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BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe

Joe Alwyn: I relate to mental health frustrations in Conversations with Friends

The Conversations with Friends cast tell all about relating to their characters, their close bond and a dog bite on set.

Hannah Price
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The new BBC drama Conversations with Friends - based on Sally Rooney's critically-acclaimed debut novel - explores the lives of two students as they form a complex connection with a married couple. And the story unpicks big topics like sexuality, morality and politics.

The students, Frances (played by Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (played by Sasha Lane), are best friends and former partners. The series also stars Joe Alwyn as Nick and Jemima Kirke as Melissa - the married couple.

Conversations with Friends follows the success of Normal People, which was streamed more than 62 million times since its release during lockdown in 2020. The new series was filmed over six months between Belfast, Dublin and Croatia.

For each of the cast members, there was something they could connect with when it came to their roles.

BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
"With Nick, there are elements of it that I can certainly relate to," says Joe Alwyn (left), pictured with co-star Alison Oliver

"The one thing I love about the way Sally Rooney writes male characters is she seems quite interested in the idea of male mental health and not shying away from that," Joe, who starred in the 2018 movie The Favourite, says.

"With Nick, there are elements of it that I can certainly relate to. I could certainly relate to that frustration with yourself, of feeling things sometimes intensely but not knowing how to communicate them."

Joe - who is also a Grammy winner because of his songwriting contributions for his girlfriend Taylor Swift - says he thinks Frances can see there is something going on with Nick, even if she is frustrated by the wall he puts up. "She's drawn to whatever it is underneath."

"It was so great to have so much time to explore that story and those characters," adds Alison.

Fresh out of university, aged 24, this is Alison's first big acting job. And when she first read the book, before auditioning for the role, she immediately felt a closeness to her character's story.

BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
"In a way, playing [Frances] taught me more about myself," says Alison (right), pictured with co-star Sasha Lane

Frances, who is smart and shy, aspires to become a writer, takes part in spoken word poetry with Bobbi and starts an affair with a married man - as she quietly navigates struggles with her finances, health and troubled father.

"When I was coming to audition, I was coming towards the end of university and I guess that's a similar place to where [Frances] is at," Alison, who also studied in Dublin, says.

"I think that transition into adulthood, when you don't really know who you are, and you feel a little lost, and you find so much identity in your friends, or your taste or the things you're into, but actually, you realise being a person in the world is incredibly daunting.

"I think that's so well articulated in the book, in such an intricate way, and I think when I read it I felt really understood by that.

"In a way, playing [Frances] taught me more about myself."

BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
"It was the closest, apart from season one of Girls, that I've gotten to co-stars," says Jemima Kirke (pictured). "It was really out of character for me"

Jemima, who is best known for her role of Jessa in HBO's Girls, says the way they were all cast for the show is "uncanny".

"There was a vulnerability that fit between each actor and their character, it didn't need to be exactly pinpointed but the energy of it was well matched," she says.

Jemima says she related with Melissa's directness: "She has this performative element to her… it's a bit aggressive and 'boundaryless' at times but I think it's a means to put a wall up.

"What comes off as sheer confidence, there's a lot of sense of fraudulence under there."

"Not that I do any of that," she jokes.

'It was the most socialising I've ever done on a set'

Filmed during the pandemic, the restrictions led to a unique environment on the set.

"We were kind of just with each other the whole time," Alison says.

Jemima says: "For me it was the most socialising I've ever done on a set.

"It was the closest, apart from season one of Girls, that I've gotten to co-stars. It was really out of character for me."

"Everyone had a lot of fun," says Joe.

The cast confesses that the friendly environment led to more than one outbreak of laughter mid-shot including when a dog bit Joe while he was ushering the dog out of the room during filming. It was replaced with a second dog named Scruffy Dog.

Joe says he hopes fans of the book will like the series: "The questions at the heart of the book about if you can love more than one person, and the complicated mess that ensues feels translated into the series."

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The cast, including Sasha Lane (pictured), said the filming ended on a high with a trip to Croatia

Sasha says the story shows you to not ignore when relationships aren't healthy.

"There's a balance of being loyal and loving and caring for someone but also knowing that maybe it's not suiting you or doing you any good," she says.

"At some point you're not a bad person for saying, 'It's not working for me.'"

The cast said the filming ended on a high, with a trip to Croatia and dinner party scenes that allowed for some improvisation and sampling local brandy.

'The sex scenes were extensions of the conversations'

Ita O'Brien, an intimacy coordinator and movement director, was brought in to choreograph the show's sex scenes, like she did with Normal People.

"When you're coming to those scenes there's maybe an anxiety about it," Alison says.

"But Ita O'Brien has such a brilliant system… She really looks at the text and what story you're trying to tell with the intimate scene."

The cast were told by directors Lenny Abrahamson and Leanne Welham that the sex scenes were extensions of the conversations.

"It's choreographed like loads and you're made to feel really comfortable when you come to do it," adds Alison.

"You're actually able to just think about your character and the story you're telling rather than kind of being worried about anything else."

BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
The cast were told by directors Lenny Abrahamson (pictured) and Leanne Welham that the sex scenes were extensions of the conversations

Like Normal People, Conversations with Friends delves into the ambiguity of tricky relationships. But the cast think this is what makes the story so raw and real.

"The ending is the thing that always stuck with me the most. It's a nice acceptance of the messiness of it all, it isn't saying that things are going to be black and white. And that's fine," Joe says.

Alison adds: "It really feels in the heart of the story that that's the decision [Frances] makes."

Watch Conversations with Friends in the UK on BBC Three on Sunday 15 May at 10pm and on BBC iPlayer. The series will also be available internationally at other outlets. 

BBC Three