The summer before their final year of college, exes-turned-best-friends Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) attend a poetry night, capturing the attention of an established writer, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), and her sometimes-actor husband, Nick (Joe Alywn). Frances and Bobbi are drawn into the allure of Melissa and Nick’s seemingly glamorous life, and the quartet becomes increasingly intertwined.
As Frances navigates lingering feelings for Bobbi, resentment toward her father, and debilitating period pain from yet-to-be-diagnosed endometriosis, she enters into an affair with Nick, who is arguably looking for a distraction from a middling career and his status as a trophy husband. What Frances and Nick lack in communication skills, they make up for with an intense physical connection as the relationship dynamics at play become messier and, at times, deeply frustrating to watch unfold.
But, Conversations with Friends, the first novel from literary sensation Sally Rooney, isn’t interested in easy answers, shocking revelations, or even life-altering personal growth by the end—it places four people in a complex situation and lets the drama play out, often in very subtle ways. This subtlety is where Oliver excels, Conversations is her first major role, and her newcomer status allows her to showcase a vulnerability that is uninhibited and refreshing to witness. Frances is a deeply-flawed character, but Oliver’s performance is a strong anchor throughout the 12-episode miniseries— acting as an impressive launchpad for what’s to come in Oliver’s career.
Awards Daily: Alison, Conversations with Friends is such a big moment of discovery for your career. How are you feeling, especially seeing the reactions and praise for your performance?
Alison Oliver: It’s all just been so lovely. We spent quite a while filming it, and we’re all just so proud of it. We loved filming it, and I’m just so happy. And people have been so lovely. My friends and family are really enjoying it. It’s been really nice.
I just feel so, so lucky. And I think it was such a mad thing that I even got the part. It was so crazy for me. To get a job in general as an actor is always a tricky thing. So when it’s something that you’re already so passionate about and deeply care about, and I care about Frances so much, it just felt like such a gift.
AD: To say that the relationship dynamics within Conversations with Friends are complicated is a massive understatement. How did you all build such intense chemistry and comfort with one another that translated on screen?
AO: We were all cast by Christmas of 2020, and we didn’t start filming until April of 2021. So, we actually had quite a while. We were all texting and in touch leading up to when we all came to Belfast to start shooting. We had a rehearsal period as well. During that time, we were getting to know each other first and foremost, and we all kind of instantly gelled, which was really nice. We all got on so well. And I think, for the first two weeks of filming, it was literally just Sasha and me in Frances’ apartment, doing loads of different kinds of scenes. We were both living in Belfast and didn’t really know anyone else there, so we were hanging out loads and then had that two-week [rehearsal] period. And I think that’s invaluable because you are just with that person the whole time. And when we had our chemistry reads, you know when you meet someone, and you go, ‘Oh, we’re going to be such good friends.’ So, we got on really well straight away.
And I think the thing for Sasha and me was making it feel like there’s history there between Bobbi and Frances—they went out in school and went through that break-up, and then became best friends in college, and that you feel like things have happened, and that they’re really, really inseparable and know each other well and have this way of being together. So it was really important for us to do backstory and figure out who they are and what their relationship is. And what they’ve been through together—from when we first meet them to when you see what happens with the introduction of Nick and Melissa.
But yeah, it was just about spending loads of time together and, similarly, with Joe and Jemima. I think because we loved the show so much, we would rehearse, and then we would always hang out on the weekends or go to each other’s apartments and have drinks. And it’s so funny because we would be socializing, but we would always end up speaking about the show or speaking about the characters. And I think it was such a testament to how much we loved it. And so I think all of that stuff really kind of adds up to feeling like you really know your characters and the dynamics at play between all of them.
AD: One of the challenges of adapting Sally Rooney is that a lot of her writing is very internal. And sometimes, there’s not a lot of dialogue. So much has to be shown through your body language and facial expressions. How do you do that? [Laughs] It’s a simple question, but it’s very complicated, and you do it beautifully.
AO: Oh, thank you. I guess it’s a mixture of a couple of things. I definitely found it challenging, and it’s definitely kind of a tricky thing to do, to communicate without communicating verbally. And I drew from the book a lot because everything in the book is basically a running internal monologue of everything she’s going through or feeling, with people, or on her own. So I would always reference the book before a scene but then was also aware of what was happening in front of me and the conversations I was having with the directors and the cast. I think it’s an interesting thing. I remember Lenny talking about, If you’re thinking the thoughts or you’re feeling the feelings, because of the way that they shoot—it’s so intimate and close, and the camera’s often quite close – it does pick it up. And those gestures, they do tell such a story.
And sometimes, actually, it’s very simple. It’s just those kinds of immediate responses to a certain moment that Lenny and Leanne hone in on really well. And Suzie and Bobby, the cinematographers, pick that up so well. So I think it’s a collaborative thing, like, ‘How do we show or tell a story just through all these kinds of looks.’ And that was something that we talked about a lot.
AD: In what ways did you adapt your performance to Frances and her character development throughout the show?
AO: I guess in a sense, I prepared a lot. And then when you get to filming, it’s like, you can only prepare so much, and you just have to go with the flow and be open to whatever is happening around you. So I guess as I went on, I kind of maybe just loosened up a little bit more. And just tried to have a little bit more of an open approach to things and just trust that it’s all going in the right direction. We didn’t shoot in chronological order, but it’s almost like there are different pocketed times, like, ‘This is when she’s in this kind of head space,’ and so on. So tracking that as I went on became really important to ensure I knew where she was at. And specifically, with her journey with endometriosis, \a really important thing for me was always to know where she was with her body at different points.
AD: And in the scenes where the four of you were together, how did you approach that dynamic? Because again, there’s such nuance there.
AO: I guess so much is in the script and the writing. It’s such good writing and it’s all there. And Lenny and Leanne, who directed it, gave so much space and time to enriching all of that stuff and making it feel like something is always happening or something is always shifting or changing. And even if it’s slow, you’re really sitting with the characters; things are always happening.
It’s really collaborative, and we’re playing the scenes with each other the whole time. And especially when it was a group context, that was really interesting because that actually allows more for secret looks or small moments on your own. And we were given so much space to do that.
AD: For me, anytime I engage with anything that Sally Rooney does, it causes me to sort of take a step back and reflect on my own relationships. I’m curious if you also had that moment of reflection and if Conversations with Friends has taught you anything about how you move through your life, career, or anything of that nature.
AO: Yeah, I totally agree. I think you can’t help but get really introspective when you read her work. And she’s talking about things that we all go through, like love and coming of age, interpersonal relationships, and all of that stuff. So you get sort of reflective. And I think I just found the story really moving and kind of oddly nostalgic. And so much of the story is asking the question, ‘Can you love more than one person?’ And not necessarily answering it.
It’s just showing these characters in this situation. Actually, in a sense, the feelings are quite simple. She does love two people, but it’s all the other stuff around it that makes it incredibly complicated— the ‘What does that mean then?’ Are we in an open relationship? Who’s allowed?’ It gets so complicated with all of the messaging around us, I think.
There’s a bit in the series that always stands out to me. It’s at the very end when Frances goes for a pint with her mom at Christmas. Her mom says something like, ‘You can’t control these things. You just make decisions, and you hope.’ I think that’s an overall theme for the book. You can’t really control who you love or how many people you love. You just love them and hope for the best. That was a thing that I took from it— that sometimes you need to be able to control your life or control the things that are happening, but actually, life just happens, and you have to try and respond as best as you can to it.
AD: That’s beautiful. Is that what you’re hoping the audience takes away from the series as well?
AO: Yeah, I think so. And to just be moved by it and enjoy the story, and enjoy watching this complicated quartet go through these things and watch as this story unfolds. So I think there’s a message you can take from it. And it’s also just something to watch and enjoy.
Conversations with Friends is available on Hulu.