Spoilers for Conversations With Friends episode 12 below.
Frances, the main character in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends and the new Hulu series based on that novel, is a young woman who holds her feelings close and doesn’t always express them to others. To play someone so reserved is a challenge. To do it in your first leading television role is even more daunting. But Alison Oliver, raised in Cork, Ireland, and a fan of Rooney’s work before she even got the part, delivers a moving performance that opens an enormous window into the soul of the university student who embarks on an affair with married actor Nick (Joe Alwyn), thereby jeopardizing relationships with her best friend and former lover, Bobbi (Sasha Lane), and Nick’s successful writer wife, Melissa (Jemima Kirke).
In a recent Zoom conversation, Oliver explained how working with Conversations director Lenny Abrahamson and other on-set collaborators helped her overcome any nerves, particularly when shooting the intimate scenes that are so crucial to the story. She also shared her thoughts on the open-ended conclusion of the 12-episode adaptation, which, she acknowledged, may leave some viewers with “conflicted feelings.”
What was your relationship with Sally Rooney’s books before this project?
I read Normal People back when it had come out. I read Conversations a year later because my roommate gave me the book like, “Oh, if you love Normal People, you’ll love this. It’s so good.” I read it in a day and was just in bits over it.
Sally’s able to articulate thoughts and feelings we all feel but struggle to describe or are afraid to admit we feel. She’s such a brave writer; she puts it all out there, and we can all see parts of ourselves in her characters. It made me feel really understood.
What was that audition process like?
Because I’d already read it, I felt like I had a relationship to the story. Frances felt like a real person because she’s described so specifically. In the tone of the book, it’s really apparent that that’s her voice.
Lenny has this amazing ability to really put you at ease. I’ve been an admirer of his for so long, so I was nervous to be in front of him. He works with newcomers a lot and has this ability to create such a collaborative environment. A lot of my auditioning felt like a workshop: “Oh, let’s try it like this, or what if she’s like this?”
This is your first screen role. How did it feel to walk on set and start inhabiting this character?
I was terrified. When I found out I got the part, it was such high emotions: excited and happy and so nervous, like, How am I going to do this? We had quite a long period of time before we started shooting because of COVID; it was actually about six months from when I got the part to when we started. It gave me time to process that I was actually going to do this and pull the book apart. We did a lot of Zoom calls with the cast to talk about the characters and their dynamics and their individual relationships with each other. By the first day, I felt like I was sprinting to set. I was so ready to go.
So much of what’s happening for Frances is internal, and as an actor, you have to make that manifest for viewers to see. How did you approach that?
Because I came to that story through the book and the book is completely inside her head — I used to think of the book as her diary, her perspective on these people and what was happening — I was like, I need to put the book in my head so that in each moment I know how she’s perceiving people or what people are making her feel, or what she’s defensive about or what makes her feel vulnerable.
So much of how the show is filmed accommodates that. Lenny is such a close director. His filmmaking is so intimate, and he really lets the characters breathe and think and daydream, and allows space for those moments in between. You feel like you are inside their heads. We had this amazing cinematographer, Suzie Lavelle, who also worked on Normal People, and the way she would be so close to your face, the different lenses she’d use — if she was using an 85 lens, you would get the feel that you’re in Frances’s head, or if she went far away, it was like we’re observing her. The way they prepared to shoot is all wrapped up in how you feel like you’re in Frances’s head.
The love scenes were a hallmark of Normal People, and the intimacy of those scenes is really important here too. What was that like for you, particularly in the scene where Nick and Frances have sex for the first time?
Those intimate scenes are such a big part of the book that it never felt gratuitous to have them in there. The characters struggle to communicate so much that a lot of their communication is through intimacy. It’s an extension of a conversation with those moments rather than dialogue. Actually, it’s all dialogue in a sense: The intimate scenes are just dialogue that becomes physical.
Ita O’Brien, our intimacy coordinator, would talk about the scenes individually: where the characters are in their heads and how they’re feeling about this moment. That first time is such high stakes for so many reasons. We wanted to really honor how massive it is for both of them to be doing this.
Ita will make shapes on the floor and say, “Maybe this is how they’re being intimate.” You’ll rehearse it so it’s all muscle memory. You know there’s a set choreography you’re going to be doing, and that enables you to not worry about all that other stuff and just play your character’s narrative and how they might be feeling in that situation.
It also requires a level of comfort with your co-star, Joe. How did you establish that trust?
Joe and I were cast around the same time, October 2020, so we were in contact a lot. He’s a big fan of the book as well, and we really felt like we understood our characters and how they were with each other. We instantly got on so well, and he’s one of my best friends now.
I’m so close with Jemima and Sasha as well because we were all bubbling, I guess, for about six months. We all spent so much time with each other that I think that kind of translates. I always felt like everyone was rooting for each other and wanting to do a really good job because we all cared about it so much.
The ending of the show is the same as the ending of the novel. Frances has gotten back together with Bobbi but then she has a conversation with Nick and says, “Come get me.” Why do you think she says that?
I thought a lot about this and we talked a lot about what “come and get me” even means. What is she embarking on? My understanding of it is when they break up at the end of episode 11, she doesn’t actually have much control in what’s happening in her life. After she gets her diagnosis, she’s completely spiraling and she can’t grab onto anything. Nick is sleeping with Melissa again and then she worries she’s infertile, and everything with her dad, and then she loses Bobbi. That is her rock bottom.
Through going that low, she realizes what’s actually important to her, and all along it’s been Bobbi. I think Bobbi and Frances are soulmates, and I don’t think Frances could see a life without Bobbi. That’s one of the main reasons she breaks up with Nick, because Bobbi has left her life and she can’t be anything without Bobbi. You see her really learning from her mistakes and re-coming into her own and being more on the front foot and apologizing and making an effort with her dad. You see her healing and learning and taking responsibility. When the call with Nick happens, there’s a sense she’s changed in a way. Actually, he’s speaking to a different Frances, one with much greater perspective.
When she makes that leap of faith of, “Come and get me,” I don’t feel like the cycle starts again. I actually don’t think it’s that. Maybe they do need to talk about what that [relationship] was, because they broke up so abruptly. But I don’t think Frances can ever let herself lose Bobbi again, and I don’t know if it means, “I just need to see you once more,” but it’s different from everything we’ve seen. It’s a different leap of faith because she’s different.
I know people have such conflicted feelings about the ending, and I think it can be anything. I really admire Sally making that the ending, because it’s in the heart of the story. It would be too easy to put everyone back in their couples again and go, “That’s the end of the story.” It’s just always going to be complicated.
This interview has been edited and condensed.