Perhaps Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn don’t look like they would be lovers. In early marketing materials for Conversations With Friends, the upcoming Hulu series adapted from literary wunderkind Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Alwyn, 31, seems almost to loom over Oliver, 24, as she slouches on a rocky precipice along the Croatian shore. Alwyn, suntanned and blue-eyed with the precisely tousled hair of a Hellenistic sculpture, has the movie-star aura, as well as the burgeoning repertoire: You might recognize him from his turn in the Oscar-winning period piece The Favourite, or perhaps as the lead from the military drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Meanwhile, Oliver is a Hollywood newcomer, having recently graduated from Ireland’s Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College (where Paul Mescal, star of the TV adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, also earned his degree). With her slight nose and unfussy brown hair, Oliver looks every bit the curious twentysomething she plays in Conversations, though with a much sunnier disposition.
Apart, they might seem a strange match; together, Alwyn and Oliver create a delicate chemistry. Oliver plays Frances, a Trinity College student of immense intelligence but little self- regard, whose ex-girlfriend, Bobbi (Sasha Lane), is now her platonic performance partner and best friend. When the two meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke) after one of their poetry readings, she invites them home to meet Alwyn’s Nick, her quiet, aloof husband, who works as a B-list actor. As Bobbi unabashedly flirts with Melissa, Frances turns to Nick, and soon afterward, the two begin an affair. As the clandestine couple, Oliver and Alwyn strike an uncanny cadence, and the differences between them—age, economic, social, and otherwise—slip into the background. Oliver’s performance as Frances is tightly coiled, intimate but opaque. Away from the role, her shoulders roll back; the smirk that characterizes Frances dissolves into easy, endearing laughter. She’s not famous—not yet—but audiences will see the radiance in her, as they did Mescal in 2020. Alwyn, meanwhile, comes to his role in markedly different circumstances, given the fact that he’s dating one of the world’s most obsessively chronicled superstars. That he has remained an elusive facet of Taylor Swift’s life for more than five years, reportedly, speaks to his inscrutability. Swift is known for her music’s bare-it-all, true-story approach, and Alwyn cowrote songs on the singer’s Folklore and Evermore albums under the pseudonym William Bowery. Yet Swift and Alwyn have chosen to speak only rarely about their relationship. And when asked if he hopes to continue writing songs, Alwyn simply says, “It’s not a plan of mine, no.”
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With that in mind, I ask about the tendency for audiences to study artists’ creative choices—such as, say, acting in an adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel—for insights into their personal lives. Oliver admits she hasn’t yet experienced this equation in her career, but Alwyn gives what I read to be an understanding look. He’s already fielded an inquiry about whether Nick’s polyamory reflects on his relationship with Swift. (It does not.) “You choose projects and the thread there, of course it says stuff about you, but also you need to work,” says the actor, kind but cautious. Still, watching the Oliver and Alwyn pairing—open, vulnerable, passionately in love—can feel surreal, even voyeuristic.
That’s the complex intrigue of Conversations With Friends. Both Alwyn and Oliver read the book before they were cast in October 2020, and both grew enamored with the ethical questions at its core: How much do we owe one another? What does it mean to be seen? To be understood? And can multiple forms of love coexist in the same ecosystem? Below, the actors discuss how they approached these knotty roles, the construction of intimacy scenes, and what they learned about relationships in the process.
How familiar were you two with this project before you signed on?
ALISON OLIVER: I knew Sally’s work, and I really admired it. I loved the adaptation of Normal People as well. So when I heard they were doing this, it was something I would dream to be a part of—because it’s really nice to feel like you’re coming into the industry being a part of a world you feel like you understand, and a character I felt like I understood.
JOE ALWYN: I’d also read Conversations and read Normal People, I think because my mom or some friends had mentioned one of them. It wasn’t tied to the fact that I knew they were making shows from it. Like everyone else, I just thought [Rooney’s] writing was so phenomenal. But I remember thinking those kinds of jobs are so few and far between. I would happily audition, but didn’t think anything would come of it. There were two or three scenes I put on tape, and then within, like, a week or so got a call.
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Alison, lead director Lenny Abrahamson and executive producer Ed Guiney have mentioned in interviews how it was immediately obvious you were the right fit for Frances. Why do you think that was?
AO: I was in college at the time, and I’m not from Dublin, but there were similarities in terms of things about Frances’s life that I really resonated with. She’s such a multifaceted character; she can be really, really awkward and embarrassed and nervous, and then she can be ballsy and brave and a bit reckless. I tried to have fun with all those elements of her, and I was just lucky that maybe they saw I was trying to do that.
Joe, on your end—Nick is a tricky character. He’s passive, though not necessarily weak. He’s passionate, but not forthright. He’s in love with two different women. There’s a lot to explore there. How did you do it?
JA: God, I don’t really know. I mean, there were ways I could initially relate to him. I’m not a married, 32-year-old Irishman having an affair, but I could relate to some of his anxieties and ups and downs—perhaps accounting from his profession, being an actor. Without turning this into a therapy session, I could relate to some of his depressive moods and struggles.
People who are outsiders in the one sense and can’t quite communicate what’s on the inside, I always like those characters. It’s a quality in both of them that Frances is initially drawn to. It’s a behavior that Bobbi labels as boring at the beginning, and Melissa probably thinks Nick could do with bucking up a bit. But for Frances, for whatever reason, she’s drawn to that and intrigued by it. Obviously, that’s interesting and hard to play, and I think what can seem distant or perhaps cold or guarded is him actually just being…. He’s quite fragile. He’s just trying to hold on.
In your opinion, what do Frances and Nick find in each other that they don’t elsewhere?
AO: I feel like it starts with, initially, an intrigue. For Frances, for him to show any interest in her—because she has such a low opinion of herself—it’s like, “Oh. I can be the person I want to be, or the version of myself that I like when I’m with him, because all the things that Bobbi knows about me, he doesn’t know.” It’s an opportunity to reinvent herself.
JA: In stepping away from the people they’re used to being next to and coming together, they provide a space for the other person to grow into and heal. They don’t initially know that’s going to happen. Whether it’s the ability to give love or be loved or have value or self-worth, things that perhaps were unable to be fully processed with Melissa, he’s tapped into with Frances.
AO: They oddly help the other to be—like, the relationship with Frances helps Nick’s marriage, and then her relationship with Nick opens her up to the fact that she’s still in love with Bobbi. I think that’s such an interesting thing, how one love can open you up to another again.
Walk me through what it was like working with your intimacy coordinator. How do you make those scenes feel as real as they do in the books?
AO: There’s a brilliant system in place for it, where [intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien] will come into a rehearsal with us. We’ll discuss the scene: What’s the trajectory, and what’s the quality of intimacy? And why is it happening? It’s a continuation of dialogue, in a sense. It just becomes physical. So, from the get-go, [sex scenes] were presented to us as you would do a stunt and you’d choreograph that. We’d rehearse it loads. Ita would come in and suggest—Lenny would always talk about them as “shapes,” making different “shapes.” She would try out different ones, and then we’d copy her.
JA: Lenny always spoke about the [sex scenes] as extensions of conversations. They weren’t just there for the sake of it. Obviously, they’re funny and awkward things at the beginning. But once you get over that and you’re working with people you trust—and Lenny’s in the room, and Lenny is hilarious. You would want him on set in any scene.
Some viewers might see this story as advocating for open marriage, though I’m not sure the lessons of Conversations With Friends are that straightforward. With that in mind, what themes from Rooney’s novel stood out to you two the most?
AO: It is definitely a really complicated story. There are so many things that people can get from it. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s also a story about an affair. It’s also a story about female friendship. I found that—whether it’s one person, two people, three people—love is always going to be complicated. And there’s always going to be sacrifices made.
JA: If we are able to [find love] outside of the constructs that we’ve created for ourselves of friendships and of marriages and of conventional relationships, can we find happiness in more unconventional ways? Maybe challenging the idea of this one archaic way to find love or happiness, that’s what I took away from it. One of the reasons why I think the book was so heavily discussed was Sally’s refusal to tie things up neatly at the end of her stories. She doesn’t give an answer.
Have your perspectives on your characters shifted since you first read the book? Was there ever a point when you changed your mind about them?
AO: Frances, in the book, has this kind of aloofness, this almost detachment, so that when I would think about her in my head, she [seemed] this really able person. It was only in coming to play her that I realized how out of her depth she is, how young she is, how she really doesn’t know how to handle this [affair]. The affair completely consumes her. It’s all she thinks about. It keeps her up at night.
And in the book, she has [Bobbi] on such a pedestal. Seeing Sasha [Lane] bring Bobbi to life was one of the most incredible things, because she had that real boldness and that electricity, but you also see incredible sensitivity. And how Frances does really mistreat her in many ways, without realizing she’s hurting her. In her head, she sees Bobbi as untouchable. I was like, Oh, that relationship is actually something that felt different once I started to play it. I learned so much about Bobbi.
JA: I think I always empathized with Nick, but as [shooting] went on more, I found more empathy with him. As you see where he is coming from and what he has been through, you hopefully begin to realize that what could seem him being distant was actually—he was probably really trying. It’s not until he puts the pieces back together in himself and finds some happiness again that some of that is healed.
Hair by Roku Roppongi for GHD; Makeup by Florrie White for Sisley-Paris; Grooming by Benjamin Talbott for Dior; Manicure by Rose Lansley for Dior Vernis; Produced by Bob Ford and Cordelia Macdonald.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue of ELLE.