Alison Oliver is such an acting newcomer that her first experience with a camera on a professional set happened during the filming of the Hulu limited series “Conversations with Friends.” Not that anyone watching the intimate show would notice: Playing the Frances, a young Irish college student who starts an affair with a married actor named Nick (Joe Alwyn) while still sorting out her feelings for her ex-girlfriend and best friend, Bobbi (Sasha Lane), Oliver exudes preternatural confidence as a performer. She can convey Frances’ detailed internalized thoughts and conflict with merely a single glance.
“I think it was really interesting to think about how she responds to things when she’s around people versus when she’s on her own, and how much of that she lets out when she’s on her own, versus how guarded she is around other people,” Oliver tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “So much of that is in the filming and how close they get to my face or how much they pull away and observe me. I think that tells such a story too.”
Oliver, 23, graduated from Ireland’s Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in 2020. A fan of author Sally Rooney – the acclaimed writer behind not just “Conversations with Friends” but “Normal People” as well, which helped launch the careers of Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones – she put herself on tape to audition for Frances. Once she was cast, she spent many hours on Zoom with Alwyn and “Conversations with Friends” creator and director Lenny Abrahamson to perfect the chemistry between Frances and Nick. But just as important, Oliver also got a chance to speak with Rooney herself, who served as an executive producer on “Conversations with Friends.”
“I was just dying to speak to her about it and she was so lovely,” Oliver says. Their conversation focused on who Frances was to the author, down to the character’s taste in music and wardrobe. Rooney also provided the actress with a key to understanding Frances on a deeper level as well.
“She said Frances is a brain in a jar,” Oliver recalls. “That helped so much when I was approaching her physicality and how she’s feeling quite foreign in her body and uncomfortable in her own skin. During that time she’s kind of coming into her own in many ways but keeping that kind of awkwardness in the body. The way [Sally] told me about that was really helpful.”
Like “Normal People,” which debuted on Hulu in 2020, “Conversations with Friends” includes numerous moments of intimacy between its core couple. As part of the creative process, Abrahamson once again had intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien on set to work with the actors and make sure they were comfortable with the material.
“Those scenes are such a big part of the book – it’s a big thing for Sally’s characters that they really struggle to communicate, they communicate through intimacy a lot of the time,” Oliver says. “So it never felt like something that was kind of gratuitous or just thrown in there, it is a part of the storytelling,” O’Brien, the actress explains, didn’t just speak with the performers about the sex scenes but helped choreograph specific beats as well.
“It’s just actually really helpful when you’re doing those scenes, and if you need to go back and like start another beat again, it’s just so technical,” Oliver adds. “You can do that and not have to worry about any other kind of worries you might have. You just think about your character and play their scene. So, yeah, I was in really safe hands.”
Owing to the affair at its center, “Conversations with Friends” draws out much of its drama from the messiness of human emotions and relationships. Frances grows in fits and starts throughout the 12 episodes, but by the end, it’s unclear how much she’s really allowed herself to learn.
“I just really want her to be happy,” Oliver says when asked how her thoughts on Frances have evolved since getting to play her onscreen.
“I think she’s gone on such a journey, that I guess I kind of did with the character in a sense as well,” she adds. “I just feel really hopeful.”
All episodes of “Conversations with Friends” are streaming now on Hulu.
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