Having watched Aisling Franciosi in Game of Thrones, then The Nightingale and her most recent project, the FX limited series Black Narcissus—performances so gut-wrenchingly vulnerable and powerful they stick with you long after the credits roll—I had to ask her, What about something lighthearted? She laughs, admitting a comedy is on her wish list. For now, though, she’s perfectly happy stepping into dark roles, and for good reason. “Those characters are satisfying to play,” she tells me. Franciosi’s ability to seamlessly tap into the fragile and traumatized minds of the characters she portrays is a real testament to her craft. It’s also why she continues to land on every “rising star” and “ones to watch” list out there. She is a force on screen.
Following her breakout performance in The Nightingale and the stylish red carpet appearances that ensued at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, Franciosi is back in the spotlight, breathing new life into a cult classic. First a book and then a 1947 film, Black Narcissus follows a group of Anglican nuns who travel to a run-down seraglio in the Himalayas to set up a school and hospital. Shortly after their arrival, the difficult environment creates issues for the nuns, who begin to unravel both physically and emotionally. Franciosi plays Sister Ruth in the three-part FX series, who, wrought with altitude sickness and a declining mental state, quickly descends into madness. The performance is a highlight of the psychological drama, leaving you questioning at every turn whether you should dislike this character or feel empathy toward her.
Despite a 73-year gap between the original film and FX’s retelling, the themes of Black Narcissus still hold strong today, maybe even more so, making it a worthy watch. Below, I catch up with Franciosi to talk about bringing the story back in 2020, how exactly she tapped into the mindset of Sister Ruth, and her honest feelings toward loungewear.
The original Black Narcissus film premiered in 1947 and is considered a cult classic. How do you think this story holds up in 2020?
First and foremost, I think it’s relevant because it’s an entertaining story. Storytelling is always relevant as long as it’s informative or entertaining, and I think in this case it’s both. There are themes in there that definitely resonate today. One of the themes is othering and how damaging that is. In Black Narcissus, it’s assuming that the way of the West is right. We have this group of nuns who are going over [to the East] to try and set up a school, but it’s really also to teach the people there the real God that they should be praying to. Ultimately, it leads to the demise of the ones trying to impose it. That is a thread that I don’t know, at the time of filming, was quite as timely as it is now, but it’s definitely a topic that resonates today. Also, the isolation. That’s as timely as you can possibly get, which, of course, we did not envision at all. Little did we know! It’s not just physical isolation, which is obviously something we’re all going through in some way, shape, or form now, but also the isolation from your identity. That was one thing that really struck me, especially playing Ruth. To be part of a convent meant the stripping of your identity, the stripping of things that made you you—your personality and your humanity. Humanity in the sense of human desires and the need for external validation. You have to forfeit all of these things for the purpose of serving God. I find it entertaining, too, the fact that this [series] is based on the original film. It’s a cult classic among film connoisseurs, but that was more than 70 years ago. There are whole generations who don’t know about it. I didn’t know about it until I got the role and I watched it. It’s nice to reintroduce the story in a new way to audiences as well.
What initially struck you about Sister Ruth when reading the script?
I had mixed emotions, in that I found her irritating and also felt sorry for her. It’s an interesting combination, especially when you get to play someone like that, because you have to find the reasons that make you feel sorry for her and really amplify those. I think understanding someone and why they do the things they do can be interesting. In Sister Ruth’s case, I really went from the novel and the scripts Amanda Coe wrote because I knew Kathleen Byron’s interpretation of her was pretty iconic from the first film. If someone has done an iconic interpretation of a character, why try to replicate that? It clearly means they have done that version of the character the best it could be done. I also think, with any role, an actor has dozens of choices to make about how to portray the character, and there are also a multitude of ways that character can be interpreted. With this one, we thought, “Well, there must be another side to Ruth.” She’s quite fragile from the beginning, and with the scripts, you get to see her descend a little bit more into this madness rather than her being crazy from the beginning. It’s someone who is very vulnerable, probably her mental health is a little bit fragile, and she is desperately seeking external validation from someone who she really admires, Sister Clodagh. I think we all like to think we don’t need external validation, and there’s a lot of talk about all you need is yourself, but I don’t know how true that is. Whether it’s from our family or friends, there is something to be said for external validation. Poor Sister Ruth is looking for that in an environment where that’s not really what you are supposed to search for, and it’s frowned upon. She is stripped of her identity, in a sense, and she’s lonely and isolated and has altitude sickness. On top of that, she’s had an experience with this very, in her eyes, sensual man who seems to be the only one who is paying her any real attention. All of it accumulates and unfortunately has her descend into a state of despair.
How do you tap into the mindset of someone like Ruth, who is going through all of these emotional states?
For me, it definitely differs project to project. I have already played a few fragile characters or, if not fragile, people who are vulnerable for one reason or another or are hurting for one reason or another. That’s the list: hurting, fragile, traumatized. So I have a bank of things I tap into from other projects, which has been useful. With Ruth, when I read the books, the way I interpreted it was, “Wow, this is a person who is mentally ill.” She actually reads as a paranoid schizophrenic in the novel. When you take down the isolated descriptions of her behavior and thoughts, she is constantly paranoid. She is constantly thinking they are trying to poison her, that they want to kill her, that they are whispering about her all the time and talking about her behind her back. Then, there are these moments of huge elation with Mr. Dean and total delusion and then complete, crushing loneliness. So I really went from a point of view that this poor girl is not well, and to start from that, it was easier for me to tap into, “Okay, why is she like this?”
We went to the Himalayas to shoot for 10 days or something, which was amazing. We were so lucky to get to do that. There was something about the landscape and the vastness of this beauty but also the crushing feeling of irrelevance that I often get when I’m in a place that is so vast and so beautiful. I tapped into those feelings as well for her. But also, I’m quite nerdy, so I like the psychological aspect of her and how that would have an affect on her physiologically, too, like the way she stands and looks at people.
The story is dark and unnerving at times, but what was it like when the cameras weren’t rolling? Can you tell me about some of your favorite moments filming this project?
When we went to the Himalayas, we were genuinely isolated. I think it took us about two days to get to our final destination. We flew from London by Istanbul to Kathmandu. And then, we flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara and then Pokhara to Tansen in a tiny propeller airplane, which I don’t love. And then from there, some of the crew were staying in a tiny town where we arrived on the final flight, but the cast and some of the production team and the director and producers were staying an extra hour further away from that with this super-bumpy car ride to get there. When we got there, we didn’t have any cell phone service and no internet. I’m actually suspicious because the day that we left, we popped back in to use the loo, and the Wi-Fi was working again when it hadn’t been that whole time. But actually, it was a blessing because it meant we did old-school bonding. In the evenings, we were staying in this cool little lodge, and it was really cold at night, so we would all go and huddle around the fire downstairs. Everyone ate at the same time, and we had these tables that had hot coals underneath that warmed your legs. Even if people were reading books, they would tend to read downstairs by the fire, and people would be chatting and playing stupid games that you would play at camp. It meant that we all bonded extremely quickly, which was beautiful. Then when we were filming most of the interior stuff back in London, it meant that we had that sense of knowing each other for a long time. When you are isolated and in a room with people for two weeks straight with nothing else to do, it’s an accelerated getting-to-know-you process. Also, the cast is just so funny. We laughed so much. It was a really good group.
Coming off Black Narcissus and The Nightingale before that, what are you looking to do next in your career?
I’ve already got my next two projects. One of them is a little bit different, and the other one is a very sad character. I don’t feel like that’s how I present myself day-to-day, so I don’t know why I attract these roles. I would love to do a comedy. I would love to work with a director who does very stylized films, like Yorgos Lanthimos, those people who you watch their film and you know it’s theirs—like there is no question about who directed it. I, at some point, would love to do a musical film. But really, if I get the opportunity to work on something that has great people involved, like a great writer, director, or a cast, and the writing is really strong, I’m not going to say no to it just because it’s another dark character. It’s also true to say that those characters are satisfying to play, so I get a lot of creative satisfaction from that. I have a funny story from last year. I was auditioning for two parts in the same show, and one was a very chatty, funny Brooklynite, and the other was the serial killer of the show. I eventually got down to the last couple [auditions], and I asked my agent, “Oh, for which one?” and she said, “The serial killer, obviously!” So despite my efforts on that one, I am still, for some reason, seen as better suited to a serial killer than a friendly, chatty person.
You wore some beautiful looks for the 2018 Venice Film Festival in support of The Nightingale. How would you describe your red carpet aesthetic?
I’m very lucky because whenever I’m going to do a red carpet, I have the help of the glorious Rebecca Corbin-Murray, and she is so good at what she does. I think she has a very good sense of what her clients do or don’t like. I have to be prodded a little bit to wear things I feel are a bit more “look at me” because I just think it’s such a weird experience. You are on a red carpet, and people are taking photographs of you. It’s so strange. But with her help, she manages to find things that I feel not only comfortable in but are also these amazing dresses and showcase the work of these really cool designers. I quite like classic but with a bit of an edge, maybe like cool gothic. I think [those are looks] I gravitate to most, but I’m getting into trying more things, too. I think that comes from me not only working with Rebecca but also the more work I do acting and the characters I get to play. Costume, for me, is so important, and it makes me feel different when I finally find the character’s costume. I started thinking, “Oh, I can actually do this in my real life, too.” I hadn’t made the connection before that. So now if I’m feeling in a fun mood, I can be open to wearing something more colorful.
Off duty, I do like to be dressed. I’m not the kind of person you’d find in pajamas or sweatpants for hours on end. I need a little bit of structure. Otherwise, I feel kind of sloppy or something. I veer toward simple and classic. I know what suits my body and what doesn’t, so I stick within that realm. I’m also trying to buy less or buy secondhand or just buy quality pieces instead of just getting the latest trend that I might like. I’m still figuring out my own wardrobe, but there are certain brands that I love if I’m going to events, like Chanel or Givenchy. But I also love A.L.C. and Khiate for more relaxed looks. So yeah, Rebecca and my work have opened my eyes to fashion more so than ever before. I wasn’t very well versed or educated in the fashion world, but in the last year, I’ve started to get a little more experience to be open to all of those things now.
Black Narcissus premieres on FX November 23.