On the same day Alison Oliver was cast as Frances, the lead in Hulu’s Conversations with Friends—an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel of the same name—Oliver also learned that she’d been hired to flip burgers at a local vegan-burger shop.
“It was a great day,” the Irish actress says with a laugh.
The series, which premieres tomorrow, focuses on two college students in Dublin: Frances and her ex-girlfriend turned best friend, Bobbi (played by Sasha Lane). They start a complicated friendship and flirtation with an older married couple, the actor Nick (played by Joe Alwyn, boyfriend of Taylor Swift) and the author Melissa (Jemima Kirke, of Girls).
This is Oliver’s first on-screen acting job. The 23-year-old was finishing her third year at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art, in Dublin, when she heard about the auditions for the series. (Coincidentally, it’s the same school that Paul Mescal, the breakout star from Hulu adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, attended.)
“I just really wanted to be part of [Conversations with Friends],” she explains. “I couldn’t have imagined a better job, especially for a first job.”
From Fan to Frances
Oliver’s college roommate lent her Rooney’s novel a few years ago, so the material was far from new. “I was obsessed with it,” she says. “[Frances] is so specifically written in the book, it’s to the point where I actually felt like she was a real person.”
Oliver was also “in awe” of Normal People, which premiered in April 2020, during the early days of quarantine. She specifically loved the series’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, and screenwriter, Alice Birch—both of whom are also behind Conversations with Friends.
To approach her role, Oliver had to find her own interpretation of Frances while still relying on Rooney’s novel. “I spent a lot of time with the book,” she says. On set, Oliver was “in the moment and just responding to what was happening in the room. Knowing the character really well, you’re able to just trust that and play the scene.”
Over the 12 episodes, Frances and Nick stumble into an affair, while Frances and Bobbi work through their own complicated relationship. “As difficult and messy as it is, [the affair] really opens her up to a lot of things,” Oliver says. “These characters do love more than one person… the complications come from exterior stuff, but actually the emotion is really simple,” she explains. “It’s: I just love these two people.”
Oliver hopes that the show, like the novel, leads people to “question the conventional ways we are taught to love and be with a person.”
While filming, Oliver found herself fascinated by many of the questions Frances asks, such as: Who am I? What’s my purpose? Where’s my place? Between takes, she often discussed them with Alwyn.
“The joy about being an actor is that you are playing a character—you can have bits that you really empathize with, or that you really relate to,” she says. “It’s really fascinating when there’s things that you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know how that feels.’ You get to have the opportunity to explore something entirely new.”
Conversations with Friends premieres on Hulu on May 15
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL