Inside ‘Conversations With Friends’: Cast and Creative Team on Making Sally Rooney Magic Again
There’s a chapter, about three-quarters of the way into Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends, that features the most millennial of conflicts: a bone-chilling, dressing-down email from an acquaintance. Melissa, a successful and enviable writer-photographer, has learned that Frances, the college student (and aspiring poet) she’s taken under her wing, is having an affair with her husband, Nick. “If you’re sleeping with my husband because you secretly believe that one day he will be your husband, then you’re making a serious mistake” Melissa writes to Frances.
Technological correspondence has become a hallmark of Rooney’s books (her third and most recent, Beautiful World Where Are You, is positively brimming with lengthy missives between the characters), but this portion remains the most memorable. Melissa is writing to tell Frances that she has complete disdain for, and power over, both her husband and his mistress. “Equally if you’re sleeping with him because you believe his affection proves you to be a good person, or even a smart or attractive person, you should know that Nick is not primarily attracted to good-looking or morally worthy people,” she continues in the email that stretches over four pages of the novel. When it came time to adapt Conversations for television, the creative team behind the BBC/Hulu series knew this was a scene they needed to lift off the page, literally.
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“It’s a huge moment, and while it works really well as an email within the context of the book, we wanted it to feel as immediate and intense as possible,” says producer Ed Guiney of the decision to change the pivotal conversation into something IRL. The showdown happens in Melissa’s kitchen, with Nick’s wife and lover facing off over — what else? — tea. “Melissa knows that she intimidates Frances, but what Frances doesn’t know is that sometimes she intimidates Melissa,” says Jemima Kirke of her formidable character. “In this scene, everything comes to a head. Melissa’s whole goal is to show Frances that she’s a better woman, a stronger woman, a more stoic woman, more capable of unconditional love and less egoistical than she is.”
These are sentiments that are easier to write literally than they are to convey, and director-producer Lenny Abrahamson says they only attempted the tête-à-tête because of Kirke’s screen presence. “A less self-confident, or more gentle, Melissa wouldn’t have been believable within that conversation happening in the flesh,” he says. “But Jemima’s version of Melissa is powerful enough to say all that looking straight at Frances. You just can’t let that sit in an email.”
Kirke and her castmates — Joe Alwyn as Nick, newcomer Alison Oliver as Frances, and Sasha Lane and Frances’ best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi — had the unique responsibility of not only answering to the cultish fandom around the show’s source material, but also the popularity and success of Normal People, which was Rooney’s sophomore novel and the first to be adapted (also for television, also by Abrahamson and his team at Element Pictures). While all four were, of course, aware of the grandiosity of the Rooneyverse, Oliver, who was plucked straight from the same Trinity College drama program that spawned Normal star Paul Mescal, and Alwyn in particular were fans before the call came to audition. “I was very aware of how loved Sally is,” says Alwyn. “I’ve read all her books right when they came out, and was a huge fan of Normal People the show.”
Normal was a hands-on affair; Rooney was a producer on the program and wrote the screenplay alongside Alice Birch. At the time, Conversations was in the works as a feature film, but it was the process of drawing out Normal over 12 half-hour episodes that convinced them to pivot away from the feature-length. “I remember talking to Sally when we were all at the TCA Upfronts for Normal People, telling her I really thought we should try out Conversations as a show,” says Guiney. “It could be easy to reduce the characters down to quite privileged people, but the more time you spend with them the easier it is to identify with their problems and empathize with them. We didn’t want them to become archetypes.”
Rooney contributed to early decision-making on the show (weighing in on the casting decisions, most notably) but politely bowed out from the heavier production work in order to focus on Beautiful World (which hit shelves in September 2021). Abrahamson made sure to send her cuts from the edit bay, and Rooney also met a starstruck Oliver over Zoom after she was given the role as Frances. “She was so generous with her knowledge and wisdom, but she was also interested in what I thought,” gushes Oliver. Frances’ emotionless manner and deep inner world makes her hard to read and even harder to embody, but Rooney helped the actress break down the characters’ motivations. She also shared the playlist she created while writing the novel (she does for all her characters in all her novels), which includes tracks from Mitski and Frankie Cosmos.
Production of Conversations With Friends began in the spring of 2020 — while Normal People was debuting to enormous fanfare, its follow-up was faced with COVID-related delays and difficulties. They began cast get-togethers and table reads via Zoom, and had intended to begin principal photography at the end of the year, only to be felled by the pandemic yet again. They spent the extra six months fleshing out the storyline between Frances and Bobbi, taking particular care to center a friendship that could inadvertently become sidelined by the more salacious affair between Frances and Nick. “I was worried that maybe we needed to be in a state of half-panic, that it’s what stimulates the creative process,” Abrahamson says of the extra prep time. “But it turned out great to have extra time because it really was a complicated adaptation — it’s hard to make it feel simple in the end, and I wanted the story to unfold in a way that feels natural and intuitive.”
Due to lockdown restrictions, the team had to get creative with filming locations. The cast began in-person rehearsals in Belfast, the northern city that stood in for Dublin (Nick and Melissa live in the posh Monkstown neighborhood, while Frances and Bobbi attend Trinity College in the city center) for much of the production, and the seemingly convenient swap presented a few challenges to the cast. Sasha Lane, who plays Bobbi and is the only Black member of the foursome (a notable update to the book, which has received critiques for its stark whiteness), notes she had initial skepticism. “I had to ask Lenny, how does Bobbi exist here?” she says. “There’s no one who looks like me in Belfast, besides, ironically, my brother and my daughter. But once I got a taste of Dublin, I could understand the world of the story.” More trivially, the city is even less temperate than its southern neighbor, making an early scene that depicts Bobbi, Frances, and Melissa swimming in the ocean before having their first group dinner, a herculean feat for the actors. “We practiced in Belfast, which was really unfortunate because it was so much colder and there weren’t even any cameras,” Lane says, designating the scene as one of her most ever. “I remember reading the script and asking, are we really doing this in Ireland? Are we wearing wetsuits? We were all trying to figure out shortcuts and of course there weren’t any.”
The last month of production was spent, to everyone’s delight, in Croatia. In the novel, Melissa and Nick invite Frances and Bobbi to join their extended vacation in Étables, in northwestern France — where Frances and Nick continue their affair, eventually getting caught by Bobbi — but travel restrictions (and the weather forecast) prompted a narrative pivot for episodes four and five. The plot is marked mostly by group scenes of swimming (in tepid water) and drinking wine, which Alwyn loved for the levity they offer. “The first three episodes can be a bit claustrophobic in some ways, as you’re indoors and the material is heavy,” he says. “It feels like you can breath again in episodes four and five — and I really loved getting to see flickers of all the characters in this strange new space.” Behind-the-scenes, filming was marked by night shoots, a delightfully chaotic way to bookmark a project that was more a marathon than a sprint. The actors would work until six in the morning, go out for drinks, go to bed at 8 a.m., and then sleep all day to do it over again. “Your body’s like, what are you doing?” says Alwyn. “But it was fun, like you’re going to a sleepover.”
Conversations With Friends is streaming on Hulu now.
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