Alison Oliver on Conversations with Friends: "Nerves are good – that's an indicator that you care"
The star of Sally Rooney's debut novel talks taking on the hotly-anticipated title.
Irish actress Alison Oliver made her screen debut as romantically conflicted young poet Frances in BBC Three's adaptation of Conversations with Friends, the debut novel from Normal People author Sally Rooney. Conversations is set in Dublin and follows Frances as she and her best friend Bobbi become entwined with writer Melissa (Sex Education's Jemima Kirke) and her actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn).
Oliver, 24, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin's The Lir Academy, was an admirer of Rooney's work before being cast. "I'd read both Conversations with Friends and Normal People before I auditioned, so I was already a big fan," she told RadioTimes.com.
"It was really interesting coming to audition for something I felt I already knew. Sally has that gift of making her characters feel like real, living, breathing people and I very much felt like those people all existed, so it was an exciting thing to imagine myself stepping inside of."
Given that Normal People was arguably the TV hit of the first UK lockdown, turning Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal into global stars overnight, was Oliver anxious about taking on such a hotly-anticipated project? "I was so nervous but also so excited, and sometimes they can be the same feeling," she said. "I think nerves are good. That's an indicator that you really care."
For Oliver, it's the first time she's had the luxury of knowing a character she's playing so intensely.
"I think it is rare to have that much information on a character," she said. "I've never done it before, but I imagine that's what it might be like to play a real person, a person in history where there's endless information on them. With Frances there was the book, and then that kind of got expanded upon when the show was cast, with the directors and screenwriters.
"When a character comes off the page and is living in someone's body I think they take on a new life form."
The production process was very collaborative, with all of the cast playing a decisive role in the shaping of their characters: "When I was cast I was sent the first three episodes as the rest were still being written. One thing I thought was really great was that us actors were sent the drafts quite early on and asked for our feedback."
Rooney wrote half of the scripts for Normal People alongside Alice Birch, but how involved was she this time around? "Sally was finishing Beautiful World, Where Are You at the time. She was involved in the casting process and the beginning of the writing, but she took a step back for most of it."
And her verdict? "She has seen the show now and loves it, which is all you can hope for really. I was lucky to chat to her before we started. She was so generous and lovely."
Frances's best friend – and former girlfriend – Bobbi is played by Sasha Lane, an American. In the book, Bobbi's background isn't specified, so was it a conscious decision to make her an outsider in Dublin? "Bobbi has this kind of otherworldliness about her," Oliver explains. "There's something quite global about her. They weren't looking for an American in particular; they cast the net very wide.
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"I was there for Sasha's audition and when she came in we were just like, 'Yep, that's Bobbi!'"
Six of Conversations' 12 episodes were directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, who also worked on Normal People. His CV also includes the Oscar-winning 2015 film Room starring Brie Larson and the comedy Frank, based on the bizarre true story of '80s novelty musician Frank Sidebottom. "I've been such a big fan of Lenny for a long while," Oliver said. "He casts so well and has such a gift for storytelling, and him giving me the part gave me so much confidence.
"We went to his house in the summer, and he still has the Frank Sidebottom head. Joe got to try it on."
Conversations and Normal People also share the same intimacy coordinator, Ita O'Brien. But what exactly does an intimacy coordinator do on set? "When you're coming to work on those scenes, the intimacy coordinator will come in about a week before, sometimes longer, and you'll sit down with the person the scene is with and the director to talk about what kind of story you're trying to tell with the scene, what the quality of it is, which will determine how it's shaped."
Oliver describes the process as "choreography, like a stunt or a fight scene – it's all mapped out by Ita".
The drama took six months to film, from April to October last year. "Lenny is incredible at giving everything so much space and time. He wants it to feel as lived in and as rich as possible. I loved that. The longer you spend on something, the better you get to know the people you're working with."
The experience was something akin to "a long, lovely summer camp". But with that season now behind her, what does the future hold for the latest Rooney It-Girl?
"I’ve just finished a show called Best Interests, alongside Michael Sheen and Sharon Horgan, written by Jack Thorne," she revealed. "I’ve been incredibly lucky with the people I've worked with so far. It's a good feeling to work with people you're a fan of. It's kind of like meeting your heroes. It can be quite odd but amazing."
Oliver has a "giant mental list" of people she'd like to work with: "I’m on a bit of a Joachim Trier kick at the moment, who made The Worst Person in the World. I think he's a genius. Everything he makes is just gold."
Given that Oliver's first ever professional acting role is the lead in a Rooney adaptation, she might just find that Mr Trier comes looking for her.
Conversations with Friends airs on BBC One from 10.40pm on Wednesday 15th June. All episodes are available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.
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