‘Conversations with Friends’ star Joe Alwyn on the ‘tricky’ nature of his performance: ‘It was a fine line to play’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Joe Alwyn already has a career that defies simple classification. Fresh out of drama school in 2016, he was cast as the title character in Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” That breakout performance, which required the English actor to play an American soldier returning home to Texas, led to supporting parts in numerous acclaimed films, including the 2019 Best Picture nominee “The Favourite.” As if that weren’t enough, Alwyn also won a Grammy Award last year as co-producer on Taylor Swift’s blockbuster album “folklore.” (Alwyn and Swift are in a long-term relationship; Alwyn says he doesn’t know where he keeps the Grammy Award currently but suspects it lives on his piano.)

But Alwyn’s work in “Conversations with Friends” feels like a professional leap to another level. He plays Nick, a married actor who has an affair with a young college student named Frances (breakout Alison Oliver) while struggling with his sense of self and mental well-being. The limited series, based on the novel by writer Sally Rooney, is the longest Alwyn has ever spent playing a single character and his performance has been called his “best yet.”

“With Nick, I just really liked him as a character – there was a lot to him. He was very complex,” Alwyn tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “More specifically I liked that when you meet him, he’s one thing but you don’t quite know why until later. Essentially, when you meet him, he’s quite guarded and has his cards close to his chest. And he’s quite enigmatic and difficult to read. But really what might appear as him being kind of distant or withholding, is that he’s quite vulnerable and fragile…. I liked the idea of peeling back those layers and seeing him kind of brought back to life through Francis. I thought it was a really nice arc.”

As is revealed in the 12-episode limited series from executive producer and director Lenny Abrahamson, Nick has grappled with mental health issues in the recent past. When he meets Frances, it comes after some time when he’s been withdrawn from life, almost watching himself as a bystander. To play that kind of character but still make him seem engaging enough to catch the eye and interest of someone like Frances was admittedly “tricky” for Alwyn. 

“He has to on one level seem quiet enough and reserved enough and not giving enough for someone like [Frances’ outspoken friend] Bobbi to kind of dismiss him early on as just being quiet or boring or not having much to him,” Alwyn says. “But at the same time, if you kind of zoom in on him – like Frances does – there needs to then be something else there that kind of flickers underneath that she is drawn to. So it was like a fine line to play.”

While Alwyn didn’t necessarily relate to all aspects of Nick’s psyche, he does think what the character goes through internally is somewhat universal. “It’s something that most people can relate to, to be honest, and people speak about it more and more now, which is a good thing,” he says of Nick’s mental health issues. 

Beyond the personal, however, Alwyn says he relied on Rooney’s source material as well as his collaboration with Abrahamson to find the essence of his character. Alwyn was also supported by the intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, who worked with the actors on the show’s many sex scenes (and filled that role previously on “Normal People”).

“She just has a really safe system to kind of explore those scenes and almost choreograph them a bit like a dance scene or fight scene,” Alwyn says. “So they’re quite technical in their beats, which is really helpful, because then you kind of know what you’re doing, and it takes the pressure off.”

Alwyn hasn’t yet watched “Conversations with Friends” in its entirety, but he has heard from friends and family members with high praise. “You spent a long time on those things, and you put a lot of work in so it’s really nice to hear lovely responses from people,” he says of the response so far. “You know, you feel like you’re in possession of this thing that that means a lot to a lot of people. So it’s kind of like a privilege to be a part of that. And it’s nice to now share that with everyone else.”

“Conversations with Friends” is streaming on Hulu.

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