Conversations With Friends director talks casting and the adaptability of Sally Rooney's work
Originally, Conversations With Friends was going to be a movie. Right after Sally Rooney's debut novel came out in 2017, Element Pictures optioned it and approached director Lenny Abrahamson about turning it into a feature. But something wasn't right. "I couldn't see it as a feature, and they were developing it for quite a while and they hadn't quite cracked it," Abrahamson tells EW.
But when Rooney's second book, Normal People, came out, Abrahamson switched his focus to turning that story into a series. And after Normal People was a huge success for Hulu — it earned four Emmy nominations and launched the careers of its stars, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal — they pivoted back to Conversations With Friends. "We'd learned so much in that adaptation and it made complete sense to do Conversations With Friends in the same format," says Abrahamson, who serves as executive producer and director on the series.
So following in the footsteps of Normal People, they set out to adapt another of Rooney's books. And they knew casting would be key. "The bigger the cast, the harder it is," says Abrahamson. "You have four people that have to work together. You can't really cast anybody until you cast everybody."
Thanks to Normal People's success, there was a lot of interest in the show, but Abrahamson says the character of Frances posed a specific challenge: "She's such a particular character. She's spiky and, at the same time, sweet, and all of these things at this very particular moment in her life."
Enda Bowe/Hulu Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver on 'Normal People'
Ultimately, they fell in love with newcomer Alison Oliver through a self-tape. "When I read her, I loved her," Oliver says of Frances. "I just thought she was so ballsy and brave and kind of reckless. But she also has this directness and aloofness, in a way. I think she's someone who's actually very lost. She is set on her beliefs in the world and has a lot to say, but is totally lost on who she is and who she wants to be."
But before they could solidify Oliver's casting, they had to find the other core members of the story: Bobbi (Sasha Lane), Nick (Joe Alwyn), and Melissa (Jemima Kirke). "Joe [Alwyn] came in pretty quickly and is just beautiful as an actor. He's really soulful and it was really important that there wasn't an icky power dynamic between [Nick and Frances]," Abrahamson says. "The way Joe plays it, you can feel that quite often Frances is the person in control."
Bobbi and Melissa were difficult to find because, as Abrahamson points out, in the book "they're described as these forces of nature." Thankfully, Lane and Kirke were able to exude that energy even within the confines of a Zoom. "Sasha has extraordinary charisma. When she and Alison Zoom-read together, you could just tell they loved it," says Abrahamson. "Similarly with Melissa, when Alison auditioned with Jemima, Jemima was so strong and cold and cutting. She brings that edgy kind of energy."
With the cast set, they got to work telling a story about love and self-discovery, one that might seem simple in today's television landscape. "If you think about television, the common wisdom would be that it needs to be high concept or super glossy or very provocative, because there's so much stuff out there," says Abrahamson. "How is it going to cut through otherwise? Our hunch was to make it about being a bit quieter. There's something really striking about that for people if they're used to the noise."
For Abrahamson, that's the beauty of adapting Rooney's work. Its power is in the quietness of the moments, the easiness of the story. "She seems to be doing very little — this guy walks up to a house and knocks on the door and then this girl answers it and says a few things — but the effect of it is really powerful and ends up going very deep," he says of Rooney's work. "And the beautiful thing about television is that you get to do that over a long period. You get these short, delicious slices of their lives, these four characters, in the space that allows you to get drawn in."
Conversations With Friends hits Hulu on May 15.
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