Since making his debut in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Joe Alwyn has become something of a character actor with standout supporting roles in Harriet, The Favourite, and Boy Erased.
Conversations with Friends brings us a new version of Alwyn—his character Nick is reluctant, even to take a leading role in his own story. It is only after a new romance that Nick reveals elements of his true nature, both to his new lover (Alison Oliver) and to the audiences watching.
You get the sense that Nick is a man with pools of untapped potential. And the same can be said of Alwyn, Conversations, a window into what Alwyn can deliver as a leading man.
Here, Alwyn discusses his piece of the complex relationship dynamics present within Conversations with Friends and the larger lessons he has taken from the project.
Awards Daily: Something you’ve talked about in the past is wanting to take roles that allow you to disappear and get into character, like The Favourite or Harriet. I wonder how Conversations with Friends plays into that idea. Or maybe it doesn’t; maybe it’s something new. What are your thoughts on that?
Joe Alwyn: Well, on a simple level, it was the longest I’ve ever been on something. I hadn’t been a part of a project that was five months of shooting before. I was a huge fan of Sally’s book when it came out. So for me, it was a no-brainer to say yes, if I was invited to be a part of it. I was also a big fan of Lenny Abrahamson, who directed it.
I was interested in what it was about and Nick as a character, and I was drawn to lots of its themes and the questions it asked, which was interesting.
With Nick and in terms of playing him, what I found challenging was playing someone who’s closed off and guarded and trying to modulate that performance in a way that it can slowly be unpacked over time. You meet him at the story’s beginning when he’s kind of in a place of recovery, and he’s been through a bit of a storm, but you don’t know that when you meet him. I thought it was interesting that for those first few episodes, he can seem quite a withholding character and frustrating for not giving more from his point of view. I think he’s quite a fragile, vulnerable person, and that’s kind of him just trying to hold on in his way. It can come across as not giving. It’s only through his relationship with Frances that he sort of starts to have the impulse to come back to life a bit and vice versa for her. I thought it was interesting and tricky, but I liked the challenge of playing someone who, on one level, had to appear to some characters like Bobbi almost dismisses him early on as just being quiet and not having much to say for himself.
So, you had to capture that side of him, but at the same time, if you focus on him and zoom in on him as Frances does, there has to be something going on that she’s fascinated by and drawn to, so it was like this very fine line of both not giving and giving.
Only kind of when you come close to him, which Frances does cause she’s drawn to something underneath, even if she doesn’t know quite what it is, she kind of sees something flickering underneath that Bobbi quickly dismisses, and Melissa (Jemima Kirke) thinks is her husband not bucking up a bit, but Frances is drawn to it. I was really interested in that fine line.
AD: How did you modulate your performance? Because so much of it is internal, right? What aspects did you want to play up versus play down? How did you make those individual choices?
JA: Well, I suppose you find those times where things come through the cracks, like, you know, it’s those moments, particularly as the story goes on with Frances, that things are teased out of him a bit more. The impulses that have previously frozen or died come back to life.
The two create a space for the other to grow into, and I think he’s at such a low point at the beginning. It was about picking those moments when Frances starts to see, and he starts to feel things happening again in a happy way. It’s about bouncing between surface and depth and having a veneer of not being able to give much. You know, he’s a depressed guy who has been through kind of a storm and is unable to function in some ways like socially, in terms of being able to give like other people are. It was about showing that but also finding the moments when that starts to be unpicked, and he is teased back into life a bit.
AD: It’s interesting because Nick’s an actor. First, I’m always fascinated by the idea of an actor playing an actor. Acting is a vulnerable profession—you have to be vulnerable with me right now. So how did that also factor into his development and how you played him?
JA: Yeah. I didn’t think too much about the fact that I was like an actor playing an actor who you also see act, but I could certainly relate to inherently the weirdness of that job, the ups and downs, and the vulnerability involved. So that was, I think, already in me because, you know, I do it as well. I tried not to get too stuck in the whole matter.
AD: The four of you have spoken about how close you’ve gotten over the filming process, and then you have Lenny and his cinematographers, whose style is to get very close. How did you find that? Did you ever find it overwhelming? What was it like to be in that space and in that moment?
JA: No, it was nice. I mean, with spending that amount of time with people, you hope you get on and that you’re all there because you love the project and everyone did.
So it was, it was nice. That sense of collaboration, with the cast, talking about it a lot, both when we were filming and not filming, about what things meant, who people were, what the relationships were, and what we wanted to show. It was really useful to have that back and forth with the other cast and with Lenny, and Susie, the cinematographer, but with Lenny, I mean, he was from the get-go so keen on being as collaborative as possible.
Right from being cast a couple of months before shooting, he wanted to engage in those conversations. He would send over the scripts as soon as they came in, and he wanted feedback on what was working, what wasn’t working, or what I thought about Nick, or we’d read through some scenes with Alison on zoom. So yeah, that collaboration was really, really nice.
AD: You know, one thing I’ve spoken about today with Alison and Jemima before you is that one of the things that I find with Sally Rooney is that when I engage with her work, it allows me to think about myself and my own, you know, relationships, romantic work-wise, whatever. I always come away with lessons and a new perspective. I just wondered if there were any lessons that you took away from this or if there are any lessons that you want the audience to take away from this because they’re probably going to be younger, you know?
I was wondering about that sort of introspection that you might’ve had with this project
JA: Yeah. I don’t know; it didn’t change what I felt about things because I think I was already interested in and on board with what Sally was provoking or wanting to talk about. I thought about it a lot more, and I loved, you know, even reading the book. I suppose the core of it is can you love more than one person at once? Can you love outside conventional relationship constructs like marriages or friendships and families? I thought that was fascinating. Sally doesn’t give a clear answer at the end, you know, she doesn’t tie things up neatly. When the book came out, I think it probably provoked a lot of discussions, and people liked certain characters or didn’t like certain characters; they wanted to say, you can love more than one person, or you can’t love more than one person. I thought that was already interesting in the book, the discussion that it provoked.
I hope that the show captures that essence and captures those scenes, and provokes a similar discussion.
AD: I think that’s one of the most interesting things about Sally. I think the focus is often on the romantic relationship, but I liked how she explores intimacy in other ways. The other relationships we see in the show are just like the small details. What was that like for you to have a very internal character and have a lot of your communication be your body language? What are things that audiences don’t think about but have to be in the back of your mind?
JA: In terms of like because he’s such an intelligent character? Yeah, I liked that challenge, and I quite like playing characters or thinking about characters who aren’t great at expressing themselves, and I think it’s often more interesting than just saying what you feel all the time. Lenny is so good at trying to mine every moment for what it is, even if it’s unspoken and unsaid and complicated, even if you don’t know what it is. He wanted to break down every beat and line, not in an overbearing way, but just like interrogating everything. That was helpful when you’re playing a character who often doesn’t know how to say what he’s feeling. I love that it’s something Sally does so well. I liked those characters who aren’t particularly good at communicating, even from the book. So I liked playing that as well.
AD: Do you feel like he’s made progress at the end? We’ve been talking about growth and change, so do you think that’s something that he’s really experienced? We don’t get a clear answer for this, but where do you see him at the end?
JA: I think he’s progressed hugely from where we met him at the beginning. When we meet him at the beginning, I think he is in a low place and a point of recovery and is heavily depressed, which means, you know, the impulses are gone.
It’s through what happens with Frances that he is brought back to life, and with Frances’ return, Frances gives that back to him. By the end, he regresses a little because, spoiler, things fall apart again. Yeah, I think they all have grown by the end because of the affair, which obviously, in some ways, in black and white terms is, you know, immoral and bad, but at the same time, it has a positive effect on all of them.
All four of them kind of changed shape, I think, in a positive way. Nick’s relationship with Melissa starts to heal because of his relationship with Frances, and Frances is able to address her relationship with Bobbi (Sasha Lane) because of her growth through Nick. So, I think they all grow.
AD: As you mentioned, this was the longest that you’ve ever been on a project. Does this experience change the way you approach other projects or other characters in the future? Are you looking for more projects like this that allow you to play a more central role, and where do you go from here?
JA: Being on something for five months was a luxury in many ways; it just depends on the project and the time you’re given on it. It’s a lot more satisfying to be on something for a sustained period than to pop in for like a few weeks. Definitely, I think going forward, in terms of what I can take from the way Lenny approaches things, it is just about carrying on with that level of interrogation in looking at the material. I think that was so amazing the way he did and continues to do that, and you can see that kind of bleed-through in all of his other projects as well. He’s amazing at building those worlds. I think that comes about through real attention to detail, but without it getting stifling, he then lets it go. I’ll try and take that on.
Conversations with Friends is streaming now on Hulu.