“It’s strange because it really does feel mostly normal so far,” says Leona Corio from her living room, talking about her film star daughter. “Things have got really busy, so now me and my husband take turns either going to film festivals, boards or events, but they’re only really a couple of days at a time. So I don’t feel like it’s made that much of an impact on our family yet.” Frankie Corio is sitting with her knees pressed up to her chin on the sofa opposite, framed family portraits on the windowsill behind her and glimpses of Livingston, West Lothian, just beyond the glass. She has a grin that reaches from one side of her face to the other and a knack for making both me and her mother laugh.
“Nobody has come up to you yet outside an event or anything,” her mother says, after I ask about praise from strangers for the 12-year-old’s debut role in the 2022 film Aftersun. “My teacher’s university student did,” Frankie corrects, “and said, ‘Are you the girl that said “I’m a star”?’”
When we speak, Frankie is still on Christmas break from school, as are her siblings, who have been turfed out of the living room for the duration of the call. And it’s odd, in many ways, to be reminded that she is so young, still to tackle GCSEs and even think about university, despite her part in one of last year’s most memorable and heartbreaking yet love-filled films.
You can tell early on when speaking with Frankie just why it might have been her and not any of the other auditioning preteens who quickly charmed the film’s writer and director Charlotte Wells and was cast as Sophie Paterson in the award-winning film that, at the time of writing, has been nominated for four Baftas. There’s an energy in her, a natural vivacity as an entertainer; old-school industry types would label it “star quality”. This is her first time acting (she doesn’t even recall any school plays that she appeared in), but she more than holds her own opposite Paul Mescal of Normal People and God’s Creatures, who plays her father, Calum. Following Aftersun’s release, word quickly spread about it being a film you don’t forget, the kind that calls for a five to ten-minute “moment of reflection” while you discreetly wipe away a tear in the emptying cinema.
The quote that the university student was referring to is the video of Frankie’s speech at last year’s British Independent Film Awards in December, where Aftersun picked up the award for Best British Independent Film, in which she exclaimed that she was first on the call sheet, not Paul, so she was the star and he the co-star. In the video Paul laughs and puts his arm around Frankie, a nod to their bond, one that stretches much further than their on-screen relationship. Charlotte had requested that there be a two-week period prior to filming during which the leads could spend time together, as if they were actually holidaying as a pair in Turkey, where the story of love, moments of longing, glimpses of darkness and times perhaps taken for granted unfolds and regularly folds itself back in again.
“It was really fun because there was no green screen or anything, so a lot of it felt real because we were doing holiday stuff, like playing pool, swimming, eating,” Frankie says, adding instantly: “Charlotte Wells is just an amazing director. I love her. And Paul – they’re literally like my best friends, but I’m not allowed to say that, my mum says, because then she’ll think that I’m lonely, but I’m not lonely, guys. I do have friends.”
In many ways it seems what Charlotte wanted from the role of Sophie was exactly someone like Frankie – a young girl full of life and excitement, as well as innocence and a growing curiosity for the world. And it was because of that innocence that Charlotte and Paul kept parts of his character hidden away from Frankie for a time – the nuances of his life and mental state, the parts that a father in the real world may want to hide from his own children, especially on holiday, something that one day they come to realise on their own terms. I ask her if there were any moments during the filming process, whether we see them on screen or not, when Frankie realised there was more to Paul’s character than she had been told.
“Through filming scenes for a while, I was thinking there’s definitely something about him that I’m not allowed to be told, because you can see it in his character, let’s be honest,” Frankie says. “But there was never a moment where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I knew there was something not right, but I never knew what was actually happening. After the day was done, Paul would stay there to do a scene and I wasn’t allowed to be there. It was like, ‘OK then, I wonder what’s happening now.’”
Aftersun could be a time capsule for Frankie, both formative for her right now, but also revelatory in the future. At her age, she may watch it very much honeyed by her age and her recent holiday-like experiences on set; perhaps she sees things many of us older viewers don’t. But as she gets older, not only will the film always be held in high regard, maybe it will change for her and become not only a way of remembering her childhood but also a kind of filmic bildungsroman as she watches it again and again, even if, as she says, she isn’t really that similar to her character.
“It changes every time someone asks. I wouldn’t say [Sophie] is a lot of me, but I feel like we probably relate in a couple of things. They seem alike. I’d probably be her friend if she was real and not in the Nineties. I brought the humour [to Sophie]. If I could, I would bring the style and the song choices. I would definitely go back and change it to some Olivia Rodrigo break-up songs,” she says, alluding to the playlist that Charlotte gave her to help get into character – a playlist that she listened to only once before sacking off the Blur and REM for more current pop tunes, Rodrigo’s “deja vu” being one of her favourites.
Unknowingly, it could be how Frankie brought her contemporary and real-time personality to the role that also brought the profound element of timelessness within Aftersun. On the one hand, the film is very Nineties, laced with handheld-video-camera footage and tunes of that era, but on the other, its characters and themes could exist within the modern day or beyond. It’s one of the many reasons the film sticks with you, nestling itself gently into a space between nostalgia and despondency.
As Frankie giggles and jests, squirming slightly on her sofa, the elements of chance and spontaneity in her debut success shine through. After all, she landed the role because her mother saw an advert for the film on Facebook and she decided that Frankie was the perfect fit. “Because it was the pandemic, they’d put ads out to schools,” Leona tells me. “I’m a primary school teacher, so I saw it on a page that was put out looking for kids between the ages of 10 and 12.” And so began the long process of auditioning and waiting, all while navigating the changing rules of the pandemic. But soon came a meeting with Charlotte and a Zoom session with Paul. And then came the offer.
“We had agreed on a McDonald’s and a Starbucks if I never got it, and a McDonald’s and a Starbucks if I did get it,” Frankie laughs, after I ask if she had her heart set on the role as soon as her mother had sent in the photo. It’s the perfect reminder, as the call draws to a close, about the person (and age) she is: a lover of US teen pop and horror films (the ones she’s allowed to watch, of course), with dreams of one day being in Stranger Things or Heartstopper. Like most 12-year-olds would, she describes a lot of things as “cringey”, including how she thinks she might view her kissing scene with a boy Sophie meets at the resort when she watches it as a teenager or adult, and Paul’s dancing towards the end of the film.
But those “cringeworthy” experiences aside, Frankie is made for this industry. Even now, the offers and accolades are coming in: she has already quenched her thirst for a role in a thriller/horror, as Emily in Colm McCarthy’s The Bagman alongside Sam Claflin, and received nominations for Best Young Actor at the Critics Choice Awards and Young Performer of the Year at the Critics’ Circle Film Awards. It’s all testament to the importance of taking a chance (and Facebook-using parents who believe in their children). “To other parents, I’d say trust your instincts,” Leona says, advising people not to be disheartened by the long casting process. But all of the praise does not go solely to her, of course, but also to her daughter’s tenacious character, which excels at being loveable. There’s no doubt that Aftersun has opened a golden doorway into a dreamily unexpected future that will welcome Frankie’s blossoming talent for years to come.