Black Narcissus: How Karen Bryson brought Sister Philippa to life in 2020

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 05/12/2020 - Programme Name: Black Narcissus - TX: 28/12/2020 - Episode: Black Narcissus - Ep 2 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Sister Philippa (KAREN BRYSON), Sister Clodagh (GEMMA ARTERTON) - (C) FX Productions - Photographer: Miya Mizuno
WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 05/12/2020 - Programme Name: Black Narcissus - TX: 28/12/2020 - Episode: Black Narcissus - Ep 2 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Sister Philippa (KAREN BRYSON), Sister Clodagh (GEMMA ARTERTON) - (C) FX Productions - Photographer: Miya Mizuno /

We chatted with Black Narcissus star Karen Bryson on how she brought Sister Philippa to life in the latest FX/BBC One adaptation of the classic 1939 novel.

Recently, FX/BBC One adapted Rumer Godden’s acclaimed 1939 novel Black Narcissus into a three-part miniseries. The series has already made its American debut and is available for viewing on streaming services like Hulu. It will make its U.K. debut later this month.

We had the chance to chat with one of the show’s stars, Karen Bryson, who you might recognize from the original U.K. Shameless or the Netflix thriller Safe. In Black Narcissus, she takes on the role of Sister Philippa, an intensely spiritual woman with a deep love of gardening. It is Sister Philippa who first recognizes the dangers of Mopu when the nuns travel to the Himalayas to set up a new school in a foreboding old palace stained by its dark history.

Karen was kind enough to talk to us about her role in the series, what attracted her to the project and her hopes for what audiences will take away from it in the end.

Show Snob: Why do you think now was the right time to make another adaptation of Black Narcissus?

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Karen Bryson: Do you know what’s extraordinary? One of our producers, Andrew Macdonald, is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, who did the original film along with Michael Powell. I’m really glad you said, “why is this the right time for a revival of the book?” because it’s more faithful to the book than it is a remake of the film.

Andrew’s eye is impeccable. He’s a very successful producer. He must have known that having a female writer, Amanda Coe and a female director, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, was right for a  story about the journey of five nuns in the Himalayas. In our adaptation, what you see a lot, is their journey to get there and the tenacity to travel across to the Himalayas with roll-up rugs that they stop off occasionally to sleep. It’s incredible. He’s got a great eye, and I do think that right now is the right time.

Show Snob: One thing that I really appreciated about the show, you guys filmed it in Nepal? The production was gorgeous.

Karen Bryson: Incredible, right? And we kind of need that, 2020 has been a very strange, unprecedented year. And I think something that takes you out of your immediate circumstances, however you’ve dealt with lockdown, etc. — is something that we need. It felt like a special project from the very beginning, to be honest. I’m excited to share it with the world because I think it’s great.

Show Snob: What attracted you to the character of Sister Philippa? Do you think you have a lot in common with her, or was it a departure for you?

Karen Bryson: She is very different from me, but as an actor, I will always play my parts without judgment, Karen stays at the door. The thing that’s really lovely about Sister Philippa is that she’s extremely spiritual and religious. What I love about her — that’s very, very different from me — for example, being a nun, that’s one huge leap for me as an actor. Not only that, but back in 1934, when the book was written, being a nun was so much stricter. They made lots of reforms in the ’60s and ’70s with regards to nuns and convents.

Back then, it was incredibly strict. No touching. I’m a hugger. No showing emotion. I’m a crier. You know, so very, very different but something I thought, “I’ve just got to get in there.” I read a book, and it’s in diary form, called The Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila, and she talks about being a nun in a way that sounds incredibly enlightening, spiritual, the best thing.

Now, in order to be a nun and live your life in that way, it’s a calling. So that was another leap I had to make. But I think she’s such a sweet character, with quite a big arc without her saying that much. Having to portray a character with quite a huge emotional arc without many words was a challenge for me, but I always love a challenge.

Black Narcissus
Programme Name: Black Narcissus – TX: 27/12/2020 – Episode: Black Narcissus – Generics (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Sister Philippa (KAREN BRYSON) – (C) FX – Photographer: Miya Mizuno /

Show Snob: Why do you think it was Sister Philippa who felt that there was something wrong with Mopu before the other women?

Karen Bryson: I think she’s in tune with the land. When they were in Darjeeling, she was the natural gardener. That connection helped her realize what was a bit weird, not only about the palace of Mopu — which had a very strange history —  but also, as she says, “it’s as though the mountains are watching, not God.” Her connection to the land and tending to the garden, overlooking that mesmeric view, took her away from her calling. She became unsettled pretty early on.

Show Snob: Right, one of the central themes is that each nun is distracted from her calling because of something that happens there.

Karen Bryson: Yes, for every nun there’s something different. Sister Blanche, for example, I mean wanting to have children? You know? (Laughs.) Deep desires, the culture in Nepal, the way the costumes and production were set, the way the colors look, the passion of the youngsters kissing, as opposed to the sort of, oppressed, muted, Anglican colors of these nuns. Charlotte, as a director, really wanted to show that contrast. I thought those contrasts were quite amazing throughout the season.

Read. Black Narcissus Episode 1 recap: Is the palace haunted?. light

Show Snob: Do you wonder if Sister Philippa hadn’t left so early, how she might have impacted the final moments of the story?

Karen Bryson: Do you know, I thought that. That is such a lovely question, I must say. Had she stayed, I think it would have been horrific for her. She struggled. During her last chat with Sister Clodagh, she was deeply disturbed. The fact that in 2020, I would be wailing my head off, Sister Philippa in 1934, where emotion was seen as a sin, I think she would have imploded.

Show Snob: Along that same line of thinking, how do you think it impacted her when she returned home and tried going back to her normal routine?

Karen Bryson: There’s a final moment, which we actually filmed in Nepal, an external [shot] on that cliff-face. Oh my goodness, she thought she failed. If your Mother Superior gets a group of nuns and says, “Right, we’re going to go to the Himalayas and build this school, and it’s going to be wonderful, and it’s God’s calling.” And you don’t make it. I really do think she thought she failed.

Maybe the long journey back on her own would be a time for reflection and time to reconnect with God. I think it would take a bit of recovery and introspection when she got back. Like she says, “this place is too much, too much for all of us.”

Black Narcissus
Karen Bryson — Photo Credit: Maruska Mason / PR: Catherine Lyn Scott /

Show Snob: Going back to the film, did you watch it before taking on this role, or did you intentionally stay away from it? 

Karen Bryson: Weirdly, I’d actually already seen it before, I’m a bit of a film geek, and that’s a kind of must-watch. One of the things that I really liked is when I would say to people, like family or friends, that I’d just been cast in this, they’d go, “Oh! The film, it was spooky.” I really liked the fact that people remembered how it made them feel. You’ve got the Maya Angelou quote about how people very rarely remember what you say; it’s how you make them feel. That made me feel incredibly proud to take on a project that will move people in the same way even though it’s not a remake. The story is so intense, but I think our adaptation gives it air and breathing room for you to understand what life looked like. It transports you to a completely different world and a different way of being.

Show Snob: Jumping off of that, as you said, this new iteration of Black Narcissus gives it “air,” how do you think turning the story into a three-hour miniseries instead of another film affected the storytelling? 

Karen Bryson: I can’t see a point in the book’s narrative or our miniseries where you could cut it into two films, if that makes sense. I don’t see a natural point where you could end things and start a sequel. As an audience, you’re drawn into the unwinding and demise of these nuns’ lives. You want to see it to its natural conclusion. I think cutting it off would be weird.

Show Snob: Right, I’m not sure how they aired it on BBC, but on FX, they aired it all in one night. So you could watch the episodes back-to-back, which felt like a nice way to divide the story into Act 1, Act II and Act III. 

Karen Bryson: It hasn’t premiered in the U.K. yet. It will on December 27, which is the perfect Christmas viewing. But the way — structurally — a screenplay is written, it is three acts. So that fulfills it perfectly, Act I, Act II, Act III — beginning, middle, end — naturally, that works quite well for a three-part miniseries.

Show Snob: Do you think British audiences will react to the show differently than American audiences?

Karen Bryson: Oh, that’s interesting. I do, in a way, and I’ll tell you why. Even though it’s set in the Himalayas, there is a Britishness about it, colonialism, spreading Christianity as it were — I think that’s something we’re very aware of as being part of the British history. I think it might be seen slightly differently.

However, even though there are scenes that relate to British colonialism, the bulk of the story is about human nature, and I think that’s universal. So I do think everyone will get something out of it.

Show Snob: To wrap things up, is there any specific message or feeling you hope people take away from watching Black Narcissus

Karen Bryson: Compassion, because in today’s society and the way we’ve had factions and religious groups throughout the world, have some compassion and respect regardless of whatever it is you believe.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All three episodes of Black Narcissus are now available to stream on Hulu. The miniseries will make its BBC debut on Dec. 27.