Aisling Franciosi: ‘I knew it would maybe be too much for people’

Aisling Franciosi. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty

We must resist the temptation to say that Aisling Franciosi is everywhere. It’s about to feel that way, but the Irish-Italian actor – she nods to both nationalities – has ridden the peaks and troughs of her precarious business. A little over a year ago, her gut-wrenching performance in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale knocked the Venice Film Festival sideways. As we meet, she’s shooting the juiciest role in a BBC adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. There is, however, no sense of complacency.

“After The Nightingale, I got one more job and then I had a horrible year – until July of last year,” she says. “You work solidly for seven years and then there’s a dry spell. That was interesting. The Nightingale was getting a lot of attention and people were saying: ‘You’re having such a busy year.’ But I wasn’t actually working.”

People say: ‘If you have positive thoughts, that’s going to affect how you feel.’ The same is true if you are putting yourself in negative feelings for 16 hours a day. I was pretty exhausted by the end of the shoot

At any rate, The Nightingale is finally here to unsettle and engage brave audiences. Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook casts Franciosi as an Irish immigrant to Tasmania who, after a brutal rape, follows her assailant through rough terrain towards a horrific reckoning. Along the way, she gains an understanding of connections between the colonised Irish and the indigenous peoples of Australia. The consistently strong reviews all focused on the ruthless integrity of Franciosi’s performance. It was an emotionally wrenching experience.

“I had played traumatising roles before, but I had been able to leave the work behind when I went home,” she says. “But this was a whole different experience. The material is very heavy in terms of the violence against women and the racially motivated violence. I had nine months between getting the role and shooting. I did a lot of research. I worked with a clinical psychologist. She had worked with the script since the beginning. She facilitated me meeting real victims of domestic violence.”

Franciosi explains that this experience left her with a sense of responsibility towards those victims. She wanted to honour their stories. She didn’t want to trivialise or sensationalise the experience of sexual assault.

“We are in this era of ‘mindfulness’ now,” she says. “People say: ‘If you have positive thoughts, that’s going to affect how you feel.’ The same is true if you are putting yourself in negative feelings for 16 hours a day. I was pretty exhausted by the end of the shoot.”

The rape is hard to watch. So are subsequent beatings and killings. Set in 1825, The Nightingale concerns itself with the roughest frontiers of the British Empire. Society (such as it is) exists amid filth and brutality. Indeed, the film is sufficiently arresting to have generated one backhanded honour: a preposterous scare story in the Daily Mail. Last summer the paper told us that “viewers walk[ed] out of gruesome horror film The Nightingale at Sydney Film Festival”. The piece went on offer no real evidence that “the majority of the sold-out audience . . . felt the historical drama went too far.”

We can probably dismiss that (it’s not a horror film, for starters). But it is reasonable to ask if Franciosi was comfortable with the explicit violence.

I had one woman in her 40s come up and say: ‘As a victim of sexual violence, I now feel understood’

“I didn’t have concerns,” she says. “I knew it would hit people hard and maybe be too much for people. If someone has been through something and they want to leave, that is understandable. That’s fine. We wanted to make sure that if we are making a film about violence you had better feel the emotional impact of that. There are so many films that are violent, but that are set up in a comical way or in a way that allow you to disengage.”

There have been emotional scenes at the end of some screenings.

“Some people have walked out,” she says. “Others have come up to us afterwards and thanked us for showing the effects of PTSD. I had one woman in her 40s come up and say: ‘As a victim of sexual violence, I now feel understood.’”

Now 26, Franciosi speaks with great articulacy about these issues. Her accent is unmistakably Irish, but, resident in New York for five years, she has picked up a few American inflections. There are worse things than being from everywhere. Born in Dublin, daughter of an Irish mother and an Italian dad, she moved with the family to Italy in 1993, but came back four years later when her parents separated. I wonder how she describes herself. Is she Irish? Is she Italian? I guess, like most of us, she’s some class of hyphenate.

“I always mention both,” she says. “My formative years were spent in Dublin. I always feel the need to add: ‘But I am also Italian!’ My mum cooks Italian. I always had a good relationship with my dad. I went back a lot. So I always feel connected to Italy.”

Actors with similarly complex backgrounds often claim that they profit from the variety of voices spinning round their brains. The job involves shifting from one persona to the next. So it can only help if you have lived in different environments and tasted other cultures. Or does it? I’m not sure I am making sense here.

Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale: ‘The material is very heavy in terms of the violence against women and the racially motivated violence.’ Photograph: Matt Nettheim/IFC Films
Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale

“I’m not sure I have a great answer to that,” she says tolerantly. “From an acting point of view, it helps that I studied languages. I love that. I love the structure of language. When I connect to a script it’s usually because of language. When people see me speak Italian they say: ‘Your whole body changes.’ So there is something in that.”

Such a mix of cultures would once have seemed exotic in Ireland, but I’m betting that, by the time she got to Trinity College Dublin, we were all blase about that sort of thing.

“Yeah, I never really felt exotic,” she says. “When you are used to being who you are you don’t think about it. Maybe in the States that’s still true. They are still impressed by someone from Europe who speaks another language. Ha ha!”

Franciosi did a speech and drama class when she was six and was immediately hooked. She came straight home and told her mother that she was going to be an actor. She admits her parents probably wished she’d chosen something a little less precarious and remembers them being relieved that she stuck to her studies, got a good Leaving Certificate and entered Trinity to study Italian and Spanish. She was, however, always on the lookout for acting jobs. A role in A Christmas Carol at The Gate breached the wall. A strong part opposite Jamie Dornan in the BBC’s The Fall widened the opening.

LA is not the city for me. I don’t love being in a city that is so dominated by the entertainment industry

“Getting The Fall was so cool. It was my first thing in TV. I was still in college. I dropped out . . . Well, actually, I didn’t really drop out; I was given an ultimatum,” she says slightly shamefacedly.

Notwithstanding the quiet periods discussed above, she seems to have made good on that semi-voluntary expulsion. Dark, with a strong, rich speaking voice (and, as demonstrated in The Nightingale, a sure way with a tune), Franciosi is the sort of flexible leading actor casting directors crave. She remains, however, impressively realistic about the challenges faced and overcome. She was here. She was there. She now sounds settled in New York.

“I had been in London for five years and then I did go to LA for a while,” she says. “I have friends there. There are things about it that I like. But it is not the city for me. I don’t love being in a city that is so dominated by the entertainment industry. But it’s easier now with self-taping for auditions. It’s easier to get cast. When I didn’t click with LA, I thought: I will go to New York. It is six hours from LA and six hours from London. It works.”

Following that iffy period after The Nightingale, Franciosi finds herself in an indecently exciting new role. Rumer Godden’s novel Black Narcissus, concerning squabbling nuns in the Himalayas, was a sensation in the pre-war years, but is now best known as the inspiration for Michael Powell’s immortal 1947 film. In the BBC’s new take, Gemma Arterton succeeds Deborah Kerr as the uncertain Sister Clodagh. Diana Rigg is Mother Superior. Franciosi takes over from Kathleen Byron as the sexually voracious, demented Sister Ruth. What a legacy.

“I put the film out of my mind as much as possible,” she says. “I was a bit nervous about watching it. I eventually did and it is amazing, but it is very much of its time. So that set my mind at rest a little. I have to give it my own take.”

The location shoot in rural Nepal is over – a week away from phone and internet service, she tells me – and, as we talk, she is taking breaths between calls to the London set. Contracts are about to be concluded for an exciting, still-secret job coming her way in February. And so the rollicking journey continues.

“When I was younger, I spent a while working in a cafe in Foxrock,” she remembers. “I did a few jobs where I had to live on those savings. Then I was able to replenish them.” 

There’s a lesson here.

“People ask for advice and I say: ‘If you can save anything then try and save. Save!’”

Things they don’t teach you at Rada.   

The Nightingale is in cinemas now