We chatted to lead actress Alison Oliver and the production team behind the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.
Sally Rooney has hit the zeitgeist better than any other millennial writer so far. Her novels, Conversations with Friends, Normal People and her latest, Beautiful World, Where Are You, have been both critical and commercial hits. Normal People became a global phenomenon after it was adapted to a TV show that aired around the time Covid-19 was first battering the world.
“Normal People came out at such a particular time, when everybody was just in this hyper aware, probably quite vulnerable state, sitting at home. There could not have been a more receptive audience for a show than the lockdown audience was for Normal People” says Lenny Abrahamson, the director and executive producer behind both Normal People and Conversations with Friends.
Abrahamson and the rest of team Normal People now return to bring Rooney’s debut novel to our TV screens. Conversations with Friends is more complex and mature than Normal People, venturing into the waters of polyamory and infidelity. The central question is, can you have multiple romantic loves at the same time?
“I love Sally Rooney’s novels and her writing. I would read anything she writes,” says Alison Oliver, who plays the main character Frances in Conversations. We’re chatting on a bright April afternoon and there’s no sign of the awkwardness or stillness that defines Frances in Oliver’s sunny exposition.
“I think there’s something really interesting about a character who is married to this version of herself, where she wants to be this unemotional being and wants to shut life out in a way, then is embarking on a situation which will inherently evoke emotion,” Oliver says of her character.
The situation in question is her affair with married man Nick, played by Joe Alwyn. Their relationship, while morally ambiguous, is also tender and erotic and as Oliver notes, “more than just physical attraction.”
“They can totally recognise the other’s position and their pairing of being the more introverted of the two. I think it’s a really interesting dynamic for them to explore together. What happens when the two introverts are left on their own?”
Converting Rooney’s debut novel into a series was much more challenging than Normal People, thanks to the much more complex themes of the former, but the experience the team gained from working on that show was invaluable.
“We learned so much from that adaptation, that I think we were able to wrangle and wrestle with the messiness and the complexity and the gnarliness of Conversations with Friends,” Abrahamson says.
With success comes pressure and it was felt by the production team, but it never hindered the creative process.
“There’s always pressure but the pressure is always ‘Will you do it well?’ It’s an adaptation, are you going to manage to find a way of being true to the essential quality of the book and yet find a form for it in this other medium?” Abrahamson says, who also adapted Emma Donoghue’s novel Room for the big screen. The film earned Brie Larson every award under the sun, including an Oscar and Abrahamson was also nominated for Best Director.
Guiney praises Rooney’s ability to write “incredibly rich, vivid, interesting characters.”
“And I think equally Lenny, as a filmmaker, has the gift of being able to remove the lens between the viewer and the actor or the character if you like. So again, you feel like you’re having a very intimate relationship where you really understand what these characters are going through.”
Curiously, Conversations was originally supposed to be a film and it was planned before Normal People, but at Guiney’s suggestion, that film became a TV show.
“The rhythm of Sally’s writing suits these little, delicate moments of television storytelling,” says Emma Norton, one of the executive producers for both Normal People and Conversations.
Rooney wasn’t actively involved in the day-to-day production of the series.
“Sally was busy writing her third novel around this time. She understood how we worked, we understood what was important to her. So we had a lot of conversations with her in the early stages of casting, and then the early adaptation stages,” Norton explains when asked how involved Rooney, who has been hailed as the voice of a whole generation, was.
Oliver came to the project straight from drama school, the very same one that Paul Mescal, who played Connell in Normal People, graduated from. The role gave Mescal his big break and the actor is now in high demand all over the world. Oliver can expect the same, but she has an experienced production team behind her to support her.
Abrahamson and executive producer Ed Guiney both speak of feeling protective over Oliver, but both praise the young actress, with Guiney describing her as “a very gifted person.” Oliver has several sex scenes in the show, but the team had already done groundbreaking work with those in Normal People.
“In terms of the intimate scenes, particularly, we worked with an intimacy coordinator that really helps because there’s an outlet for actors to talk about how they feel about those scenes, that doesn’t have to go via me, because there’s always a worry, if you’re a relatively established director, and you’re working with the younger actor, the last thing you want is for the younger actor to feel ‘Oh, I better not express my discomfort because I want to please this person.’ It’s very important that there’s a way that they can express reservations or anything that they feel, outside of the relationship with the director” says Abrahamson, who directed Brie Larson to her Oscar win in Room.
“There’s a different kind of choreography into an intimate scene than to a scene of conversation. You’re not asking people to have a phantom version of an intimate encounter, you’re asking them to be dancers, to join you in choreographing something, which has a very noble reason for being in the show, because it tells you something about where the characters are with each other” he adds.
“We were just trying to play with all those different nuances and dynamics that are so beautifully written about in the novel,” Oliver says of her scenes with Alwyn.
Oliver faced the difficult task of bringing Frances alive on the small screen. Frances, who knowingly begins an affair with a married man, is a morally ambiguous character, but Oliver approached her with empathy and calls the show “a very modern love story.”
Oliver also notes that it’s important for her to keep a distance between herself and the characters she plays, whether it’s something she can relate to or not. “How would I step inside of that experience that I don’t know or how that feels. And that’s when imagination comes into play” Oliver says of approaching Frances from a moral point of view.
“Affairs aren’t really taboo in this world. The whole moral ambiguity thing is actually really interesting to see on screen because that judgement isn’t there. I just thought that was really interesting, because we’re seeing a new way of dealing with that, and new forms of love, and what we think is acceptable.”