The cast and creators of Conversations with Friends have done an interview with Vanity Fair, talking about the show and the filming process. Read the interview below and check out some promotional photos of the cast: Joe Alwyn as Nick, Alison Oliver as Frances, Sasha Lane as Bobbi, and Jemima Kirke as Melissa. The show is set to premiere this Spring.


Conversations With Friends: Inside the Intimate, Intense TV Adaptation

Following the smash of Normal People, the next Sally Rooney adaptation is on the way. Be ready for something different.
It’s a scene that, on paper, doesn’t sound like much: One character saying hello to another, and offering to grab them a drink. But in Conversations With Friends—both the book and Hulu/BBC Three’s upcoming 12-episode adaptation—the smallest of interactions carry the most weight. They’re the whole point. So when it was time to shoot the moment where Melissa (Jemima Kirke) greets her new friends Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), director Lenny Abrahamson didn’t rush. “It took 10 hours,” Kirke reveals of filming the scene. “I was so impressed with that—that he gave a shit. There was something at stake here.”

You could say so. Conversations With Friends is the highly anticipated follow-up to Normal People, Abrahamson’s previous adaptation of a Sally Rooney best seller. That series introduced two stars in Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, captivated millions of viewers around the world, and earned major nominations at the Emmys and the BAFTAs.

Rooney actually published the Normal People novel after Conversations, though. At that point, the latter book was already in development as a feature with Element Pictures—the same company that’d later back the Normal People series. “The making of Normal People unlocked the proper way of adapting Conversations With Friends,” says Element cofounder Ed Guiney. “[The story was] better told in a longer form that allows you to properly live with the characters and understand their choices.”

Much of Normal People’s creative team has reunited for Conversations, hoping lightning will strike twice, just as it did for Rooney—if only in reverse order. Along with Element, Abrahamson is back as a director and executive producer, this time splitting helming duties with Leanne Welham. Alice Birch returns as writer after sharing scripts on the previous series with Rooney herself. (Rooney was involved in early planning stages, but not involved in the scripts or filming of Conversations With Friends.)

The two series share a certain focus on biting, naturalistic dialogue and performances. But where Normal People played out as an intimate romantic drama, Conversations revels in the messy dynamics between four complicated characters. “What we’ve ended up with is something that has a kind of aesthetic family resemblance to the other series,” says Abrahamson, “but is definitely its own thing.”

Conversations With Friends centers on Frances, a 21-year-old English major in Dublin, and her tenuous bond with former-girlfriend, now-best-friend Bobbi. One night out, they meet Melissa, an accomplished author in her 30s. Before long they’re thrust into an intricate study of intermingling couples—Bobbi bonding fiercely with Melissa, while Frances and Melissa’s husband, well-known actor Nick (Joe Alwyn), navigate their own heated sexual connection. Frances is our eyes and ears through boozy dinner parties, a spontaneous Croatia getaway, and a budding secret affair. “You have these various permutations within that quartet of relationships and power dynamics and attraction,” says Abrahamson. “But all of it revolves around Frances.”

The series is largely faithful to its source material, though it increasingly establishes itself independently in both plot and mood. One immediate point of departure: Bobbi is a Black American here, slowly picking up Irish phrases as she’s spent a few years away from home in New York. “Lenny and I had a lot of conversations about where she’s from, how much where she came from is spoken about,” Sasha Lane tells me. “We wanted to keep Bobbi even further from the rest of them. Letting her have an American accent kept her a bit more singled out.” Adds Abrahamson: “We saw brilliant people, but there was just something about Sasha. There are few people who capture that quality that Bobbi is described as having in the novel—this kind of extraordinariness, this impact.” He says that his team was also “keen to represent the diversity in modern Ireland.”

Unlike Normal People, Conversations is populated with well-known actors, from Lane (American Honey, Loki) to Kirke (Girls) and Alwyn (The Favourite, producer on his partner Taylor Swift’s Folklore). Each brings a certain charismatic familiarity to their roles. But in keeping with the theme of trying to build off Normal People’s success, casting a “name” for the lead character didn’t interest producers. Instead, they made another discovery.

Alison Oliver’s audition for Conversations With Friends felt more like a documentary. She’d recently read the Rooney novel—“my first lockdown book”—after zipping through Normal People. She was a student at the Lir Academy of Trinity College, the main setting for both of those books, and the same school where Paul Mescal studied before Normal People catapulted him to fame. She had zero onscreen credits. The world Rooney described in her stories—deciding who you want to be, navigating a fraught friendship, growing into adulthood—was Oliver’s. She knew it intimately; she was living it. “When it came to auditioning, it was so odd, because I felt like Frances was a real person,” Oliver says with a laugh. “I was like, Oh, how am I going to step inside this?”

Yet for Abrahamson and Guiney, Oliver emerged quickly as the one to beat. Her delicate, wrenching performance marks a major screen-acting debut. “She really is an incredible actor,” Guiney says.

Oliver read early, and the producers convinced her to hang around for a lengthy casting process. “She very patiently helped us with chemistry reads with other actors,” says Guiney. Through those grouped Zoom auditions, the rest of the ensemble filled out. “We had a few months just to get to know each other by Zoom before shooting,” Alwyn says. (Like Oliver, he had already read, and loved, Rooney’s first two novels before the project came his way.) Abrahamson would join these calls often, too, as they all explored the complexities of Frances’s relationships. Rooney was also significantly involved in the casting process before stepping away to work on her since-published third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You.

By the time filming finally started in Belfast last spring, the quartet of actors had a base familiarity with one another. That casual awareness swiftly deepened. Belfast was under lockdown restrictions due to COVID-19, after all, and the actors didn’t really know anyone else in town. “The only people we could hang out with were each other,” Alwyn says with a chuckle. “We were lucky that we all got on really well.” Production lasted about six months altogether. As Belfast started opening up, the cast would go to the pub or venture out for a hike for fun—before doing the same things, in character, for the camera.

Something unusual happened there. “What became more and more apparent the more we shot was that we were all really well cast—it was almost like there was some sort of conspiracy that we weren’t aware of, and suddenly we found ourselves in, like, a Hitchcock movie in a room all together,” says Jemima Kirke. “It was almost like [the casting directors] had a sense of humor, or they just weren’t telling us everything. There was an essential piece about each of us as people that were shared with the character.”

On set, the group had constant conversations about how to approach character interactions—how Nick would look at Frances in one moment, how Bobbi would say something to Frances the next. “When we got together, it was a lot of, ‘Do you think they would say that when you did this? Or do you think I would look at you?’” recalls Sasha Lane. “It was also a bit of a struggle when you’re bouncing around episodes—I would just literally be like, Wait, do I like him yet? I don’t remember. Are we friends? I sometimes would forget where I was in the script. It’d be like, Wait, I’m supposed to be mad at you!”

Yet that also speaks to the singularity of Rooney’s prose—the way she can so realistically chart a change in mood, or dynamic, or feeling, with a single sentence. “When we had questions about things, we would always look back at what Sally had written, and move toward that,” Guiney says. The challenge, adds Abrahamson, “was constantly to make sure that the structure of the story was big enough to hold these two strong elements within Frances’ emotional life, and give them each their weight and their due, without allowing either to dominate.” For Oliver, this meant digging into as many nuanced aspects of Frances as she could: “I was seeing her in all these different lights and shades, and it felt like playing a different character sometimes.”

This required plenty of rethinking and back-and-forth—and still does, in fact, for Abrahamson in the editing room. There are expectations following the smash that was Normal People. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted, in our world of streamers, that it would’ve gone quite as brilliantly as it did in terms of people’s response, and it was really gratifying,” Abrahamson says. He and the team have stayed focused on making the best show they can, as opposed to topping what they did before. Says Guiney, “There’ll be a different response to Conversations With Friends, because it’s a different kind of show.”

Still, it’s all in the family.

Conversations With Friends premieres this spring on Hulu in the U.S. and BBC Three in the U.K.







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