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Conversations With Friends' stars on Sally Rooney, love affairs and difficult characters

We caught up with Alison Oliver, Joe Alwyn, Sasha Lane and Jemima Quirke to chat about the making of the new series.

Image: IMDB

BACK IN THE early days of the pandemic, we were collectively in need of some distraction. Something nice to look at, with a bit of an edge. Something we could obsess over.

Enter: the TV version of Normal People, the second novel by Sally Rooney. Right as we were reading stressful news stories about rising Covid-19 rates, and trying to figure out how a pandemic would affect us, along came this show to distract and entertain us. 

Normal People was a phenomenon. It turned its leading actors, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, into stars, earning Mescal an Emmy. It turned the chain Paul’s character Connell wore into an object of lust. The series’ story of a teenage love affair and all the highs and lows it reached became a must-watch TV moment of the week.

All this to say that the upcoming TV series of Conversations With Friends, which was Rooney’s debut novel, consequently has a lot of pressure on it.

It’s directed by the same director, Lenny Abrahamson, for half the episodes, and is in the equally capable hands of Leanne Welham for the second half. The look of the series is consistent with what you’d expect from the team behind Normal People (the production company, Element Pictures, is on board again too). The series features clean, warm cinematography, lots of moments where the camera lingers over its stars as they’re lost in thought.

Conversations With Friends is about not one, but four relationships. It sees Frances and Bobbi, best friends and former girlfriends in their early 20s, meet writer Melissa after one of their spoken-word performances in Dublin. Melissa befriends them, and introduces the pair to her husband, Nick, an actor. As Nick and Frances fall for each other, and Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, the foursome’s lives get entwined in a very complicated way. 

This series is a trickier beast than the previous one, as its protagonists are even more complicated than in Normal People. You might find it hard to empathise with someone having an affair, or you might love how Rooney depicts the complications of adult relationships. 

‘I felt frustrated with him’

When The Journal caught up with the cast a few weeks ago, that sense of the characters not necessarily being the easiest of people was on their minds too.

Nick is played by British actor Joe Alwyn. Alwyn’s not really a household name, or face, but among a certain online cohort he’s an obsession – because he’s Taylor Swift’s boyfriend. He’s had some meaty roles, but this will see him beamed into millions of houses, upping his recognition factor considerably. In the interview, he’s warm and engaging, and clearly adept at chatting to journalists. 

In the series, though we see Nick being expressive on stage as an actor, in real life he’s quite reserved, holding things to his chest. “I think it’s interesting seeing some of those opening few episodes. I felt more frustrated with him than I did when I was playing him,” says Alwyn. “But as it goes on, and as you learn more about him and why he is the way he is, or perhaps why he is so frustratingly sometimes guarded or enigmatic at the beginning, you understand why, and find more empathy with him for what he’s been through.”

Source: Hulu/YouTube

He says it’s interesting to play a character like that, who doesn’t know how to communicate, or how to reach out to someone. Nick doesn’t always say much, so Alwyn has to express his deeper thoughts through his facial expressions, movement, and interaction with other people. 

“I think that’s something that Sally does really well in her books and with our characters, and something that Lenny’s really good at creating worlds to explore that through,” says Alwyn.

Alison Oliver is a Cork native who plays Frances in her first TV role. She was hired after graduating from Lir Academy, a drama school based at Trinity College. It’s a huge step up for the young actress, who was an instant hit when she auditioned. That’s not a surprise to hear, as she has a similar tone as Frances to Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne in Normal People, but with less airs than Marianne had.

Oliver says that she and Alwyn “talked so much about the dynamic between them, and what it is that draws them together”, when it came to their characters. They talked too about “what is happening in between the spaces” during the silence, as the characters often communicate without saying anything. Like Nick, Frances isn’t always much of a talker, and has much going on below the surface. When she’s most distressed, she’s least likely to speak out.

The characters of Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Melissa (Jemima Kirke), are not peripheral, but we get to see less of them than Frances and Nick. In the novel, we view them entirely through Frances’ eyes, which meant more work for Lane and Kirke in trying to flesh the characters out. 

“I liked that Bobbi was written as such an asshole,” says the American actor Lane, whose first major role was in Andrea Arnold’s film American Honey. “To me, it was almost like a mission and a good challenge: I’m gonna make you see that there is some realness there, and I’m gonna make you more lovable.” Frances and Bobbi have a really close relationship, but Bobbi is prone to making bitchy comments that put her friend on the spot. 

“It’s so easy the way she was written to be that Bobbi, she’s such a bitch, and blah, blah, blah. And so I love the fact that if I know how to do anything, it’s make something a little bit more lovable,” says Lane. “And just toying with that a bit.”

Kirke, the British-American actor who starred in the TV series Girls, says that the last thing Melissa wants to be is the villain, and so she deliberately steps out of that role. “I think that Melissa could have been the antagonist, but didn’t want to be,” she says. Melissa’s role is a tricky one, as the audience has to figure out whether to feel sorry for her, or glad her husband is finally getting his own back.

Melissa in the TV series is English, while Bobbi is black and from New York. What did them being from different countries bring to the dynamic in the show? Kirke sees it as a way of “drawing stronger parallels between each other”. It helped for Nick and Frances to be part of the ‘Irish team’ and Bobbi and Melissa to be from other countries, so there was already a parallel between them. They’re not outsiders, but they bring a different perspective.

More specifically, what Kirke says she kept grappling with when playing Melissa was figuring out her place as a writer. “What is her work? What kind of a writer is she? What is she interested in? I think the hardest part for me was what wasn’t written – she wasn’t, to me, written as like a writer,” she says. As we see Melissa through Frances’ eyes in the novel, we never get a glimpse into her interiority or her process. But on screen, she has the chance to show more of who she is.

“She didn’t have that quirky observational quality, or that highly sort of specified interest,” says Kirke of the book. “And so that was one of the toughest things for me, it was to try and make her into someone who was quietly observational, as writers can be… one foot in, one foot out in any social setting, you know, ‘cos we’re watching as well as engaging. And I tried to infuse her personality with that a bit.”

Lane enjoyed the fact that Bobbi was “very confident and very open”, but struggled in the scenes with Frances when something unspoken was pulsing between them. “If I struggled with [it], how can she put up with this so much? Why wouldn’t she say something sooner?” she says. ”I just started being like, I don’t know, I’m getting annoyed. I’m getting frustrated to be in this room. It’s almost like I’m suffocating.”

Kirke says that Frances and Nick are drawn to each other because of some quality that’s serving each other. “They’re looking for something and the other person is providing it.” That turns into an obsession, but she says that Bobbi and Melissa’s relationship is, “I wouldn’t say healthy, but the stakes aren’t as high… they’re actually more sensible”.

They’re just like: Yeah, I’m attracted to her, but she’s not going to change my life and I don’t need her, you know?

Alwyn says that initially, Frances and Nick are quite similar in some ways. “They’re both used to being defined by these quite strong characters next to them. And in coming together, they provide a space for the other person to fall into and grow in a way that was lacking, or they were unable to do with this more capable, obvious person next to them by their side. And then, ironically, it’s through an affair,” he says.

Source: BBC Three/YouTube

For Oliver, the turbulence and chaos that creates is good for them – and even good for Melissa and Bobbi too. “I think all those four characters, they’re in quite a stagnant place in their life and their relationships and how their relationships are evolving. And I think the affair causes all those relationships to have to… come to terms with what they mean to one another.”

She believes that Frances and Nick “really find a safety or something that’s more than just attraction in their relationship, which causes them to be able to go back and love their partners”.

No spoilers, but anyone who’s read the novel knows it refuses to tie things up neatly, or give readers the answer they want.

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“What’s one of the remarkable things about this book is that no one really learns anything,” says Kirke. “And that’s something that I think is intentional… You know, you’re waiting for some sort of revelation or conclusion, epiphany. But epiphanies aren’t real.” 

‘I was shocked’

Joe Alwyn is a young (31) actor on the way up, having starred in the films The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots after making his debut in Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2016. He’s also a big name because of his ultra-private relationship with Taylor Swift. So he already knows a lot about fame, and what it takes to be in the filmmaking business.

By contrast, Alison Oliver (23) is at the very start of her career, having only finished studying at the Lir drama school when she got the role of Frances (Lenny Abrahamson says that the decision was an easy one to make). 

“I was such a big fan of the book. And I just felt so lucky to be seen by Lenny, and all of the incredible creatives behind it,” she tells The Journal. “But I think when you’re auditioning for that stuff, you never really think it’s gonna happen. So I was completely shocked.”

Her character Frances has endometriosis, a disorder where tissue that’s similar to the tissue that lines the uterus grows outside the womb, often attaching itself to other organs. It can be a hugely painful condition, and Frances’ struggle with it is depicted in the book and show.

“I felt such a responsibility portraying that on screen,” says Oliver. “It’s such an under- discussed thing. I was really keen on making it as truthful and as real as it is for someone who has endometriosis.” Aside from lots of conversations with the directors about how to approach showing the situation, she also spoke with a doctor and a young woman who has endometriosis, to make sure they were totally informed about it. 

“It’s running alongside everything that’s happening with the affair. And not only is it incredibly painful physically, I think it has a massive effect emotionally [on Frances] and and I think it totally taps into her own idea of her self worth… that’s the thing I think that comes up for a lot of people who have endometriosis, is feeling like their body isn’t strong, or all those kinds of things,” says Oliver.

“I wanted to put all those things into that – that it wasn’t just a physical thing, but also how it affected her emotionally.”

Overall, both she and Alwyn say they feel a sense of responsibility to the series as a whole. Given Normal People’s success, and Sally Rooney’s fame, there will be a lot of eyes on the show, and a lot of analysis about how good a job they did.

Last time around, there was a lot of discussion around the sex in Normal People (see our interview with director Lenny Abrahamson tomorrow morning for more on that), and the use of an intimacy coordinator. RTÉ even received 37 informal complaints about it.

Alwyn says he feels the responsibility, but also that it’s exciting. “It’s a book that I loved, as did so many,” he says. “But I think, at least in the making of it you couldn’t get too stuck in your head about the responsibility of it, because it will stop you from doing your job. It just felt like a privilege more than anything, and very lucky to be a part of it.”

Oliver agrees. “You feel that responsibility and want to do such a beloved book justice, just as much as we love it, and try and be as truthful as we can,” she says.

“And when you have someone like Lenny, who clearly has such a deep understanding of Sally’s work, and that you just know it’s in the safest of hands and getting brought on board to be a part of that – as Joe said, it’s just the deepest privilege.”

Conversations With Friends airs from Sunday 15 May on RTÉ One.

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