Aisling Franciosi is modestly dismissive about one of her most arduous moments while shooting Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the uncompromising and often savage story of a woman in 19th century Tasmania whose life is almost destroyed by a British officer. Filming on location during a cold Southern hemisphere winter was hard for the cast and crew alike – and more than a little eventful for Franciosi herself, who had a demanding scene in a fast flowing river.
“On the last day of shooting, in the river I got hypothermia and I fainted and couldn’t go on. Fortunately it was the last day!” She adds that it was probably her own fault “because I said I as OK to go back in for another take probably sooner than I should have.” Nonetheless, it was a shoot that she and co-star, Sam Claflin, are unlikely to forget for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which was the Tasmanian climate. Claflin recalls a day when they “were climbing mountains and the rain was coming at us sideways and it was so cold. Thankfully, our costumes were pretty massive and thick – which was also a problem for when it was really sunny! The entire shoot was physically challenging definitely, and the whole thing was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.”
If the physical side of the shoot was tough, the emotional demands on the cast – and sometimes the crew as well – were even more so. For an actor often associated with heroic and romantic roles, Claflin found it hard to resist playing the profoundly unsympathetic officer who brutalises just about everything and everybody he touches. Finding a way to understand the man was less than easy. “Selfishly, the prospect of playing somebody so far removed from myself was attractive. As an actor, I love losing myself in roles and in immersive experienced and fortunately Jennifer Kent saw some potential in me. We went back and forth on building his history, the sort of man he is, why he’s angry and why he’s got so much rage and bitterness inside him. And we created a backstory, that he grew up in a very violent and aggressive home, a military household so that he was pushed into it at a young age, that he was beaten by his father and he probably had an older brother so that he had that inferiority complex – never being quite good enough – so there was a fear in him, insecurities that make him the way that he is.”
Franciosi’s preparation involved extensive, and very personal, research with women who’d suffered in similar ways to her character. “I worked with a clinical psychologist who had worked with Jennifer on the script for a couple of years. She was on set as well – not every day but on the particularly horrible days to make sure we were all OK and Jennifer made sure I checked in with her at the end of the shoot as well. She also facilitated me meeting real life victims of rape and we met with social workers from domestic abuse centres. I get chills even now just thinking about it, having these people share their stories with me and be so generous with them and opening up to me so that I could give a truthful performance. It was amazing in that it gave me real empathy and emotion that I could draw on but it also made me feel a real sense of responsibility. I really wanted to give as truthful performance as I could so that I could honour them and their generosity in sharing their stories with me.”
Some of the more intense and traumatic scenes between the two actors really took their toll. Claflin describes the three month shoot as the most difficult he’s ever been through and, although he’s glad he did it, he’s in no hurry to repeat the experience. “I felt horrible. We rehearsed and choreographed certain scenes to such a degree that we all felt comfortable in each other’s presence. But on my one of my first days of shooting – which also happened to be the first difficult encounter of the movie – I was crying in between every single take. I was really struggling and Jennifer took me aside, was very supportive, and told me to take my time and said ‘just know that one of the reasons that you’re feeling something is because that you’re not him. And he doesn’t.’ There were moments when Aisling was crying and I wasn’t sure whether it was her crying or the character – and when they shouted ‘cut’, she carried on crying. That first scene especially was traumatic for a lot of people. We were in a black room, all the crew were sat outside waiting to do their jobs, it was a closed set, it was a brutal experience.”
After the rigours of The Nightingale, both actors are looking forward to contrasting projects. At the time of the interview, Franciosi had just returned from Nepal, where she’d been shooting the BBC TV adaptation of Black Narcissus, in which she plays the pivotal role of the tormented Sister Ruth. Claflin, on the other hand, is preparing for what he hopes will be a December shoot for his next film, Every Breath You Take, where he’ll be working alongside Casey Affleck. Inevitably, he can’t say much about it, but he describes himself as being “ready and prepared for.” Both should be on screens, large and small, some time next year.
Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin were talking to Freda Cooper.
The Nightingale is in cinemas on Friday, 29 November.