Like her trailblazing debut, The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up is going to get very strong reactions from audiences. This time, Kent takes as her subject the horrific history of Tasmania, where it was once thought that the entire Indigenous population and lineage had been wiped out. Seen through the eyes of a young woman (Aisling Franciosi), the story sees her experience horrific abuse at the hands of British soldiers, vowing to take revenge. Hesitantly, she teams up with an Indigenous young man (Baykali Ganambarr) to travel across impossible terrain to complete her mission.
British actor Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Their Finest, Me Before You) plays Hawkins and Damon Herriman (who is about to appear as Charles Manson in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) plays his minion Ruse.
What was it like for both of you to play guys like that?
Damon: I’ve played quite a few. I spent the first half of my career playing only nice guys and then the last half I’ve only played horrible ones and they seem to be getting worse. This is by far the worst in terms of… the ploughing to the depths of the worst that a human being can be. Look, it was hard and easy. Easy in the sense that the roles are so well written, and Jennifer is such a great director, that in terms of actually playing the character, there is so much on the page for you to draw from. But at the same time it’s incredibly difficult because what you’re having to do in the scenes, and what you’re having to say is so horrific at times that it is hard to separate it from reality, in the way that you would with a traditional movie bad guy role.
Sam: They’re very real people. They’re people that live their lives with that violence in them. I think because it felt very real reading the script and learning about that era and the brutality that existed; the fact that it was based on truth was actually more shocking. I’ve played deplorable people before, but this is a new low. Honestly, I don’t think I could have done it, or got to the places I need to go without Jen [Kent], her guidance, the script being as well written as it was. But without the cast as well. I think we were all very, very lucky to have a very, very, very respectful and supportive network of actors as well as crew members who all got each other to where we needed to go.
Physically we were getting the energy up before every take. We were able to break the mood at the end of the day and have a drink and de-stress, if you will. We were very, very supportive of one another and I think it’s only because of that we were all able to get to those places we needed to go and I think that came through trust and a great rehearsal process, where we had the opportunity to improvise with our characters.
I remember the first time we met Baykali [Ganambarr], I was literally having to shout at him, and that was his first introduction. He’d never done any acting before. But he grew in confidence. Watching someone like that really blossom through this process has been, I think, the most rewarding experience that I’ve ever been a part of. Looking back at it and watching it, I feel very, very passionate and proud of what we all have achieved. But we couldn’t have done it without everyone. It was a team effort.
Were you able to swiftly leave the characters behind?
Damon: You have the strongest shower that you’ve ever taken to try and cleanse yourself of these horrible people. Definitely didn’t want to think too much about this guy after the film was over. I missed working with all these actors because we grew to love each other very much and got on so well. But, yes certainly, at the end of a day, I was glad to not be one of those actors who takes the character home. There were a couple of days there… and when people see the film there’s a particular scene that is probably the hardest to watch… As I say this is again what separates playing bad guys … Normally you could do almost anything playing a bad guy and it’s like: “hey we’re making movies!” It didn’t feel like that in this case. Sam will attest to this, we were all in tears. Everyone in that scene, in that room, was at some point in tears.
The character wasn’t meant to be in tears and we couldn’t be in tears on camera. But having to do that scene over and over again, over a two day period was some torture for everybody.
Where were you shooting specifically?
Sam: All over Tasmania really. Jen made it very apparent that she wanted this to be as authentic and real as possible. So, we were quite literally in the middle of nowhere most of the time. It would take hours on dirt roads and very narrow passageways to get to where we needed to go. It felt like we were in the depths of hell. You realised by going to those locations that it was such a treacherous journey for all those people to be going through. Jen wanted us to feel that.
There was a moment on top of a hill where it’s freezing cold. I think someone almost got frostbite. The wind and the rain and the fog and it was just tough, tough going. I think that the locations that they found and some of the places that we were fortunate enough to film in, it almost makes a character of itself. I remember questioning Jen as to why she wanted to shoot it in Academy ratio and not wide. She wanted to be on our faces. But you still feel the depth of the forest behind you. I think that’s what adds even more flavour to this already brutal, brutal time in our history.
With your character, Sam, he’s been disappointed by life, and he seems to take it out on just about everyone around him.
Sam: He’s the ultimate narcissist really. He uses people to get what he wants. Me and Jen went into great detail of what and where he came from as a young man and a boy and the sort of family life he would have had and the fact that he’s always been told he’s not good enough, so he’s always been out to prove to his dad that he is man enough. He would have probably witnessed his father treating his mum in a despicable way and therefore he got his views on women from that. We were very fortunate to have a psychologist on set with us who was willing to share any her knowledge with us. She was there also as a support, if we needed a de-stress.
The Nightingale is in cinemas August 29, 2019