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Exclusive: The Unforgivable Star Aisling Franciosi Reveals How Sandra Bullock Set the Tone On Set

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Warning: This article may contain spoilers for Netflix’s The Unforgivable, streaming on December 10.

Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis may have top billing in Netflix’s new drama The Unforgivablebut it’s young Irish actress Aisling Franciosi who is the heart and soul of this gripping new drama. The movie tells the story of a woman named Ruth Slater (Bullock), who’s been released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for killing a cop, and is now trying to rebuild her life and make contact with her family — sister Katie, played by Franciosi — on the outside. Katie, however, doesn’t know any of this: Adopted into the Nelson family from foster care at a young age, Katie’s only memories of her life before then come to her in disturbing flashes, the details of which she can’t quite make out.

Katie is troubled: she’s an insomniac who falls asleep at the wheel in the first five minutes of our seeing her, occasionally lashes out at those around her, and can’t quite decide how much she really wants to know about her past. I chatted with Franciosi about how she pulled off this pivotal role, what it was like working with Bullock, and what’s next on her acting wish list.

But first: a little background on both Franciosi and the film, which was based on a 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven written by Sally Wainwright. As such, there’s a rich world of characters that the film’s few hours pack in, and, luckily, a truly talented supporting cast that helps win your investment in the myriad storylines at play. But it’s Franciosi’s performance that will transfix you most, and make you want to watch everything else she’s been in so far in a hurry.

When you have a number one like [Sandra Bullock], it’s really a privilege because it means the whole set becomes nicer.

In case you need help with your list: Franciosi has thus far been rightfully lauded for her recurring roles as Katie Benedetto (a name I can only hear in Jamie Dornan’s voice) in The Fall, Kate Crawford in Legends, and Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones, as well as her devastating leading role in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. But The Unforgivable confirms the superb caliber of acting Franciosi brings to the table as she brings alive the scenes with her family and holds her own opposite a particularly compelling Sandra Bullock, and this film is worth a watch just to ensure you have your eyes appropriately fixed on this rising star.

Read on for my deep dive into Aisling Franciosi’s character Katie, what she’s learned from Bullock, and where she’s headed next below.

SheKnows: I would love to go through a few moments in the movie and hear, from your perspective, what was going on in Katie’s mind. At the opening of the film, we hear a voicemail that lets us know Katie hasn’t been answering her mom’s phone calls. What’s her relationship like with her parents at the start of the film?

Aisling Franciosi: I think Katie really loves her family. Later, there’s a scene where she says to her sister, “I’m not going to go and see if this is someone from foster care because you guys are my family.” I think she feels blessed to have such a loving family whom she’s grown up with. To Her mind, that’s all she’s ever really known, except for these cloudy memories that she has. And so she is, I think, grappling with not wanting to seem disloyal or ungrateful to her parents by wanting to know more about her past, But equally, you know, she’s a human being and we’re all kind of obsessed with the idea of identity, and we all want to know where we came from and what our roots are and. She is trying to a little bit avoid them, in a sense, in her search for her real identity while trying equally to be respectful of them. So she hasn’t been taking — in order to kind of get closer to her memories she’s been having, the feelings she’s been having, she hasn’t been taking her medication and stuff that helps her sleep and so she’s falling asleep at the wheel. She’s got a lot going on, but I do love that she is so — despite the fact that she really wants to find out about her past and who this figure was in her life or in her dreams, she’s not even sure if she’s making it up or not — I love that she is so, she feels so loved and feels so respectful of her adoptive family.

SK: Katie snaps at her sister at some point that she “doesn’t need proof that she’s more f**ked up” — where does that come from? Is that a fear she has?

AF: I think she feels that, if there isn’t something that caused these quite traumatic and violent flashes that she’s having — like flood or fire and something happening, and she knows that she has ended up being adopted after being in foster care — You know, you have to question, where did these come from? If it’s not because there was something that was real, am I just losing my mind? Am I ill, am I just suffering from some form of mental illness? And so she’s, I think, quite defensive about it because there probably is a worry, I think she feels very truthfully that this person was someone in her life and to have people say, “but you know that that’s not possible, you know that your mother died in childbirth, you know that this isn’t possible.” It’s quite hard to then keep up the front of, OK, either I’m crazy or something really awful happened, and she’s not really sure where to place that. So I think it’s easy for her to snap at her sister, despite her sister just trying to help her because she feels a bit of guilt, too. I think she feels guilty. Why can’t I just be happy in the situation that I’m in now? But I would say we’re all human, we need to know where we’re from.

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Aisling Franciosi in ‘The Unforgivable’ ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection.

SK: The medication that Katie is supposed to be taking: It’s never mentioned exactly what that is. Did you have a diagnosis in mind that Katie was working with?

AF: I think it was just meds to help her sleep. And I did dabble with the question of maybe when she doesn’t take them, does she have more flashes, more dreams and nightmares? Does she maybe on some level want to avoid taking them? She says that it’s because she doesn’t play well when she’s on them, which might also be true. I’m sure they would cause drowsiness, or maybe like a brain fog. But I did wonder if there’s a little part of her that is reaching for something more in not taking them, she might have more of these nightmares and flashes of memories.

SK: The closeness you had with your on-screen sister [Emma Nelson] was amazing. Were you able to bond on set, or how did that come about?

AF: It was actually quite weird, unfortunately. Obviously, the pandemic interrupted things. We had scenes that we did together — we were quite lucky in that most of the scenes that we did together were at the beginning of the movie, and then things got interrupted by COVID and we went back. Emma is a really lovely girl, she’s easy to get on with, and I remember when I met Nora in New York, we FaceTimed with her and stuff, so we did everything that we could. With these big movies — it was really my first experience of working on something of this level, so my schedule was a little disjointed, we weren’t actually around each other as much as maybe we would have liked to have been. But I think when the chemistry is good between two people it makes it so much easier. So I think we also can attribute it to really good casting — well done Nora and Francine, and just being lucky that our chemistry was great.

SK: You and Sandra Bullock’s characters are so intertwined, but you don’t share a lot of screen time. Were you able to work with her outside of shooting? How involved was she throughout?

AF: We had met for the table reads and she — Sandra’s amazing because she was there every single day. She’s a producer on it and was really hands-on with the project and very much a present producer. She really cared and had her opinions. I mean, obviously she let Nora do her thing. But she was very much involved and she’s really smart and obviously talented and just really, really lovely and supportive. I think the whole thing on a call sheet — you know like 1, 2, 3, whatever, I don’t really put any weight on that, except for when you have a number 1 who very much sets the right tone for the film, and is really professional and really friendly and courteous and has a sense of humor and makes everyone feel like their points are valid. I think that when you have a number one like that, it’s really a privilege because it means the whole set becomes nicer. So, I don’t think we could have asked for a better captain.

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Sandra Bullock in ‘The Unforgivable’ ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection.

SK: Was there anything you learned from Sandra that you hope to take with you on future projects?

AF: I would hope that I would already set that kind of a tone on the set, but that’s definitely something that she reinforced. She was very respectful of everyone’s job and obviously she’s got so much experience that she obviously knows how a set works so well, but she’s just so hyper-aware of the talent that goes into every crew member’s job as well, and the time that’s needed. She was just so respectful and lovely. So I would hope to be able to do that on future projects, too.

SK: You have a reputation for taking on pretty dark material. Should we expect to see more in that vein from you, or are you eager to take on a different kind of challenge?

AF: Well, I know what I’m doing next, and it is not another comedy. After that, I would actually love the chance to do a musical movie. I love the idea of doing weeks of rehearsals for something, I love working out and being physical, so getting to do dance rehearsals and singing, I think that would be really fun. Also, I love being on jobs, because I love being around the cast and the crew, so I feel like if you had weeks of rehearsals, that would only intensify that feeling. So that would be something I’d love to do, and I honestly really would love to do a comedy, if someone would just let me read for one! Because I also think — not only would I like to do it — but the idea of it scares me a tiny bit too so it would be a good challenge, I feel like it would put me outside my comfort zone because I tend to only do slightly depressed or hurt or traumatized people. So, yeah, it would be really fun and challenging to do something like that.

I would love to work with Tilda Swinton…everything about her just seems like art.

SK: Who are some women in film you would love to work with?

AF: My God, there are so many. I would love to work with Susanne Bier…I’m really excited about — just from watching other actors, from a musical point of view — Cynthia Erivo, when I heard that she was doing Wicked I was like, oh wow…Oh my god, there are so many! You’ve put me on the spot now — I would love to work with Tilda Swinton. I just love her — I think some actors are amazing actors, some are amazing showmen, and there are some who go even further than that and are just pure artists and I think Tilda Swinton is one of those, everything about her just seems like art. So I think she’s super, super cool. I’m actually really lucky because I have worked with a lot of female directors. So when people ask me, is that something that you look for, I feel very privileged that I can say it’s actually not something that I have to look for. It’s just happened to me, which I think is an encouraging sign. But yeah, oh my god, the list goes on. Cate Blanchett. Viola Davis — I wish I had a scene with Viola Davis in this! I was like, ‘is there some kind of way that I could be?’ Because she’s such a powerhouse in everything.

I really think that it’s a good time to be a woman in the industry. I think that, finally, there are — thanks to many women coming forth, breaking down the doors — there are just so many opportunities now. And not just in acting but directing or even being DP, the camera operator, it’s really fun to go on set and be like, ‘Cool, we’re seeing more women in every sort of job, which we’ve seen be more classically, a more stereotypical male job. Obviously, there are still underrepresented voices, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

Before you go, click here to see movies directed by women you should watch right now. 

Zazie Beetz

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