Aisling Franciosi dives deep into character in Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’

Aisling Franciosi

It’s 1825 and a young Irish convict, her husband, and infant son live in the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, surviving each and every day. What lies ahead is one of the most unpredictable and tortuous tales of resiliency and love in recent memory, as a mother sets out on a journey of vengeance for rape and murder. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, Aisling Franciosi stars in the lead role of Clare, creating an evocative and realistic portrayal that delves deeply into the human psyche and the dark history of colonialism. The power within the character of Clare is immediately evident and builds throughout the film. I had a chance to sit down with Franciosi to discuss the making of “The Nightingale.”

PAMELA POWELL: How did you prepare for such an emotional and difficult role, both physically and psychologically?

AISLING FRANCIOSI: I prepared by doing a lot of research myself, but also Jen (Kent) and I were in contact all the time about what to watch and what to read. Obviously I read some history books for historical content on that side of things, but I also read this incredible book called “Trauma and Recovery.” The clinical psychologist who’s attached to the project, she suggested that I read it. She’s just really fascinated with how the brain of humans come up with survival mechanisms. From a practical point of view, I also learned how to horse ride, wood chop, shoot a musket. But then, when I got to Sydney, I went to the Center for Domestic Violence and I talked with the social workers there and some real life victims of rape. That honestly did a huge amount of work for me, emotionally preparing myself because I instantly had this weight of responsibility on my shoulders. 

POWELL: Why did you want to portray Clare?

Aisling Franciosi and Jennifer Kent in Park City, Utah

FRANCIOSI: I think it has something to do with how the truth drips off the page when you’re reading a Jennifer Kent script. She’s just an incredible writer. I was a little bit worried that I might not get something like that again. It’s hard to find roles like that. The more I researched it, the more I got into it, and the angrier I got about the convict history of Australia. I knew that convicts were sent to Australia, but I didn’t know how many of them were sent there for pretty much nothing, like stealing some food to survive. They were the riffraff that they wanted to clean up. Of course, there were some real, terrible criminals that were sent there, but women in particular were basically sent to finish their sentence and populate this colony. And that really, really, really bothers me. That all added to this need to tell this story.

POWELL: Let’s talk about the rape scene. It was incredibly difficult to watch and that’s an understatement.

Aisling Franciosi as Clare in “The Nightingale”

FRANCIOSI: Whenever I think of that scene, it’s instantly physical. I’m not thinking anything in particular, but when I watched it, I started crying. I think people want to describe it as a rape revenge film and I think on paper, I can see why people would think that, but please watch ours because it’s so much more. They have to deal with this horrible loss and trauma and damage, their sense of self and self-worth and PTSD. You know what? If you’re going to show a rape, you better make sure that people feel devastated by it. In the past, it’s been spoken about almost as if it’s a sexual deviancy. It really isn’t about sex. It’s a weapon and power and dehumanizing someone. There’s a reason that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s a very powerful, dehumanizing and destructive weapon that has a long lasting effect. I’m really proud of that scene, and I know it’s not easy to watch, but even with the violence in general, our attitude is, it’s abhorrent. You’re forced to look at how devastating it is.

POWELL: Jennifer must have set up a situation for you and all the actors to feel safe during that scene, right?

Director Jennifer Kent with Aisling Franciosi on set of “The Nightingale”

FRANCIOSI: Jen is just wonderful. First things first, she had her clinical psychologist on set, and [she] was there to take breaks and chat with us afterward about how we were feeling. There was talk initially that it might be interesting if Sam and I didn’t really interact that much before shooting because there would be this weird distance between us. Obviously Clare hates him but is forced into having a very odd relationship with him and a very damaging one. No, we have to spend AS MUCH TIME AS possible together. I couldn’t have done those things with someone who didn’t make me feel super safe. Those days were really hard. We were in tears in between takes and obviously it’s hard for me, but it’s terrible for the guys. We were taking a break from the cabin scene, and the psychologist said, ‘Do you mind talking with the guys? They’re really cut up about you. Can you show them that you’re ok?’ I gave them a hug and everything and they were in bits. 

POWELL: Tell me about training for all the physically challenging skills like horseback riding. Had you done that before?

The Nightingale Photo by Matt Nettheim/IFC Films

FRANCIOSI: No, I didn’t. Someone even said to me, like, you’re Irish. I’m so sorry to disappoint you. It’s not like we’re all on green fields in Ireland on horses. I had never even been around horses at all. They flew me to Sydney to train. The wood chopping is one of my new favorite things. You relieve so much tension. It’s why I loved that. I had the Tasmanian Wood Chopping Champions couple teaching me! And then shooting the musket…God those guns weigh so much! That scene with the four Aboriginals … it was awful.

The weather was terrible. We had a lot of first-time actors and my only job for that whole time was to hold my gun up against [Billy’s] back. Like at one point with quivering hands. Jen was like, “No I want you to hold it like…” [mimes taking gun] and she said, “Oh, my god this is heavy!” I know! [Laughs]

Jen organized Taekwondo and boxing, not because I do any boxing or Taekwondo in the movie, but it was important for us. She wanted to get the physicality of Clare right and she’s a very tough, super working class West Ireland woman. So before we’d do certain scenes, basically the stunt man would hold up two pads and I would beat them before “action!” It really helped. 

POWELL: Can you tell me about the Aboriginal people in the film?

Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr

FRANCIOSI: People are always a bit cautious when it’s a white woman telling the story of an Aboriginal, but she wanted to make sure that we had an Aboriginal elder on set and she got blessings from lots of different aboriginal elders from different communities. We definitely don’t fall into the White Savior category. It’s the other way around. Billy’s (Baykali Ganambarr) broken too. He’s got his own trauma. It’s what he sees, so he has his prejudices too and I love that. Yeah, we’re very different and there’s this fear of the other all the time but really, we’re so much more similar than we are different no matter how much we want to tell ourselves otherwise.

“The Nightingale” is an incredible and haunting story of power and resilience with extraordinary performances from Franciosi and the entire cast. Kent’s remarkable writing and directing will make this film one of the best of the year. 

“The Nightingale” is playing now in theatres.

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