Alison Oliver has a story that wouldn’t be out of place in the classic film era, going from unknown to Hollywood with her first starring role in Hulu’s new series, “Conversations with Friends.” The Irish actress plays Frances, a shy, introverted young woman who, alongside her friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), becomes close to intriguing couple Melissa and Nick (Jemima Kirke and Joe Alwyn). When Frances and Nick embark on an affair it changes everything.
Oliver explained to IndieWire via Zoom that she bonded quickly with both Alwyn and Lane. The latter, especially, as the first two weeks of filming involved being in the apartment Frances and Bobbi share. That bond is intriguing considering Lane herself was similarly thrust into stardom after her starring role in Andrea Arnold’s feature film, “American Honey.” Oliver also discussed working with the cast and director Lenny Abrahamson, and the responsibility she felt in portraying Frances’ struggles with endometriosis accurately. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: What drew you into the character of Frances?
Alison Oliver: Francis is such an interesting character; she’s [a] very unusual character. She’s a million different things, multifaceted and changeable. She can be so guarded, and maternal, but then she’s also someone who is very brave and a little bit reckless, and really goes after what she wants. I felt there was so much to her and as an actor that’s such a gift to try and step inside of because you’re juggling so much. Doing that with Lenny [Abrahamson], who really gives space for the complexity of human nature and how people interact, or how people are with themselves. When I read the book I was finishing up college as well and was in a similar life place. I just felt really nostalgic and I almost wanted to remember when I read the book the first time; this was before I auditioned or knew they were going to do it. I wanted to take care of her.
This is your first role and what a way to start out! What was that first day on set like?
From when I got cast [to] when we started filming it was like six months because of COVID. And then we did a bit of rehearsal, so I actually knew everyone quite well by the time we actually came to do it. It was so valuable because it gave me time to process like, “Oh, I’m actually doing this” and “How do I want to approach it?” I had so much time to prepare, and so much time to speak to Lenny. So I [was] kind of like sprinting towards the first day. But when we started it was so surreal because I’d never been on a set before. The first two weeks of filming was just me and Sasha in France’s apartment for two weeks. You want to feel like there’s history between Bobbi and Francis and it was such a bonding time for the two of us. We’d also done rehearsal and we started hanging out quite a bit before that, but I felt so safe because she looked after me and was so encouraging. She really made me feel like I could do it.
Was there any hesitation or nerves about approaching the intimate moments?
Reading the book I always knew that was going to be a massive part of it. It is such a massive thing for these characters because they do struggle with communication, so a lot of [their] communication is through intimacy. It didn’t ever feel gratuitous because this is part of who they are. The way that Lenny guides you through that, he talks about it as if it’s all part of the storytelling and the dialogue just becomes physical [but] it’s still dialogue. We worked with an intimacy coordinator called Ita O’Brien.
She was the same woman who did “Normal People” and “I May Destroy You.” She has this brilliant system: You’ll talk about the scenes in depth and then she’ll help you choreograph it. She’ll make the shapes and say, “Does this feel right?” You’re really secure in that there’s a set choreography [and] we’re sticking within that so you can have that muscle memory and be able to think about what your characters are going through, what they’re feeling, as an actor rather than worrying about anything else. If I ever have to do them again, I know what the standard is.
I have to ask about working opposite Joe Alwyn.
I feel so lucky to have worked with Joe. Joe is such a special actor and was so kind to me from the get go. In a funny way, me and Joe had quite a similar experience of he went straight out of drama school and did that Ang Lee film [“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”]. We both went to drama school. He’s such a great friend, we got on really well as pals. That developed quite early on over Zooms, getting to know him. He’s such a big fan of the book and had been before he auditioned and we loved our characters and we loved the dynamic that’s written about them in the book. Even when we were off set and we’d go for a walk or hang out, we always end up talking about the show, not because we felt like we had to but just like, “Oh, I want to talk about it because it’s so interesting.” He really embodied that character so effortlessly and empathetically. He’s such a sensitive actor that watching him do his thing was amazing.
Frances doesn’t believe she’s an emotional person. What challenges does that present in trying to find a way into how to play her?
It was definitely a challenge of how can [you] show that? The source material of the book was invaluable to me, because that is her whole interior life. It felt like her diary, everything she was thinking or feeling during these different situations she was in. With a character that’s so insular and guarded I just wanted to let that be her surface, but then you share moments with the camera when no one’s looking or they’re really close to you and can see what no one else can, then it’ll come out to a wide and you’ll be doing your guarded thing. If you just think the thoughts and feel the feelings the camera will pick it up. So much of that comes from Lenny. He’s such a pro with that.
She’s [Frances] such an observer and holds back in a lot of situations, so it was a mixture of keeping that quality about her, but then we spend so much time with her when she’s on her own and that’s an opportunity to show her emotional side. She is married to this version of herself as an unemotional being and actually she’s embarking on a situation which will inherently evoke emotion, and high stakes, and stress. Then also everything that’s happened with her body and with her parents. It’s such a high intense time for her, emotionally, that it was interesting for me to negotiate how she’s resisting and how much of that resistance can she hold before she breaks?
Was there a sequence that was particularly challenging for you?
Everything has its challenges, especially the ones you don’t think will be challenging. I remember really struggling with walking [laughs]. What I probably found challenging but feel quite proud of is in Episode 6, that time where she’s in the hospital and she’s really ill. I felt a massive responsibility to portray endometriosis on-screen because so many women have it [and] they don’t even realize they have it. It totally affects your life. When I was researching it I couldn’t believe how under-discussed it was because of how debilitating it can be. For Frances, because of the person she is, she doesn’t like to acknowledge the things that are happening to her. She talks about it in the book; she has such a low opinion of herself that even an added thing of “there’s something wrong with my body” she doesn’t want to admit because it makes her feel lesser than.
“Conversations with Friends” is available to stream on Hulu.