Karen Bryson doesn’t have to do much to get your attention. Your eyes follow her eyes and you instantly want to know what her Sister Philippa thinks and feels of every interaction you witness. It takes a skilled performer to not draw focus when her character is so devoted to her faith and her modesty to serve God. In FX’s Black Narcissus miniseries, she is a entrancing presence as she questions her faith.
When the nuns in Narcissus finally land at the Palace of Mopu, they are surrounded by the most idyllic scene. For Sister Philippa, it has to be a paradise. What she doesn’t expect, however, is how drawn she will become to the mystery of her environment. We are constantly reminded at how these women are not like nuns we see today or in a modern environment. That restraint is a hard thing to pull off, but thanks to Bryson it is incredibly watchable and fascinating.
This version of Narcissus has a sinister darkness growling beneath the surface but the women keep it at bay with their faith and love of God. When that darkness becomes a palpable distraction, one’s loyalty can become tarnished and Sister Philippa becomes desperate to escape.
Awards Daily: I feel like a lot of people thought that remaking Black Narcissus was a crazy idea since it’s such an iconic film. What were your thoughts when you heard they were revisiting this?
Karen Bryson: It’s more faithful to the book by Rumer Godden. The film is so iconic and memorable. To do a “remake” would be weird territory even though we do pay homage to it. One of our producers, Andrew Macdonald, is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger who did iconic things like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. The project felt special because of reasons like that, but we’re more faithful to the book. It’s a three hour miniseries, and it gives space to the psyche of these five nuns and what goes on. I found that intriguing–knowing that we live in a world that religion is different and even being in the order was different to the time when the book was written in 1934. There were huge reforms in the 60’s between convents and nuns. It was really strict so it’s going to be a different feeling.
AD: I’ve never read the book so that makes me want to read it.
KB: It’s a great story.
AD: What do you think drew Sister Philippa to being a nun, because that has to be a very personal journey that is different for everyone.
KB: Sister Philippa is arguably the most spiritual of the five nuns. What I had done, I never play a part with judgement. That’s not going to happen. I have my views and that’s how I live my life, but Sister Philippa is something different. I knew I needed to get into the head of someone who is called to be a nun and I read a fantastic book called The Interior Castle. They described the various steps and how the journey never ends. It’s a constant growth. It’s a book that has been translated many times since the 16th century, and it’s by Sister Teresa of Ávila. She makes sounding like being a nun the most spiritually enlightening thing. I happened upon this book by how it’s written like a diary. She struggles with one thing at a time and it really informed me.
AD: Sister Philippa spends a decent amount of time separated from the other four nuns. She’s outside a lot. Did she have such a pull to connect to the earth and nature?
KB: She’s always been a keen gardener. To have someone who can grow food when you are trying to set up an orphanage is a good thing. Also, there are parts in the day that are non-negotiable and that’s because of the order. You get up at 5:30, ring the bells, pray, have breakfast. That’s set. There are moments in the day, such as Sister Ruth with the lace school. What happens in the book that isn’t seen in our series as much is that Sister Philippa starts to become late to the things that are set.
AD: Oh, that’s interesting.
KB: All the nuns have to ring the bells at some point. My section of ringing of the bells, I just get there in time to do it. She starts to become late and she feels her devotion and her calling being questioned. Her interior castle is crumbling by the sheer beauty and the mystery of the Palace of Mopu and the extraordinary vista, especially for Sister Philippa, is how she is getting distracted.
AD: The very first time we see you, Mother Dorothea is speaking with Sister Clodagh about who to take and Sister Philippa is very animated outside even if we don’t hear what you are saying. When I first saw you, I knew I needed to know more about your character.
AD: There are some lines that are very emotion. You say, ‘If I stay, I will forget my purpose. It’s as if the mountains are watching us–not God.’ The way you say that line made me think she Sister Philippa is holding back that emotion.
KB: I think she is completely freaked out. All of her duties have fallen to the wayside. That questions her faith and that is a problem. Nuns back then were not supposed to show emotion. What I wanted to portray is exactly the restriction that would have happened. While I was speaking, I had to remember the oppression, and oppression happens to all of them there. For all of us, that oppression makes them unravel. If you think about how they are supposed to serve modestly and honestly and they are wistfully looking at the beauty that is around them, that’s not good.
AD: How hard is that to convey that oppression because it goes against having an active choice as an actor. Or is the act of suppressing something that active choice?
KB: When you see someone struggling to hold it in–not just because it’s a powerful tool or technique–emotion is not an option. Even if Philippa is feeling it, my objective is to not play that. I could’ve wanted to go big, especially with Gemma [Arterton], and I’m a crier.
KB: There’s no touching and there would be times when we’d be doing wide shots. Gem would be up front as the trooper and there would be times–because of the altitude–that we’d be out of breath. What you see physically, like the cliff face, is real. And we are in the full outfit. There are so many layers, so they are truthful to what a nun’s habit would be. We were truly carrying weight and that reminded us that modesty is key and that we are thankful to be on this earth. The rules for nuns in 1934 would be exactly that–no touching and emotions aren’t part of it.
AD: I’m glad you brought up the clothes because they are these thick, wool garments. How much does that change your body or inform you?
KB: When I first got my costume fitting, I was doing something up north and I had nail varnish on. My character was a functioning alcoholic who had money but I didn’t have time to take the varnish off to go travel down. As each layer went on, by the time we got the last bit around the face and then the habit, I cried.
KB: We are so used to expressing ourselves. This morning, I wondered what I was going to wear on Zoom because I want to look pretty. You’re lucky I didn’t have a gown on.
AD: Hey, I would’ve loved that. Next time!
KB: (laughs) A gold ballgown. To have nothing but my face is strange. I immediately felt something emotional. The layers kept getting heavier and heavier, and Kave [Quinn] did an amazing job of doing the costuming and the production because they married so beautifully. The colors in terms of culture were really specific. The Nepalese were red and vibrant and the nuns were muted in beige and that adds another layer. It sounds silly, but I’m the type of actress that if my character is supposed to be outside, I will be there. Even if I’m not called for a while longer, I want to use that to help me with my character. Sister Philippa is about the earth so I’m not going to be in a tent, drinking a cup of tea and waiting for my call. I wanted to be as much connect to the earth.
AD: This was obviously not something that was considered because we couldn’t predict 2020, but the habits have to isolate you.
KB: That’s beautifully perceptive, because it was exactly that. What went around our faces was very stiff, so you had to shift to look. In The Interior Castle, it’s about your personal relationship with God. Everything is muted. Nothing is external. Your ears are covered.
AD: How do you think Sister Clodagh is running things? Gemma does a great job of making every interaction with each nun different, so I was curious to what Sister Philippa thinks.
KB: Sister Philippa is a stickler for rules, and I think she respects Sister Clodagh implicitly because she is the Superior Sister. Where she starts to question is about the flowers. Surely, that is the will of God. That’s where it crumbles. What was extraordinary for me, was playing a complete human being with a complete arc while not saying very much. It’s in her eyes. How she looks at her fellow sisters to interact with them.
Black Narcissus is available to stream on Hulu.