"It's a modern coming-of-age love story about, can you love more than one person?"

Coming off the success of Normal People, BBC and Hulu set out to create another Sally Rooney adaptation, this time adapting the author's first novel, Conversations With Friends. The series tells the story of Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), two exes whose relationship is already complicated when they meet married couple Nick (Joe Alwyn) and Melissa (Jemima Kirke). When Frances and Nick start falling for each other, things get even more complicated.

EW spoke with Alwyn about making the show during the pandemic, working with costar Alison Oliver, and bringing Nick to life.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you aware of this book before you took this role?

JOE ALWYN: I was aware of the book. I'd read it when it came out. And I'd read Normal People too. I was a big fan of [Sally Rooney's] writing and just thought she was and is brilliant. And then when I saw Normal People, which I really loved, I remember thinking, "I would love to be a part of a show like this." And when Conversations With Friends came around, it was just one of those lovely special jobs where you get to work with the writer you love and the filmmaker [Lenny Abrahamson] you love. I felt very lucky to be part of that world.

When a character has so little dialogue, does that make your job harder? What was the experience like of getting into Nick's headspace?

Yeah, he's definitely one of the quieter characters [I've played]. He's a bit like Frances, I think. He struggles with expressing himself and saying how he's feeling, let alone maybe even knowing how he's feeling. But I like that about the characters that [Rooney] writes, that as much of it is about what's unsaid as is what's said. Particularly at the beginning, he's very aloof and hard to read. When you meet him, he's at a place of recovery and he's been through a bit of a storm, but we don't know that until a while later. And so what can seem quite distant or what can seem withholding, I think is really, he's just holding on, he's quite fragile. And for Bobbi, that's just him being boring. And for Frances, it's both frustrating because she doesn't know what this guy feels or wants, but it's also fascinating because she can sense something else going on. They're both quite similar characters in some ways. They're both used to being next to quite outspoken people. And so it's interesting when they are left alone together, they provide a space for the other one to grow and heal and, for him, to come back to life a bit, find a bit of happiness again. I really enjoyed playing him.

Conversations with Friends Nick (Joe Alwyn)
Joe Alwyn on 'Conversations with Friends'
| Credit: Enda Bowe/Hulu

I also like that he could've been this super charismatic, over-the-top charming Hollywood actor, and instead, he's just a guy going through some stuff.

Yeah, totally. No, he doesn't come in and do a song and dance. But I think that's quite accurate. I think lots of actors or people in that industry are maybe more on the introverted side. It felt real.

So when you got the role, did you sit down with Sally and really talk about who this guy is? What was that process like?

I didn't really speak to Sally. We had a couple of emails, but more just me thanking her for giving me a thumbs up with the casting. I spoke to [director] Lenny [Abrahamson] a lot. He was very collaborative from the beginning. We had a few months because filming kept pushing back because of the pandemic and he really was in constant communication. Me, him, and Alison would be on Zooms reading through some of the scenes or just talking generally about ideas and where the characters are, where the characters need to go. And so it was nice to feel embedded in it from the beginning. And then also there was the book, which was a great thing to go back to if you ever felt a bit lost.

Did you and Alison do any type of chemistry read?

We actually didn't. She auditioned separately and I did some tapes and then I think we were cast around the same time. We started speaking pretty soon after that. But because it was lockdown, we were all stuck on the old Zoom. So it wasn't until a few months later that I met her for the first time and I met Lenny for the first time in Belfast. The three of us spent a few nights in a hotel there in the middle of lockdown and just chatted through episode by episode. But we mainly just got to know each other a bit, which was nice.

Conversations with Friends
Credit: Hulu

Because Normal People was such a success, did you feel any sense of pressure about being part of the next great Sally Rooney adaptation? Could you even let yourself think about that?

I tried not to think about it in that way. I mean, of course, I suppose there's pressure because lots of people will be watching it with Normal People in their mind and that was really loved. I loved it as well. Lenny talks about Conversations With Friends like it's a cousin of Normal People. I think that there are definitely themes that are the same. Internally and aesthetically, they belong in the same world. But I do think this is very much its own story and its own thing. It doesn't feel like it's trying to be Normal People: Part Two, which is a good thing. And it couldn't be because it's a completely different book. So I think that separation gives it a nice breathing space, which helps.

What do you feel like is ultimately the message of this show, of this story?

I think it's a few things. It's a coming-of-age story for Frances. It really is her story. And I think within that, it's a very modern love story in some ways. It's essentially asking: Can you love more than one person? And it's asking how we are able to, or are we able to find happiness and love and intimacy outside of the constructs that we've created for ourselves of friendships, families, marriages, whatever? Can we love in more ways than just that? And if we can, where does that leave these constructs? And is there a way to make that work? So I guess it's a modern coming-of-age love story about, can you love more than one person?

One of the beauties of television is the length with which you get to live with a character. This is, for you, the longest you've ever lived with a single character, right?

Yeah. It was a five-month shoot, so that's by a mile that's longer than anything I've been on, which is nice. It's nice to have that length, A, knowing what you're working on, and B, spending time with the same group of people and the same character and having space for that. And I think the 12-episode, half-hour format really works in Sally Rooney world. You're often just spending time with people in a room and it's quite quiet in that way. There aren't huge cliffhangers. And for whatever reason, it fits well in that little pocket of time. So it seems like a nice format for it.

What's your takeaway from spending that much time with Nick? How does it differ from, say, making a movie?

Obviously, you hopefully feel invested in everything, but it's a different feeling being a part of something that you pop into maybe just for three weeks or two weeks or even a week, as opposed to actually sitting in something for that length of time and feeling really grounded and embedded in it. It's really lovely and a luxury. The bonds that you form with people making it is really special. I really liked that we had a solid chunk of time on it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Conversations With Friends is out now on Hulu.

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