Alison Oliver is as invested in the adaptation of Conversations with Friends as any other self-respecting Sally Rooney fan—but not just because she’s starring in it. “If I didn’t do this show, I totally would be the person being like, ‘Oh, my God, when’s the show coming out?!”” Oliver tells BAZAAR.com. “It’s just so cool to be a part of something that you care so much about already.”
Two years ago, Oliver was one of the 62.7 million viewers who made the Hulu/BBC adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, an early-quarantine sensation. She had also “fallen in love” with Rooney’s acclaimed novels. Now, Oliver leads the Conversations with Friends cast as Frances, a quiet but acerbic and intelligent college student. Over 12 episodes, Frances and her best friend, Bobbi (Sasha Lane), form a tangled bond with a married couple—Nick (Joe Alwyn), an actor, and Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a writer—and uncover some uncomfortable truths about their relationship in the process.
That abbreviated summary doesn’t capture every nuance of the 12-episode series, nor how the show is so much more than another IMDb credit for Oliver. Frances is her first major role since graduating from the Lir Academy at Trinity College Dublin—the same school Normal People‘s Paul Mescal attended—and one that could catapult her career to dizzying heights. (See: those Normal People streaming numbers.)
When we meet over Zoom, Oliver is unpretentious and excited. She ı’m one in a long line of back-to-back press appointments she has, but she waves off my gratitude with a smile. It’s worth it for a story and a show she cares so deeply about, she says. “There was so much of the book that I really related to and felt so seen by,” she tells me about her first time reading Conversations with Friends. “I read it in a day, and cried, and I sent my best friend a letter about it.”
What moved her so deeply about the story? “I think Sally writes intense female friendship so well—the way that they move through the world together and assume different roles in their dynamic.”
The show excels where those dynamics are at the fore—particularly, the one between Frances and Bobbi. The two dated and broke up before the show opens, but they’re still inseparable. For the foundations of that codependent bond, Oliver and costar Sasha Lane spent a two-week rehearsal period getting to know one another, followed by two weeks of shooting just the two of them. “It felt right to film that way,” Oliver says, “because when you meet them in the story, you want them to have all this history and all this kind of unresolved tension, but so much deep love.”
It helped that the pair instantly clicked, as Oliver puts it. “I remember when [Sasha] was auditioning, the minute she came on the screen, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s Bobbi.’ I think because we know their relationship so well and we love those characters so much, we instantly fell into their rhythms.”
Then there’s the affair with Nick: a relationship rife with fumbling miscommunications, unintended consequences, and a handful of very steamy scenes. Joe Alwyn and Oliver were cast first, and in the weeks before filming began, they arranged an unofficial book club of sorts to prepare. “We were both really big Sally fans,” Oliver remembers, “so we would have long discussions about those characters and why Nick and Frances are so drawn to each other.”
When it came time to film together, all that preparation resulted in palpable chemistry. “I felt that we had interrogated them so much that we really were playing out [what] we felt or discussed about them,” Oliver says.
Frances’s romantic entanglements get top billing in the series, but there’s a subtler arc about her personal politics that also interested Oliver. Frances begins Conversations with Friends as an avowed Marxist. Stepping into Nick and Melissa’s world, and their very posh home, tinges her contempt for wealthy people with slight jealousy. Playing out those competing ideas was another relatable aspect of the series for the actress.
“I realized you can have your morals and beliefs in the world, and the things you do care about and want to believe,” she reflects. “But you’re also a 21-year-old who would love a bit more money—and those two things can exist at the same time. I think so many people of our generation now are totally struggling with that.”
It’s a minor spoiler to reveal that Frances’s romantic journey is more controversial than her political one. The show asks her to choose between Nick and Bobbi, but she can’t help but want both. So I give Oliver the Rorschach test of the Sally Rooneyverse, one that surely a few other journalists have conducted: Ending how it ends, does she think Frances evolves over the course of the series? Has Frances learned anything from how she hurts the people around her?
Oliver is more forgiving than some readers and viewers may be. “I think she’s changed,” she says simply. “There’s still closure to be had.” The duality is, to Oliver, “the whole point of the story.” She adds, “It would be too easy to put everyone back in couples and everything be all okay again. The end needs to be more complicated than that.”
Oliver’s own evolution isn’t up for debate. “That job,” as Oliver calls every time on the Conversations with Friends set, was a place where she grew up and learned her priorities. For work, Oliver wants to follow her more experienced costars ‘examples and stay selective about future roles. “They’re all really brilliant at doing the jobs that they care about and they’re excited about, rather than any other kind of reason. I think I really took that from them,” Oliver says.
And, of course, she paid close attention to their craft. “Frances is so observant, so I did just get to watch them some of the time and was so compelled by their performances.”
I have to ask Oliver how she’s preparing for life after the premiere. Is she ready for everything to change, if Conversations with Friends inspires the same frenzy as its predecessor? She gives a nervous giggle and says it’s not something she really can anticipate. “It’s such a mad thing, that whole side of it,” she admits.
From the 19 minutes we spend together, it seems like Oliver is enjoying the ride—or at least, not weighing herself down with what-ifs. “Who knows how it’ll do or any of those things?” Oliver asks just before she’s directed to her next interview. “I think I’ve been trying to just keep my focus on the excitement of it coming out, and what will be will be.”
Every response reminds me of a line of Frances’s narration I’d underlined and re-underlined in my dog-eared copy of the book: “You live through certain things before you understand them,” Rooney writes. Bringing an acclaimed novel to life must be one of them.
Conversations with Friends is now streaming on Hulu.
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