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Thursday 12 May 2022

Interview with Alison Oliver - Conversations With Friends

Alison Oliver plays Frances

Why did you want to be involved in this project?

I was already a big Sally Rooney fan and was in awe of her brain and work. When I read the book I just completely fell in love with it straight away and all the characters in it. I think the people behind the project are such a big part of it too. The directors Lenny [Abrahamson] and Leanne [Welham], and all the producers, writers, cast and crew are just extraordinary. When you have people like that behind a series, you know it's going to be very special. It was just a dream to even audition!

What were your initial thoughts when you read Conversations With Friends?

I was fascinated by the dynamic between these four characters and how reliant they all are on each other to develop and move forward with their lives. They're all in a very stagnant place in their lives and through meeting each other it enables them to grow - I found that very interesting. I was so compelled and moved by this intense female relationship between Bobbi and Frances. It's so beautiful and one that I resonated with and understood.

You mentioned you were a fan of Sally Rooney before being cast...

I had read Normal People and Conversations With Friends before I was cast or auditioned. I think her writing is so intimate and sensitive and detailed, but also fearless and powerful. She writes characters that feel like very real people and she writes about a world that I understand and that resonated with a lot. Her style of writing is very funny and has such character to it, so it was amazing to then say, let's see where I could fit into that.

How do you think the scripts honour the original novel?

The writers Mark, Alice, Maeve and Susan have done such an incredible job at adapting the book. The heart of all the characters remains completely intact. I think with any adaptation there's things that will work in a book but then when they are translated into a visual form might not have the same effect, so there are slight differences, but the narrative and Sally's tone remain true and present throughout.

You'd already read the book before you got the scripts, what is it about the scripts that are so compelling?

With the scripts, it's a lot of what's not said. I love that about the scripts, not feeling the need to give words to it. There's a lot of scenes where they're talking about one thing but really there's another thing going on. Everything feels in oppositions a lot of the time and I just find that exciting to play.

What are some of the big themes in the series?

Love, friendship, age, class and non-monogamy!

How did you prepare for bringing the character of Frances to life?

I worked primarily from the book actually, I think the tone of the book is so distinct and clear that when I read it, it sometimes felt like I was reading Frances' diary. It would be her perspective on how she took any given moment or experience in her life and so I would always go back to that when looking at a scene in the script and say, well, how is she feeling about this? because it may look one way but actually this is how she's interpreting the situation. It's so detailed and in depth, I felt so spoiled, I sometimes felt like I was cheating on a test!

Can you describe the character of Frances?

Frances is a very cerebral and observant young woman who has a very dry humour. I completely adore her because I think she's refreshing as a young woman in all her complexities and chaos and vulnerabilities, because she's multi-faceted and very extreme as a character. At one moment she can be very introverted and embarrassed and awkward and scared, and the next she's so ballsy and brave and reckless - I just love that about her.

She's someone who is very intelligent and very talented. She really knows what her beliefs and morals are in the world, but when it comes to her own personality or who she believes she is, she has no idea and is living in this identity crisis for a lot of the story. She's married to a version of herself that is unemotional. At this point in her life she's struggling to accommodate that version of herself while she embarks on situations that will inherently evoke emotion and that causes her to behave in certain ways. Because of that she's very complicated but amazing.

You've obviously had a lot of fun playing this character, give us a sense of that…

There's something interesting in playing a character who doesn't know who they are, because you end up playing loads of different people, and she's different with every single person in her life. Even if it's the slightest shift, how she is with her parents versus who she is with her friend Philip, or with Bobbi or Nick or Melissa. I was deciding what version of Frances she is today and that's so much fun. I think everyone involved in this enjoys being here and loves the story and the characters, so there's naturally so much joy, humour and fun every day.

It's a complex coming-of-age drama, can you talk about the journey Frances goes on in the story?

When we meet Frances, at this point in her life, she's stuck in a lot of patterns of behaviour, and there's a lot of change happening within her relationships with Bobbi, her dad, her own identity and changes within her body that she's having to figure out. It's putting her in situations where she has to confront her own vulnerabilities and defences, and confront life in a sense, which is something she's always trying to avoid. It's a tricky time for her, but it's very compelling to observe because to me, it feels very real and relatable.

Tell us about this extraordinary relationship between Frances and Bobbi.

Frances and Bobbi are inseparable, they're the best of friends and they do everything together and love being with each other. When you meet them at the beginning of the story they are happy together and have developed this way of being, speaking and living. They used to be in a relationship at school, but they've kept this bond that's platonic, and because of that I think there's an underlying and unresolved tension because they've never actually spoken about the breakup in depth - why it happened or how it made them feel.

What does Frances feel when she first meets Nick?

It's a funny one because I don't think it's a love at first sight, it's a very instant intrigue and fascination with Nick. Frances is such an observant person, she likes to look at people and can place them off the bat, but she can't do that with him at all. He's such a mystery to her when she first meets him, and they have a common ground as they are the more introverted of the pairings. So, when they're left with each other in a social context they must negotiate who's going to assume what role in the conversations. She can feel an interest from him and that shocks her, because Frances is someone who has a very low opinion of herself and is used to people taking to Bobbi and feeling she's sometimes in her shadow. So having someone who is older, famous, wealthy and married, it makes her feel good about herself.

They have this odd bond, a thing that sparks between them as they meet over the course of a couple of different nights and she's fascinated and constantly wanting to know more.

Tell us who the directors are and what it was like working with them.

Lenny Abrahamson, who directs the first block, is just the most incredible director and person. I was blown away by him every single day because he has this ability to get under the skin of characters and can track everyone's journey at the same time to create a very compelling moment. He directs in a way that brings about the most organic, truthful responses in people because I feel like he's always searching for the most nuanced and subtle moment in a scene or in a story. He creates such a warm and safe environment to do anything, and he'll nurture that and guide you through it. I'm completely in awe, the way that he works and interacts with actors and everyone on set is amazing. And he's so funny, just such good craic - it's been a complete dream come true working with him.

Leanne Welham, who directs the second block, is amazing. I remember when we first had a chat - she had all these interesting takes and considerations about the story and characters that I may have not considered before or may have forgotten about. The part of story that she's directing is a big turning point in Bobbi and France's relationship. Leanne is so amazing at interrogating that and tracking exactly where they are in their relationship, conflicts that are arising, and she allows moments to breathe. She celebrates the most ordinary moments, where you're just sitting on the couch chatting to someone but, those are the most beautiful moments, as it's when two people are connecting.

What was it like to work alongside the other actors?

They're the most wonderful, amazing, talented people ever. I felt so lucky to work with them and I learnt so much from them every day. Watching them bring those characters to life has been magic because I imagined so much what those people might be like, look like, what their energy is like – then when you see the three of them I thought, of course that's Nick and Melissa and Bobbi. They're unique in their own way of bringing those characters to life and they've brought such complexities to them. In the book, Frances is relaying her version of who those people are, but when people embody them it's naturally going to be their version of the characters. I can't wait for people to see what they're doing with those characters because it's so good.

What has been your most rewarding moment during filming?

Just working with the people here. After such a mad and uncertain time being locked in, it's been so rewarding being in a space with people where you feel like you're really connecting with them and working in a close way - that feels rewarding because it feels like something we haven't had for so long.

What has been your favourite scene to film?

My favourite scene to film is the first dinner party that Nick and Melissa have for Bobbi and Frances after they go for a swim. It's when they're all figuring out how to speak to each other and there's a lot of different things at play there. It was so fun to film.

What was your favourite place to shoot?

My favourite place to shoot would probably be Ballycastle on the north coast. The landscape there is extraordinary – it was nice to be out in the country.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the series?

I think what I took away from the story - and what I hope people will take away - is you can't control who you love or how many people you love, you can't control how it's going to work out or how you're going to feel about it. You can only just love people and hope for the best.

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