When you watch Conversations with Friends, it’s hard to believe this is Alison Oliver’s first-ever television acting role. She delivers a powerful, raw and brave performance and is a natural in front of the camera.
In the 12-episode (roughly six-hour) Hulu limited series, which premiered May 15, Oliver eloquently steps into the shoes of 21-year-old college student Frances, a young woman who is simultaneously navigating multiple romantic relationships, new friendships, family issues and school.
Based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel of the same name, the story challenges those rules set forth by society that are centered around monogamy and sexuality. Rooney’s stories often begin with her beautifully written characters facing the kind of hard life lessons and life-changing relationships that will shape them moving forward.
In a recent interview, Oliver talked about joining the “Rooney-verse” which is well known for finding raw talent and making huge stars out of its actors. Another of Rooney’s book-to-screen tales, Normal People, catapulted the careers of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
Oliver had already read and watched Normal People and was a fan of Rooney’s work. She explains just how close-knit this world is. She’d met Edgar-Jones in passing when she’d come to Dublin to film Normal People and knew Mescal from college. “Daisy and I did text a bit when I was cast and we’ve chatted now that it’s out. She’s been so kind and generous. It’s really nice to have that contact across the shows.”
In 2019, Oliver was leaving college in Dublin because of the pandemic and before she headed to her hometown of Cork to isolate, her then roommate gave her a copy of the book Conversations with Friends. “I devoured it and loved it. I read it in a day and sobbed and thought it was just so beautiful. I felt incredibly moved and nostalgic because Frances and I were in similar life places at the time. We were both going through the transition of leaving college and going into the adult world and all of the different anxieties and confusions that brings. I always say when you read Sally’s books you can’t help but get very introspective.”
Months later she had an opportunity to send in an audition tape for the role of Frances, a character she had a strong connection to. “I just love her so much and deeply care about her. When I first read the book, I had this feeling of deeply wanting to take care of her. I think she’s just a really interesting person. She’s really guarded and introverted and she’s also very brave and reckless and really goes after what she wants.”
Oliver talks about one particular email exchange with Rooney that really helped her prepare for the role. “Sally said Frances is a brain in a jar. This was so helpful for me and how I wanted to play her. She does feel quite disconnected from her body.”
As the story begins, Frances has only loved Bobbi and she’s never been with a man. And then she meets Nick (Joe Alwyn), who is married. They have an immediate connection and fall in love. Of note, Taylor Swift fans already know Alwyn based on his work on hits like The Favourite and because of his real-life relationship with the singer. Nick eventually tells his wife Melissa, played by Jemima Kirke of Girls fame, about the affair. She has also formed a bond with Bobbi, played by Sasha Lane (Utopia). Bobbi and Frances are best friends with a romantic past and the four form somewhat of a love square.
“When we meet Frances she really doesn’t know who she is and we follow her as she embarks on this affair and see how it affects the interpersonal relationships in her life. We’re also seeing her find herself and it was really interesting for me to figure out how she’d shift herself between each person she was with. It’s fascinating to play a character who doesn’t know who they are because, in a sense, they play a lot of different versions of themselves. She’s a young woman who is figuring a lot out through this affair and it uproots a lot of things for her and we see her go on that journey.”
One thing this story does so well is show the many complexities of love without over-explaining things or using labels. We follow Frances as she navigates her sexuality and deals with being in love with a man and a woman simultaneously.
“There’s no coming out moment for any of the women, or for Nick. They are all just in this complicated situation together. So much of what I took from this story is that you can’t choose who you love or how many people you love.”
Conversations with Friends is executive produced by Ed Guiney, Emma Norton and Andrew Lowe for Element Pictures. Rooney and Lenny Abrahamson executive produce alongside Tommy Bulfin and Rose Garnett for the BBC. Catherine Magee and Jeanie Igoe produce with Abrahamson and Leanne Welham directing all episodes.
Up next for Oliver is the four-part BBC drama Best Interests, about a family facing the impending loss of a loved one.