As debut roles go, Alison Oliver hit the jackpot when she was cast as Frances in the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Just look at Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, who were catapulted into superstardom when Rooney’s Normal People got the small screen treatment. Conversations With Friends is, of course, a very different show, but it captures the same subtleties of 20-something angst and romantic longing.
The slow-burn series follows best friends and former lovers Frances and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) as they become entangled with married couple Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn), but it’s Frances’s complex emotional arc that’s at the heart of the show.
Frances is awkward, ambitious and often aloof – but that’s exactly what got Alison, 23, so excited about the role. ‘That complexity written into a young woman is something that I felt I hadn’t really read before and it’s that thing that Sally does so well. She doesn’t write heroes or villains; it’s people who are multifaceted and flawed.’
Alison, who grew up in Cork, Ireland was already on the fringes of the Rooney- verse before Conversations With Friends, having attended the same Dublin drama school as Paul Mescal, where she met her boyfriend Éanna Hardwicke – who happens to have played Connell’s troubled friend Rob in Normal People.
Sally doesn’t write heroes or villains; it’s people who are multifaceted and flawed.
While there are fewer steamy moments to linger over in Conversations With Friends, Alison and co-star Joe did have to navigate filming some sex scenes, as Frances and Nick embark on an affair. Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien – who’s worked on I May Destroy You, I Hate Suzie, It’s A Sin, and yes, Normal People – was on set to oversee the process, much to Alison’s relief.
‘It’s so mad to me that having an intimacy coordinator is a relatively new thing. I can’t imagine doing those scenes and not having an expert to guide you through it,’ she says. ‘Ita choreographs it like you would a stunt – the shapes we are trying to make, and the story we are trying to tell. But it was never too serious; we really celebrated the silliness and the awkwardness of it. We could laugh about it. Because those scenes are kind of odd.’
With a slew of glowing reviews that pinpoint her performance as the highlight of the show, Alison is in an enviable position when it comes to choosing her next project. ‘There’s so much that I want to do – it might be fun to do a character from a different era, or with a different accent, and I’d love to do a play – but I’m just really open to reading loads of stuff.’
Alison is far more at ease with herself than Frances, but that sense of self- discovery that comes with being in your early twenties resonates with her. ‘Frances goes on such a journey in this story, she has to figure who she is and who she wants to be in the world. I think that’s something we can all relate to.’
Conversations With Friends is streaming now on BBC iPlayer