When Shalom Brune-Franklin made her first appearance in the hit BBC drama Our Girl set in Afghanistan and Nepal, the response from viewers was immediate. Her character Private Maisie Richards, an irreverent tomboy with a foghorn laugh, started trending on Twitter and made the next morning’s headlines. The reaction, however, was mixed. While some adored Richards’ cheeky spark, others were unimpressed by her rather sardonic humour as she joked with traumatised locals about earthquakes. “That girl is a nightmare,” tweeted one viewer.
Brune-Franklin did not take it well. “I remember crying to my mum,” she tells me over the phone from Australia, where she has been living, through lockdown, with her parents. “It was overwhelming because I’d never experienced people speaking about me like that. Some people hated Maisie, and I was so upset, but then my mum said, ‘But isn’t that the point? She’s meant to be unlikeable.’ And then I realised, OK, yes, I’ve done my job.”
Undeterred by this baptism of fire, Brune-Franklin is fast becoming an exciting, consistent presence on TV. She is soon to appear in David Hare’s political thriller Roadkill (at the readthrough, she tells me, she couldn’t stop staring at co-star Hugh Laurie – “It was mortifying.”) and is about to resume filming on the latest series of Line of Duty, which was halted due to the pandemic, both for the BBC. She has also lent her voice to a new animated version of Tove Jansson’s children’s stories, Moominvalley, alongside Taron Egerton and Rosamund Pike.
This week she will reach a whole new audience with Cursed, Netflix’s biggest series of the summer, which has been hailed as the new Game of Thrones. Adapted from Thomas Wheeler and Frank Miller’s bestselling book of the same name, Cursed is an epic, 10-episode retelling of the Arthurian legends, dizzy with magic, folklore and nail-biting battles.
It is also a show that speaks to the moment; a fresh feminist fairytale that looks set to revolutionise the fantasy genre. Here, it is the Lady of the Lake (Katherine Langford), not Arthur (played by Devon Terrell) who carries the sword. Brune-Franklin plays Igraine, a fiery, courageous nun (originally Arthur’s mother in the legends). While Game of Thrones was severely criticised in some quarters for having no black characters, Cursed offers a corrective and for Brune-Franklin (born to a Mauritian mother and Thai father), it was a dream come true “to be in something medieval”.
“Myself and [fellow cast member] Adaku Ononogbo were on set in full costume and we looked at each other and said, ‘We can’t believe this!’ It was a big moment: two black women on set going, ‘How cool is this?’ ”
Brune-Franklin, now 25, grew up on a council estate in St Albans but moved to Perth in Australia aged 15 when her parents went in search of a better life. Her mother decided to take up competitive bodybuilding while her father became a chef. Motivated by her parents’ determination, Brune-Franklin enrolled in the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts despite having seen virtually no television and just two pantomimes on stage (she says she’s outdoorsy).
“I’m such an unlikely suspect in this industry,” she laughs, with only the faintest of Aussie accents. “But watching my parents has been my biggest inspiration. They decided they’d rather struggle by the sea than struggle in a council flat, so they picked their whole lives up and reinvented themselves as people. My mum has always been a hustler – when we first moved to Australia she couldn’t even run around the block, so someone suggested she should take up bodybuilding. She won two competitions, and now she works in government. My parents lead by example with hard work.”
Brune-Franklin graduated from drama school with a Hugh Jackman scholarship for the most outstanding performer. Deciding to return to the UK, she secured a role in Channel 4’s The State as a woman recruited by Islamic State. While applauded, Peter Kosminsky’s drama was also accused of prompting empathy with the recruits, functioning as IS propaganda.
Brune-Franklin is unaware of the controversy until I bring it up. “God, that’s heartbreaking that people thought that. The horrific way the characters ended up – how could that be propaganda? I had so much faith in Peter Kosminsky. We did a week-long, 9-to-5 workshop in which every single character, no matter how minor, learnt everything from how to pray to the history of Syria.”
When I ask her whether she thinks The State would get made differently now, she pauses nervously. “Most stories would, I think, three years on. I’m not really sure, to be honest, I’m a bit out of my depth.”
Brune-Franklin is clearly anxious not to say the wrong thing and that’s understandable. It’s a nerve-racking time to be young and famous. She treads carefully when I ask whether the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted reflection on her own experiences as a black actor. In Australia, where Brune-Franklin still sometimes works, only six per cent of on-screen characters are from non-European minorities, despite making up 17 per cent of the Australian population.
“It’s scary to speak about these things when you’re a young actor starting out and you don’t really know what you can and can’t say. I still don’t know how to articulate myself at all yet,” she says. “I don’t want to turn my back on Australia – it gave me my first opportunities. It’s also very important for me because I represent actors of an African background on Australian TV.
“I’ve received messages from people in Australia who saw me on Doctor Doctor and can’t believe I have hair like theirs. It might sound silly, but if you don’t see people who look like you doing something, you won’t think there’s a space for you.” Brune-Franklin remains more than a little bemused by her career trajectory.
“I still can’t get my head around all of this,” she says. “I mean, not long ago I was sitting in a car park in Slough having coffee [Cursed was partly filmed there], and I was thinking, isn’t my life the greatest?”
Cursed streams on Netflix from Friday 17 July