When Jennifer Kent announced her new film, “The Nightingale,” fans of her freshman feature, “The Babadook,” expected another horror film. But as the project began to take shape, it was clear that this new work would tell the story of a much different kind of horror.
Set in the rugged and dangerous wilds of 1820s Tasmania, “The Nightingale” captures the narrative of a young Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) whose life is destroyed by an Army Lieuntenant (Sam Claflin). She embarks on a journey of revenge, finding an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her cross the rough terrain. And what, on the surface, could be dubbed a typical revenge drama becomes anything but typical.
I recently sat down with Jennifer Kent, Aisling Franciosi, and Baykali Ganambarr to discuss their experiences with “The Nightingale.” You can read my interview with Kent here. And here are my conversations with Franciosi and Ganambarr about their roles, the concepts of grief and trauma, and working with Jennifer Kent.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How are you doing?
Aisling Franciosi: Good. I’m actually so happy. I’m one of the weird actors. I love doing press days.
KP: That’s good!
AF: Maybe it’s also this film. I’m just so happy to talk about it.
KP: When did you film this? It’s been awhile.
AF: It has been awhile. We finished filming two years ago. And I auditioned for the first time three and a half years ago. It’s been like a slow birth. But yeah, I just can’t believe it was that long ago that I read for the first time.
KP: Your life has probably changed so much in those three and a half years.
AF: Um, a little bit, I guess. But it’s weird. I think I made so many changes around this film beforehand. It was an interesting case with this film. I read for it, I auditioned for it, I’m not famous. Bless Jen’s heart. She decided to go with me even though I know she would have made things much easier for herself if she had chosen someone who was famous. But that meant that things got pushed a little slower, so all my choices were based around this movie for the last three and a half years. And based also on wanting to do a good job on whatever else I go on to next. So I don’t know that it actually has changed all that much yet, except that I live in the States now. That’s cool.
KP: Why would she have had an easier time with someone with a bigger name?
KP: That does make a difference.
AF: Huge difference, I learned. It’s weird. My eyes were opened to so many sides of the business with this film. I was really naive about so much, I realized. Around that time I was like, okay I have to get Instagram even though I’m really bad on it and I don’t love it. I have to get a bit savvier, I think. It’s just the landscape of the work is changing and I have to try to keep up.
KP: It’s changing so fast. Just even looking at films that were coming out two years ago, when you were finishing making this one and what’s happening in the industry now, it’s crazy.
AF: Yeah, it’s crazy. And a lot of it is really good change. I don’t love this whole Instagram side of the work, but it is what it is.
KP: Let’s talk about “The Nightingale” and your character, Clare. What were some of the impressions you had when you first read the script? I know it’s been awhile.
AF: I remember so clearly. Honestly, everything about this film I just remember so clearly. It’s interesting. I think I was spoiled right from the beginning in that when I started working I got to work on pretty good material. So when you’re reading scripts there are some that just jump out at you as being, “There’s something different about this one. It’s a step above the other things I’ve been reading.” That happened instantly with Jen’s. From the first few pages I just loved her style of writing. And then once I got into the thick of the script, I thought, whoa, this is a massive story. It’s so powerful, really confronting and thought-provoking, and also what a challenge this would be. I play a lot of teenagers, which is great, but I also wanted the chance to show that I could do a bit more of what I can do.
KP: Something more mature.
AF: Yeah, or just with a scope, because Clare is still a very young woman. But the scope of what she has to live through is just so vast that I was really excited. And of course getting the chance to work with Jen, I just thought this would be so cool. Actually, I didn’t think that, that’s a lie. What I thought was, “I will fight to the death for this one! This one’s mine!” And luckily enough it worked out that way.
KP: What were some of your early conversations with Jennifer, after you were cast, when you were getting into the mindset of Clare?
AF: I asked her to basically throw as much research material at me as possible. I wrote to Jen after I did my callback, which I would never usually do. I’m always afraid of bothering people. I wrote to her and basically just poured my heart out and said, “I will give you literally everything I have if you give me this role.” I just was so ready to get into every single aspect of this world, of the character, do anything I could.
From Clare’s point of view, there’s so much. There’s the Aboriginal history, which is huge, there’s the convict history. For me, I was more focusing – since I was playing Clare – on the convict history and sexual violence, violence against women. Violence against the feminine in general. That was a huge part of our conversation. She wanted me to research that to know that part of the world. And then I just went down the rabbit hole of reading about PTSD. And not just PTSD. There’s an amazing book called “Trauma and Recovery.” It’s genuinely one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. It’s just so fascinating.
But then I also started doing research into sexual abuse in the US military. Or acid attacks in India or Pakistan. Getting a look at different kinds of violence and why we’re motivated to do it. I stayed away from doing any research on the rapist’s perspective because I didn’t want to know about that from my point of view of the character. But we spoke a lot about how we wanted this to be, well, a bunch of things, but definitely a look at the violence against the feminine and the female voice within that and the female perspective. Particularly with the scenes that a lot of people are asking about, the scenes of sexual violence. We really wanted to make sure that we really looked at what, exactly, rape is. Because I think, apart from the fact that it’s sexualized in some way – I realize that it’s in the category of sexual violence, but I’m almost wary to put it in that category because it’s violence. That is what it is, it’s violence. Putting it in the sexual violence category derails the conversation and our view of it a little bit, whether we like to admit it or not.
Even watching the film, people are reacting in many different ways to the scenes of sexual violence, but not anywhere near as viscerally to the scenes of Aboriginal hanging from a tree or being slaughtered in front of Clare and Billy. It’s interesting how desensitized we’ve become to certain types of violence, and how unwilling we are to really look at sexual violence. I’m fascinated as to why that is. I don’t know that I necessarily have an answer, but I think it probably has something to do with shame. But we wanted to show that rape is an act of power, of dominance, of humiliation. If you look at war, it’s no surprise that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s a weapon. It’s a weapon of domination, it’s a weapon of keeping the powerful people in power. It’s just that the sexual nature of that is the weapon. So we really wanted to make sure that we showed that it was never sexualized in any way. That’s why you never see nudity. You never really see two bodies in the frame. It’s always faces. We wanted to make sure that it’s from Clare’s perspective. That you live it with her, the emotion, and that she doesn’t become just a faceless victim. You’re forced to look at this as a human being and there’s nothing sexual about this. Let’s really realize how horrific an act of violence this really is. Let’s talk about it for what it really is and the effects it has afterwards.
So that was a huge part of what we talked about. And her PTSD. For me, a huge part of what I don’t like about people describing this film is like a rape/revenge. In broad strokes, yes, I can see why it’s called that. But frequently in rape/revenge films, there’s a rape and then here comes the revenge. But it’s not an isolated event that happens and the next day they’re over it like, oh that was in the past. Women – and men, of course – have to deal with that for years. Possibly the rest of their life. They have struggles with PTSD, with depression, anxiety, nightmares, a whole host of things. It was really important that we focus on the long term affects of this brutal type of violent act. I think frequently in rape/revenge movies or when there’s like a Strong Female Character, you don’t ever see her struggling to the same extent that Clare does. She almost self destructs. She unravels and she’s trying to keep it all together and I really like that about her. It really shows yeah, she’s a strong character, but also it’s freaking hard for her to just stay alive after all the trauma she’s been subjected to.
KP: How did Jen make you feel safe when you had to film those really brutal scenes?
AF: She’s a really sensitive, supportive person. And I think she realized from very early on that we would need to feel, as you say, unbelievably safe. It was interesting, actually, because very early on we had this idea that maybe myself and Sam wouldn’t socialize that much before filming to kind of keep this strange dynamic. And then the more we workshopped scenes, we thought, no that’s a terrible idea. We really need to become unbelievably close and comfortable with each other and be able to trust each other. For me, but also for him. It was really hard for him, what he has to do, and for Damon [Herriman]. We workshopped a lot. We never rehearsed with the lines or anything like that. Physically, in terms of feeling safe, we rehearsed the movements, like the dynamics of the shack, so that no one got hurt because there was furniture around and everything. Obviously that was from a practical point of view.
But also, she had a clinical psychologist who is a friend of hers who had been working with her on the script as well for months. She was on set on those days. Obviously it was as closed a set as possible. Our crew was amazing. They were so sensitive and just wonderful. And so on those days the psychologist would come along and say, “We’re going to take a breather. Are you guys okay?” And have myself and the guys check in with each other.
It’s really difficult to convey just how something happened, particularly with that scene in the shack. It was unbelievably emotional. I don’t know what happened. I get goosebumps every time I even think of those days. Our crew members who were strapping Aussie men, were in tears. I think everyone was just so committed to making it as truthful as it could be that it just got under our skin a little bit. I also knew Jen would never put anything in that compromised what we were trying to achieve. It was always going to be for the sake of the story, for the sake of being truthful and authentic. She’s an incredible actor’s director. Incredible. She pushed us. Don’t get me wrong. She is tough. Like, really tough. But it was what was required of the story and it was what I promised her too. I think we both gave it absolutely everything. Everyone on set did, and the crew too. Everyone was really in it for the story.
KP: I wondered what it was like with Sam because I’m watching this and wondering how I could look at him the same again. What was that like for you?
AF: He terrified me the very first day we were workshopping and I was like, “Oh, he can definitely play this character.” It was great. We were just workshopping and improvising and there was this one bit where he just stood up and shouted at me and I genuinely got a fright. It was great to see him play this. He’s so talented and I’m just glad. Yes, he’s a horrible character, but he’s a wonderful person and a really generous actor. But I’m really glad that people can see that he has a huge amount to give as an actor.
KP: What is something you learned about yourself during “The Nightingale?”
AF: That I probably don’t deal with my more negative emotions as well as I should. Going through the film, I would always kind of squish what I viewed to be negative emotions down. I would never get angry at people, I would really hate crying in front of people, all of these things. But obviously for this film I thought, “Okay, cool, I can call on this.” But then I didn’t realize how much was there and I found it really difficult to turn off the tap once I opened it. I thought, “Okay, we should probably look at how you deal with your emotions day to day, which is good. That’s a great tool for life, not just for the job. But that was definitely something.
And one of the things, career-wise, that I learned was I put so much into this film and I’m so proud of what myself and Jen and Baykali and Sam and all the rest of the cast and crew did, that it’s been really liberating. If people love it, great. If people don’t, it doesn’t affect me. Which is hard. It’s hard to do that and it doesn’t happen every time. But because I wholeheartedly wanted to do it, I gave it everything. I’m really proud of what we did and I just realize if I can continue as much as possible to make decisions based on me believing in projects, it’s going to also make it so much easier for me, emotionally, afterwards in the reactions.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: This movie is intense!
Baykali Ganambarr: Yeah.
KP: How did you first get involved? Did you go through an audition process?
BG: Yes, I did. I’m a dancer. I’ve been dancing my whole life. There was this post saying they were looking for an Aboriginal actor with no acting experience so I decided to give it a try and I did my first audition and they called me for the second audition. A couple of weeks later, found out I got the role and I was so stoked and happy.
KP: What were some of your impressions when you first read the script?
BG: When I first read the script I was like, wow, I really want to get this role. I was like, “I have to be the one to represent Aboriginal people of Australia and to share to the world what happened.” It’s the history of Australia.
KP: Did you have to do any research to learn some of the history?
BG: I pretty much grew up listening to it because all my elders, their grandfathers and fathers before them went through it. The first contacts, yeah.
KP: How did that feel for you? Because now you’re representing generations of your family.
BG: I felt honored and definitely privileged to be an Aboriginal bloke from a small, remote community in Australia speaking the Palawa Kani language for the first time onset – first time on a big screen – and sharing the history is just amazing. I love how Jennifer Kent wrote the story. Every one of my family back home and all my elders are really proud and happy and just can’t wait to watch the film.
KP: It’s such an interesting look at a period of history that a lot of people, especially outside of Australia, don’t know anything about.
BG: Yes, definitely, yes.
KP: When you first sat down with Jennifer, what was the conversation you had about your character, Billy?
BG: When we first met, she told me about Billy. About the trauma, the past life that he dealt with, his family being murdered in front of him, his whole clan. This was set back in the 1820s, the first contact in Tassie. At that time it was a big war, it was really brutal. Almost 95% of Tasmanian Aboriginals were almost completely wiped out. We’re pretty much regaining their language and the culture today. For me to represent their culture, their dance, and also speak their language makes me honored and proud to be the bloke to represent on a big screen. Not just Tassie, also wide Australia.
I just love Billy. His character. He’s so strong, and he’s a real proud warrior. And he’s funny, you know? All his comments in the movie are crazy.
KP: He is funny in some ways. Thinking about what he has been through in his past, how did you get into the mindset to portray both sides of Billy?
BG: I reckon through my experience, I’ve dealt with stuff like going into the big city when I was like 14, 15. Everything was pretty tough, the city life. I got into Billy’s mindset because I felt the energy, and knowing the history of Australia, what my people went through, I really focused on that and it kind of helped me. Because when I first saw “The Nightingale” at the Venice Film Festival, watching myself, I was like, “Is that even me?” I can see myself completely changed. It wasn’t me, it was Billy.
KP: What was it like getting to know and working with Aisling?
BG: She’s incredible. She’s so amazing, got an amazing voice, she’s beautiful. Her role was pretty tough, some of the scenes she had to go through, she’s such an amazing woman. I was so nervous doing this first lead role. I was so nervous and honored and pleased to have Aisling and Sam Claflin supporting me as experienced actors. Supporting me and making me feel comfortable in all my scenes. They’re just such amazing people and I hope one day we can act together again.
KP: You spent a lot of time outdoors in the wilderness for this film. What sort of preparation did you do for that?
BG: Because it was filming in Tassie I’m used to the bush, so we were in the wilderness, forest, mountains. Where I’m from in Australia, it’s always pretty hot. It’s 34, 35 degrees. And to go down to Tasmania where it’s always like 7, 13 degrees Celsius, man it was so cold! There were so many challenges. Not just that. Also walking up and down, going places where’s it’s hard climbing up mountains, going down mountains. It was so challenging also for the film crew, carrying their equipment everywhere in these dangerous, risky areas. Everybody was determined. We were so motivated, we really wanted to finish this film.
KP: When you had downtime on the set, what was it like for you with the rest of the cast and the crew?
BG: We were always there for each other. We supported each other. At the same time, for myself, I love dealing with some things myself sometimes. I reckon it helps me more if I feel down or sad. There were a couple of scenes where I had to be sad or down and it helped me to do [be alone]. And when there’s the other days where I’m really energetic and happy, it helps.
KP: You always wonder what it’s like in between. Are they joking? Are they having fun?
BG: I reckon I was the only quiet guy in the group because I don’t talk much. I just listen to everyone talk. Especially when I’m nervous. When I’m doing something for the first time that I’m not used to, I’m quiet because I want to be focused, so it makes me feel comfortable when I actually start shooting.
KP: What do you like to do when you’re trying to focus? Do you listen to music?
BG: Yeah, I listen to music, I’ll go through the lines.
KP: What do you like to listen to?
BG: R&B, a bit of country, a mixture. I love my country music.
KP: Since you finished the film two years ago and then it finally released last year at Venice and has played at some more festivals since then, what has it been like for you? As people see it and talk to you about it?
BG: Watching the film in Venice and going to Venice for the first time was unexpected. I knew there was going to be a lot of talk about it, but I never knew it would end up going to Venice. I was so stoked and happy. Seeing a different country, place. I was so happy to see people traveling around in boats because I’m used to it. Back home we travel from island to island by boat. The people there were amazing. Meeting all these other famous actors and artists such as Taika Waititi, Willem Dafoe, Naomi Watts. It was such an incredible moment.
KP: People you’ve grown up admiring?
BG: Yeah, definitely. And also a big moment in Venice for me was winning an award. The Marcello Mastroianni Award. I was so nervous when I got up in front of these actors, directors, producers. My whole body was just shaking.
KP: What was going through your mind when they said your name?
BG: I actually thought they didn’t call out my name. I thought it was some similar Italian name. I was like, “Is that really me?” and then Josh was like, “Get up, that is you!” So I got up and thought wow, this is crazy. Such an amazing feeling.
KP: What are some things you hope people will take away when they watch “The Nightingale.”
BG: What I hope for people, love and respect within each other and have an open mind. Especially the history that’s depicted in “The Nightingale,” have an open mind. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Just take love and a bit of knowledge and respect.
KP: How has this experience changed you?
BG: It’s definitely changed me in so many ways. I’m not used to talking in front of crowds and doing press in front of fifty people. It makes me feel like I’m really out there now. Like I can express myself. It gives me a platform to go out there and represent my people and have a voice for the people that don’t have a voice. I’m just so honored to be that person to go around and show the world that we’re here.