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Alison Oliver on playing posh: ‘For these people, it’s cringe to care about anything. Even if you feel really hurt or rejected, you show nothing’

Cork actor, now starring alongside Barry Keoghan in Saltburn, on why she’s attracted to radical women

Alison Oliver, the young Cork actor whose work to date spans a myriad of wild, pained and destructive women, sympathises with each and every role she plays. While some people may insist that any portrayal of a woman on screen needs to be strong, empowered or beautiful, Oliver finds finding the identities of difficult, unrelenting women most pleasing to step into. It’s buoyed by her curiosity, she smiles via Zoom from her home in London. “I like to play characters different to myself.”

This much is certain. Oliver appears a far cry from the roles she has chosen lately. In person, she is petite, soft-spoken – a subtle Cork lilt drops in on occasion – and sensitive to her surroundings. She apologises for interrupting, and smiles sweetly when asked a question. She is resolutely modest, too, crediting those around her again and again, even though she deserves to take her fair share: earlier this year, she was named by Variety as one of their 10 actors to watch for 2023.

“I think the beauty of acting is that you expand yourself by stepping into someone else’s life, imagining how they think and feel and breathe; that skill expands with you,” she says. “I find that really exciting, that things just keep growing when you allow yourself to be creative.”

Oliver (26) uses her whole body to tell a story, pushing her eyebrows up and down, and moving her hands regularly to convey a feeling. She is the youngest of three daughters. Her performance work started early, in Ballintemple, Co Cork, largely inspired by her mother, a social worker. “There was always an interest in what other people go through,” she says. “I started drawing classes when I was a kid, and then kept searching for other outlets like dancing and singing. Then when I found drama, it ignited something.”

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She was chosen as one of 16 to study theatre at The Lir Academy in Dublin in 2016, graduating in 2020 with a BA in acting. The following day she secured a lead role in Conversations with Friends, Lenny Abrahamson’s TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel. The career-making project, and perhaps the one she is best known for on these shores, was shown on Hulu, BBC3 and RTÉ last year. The story, set in and around Dublin, hinges on the shifting dynamics between four acquaintances: Melissa and Nick, a married couple in their 30s, and the college-aged friends (and former lovers) Frances and Bobbi.

Oliver, who played Frances – the precocious twentysomething poet embarking on an affair with an older man – embodied a number of qualities she had observed in herself. “I read that book while I was still in university. Everything about it is so real,” she says, smiling. “These were all real people who I’d met before. Frances to me was a real person. I was so compelled by her – I had a whole idea of what she looked like in my head. I think it was only by the end of it, on reflection, I could look back and see the qualities that we shared, the introverted quality that I definitely had when I was in university. I actually miss Frances all the time. I’ve never spent so long with a character and may never again. I loved her so much. That will always be the most special experience.”

Her latest project is Saltburn, written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Emerald Fennell, which is set in the University of Oxford in 2006. Its protagonist, Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan) is a freshman. Uncool, awkward and provincial, he becomes fixated on the sophisticated in-crowd surrounding a wealthy, well-connected student named Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Alison Oliver plays Felix’s idle, out-of-touch sister Venetia, daughter of the lordly and utterly out-of-touch parents, Sir James (Richard E Grant) and Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike). In a number of ways, her performance is Ophelia-adjacent, a loosely wrapped bohemian who tosses off lines such as “Your politeness is so grating” and “You’re just so ... real”.

Impulsive, self-indulgent and direct to the point of cruelty, Saltburn makes use of Oliver’s mystery and magnetism, but also pushes her into performance styles that her previous roles have not. She does an accent, of course, and plausibly mimics the mannerisms of the Russell Group class. She also imbues the character with a melodramatic hyperbole that takes her, at times, into comedy. Her demise comes, much like the daughter of Polonius, in a pool of water.

“It’s never occurred to me to think that,” she smiles. “I’m just thinking of that famous image of Ophelia in the river surrounded by flowers – and that’s Venetia. You know, what struck me about her was just how lonely she must be. She lives in the house, doesn’t work, doesn’t go to university ... and just kind of waits for Felix to bring friends home. It just fascinated me how there were these unwritten rules in societies like that where you don’t say what you’re really feeling. She is just desperate for validation, but behaves in a certain way so as not to show that. I remember Emerald [Fennell] giving me a really great note – for these people, it’s cringe to care about anything. So even if you feel really hurt or rejected, you show nothing. Nothing at all.”

Oliver has developed something of a speciality playing fresh-faced ingénues with painful, difficult histories. Her most recent role, which ended just seven days before this interview, was Portia Coughlan, the eponymous lead in Marina Carr’s 1996 play, which has quietly cemented itself as an Irish modern classic. Stationed in the Almeida Theatre in North London, the cautionary tale follows Portia on the eve of her 30th birthday as she continues to grapple with the death of her twin brother, Gabriel, who drowned in the Belmont river 15 years earlier. The memory of his voice clings to her, forcing her to drink to ultimately gain some sense of silence. She is broken, uncaring and demented – not quite dead, not quite living.

“It’s funny, I first read Portia Coughlan when I was in college, and I remember thinking she was this older woman,” she says, laughing. “Yeah. It’s desperate. And then when it got sent my way, I realised how young she was and is. She got married at 17 and started having kids at 19. The play delves into the loss of identity women have when they become mothers. And Marina’s work just does that – it’s like a punch in the stomach. What’s interesting is that this work was actually commissioned by the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. They were looking for people to write a play, and this was her submission. It’s all about how, not too long ago, women didn’t really have a choice about motherhood, it was just something that was expected of you. And we meet Portia at this place in her life where she’s completely stuck and completely claustrophobic and dreaming of the lives she should have had, or the places she should have been.”

I think that that’s a reason why a lot of Irish people are creatives: because sometimes language fails us and we have to express complicated feelings through music or art or dance or writing

Portia Coughlan is a barge that carries a lot of cargo – love, loss, addiction – but at the centre of the play is a passion for the preservation of what is closest to the heart, and for keeping a modicum of dignity in the face of insurmountable odds.

“[Irish plays] all have this really deep undercurrent of loss,” she says. “When we think of grief, or loss in the world, we sometimes think of it as a singular experience, [rather than] a collective thing. And I mean grief not just by way of the death of someone, but perhaps the loss of youth or the closing of a big chapter in your life. There’s something about Irish writing when it comes to this exploration – how we use humour to deal with a loss of identity, or how we search for transcendence as a way out of the darkness. I think those two things are just really, really compelling. I also think that that’s a reason why a lot of Irish people are creatives, because sometimes language fails us and we have to express complicated feelings through music or art or dance or writing. When you add something complex and universal and deep at the heart of writing, people come back to it because everyone can relate to it in some sense.”

There is an empowered femininity in a number of Oliver’s characters; not just the ways in which they are able to fully, truly express themselves, but in the ways they can be backbiting and unlikeable, too. This critical double standard – whereby tormented, foul-mouthed, or perverted male characters are celebrated, while their female counterparts are dismissed and discouraged – has been pointed out many times before. But, perhaps it takes an actor such as Oliver to punch through the metaphorical glass curtain, with the profound sensitivity, empathy and intrigue she brings to each role she takes on.

She’s just happy she has a job. “I feel deeply, deeply privileged for the opportunities I’ve gotten, and the roles that I’ve gotten to play, with the people that I’m so inspired by,” she says. “The amazing thing about this job is tricking people into thinking you’re someone else – so for as long as I can do that, that is what I hope to continue to do.”

Saltburn is in cinemas now