Hollywood Has Great Expectations for Shalom Brune-Franklin
Shalom Brune-Franklin first read Great Expectations in high school, though as she recalls, it was against her will. At the time, she would have rather been reading something “cooler.” But oh, how time changes a person. A decade later, after being cast as Estella in a splashy FX production of the famed Charles Dickens novel, she picked the book back up and found that she loved it. Of course, there’s also the fact that Dickens, as she now describes him, is a “genius.”
When I see her on Zoom early one February morning, Brune-Franklin is eager to talk about her first role in a period costume drama. The British-Australian actress has been on the rise for a while, appearing in a number of buzzy TV series, including HBO Max’s “The Tourist.” But “Great Expectations,” with its built-in cultural cachet and its cast of heavyweights like Olivia Colman and Johnny Harris, seems destined to push the star to a new level of fame. In our chat, Brune-Franklin opens up about this moment in her career, using her performance to fill in the gaps that existed for Estella on the page, and what it’s been like working on HBO Max’s highly-anticipated “Dune: The Sisterhood.”
MICHAEL CUBY: I am so excited to speak with you this morning. I finished the show a couple of days ago and loved it.
SHALOM BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Oh my gosh, I’m dying to know what you think. I wish this interview was the other way around.
CUBY: I loved it. I thought you were incredible. I just love the character of Estella so much and I’m so excited to pick your brain a little bit more about how she came to be.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: It’s funny how she’s the one that everyone loves, isn’t it? I don’t know why. I love her as well, but she’s everyone’s favorite. Everyone I talk to is like, “I love Estella.” I’m like, “Really?”
CUBY: There is a lot to love. How did you get involved with the project?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Honestly, it was the same old. Got the audition, only the sides, didn’t get a script yet. And I saw the team on the email and I was like, “Oh, this is a dream audition.” This team made “Taboo,” they made “A Christmas Carol.” And I love both of those shows. I thought, “Yeah, I’d love to be involved in this.” I was actually in Melbourne shooting a show called “Love Me” at the time. And it was all done online, which was my first experience of the whole process of an audition, callbacks, chemistry reads, everything being done on Zoom. It was still COVID world.
CUBY: Were you familiar with Great Expectations before signing on?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Yeah, I first read it in high school like most people, and I made a joke once to a journalist about reading it against my will. Because in high school, everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, these big boring books.” You want to read something that’s cooler. So I remember really struggling to read it in year 11 or something, but loving the character of Miss Havisham. That was my main takeaway. Then in drama school, I watched a play of it, a theatrical version, and it was a really camp, sexy comedy version of the play, which was hilarious because those characters in that space really work well. And then when I got the part, I was like, “I’m going to read the book and get cozy.” It was winter, so it was nice. I went back and read it and loved it.
CUBY: I feel like Great Expectations is one of those books. Like you said, when you’re forced to read it’s like, “I don’t want to be reading Charles Dickens.” But then you go back and you’re like, “Oh, no, he’s a legend for a reason.”
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: He’s a genius. I was crying through reading that last bit of the book.
CUBY: What drew you to the character of Estella?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: When I read the book, I always loved to imagine if it had been written from Estella’s perspective. I want to know what’s going through her brain because she’s this mysterious object for everybody in the book. She’s Miss Havisham’s plaything. But we never truly know how she feels in the books, we can just assume. And we know that when she says things like she “doesn’t have a heart” and all the rest of it, that those could easily be lies. You want to get inside of her brain. I think that was the most exciting thing about Estella. There’s so much imagery in the book and there’s so much to go off of. And then there’s Steven Knight‘s take on it. I get to paint all the things that you don’t necessarily get from the author. That’s really exciting to me. There’s something quite iconic about her, so I was itching to be her.
CUBY: Prior to this, you’ve done a lot of genres. I know you did action in Line of Duty, fantasy and mystery in The Tourist. What was it like to make the jump to period drama?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Honestly, I was terrified of it. We romanticize it so much. And those women feel so far away from me. I felt like, as a modern woman now, something about that was really hard to tap into. But then I had this really good conversation with my friend and he was just like, “These were the same human beings as us. They experienced the same things. They were still just people.” I think sometimes when you see the extravagance of a period drama, you forget that. It was great with the director, we had a very similar approach to it. We wanted this to feel like a modern woman in that time, which I think comes across in the show.
CUBY: I completely agree. We’re getting more and more period pieces nowadays and they haven’t historically been very diverse, so I love how diverse this production is. Did that also excite you?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Yeah, I didn’t know how diverse the production would be. I remember freaking out when I saw the cast list because it’s just the most amazing group of actors who I respect so much, and I couldn’t believe that my name was there with them. It sounds so cheesy, but it is a pinch-me thing.
CUBY: Whose name were you most excited to see?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Not to be bad on other people, but Olivia Colman and Johnny Harris. I’m obsessed with both of them. And I think I made it known to them how obsessed I was with them as well. I’m not very good at playing it cool.
CUBY: Obviously, Olivia plays Miss Havisham, who is one of your main scene partners. How was that experience? Olivia is such a legend and this is such a quintessential Olivia character.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: It was incredible. She’s everything you would expect her to be and so much more. She’s the nicest person ever. And she’s so effortlessly talented and she makes everything look so easy and is such a gracious and lovely human being at the same time. And she’s so funny. She’s hilarious, and I love that humor in Miss Havisham, that wickedness. I just love how playful and evil it is. I love those scenes where we go at each other. We really seriously go at each other in one specific scene. It’s such a horribly toxic and abusive relationship and yet, when we’re cutting, we’re just giggling, which is quite nice because I think if you just were stuck in this horrible headspace the whole time, you wouldn’t have much break from it.
CUBY: I actually wanted to ask about that, because you talk so much about the wickedness that Miss Havisham has, but I also love that about Estella. She’s snarky, she has some of the most clever and witty lines. Do you think that came out naturally in the dialogue? Or was that a specific directive that you were given by the director?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: I’m so snarky. I love that word. Snark is perfect for it, isn’t it? They’re really, really snarky. Honestly, I feel like they’re all in the script. When I read it, I was laughing out loud, specifically in that Drummle [Matthew Needham] scene when she meets him for the first time. I just thought, “Oh my gosh, the confidence that this woman has, in that time as well, to stand up for herself.” And she’s misbehaving because she’s trying to hit out at Miss Havisham as well. It’s almost as if the worse she represents herself in public, the worse that looks for Miss Havisham, and ultimately she’s hurting her. I think there’s delight and enjoyment in winning the game. I think how some people use comedy to hide those things, she’s hiding behind her wit and her sarcasm and her snark. Because I think in reality, if she was operating truthfully, she would just crumble as a human being. We definitely played it up.
CUBY: Was there a lot of improv on set?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think the way Brady [Hood] works, there never has to be a set way of doing it. He’ll throw something at you right at the last minute, sometimes it’s a poem. He likes to free you up from yourself and wants to see what comes. And sometimes, even if something feels ridiculous, he’s like, “Let’s try it.” I go, “What? You want me to do that?” He’s like, “Go for it. Let’s see if it works.” Sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time it does. I think he’s a genius. He just doesn’t give a shit, in the best way. He’s going to read the interview and be like, “What?”
CUBY: So your character is played by a different, younger actress in the first few episodes of the season.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Yeah, Chloe [Lea].
CUBY: Did you ever get to meet her? Did you guys coordinate how you were going to approach the character?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: I definitely have to hand it to Julie Harkin’s casting. In the rehearsal process, there were actually more rehearsals of us with our younger selves than there were with each other as adults, which I think really shows. With Chloe, a lot of it was about matching the intonation of our voices, which we were quite lucky. Chloe’s actually from Manchester, which you would never think. In the show, she has this perfect accent. I don’t know if she was using my voice as a reference. And also, we read each other’s scenes a lot. So she was reading old Estella scenes and I was reading young Estella scenes just so that we could get a feel for each other’s parts. But you know what? I remember when she read a scene from episode three and she’d never seen that scene before, she had a couple of minutes to prepare it and we were going to read it. Oh my God. She read it so well. I was like, “Fun, I’m going to be out of a job here. You can just play the whole part. You’re incredible.” I was like, “How is someone that good at 16?” She’s literally going to take over the world, I reckon.
CUBY: Yes. You and Pip, played by Fionn Whitehead, have this relationship that’s both playful but also sad. How did you and Fionn establish that chemistry? It’s such a complicated balance.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: I think it was a lot of playing with the scene. I remember in the rehearsal period we were having a conversation about whether he even loves her or if he loves the idea of her, which was a really interesting conversation to even have at the beginning. It’s like, does he fall in love with the idea of her? And then he really does fall in love with her and it’s a different kind of love? Because they were raised together since they were children. They have this really deep understanding of one another that you can really feel in the story. It was a lot of playing with the scene, and a lot of talking with Brady about how much we give the truth away. I feel like, with Estella, she truthfully doesn’t believe that she’s worthy of love. And Miss Havisham said things to her, like “You were thrown away at birth. Nobody wanted you.” This girl has been raised to believe that she is something that nobody wants, and that if somebody ever shows her love and care and compassion, it’s not from a good place. She doesn’t have the tools to navigate her way through that. So I think even if she wanted to allow herself to be loved by somebody unconditionally, she would not even know where to begin. That’s what was so sad about it with these two. It’s like the ultimate will they, won’t they. It was a lot of playing with how much we let him in. Doing some takes where her inside feelings were really obvious, doing other takes where you try and do everything other than portray that you love him. It was a blend-up of all of it.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: It’s kind of scary, isn’t it? Because you’re doing multiple different takes and going, “I hope this works in the edit.”
CUBY: And you’re depending on which one I need to know for the next scene.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: Well, she came across like a psychopath.
CUBY: In a later episode, it’s revealed that Estella has been cutting herself up and down her arm. How did you approach the mental health aspects of Estella’s journey?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: The conversations we had about why that’s happening is that this person doesn’t know how to express themselves. Doesn’t know how to live, hate, pain-free. Later on she says, “At least I can feel it when I cut myself. I can feel something.” It takes her away from all the craziness of the things that are happening in her life. Having conversations with people like family and friends, there are a lot of things that are quite close to home. And having conversations with those people and understanding why they would have done things like that is really where my understanding of this came from. She’s really hit rock bottom, she’s at her lowest point in the story. But also, we see a character that is so held the whole time. She’s always so together and we see these flashes of someone that’s trying to express themselves. So I think for her it’s a way of feeling something and also taking herself away from all of this pent-up stress and all these emotions and this togetherness that she has.
CUBY: I know that you’ve also been working on “Dune: The Sisterhood,” which is a show that I have been looking forward to ever since it was announced. Is there anything you can tell me about that experience?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: There’s not much I can say, but it’s been a great experience so far, and stepping into that whole world is something I’ve never, ever done before. I think I was really naive to how huge that world is. I remember when I found out about the job, my friend bought me this massive Dune encyclopedia thing and I was like, “What is this?” And she was like, “Oh, there’s a whole thing you need to learn.” So it’s overwhelming, but it’s awesome, and I’m really, really excited about it. I’m sorry I’m not saying more.
CUBY: I expected there wasn’t much you could give away. Before we wrap up, I think “Great Expectations” is destined to introduce you to a new audience and launch you into the next phase of your career. Are you excited and prepared for what’s to come?
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: I have no idea what to expect, but I’m excited for people to see what so many people worked so hard on. Specifically a production where everything is being built from scratch. You’re seeing the people who are hand-stitching all those dresses together. I’m just so excited to finally see it come out so everyone can enjoy their work. I honestly have no expectations for what it might do or where it might lead me, but I’m proud to be a part of it. I don’t know if that’s a bad answer.
CUBY: I think that that’s a great answer.
BRUNE-FRANKLIN: That was so nice. Why aren’t all interviewers this nice?
CUBY: Oh my god, thank you. You were such a joy and a pleasure to talk to.
BRUNE FRANKLIN: I feel like we’re friends.
Hair: Amidat Giwa using Oribe at Bryant Artists
Makeup: Gina Kane using Victoria Beckham Beauty at Caren Agency
Nails: Chisato using OPI at Caren Agency
Lighting Assistant: Shane Ryan
Styling Assistant: Colleen Finnerty
Hair Assistant: Avrelle Delisser
Production: The Morrison Group