‘Black Narcissus’ Press Conference: Gemma Arterton and the Cast Discuss the Limited Series

Black Narcissus
Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh and Alessandro Nivola as Mr. Dean in ‘Black Narcissus’ (Photo by Miya Mizuno / FX)

The three-episode limited series Black Narcissus arrives on FX on Monday, November 23, 2020 at 8pm ET/PT. The series, based on the 1939 bestselling novel by Rumer Godden, is a gripping psychological thriller set in 1934 in the Palace of Mopu nestled in the Himalayas.

Gemma Arterton and Alessandro Nivola star as Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean, respectively. The hauntingly beautiful drama also features Dipika Kunwar as Kanchi, Chaneil Kular as Dilip Rai, and Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth.

The cast joined executive producers Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, executive producer/writer Amanda Coe, and director/cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen for a virtual press conference exploring this new adaptation of Godden’s work. Godden’s novel was previously adapted into the 1947 Oscar-winning feature film starring Deborah Kerr.

The Plot: Mopu, Himalayas, 1934. A remote clifftop palace once known as the ‘House of Women’ holds many dark secrets. When the young nuns of St. Faith attempt to establish a mission there, its haunting mysteries awaken forbidden desires that seem destined to repeat a terrible tragedy.

Black Narcissus Q&A:

In the original movie, Jean Simmons played Kanchi, the young girl, and you seem to have gone in a more culturally conscious direction for this version of the story. Can you talk about that?

ANDREW MACDONALD: “Obviously, one of the ideas when we thought about adapting this book as a miniseries was there were 70 years since it was adapted as a movie. A lot of things have changed, and we were very, very keen to cast Nepalese actors and film in Nepal, and we are very lucky that we found Dipika in London where there is a very large Nepalese community. I think that she should talk about how because I think this is your first role.”

DIPIKA KUNWAR: “Yeah, it is my TV debut. […]I can tell you how the casting was from my point of view. I went to the first audition and I was really nervous, and I met Sasha [Robertson, Casting Director]. And then, the second one, I met lovely Charlotte, and she gave me direction. She made it so easy for me to actually perform there. And then the next thing I heard was that I got the role.”

What was it from initially reading the scripts that really gave you an entry into the characters and made them so interesting to play?

GEMMA ARTERTON: “I guess the book and the script really delve into the kind of psychologies of these characters. Like, doing a miniseries is such a gift because you have the time to kind of really, you know, explore what’s really going on. This is all about what’s happening inside these people.

It’s a thriller, really, a psychological thriller. And so I think, for me personally, I did feel sort of a connection, I guess, to ‘Clodagh,’ this kind of control freak who is desperate to do well and that kind of gets in the way, you know? She’s proud, and this pride that she has is something that I related to.

But, yeah, I mean, it was all there on the page. It was so easy to kind of want to get involved with something like this. And then after I’d read the scripts and then I read the book, I felt like, yes, this is a really fully formed character.”

ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: “My wife had made a Scorsese movie years ago called Shutter Island and he had made Black Narcissus required viewing for all of the actors in the movie. And that was the first time that I’d seen it, and I remembered loving it. And then when I heard that they were looking to do a new adaptation from the book, this time, I was really curious about it just because I had remembered loving the film.

And the one thing I didn’t really remember from the film was ‘Mr. Dean.’ When I read the script of this new adaptation, I found ‘Mr. Dean’ surprisingly to be very psychologically nuanced. And this script really, kind of, grappled with the things that he represented in the story.

And then when I went back to read the book, it seemed from at least from the narrow perspective of that character to be an even more faithful rendering of what was in the book, which was a character who had been traumatized by the First World War and had, kind of, become disgusted with British imperialism and had checked out of Western society and moved to a place where he felt all of these different cultures were able to live in harmony together. And, so, the encouraging of this very British brand of Christianity felt like it was in opposition to what he had come to appreciate about that place.

So from the point of view of an actor playing that role, it seemed like an opportunity to shed new light on a character that hadn’t really been explored in much depth in the original.”

AISLING FRANCIOSI: “From my point of view, I actually unlike Alessandro hadn’t seen the film until the scripts came along, the original film. Just reading the scripts, I find that ‘Sister Ruth’ was – I completely rely on the scripts and then having read the novel – a really interesting character because in the world of this religious order where you are asked to be stripped of all identity, all of the things that make you you for the purpose of this blind faith, this adoration, this calling that you can’t see, just to lead blindly, and yet the psychological effects that it would certainly have on me and I could see having on ‘Ruth,’ that was something I found really interesting.

And then when I realized that the film was so iconic and so beautiful and Kathleen Byron’s interpretation was so iconic, I was a little nervous. But I actually found that having read the novel and Amanda’s scripts, you know, as with any role, an actor always has choices to make, interpretations that they can explore, and I really felt that there was quite a vulnerable and fragile young woman who was grappling with this world that I feel she’d been thrust into. I found this story that was laid out in the manuscripts and having read the novel that there was another interpretation to be explored of ‘Sister Ruth.’ So, I thought I would take the opportunity.”

Black Narcissus Limited Series
Dipika Kunwar as Kanchi and Chaneil Kular as Dilip Rai in ‘Black Narcissus’ (Photo by Miya Mizuno/FX)

CHANEIL KULAR: “I think, like Aisling, what first drew me to the role as well and the first thing I saw was a script as well, and I thought it was a brilliant script that Amanda wrote that really kept me on the edge of my seat. I had this really strong urge to just be a part of it. And I think although the character isn’t a major, major role like ‘Sister Ruth’ or ‘Sister Clodagh,’ I think he had a really good arc and story as well. And it was something different as well for me. So that was something that I thought would be challenging that I wanted to kind of take by the horns.

And upon meeting Charlotte as well in the room and learning her vision, I knew it was undoubtedly going to be something special.”

DIPIKA KUNWAR: “For me, the role is a Nepalese girl and I am from Nepal. So, it’s also about representation. Being able to (find) a character that is Nepalese in a show and production in the West is rare. It comes about every now and then, and this was perfect for me. And I knew I wanted it because she’s a young girl who is very simple. It’s very simplicity and innocence is her thing, and she just wants to learn. (She’s) inquisitive. And she’s not scared of falling in love or getting hurt at all, and that’s a fun character to play with.

In comparison to the movie, the miniseries had a lot more of Kanchi. She gets to speak and she gets to express herself inwardly as well. So, that was great.”

Gemma, your character by design is a woman who has put all of her emotions aside. She’s very controlled, but we see a slow boil in her. Can you talk about finding the way to play that?

GEMMA ARTERTON: “Yeah, so that’s the essence of what I had to do for the whole thing was kind of maintain control, which is so enjoyable to play. There were absolutely moments where I totally lose control in various ways. I found that the posture and the habit – the actual costume – really helped because the nuns, well, at that time you weren’t supposed to touch or even keep your gaze outside of the habit. That’s why they are there. It’s kind of like blinders. I found that incredibly helpful.

We were completely constricted. I mean, we had these wimples on that covered our ears and our hands were sort of inside our robes. So there was nothing you could really do with your body. I became really stiff, which I found really helpful. And knowing that you only have this to convey anything was really, really helpful because it just meant you had to kind of really limit yourself. So, I found that a real anchor.

But in the book and in this miniseries, we really wanted to explore why she is the way she is. And there’s this sort of wild girl in her – (an) incredibly individual, freethinking person – that she’s kind of shut down by joining the order. And that was always something that she was struggling with. When she comes to Mopu, this kind of reminds her of the island where she was raised and the beauty of the place starts to get under her skin. So the control starts to shift and crumble.

Then, obviously, Sister Ruth, who just is a real challenge for her to deal with and Mr. Dean and all of these people, you know…even Dipika’s character, Kanchi, reminds her of herself when she was young. These things start to unravel her. So that I loved – all of that. I loved playing it.”

Can you discuss your time spent working with Diana Rigg?

GEMMA ARTERTON: “What a joy. I mean, I knew Diana before because I’m friends with her daughter, Rachael Stirling. My husband was doing a play with Rachael Stirling and I was waiting to hear whether I was going to do Black Narcissus. I went to see the play with Diana and she asked me what I was doing next, and I cheekily went Black Narcissus even though I hadn’t gotten the part yet. And she said, ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful film, darling. That’s a wonderful film.’ And I didn’t know that she was going to be in it.

And then we were on set and we are in our habits, and she was so wonderful. I mean, she’s so fun. She would have been a great young Clodagh, actually. There’s something about that there. I remember we just had fun on those days.

She told me about this cocktail that she made for herself called ‘D’s Dynamite,’ and it’s one-part Cointreau and the rest Prosecco. And so on her last day I brought in some Prosecco and Cointreau and we had them – and she had two. You know, it goes to your head and I remember that. But it was great and what an absolute honor to have worked with her on this and what an amazing legend she was. But I only had just the best memories working with her.”

Black Narcissus Limited Series
Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth in ‘Black Narcissus’ (Photo by Miya Mizuno/FX)

Why do nuns continue to be such compelling characters? Why are people still interested in them?

AMANDA COE: “I think, I mean, the notion of repression is always extremely interesting, the idea that you follow rules and you have to repress all sorts of desires, not just sexual desire but your individuality. I think it’s always an interesting premise for a drama because drama is about conflict and you are setting up the conflict about human nature and the rules that have to be followed. So, it’s inherently dramatic somehow, just the state of being a nun.

And, also, visually, I think there’s something very captivating about what Gemma was saying previously about this idea of the frame. (It) invites a close-up. I think there’s something about nuns on the screen that really kind of works very naturally with the media, you know, because we love watching faces.”

AISLING FRANCIOSI: “I think as well, often getting into the world of a convent, it seems quite secretive. And I think there’s also, in pop culture, a lot of mystique around nuns and many, many horror films set on them as well. Amanda said it perfectly, I think.

You know, the thing that I found most intriguing that I just couldn’t get my head around was the stripping of their individuality and repression of everything. Like, one of the stories actually that a minister told us when he was giving us information, he said that there was one young nun in one of the convents that he would go to to do confession, and she was really good at the flute, playing the flute. And because she would, kind of, flourish when she played and it was a real talent, they took it away from her because the idea of you focusing your attention on anything other than prayer and your devotion to God was seen as – I don’t know – I guess, unholy or something. That for me was really striking and I think it really played into what I felt for Ruth.

We like to think that we don’t need external validation, but I think we do and it’s something that you are just expected to not want as a nun, not be human in some ways and, you know, in certain contexts. Obviously, I really admire a lot of the work that they do, but it’s a life that I couldn’t live. So, to get a glimpse into it is quite interesting.”

What do you believe is the relevance of the series to viewers in 2020? What message should viewers take away from Black Narcissus?

AMANDA COE: “Well, I think the primary thing is it’s a really good story. I mean, that’s always relevant, right? It’s very enjoyable, first and foremost. But, also, the book itself and hopefully the adaptation…it’s certainly something we talked about a lot is in itself a kind of parable about the dangers of ‘othering,’ you know? We call it that; Rumer Godden didn’t call it that. But it’s all about putting things outside oneself that one hasn’t dealt with within and making oneself exalted at the expense of people outside, cultures outside, even the notion of one’s own history. The book to me is an extraordinarily compressed and beautiful and powerful expression of that rendered into a kind of psychological horror.

And I think, obviously, we are living in a time where those concerns are really on the present. And maybe in a less profound way, there’s a kind of synchronicity about the story that is about this group of nuns kind of losing it because they are isolated together. We can all relate to that very much this year.”

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All episodes of Black Narcissus will be available for binge-watching on FX on November 23, 2020. The limited series will be available on FX on Hulu beginning November 24th.