Aisling Franciosi, On Black Narcissus & The Catharsis Of Troubled Characters

Words & interview:
India Hendrikse
Nathan Johnson

We’ve become accustomed to the age of celebrity where a personal brand is just as important as a professional one. Actors are also influencers and trendsetting personalities, perpetuated by social media and our endless fascination with their personal lives. But for 27-year-old Irish-Italian actress Aisling Franciosi, her aversion to a personal brand potentially affecting the believability of her on-screen characters is why she keeps her Instagram “so vanilla”. “My Instagram is extremely boring, but I don’t care because I purposely do that,” she tells me, speaking to me from New York, a city she now calls home. “I want to be as much of a blank slate as possible, so when they see me on screen, hopefully they read my characters a bit more.” Franciosi’s most recent role is in the BBC One’s three-part television remake of the 1947 cult psychological thriller Black Narcissus [inspired by Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name], where she plays a deeply anguished and sexually repressed nun. She perfectly encapsulates a tortured soul in the intricacies of her expressions – an ability that also worked for previous characters including an abused woman in The Nightingale, and a troubled teenager in crime series The Fall. While she admits she’d love to play a comedy – and her bubbly personality, clear as we speak on the phone, highlights this potential – her finesse for the dark and the twisted has been the fabric of her career thus far. In Black Narcissus, a group of Anglican nuns is tasked with the arduous role of building a school in a remote part of the Himalayas. There’s a palpable sense of loneliness, the harsh cold and the haunted palace reflecting the mood of 2020 – a year in which we’ve largely had to isolate to keep each other safe. We suddenly relate to a story that was never meant to be relatable. Before the launch of the miniseries, which began on December 27 on BBC One, Franciosi hopped on the phone to speak about her artistic process, deep-diving into complex characters, and why she would love to play Sinead O’Connor one day.

India Hendrikse: Congratulations on the show! I must say – I was very moved by the character and what she goes through. I’m not going to give too much away here, of course, but I would love for you to speak about how you got into the role of such a complex character who’s obviously plagued by dark, invasive thoughts.
Aisling Franciosi: Well, firstly, I’m so happy that you said that you were moved, thank you. And secondly, because Ruth, I think like with any difficult personality, as an actor you kind of try and see if you can make the audience sympathise with them, even if they’re irritated by them. That was something I really wanted to try and explore with Ruth – that she’s not just a crazy character, she’s actually a bit of a tragic character as well. In terms of the prep for the role, the starting point was that, you know, there was obviously a film in 1947, which is iconic and Kathleen Byron, who played Sister Ruth, she did brilliantly. I kind of thought to myself ‘there’s no point in trying to recreate something that’s iconic and that’s been done so well’. And so I thought, ‘well, I’m just going to come at it with fresh eyes and see if there’s another version of Ruth there’. And when I was reading the novel [by Rumer Godden] in particular, I really saw that, yes, she is difficult and sometimes just downright annoying, but actually she’s someone who’s very unwell and that was really the hook for me. I thought, ‘okay, this character is really suffering with her mental health’. And I felt really sorry for her because basically the way that she lashes out are cries for help in a way.
IH: Absolutely. You’re in the generation where as a female actor, you have the opportunity to play complex female characters, which probably wasn’t something that was as common for women in the past. Do you personally feel more drawn to roles where you can really have a range of complex emotions?
AF: I’ve actually been very lucky. You’re right, I think there are more roles like that now than there were before. So I feel like it’s a good time to be a female actor, but I was very lucky from the get-go and you know, my first job really was The Fall and I was playing a pretty troubled teenager and someone who was very, very vulnerable. I think maybe that in part set the tone for the rest of the work that I did. There is something to be said for when someone sees you in something dark, then they kind of associate you with being able to do that. And so from there, I always played darker roles in darker material, and I loved playing them. They’re so creatively satisfying, I find in ways it’s probably cathartic for me to kind of unleash some of the bottled up stuff.
IH: Obviously the themes in Black Narcissus are dark and heavy. I’d like to talk about the theme of sexual repression, which seems to have run right through the plotline. How did you navigate this theme and what was the development process of that as a cast?
AF: We wanted to be very careful with how we balanced the nuns dealing with these repressed desires, but them also not just brought to the surface when Mr Dean arrives. We wanted to make sure that it was clear that these women were dealing with their own inner turmoil, that there would be things that they were going through anyway, and not just thrown into chaos by the arrival of a man. So as not to trivialise these feelings.
IH: Since you’re dealing with all these heavy themes and roles professionally, how do you keep your creative fire burning on a personal level? What kinds of hobbies, activities or creative pursuits do you like doing that keep that creativity alive?
AF: This year, one of the things that has been, I suppose positive, is that I’ve actually given time to things where before I honestly would have just been thinking about getting the next job and auditioning, so this year I got back to drawing and painting, which has been really great. I’m playing piano actually, which I hadn’t played for years. I’ve had times before where I haven’t worked for long stretches, and I think it’s really important to find other creative outlets, to kind of try and get away from acting becoming the only thing I identify myself with. I’ve tried to get better at separating my value and my worth and my whole identity from acting because there are times when you’re not doing it.
IH: Is there a dream person or role you’d love to play one day?
AF: If there’s a role that I could have played… I would have loved to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. I’d also love to play Sinéad O’Connor actually and the story of her life because I think she’s someone who, when she actually spoke out about something that was very much a truth, she got harassed and just so much anger towards her. And when she went through periods of difficulty people kind of ridiculed her instead of helping her and realising that she had actually gone through trauma. And then when things came to light and everyone acknowledged that there was mass abuse in the church, no one kind of went back to say well done to her for doing something so bold. I’m not really interested in doing work that pleases everyone, I like doing work that hopefully divides, and that’s not something you get to do all the time. I did a film called The Nightingale, and that’s an example of something that really divided people and I liked that because it means you’ve touched on a nerve and it’s a talking point, and if it divides people it means there’s a conversation happening on both sides.
IH: What’s your favourite part of the production process? Do you feel really drawn to the costumes or the makeup or hair? What fascinates you the most?
AF: I think it depends from character to character. With the nuns actually, it was definitely the costumes because they’re so restrictive, just anonymous in a way. So finding your own physicality within that, when you look like all the other actors on screen, is definitely an interesting challenge and definitely helped us get into character as nuns. But then I think for Sister Ruth in particular, we played around with tiny little things. I don’t know if anyone will notice, but I spoke to the makeup designer and I said ‘I think I look kind of sad and disheveled, I’ve got really good long eyebrow hairs, when they face downwards, it definitely changes my expression’. So when Ruth is in a really bad place, if you’ve got a really keen eye you’ll notice that her eyebrow hairs are always brushed down, whereas when she’s feeling fresh and kind of happier, they’re brushed up. When I filmed The Nightingale, I’d been given an amazing gift from a friend who had found it at an auction, this thing called a love token. When the convicts were sent away, they would frequently give their friends or family a beaten coin with a message written on it because they knew they’d probably never see them again. Not a lot of them were literate, so they would just have this memory basically in the form of a coin, and he found a real one for me. And then the costume designer asked if there was anything in particular I wanted them to do with my costume, and I said ‘sew a little pocket into my bra”… so every day I had that real love token that a convict would have held in my undergarment, so it was there all the time when I was shooting and I could feel it against my chest.
IH: That’s incredible. It probably helped so much with getting into that role…
AF: Yeah definitely.
IH: With acting often comes public facing events and awards shows and things like that. When we can finally dress up again, what designers do you love and feel really comfortable in yourself in?
AF: I’ve been very lucky and I’ve been given some amazing gowns in the past… I’ve worn some Chanel, some Givenchy Couture, Miu Miu… which I could only have dreamt of before. I really like Peter Pilotto as well, and I think some Valentino gowns are amazing too. It’s definitely a fun part of it, and I like that you said ‘what do you feel comfortable in?’ because that’s a huge part of it for me. If I feel like I’m wearing something that is not me in a sense or I feel too showy in, I feel really uncomfortable… The dress could be amazing, but if the person doesn’t feel good in it, it takes away from the amazingness of it.
IH: And finally, what other upcoming projects can we expect to see you in, in the near future?
AF: I’ve just finished a Netflix feature that has Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis, and it’s the biggest movie I’ve been a part of which is really cool, and that will be coming out in 2021. It’s a drama thriller so that’s really cool… I mean we’re all in the same position, right? Pandemic permitting, pandemic permitting… I do have a project lined up that will take me back to Ireland actually, but we’ll see what happens.
Black Narcissus runs through until December 29th, 2020, and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.