on the scenes that are so important, and it’s not easy to get that always on set.
What did you do to come away from the film?
It took me a while. I had plans to go straight from Tasmania to LA for a few months, but I ended up being so spent. I went home to my mom for two months. I hung out in my family home, and I told my agents that I didn’t want to do anything for a while. I was really surprised because I’ve never been in that position before where a job has taken everything from me. It was a lot of time with family and friends. I didn’t watch any dark films for a while.
She sure did.
I’m glad she did. It’s right that she did because it’s the story that requires that and it’s a story I will remember for the rest of my life.
The Nightingale is released on August 2