Conversations with Friends: How we made the new Sally Rooney TV drama

Alison Oliver, a virtually unknown actress from Cork, is compelling as Frances
Normal People was the cultural sensation of the first Covid lockdown. Director Lenny Abrahamson and the cast of a new Sally Rooney adaptation talk about living up to its phenomenal success with Conversations with Friends

It seems Billie Jean King really did say, “Pressure is a privilege.” The team behind the imminent adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends have reason to ponder the tennis legend’s durable observation.

Normal People, broadcast in the spring of 2020, wasn’t any sort of everyday hit. It was a sensation. That take on Sally Rooney’s second novel ended up as the defining cultural artefact of the first Covid lockdown. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones, breakout stars of the series, are now fronting films at Sundance and Cannes. Rooney’s status as voice of a generation was further elevated. One could forgive Lenny Abrahamson, director and executive producer of both series, for feeling a few jitters.

“I don’t think I do feel the pressure,” he says. “I’ll know when it comes out. Let’s say it comes out and it’s moderately well received and some people are nodding and other people are saying: ‘Well, of course it’s no Normal People’. If I then feel crushing disappointment, I’ll know I have been expecting something more. Ha, ha! But, thinking back to when we were making it, most of the time you’re just too busy making it work. I don’t think there was a point when we thought: do we really want to do this?”

Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver as Nick and Frances in Conversations with Friends.
Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver as Nick and Frances in Conversations with Friends

I didn’t sense much of the famous Irish begrudgery when Normal People won so many friends across the world.

“There will be many a take from people who bit their tongue about the success of Normal People, because it would have seemed to be too contrarian to talk about how much they hated it,” he says. “They are the people who will get in first on this one, I’m sure. But I think overall, people tend to be reasonably fair. And I think that is good. And therefore we’ll get a reasonable hearing.”

Conversations with Friends swims in similar waters to Normal People. Published in 2017, Rooney’s debut novel follows a university student named Frances as she and Bobbi, her closest friend, get drawn into the highbrow circle of Nick and Melissa, an older married couple. Frances and Nick get together. The pals fall out. Resolutions get tested.

Once again, we are among reasonably well off students at Trinity College Dublin. Once again, the cinematography is dreamily persuasive and the soundtrack – featuring CMAT, Wyvern Lingo, Julianna Barwick and others – layers the drama with insidious hooks. But this is more of an ensemble piece than the earlier series. Though Frances is clearly the protagonist, each corner of the romantic quadrilateral matters.

'It’s really hard to find amazing people that really closely fit the character. It’s a very hard thing to do. I can never not cast the best person for the part'

Abrahamson is no novice in the casting game. Now in his mid-50s, he established a career as a prominent commercials director in the 1990s before delivering Adam & Paul, his now-classic feature debut, in 2004. Garage, What Richard Did and Frank followed. In 2016, he received an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room, and he was in LA to see Brie Larson win best actress for the lead role.

I wonder if anyone less experienced would have been brave enough to cast non-Irish actors in three of the four main roles in Conversations with Friends. Alison Oliver, a virtual unknown from Cork, is tremendous as the smart, but uncertain, Frances. Sasha Lane, Texan star of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, swaggers convincingly as Bobbi. Joe Alwyn, Kentish actor from The Favourite, is indecently good-looking as Nick. Jemima Kirke, British-American alumna of Lena Dunham’s Girls, is intimidating as Melissa. There was no great outcry from middle Ireland when the overseas actors were announced. Maybe we have all grown up.

Lenny Abrahamson: ‘Outraged callers on Liveline - it just doesn’t get any better than that.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Lenny Abrahamson: ‘Outraged callers on Liveline - it just doesn’t get any better than that.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

“People will say: ‘Surely, there are millions of amazing Irish actors,’” Abrahamson ponders. “And, yes, there are fabulous Irish actors to be had – more than we have a right to expect in a country this size. However, take a look at the States, which is vast. There are so many actors there. There is a huge film industry with a long history. And, yet, still they cast internationally. All the time. Because it’s really hard to find amazing people that really closely fit the character. It’s a very hard thing to do. I can never not cast the best person for the part. Take Bobbi, for example. It’s a first-person novel. Frances describes her as effortlessly brilliant socially – unafraid and not self-conscious.”

Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver in Conversations with Friends.
Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver in Conversations with Friends

The character is, Abrahamson explains, what Frances would like to be. She arrived in her life like a new star in the heavens.

“There are not a lot of Sasha Lanes out there,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people who are charismatic in that very particular and quiet way that she is. We cast the net wide. We saw some very high-profile people because of the success of Normal People. People who were really amazing.”

Lane’s Americanness emphasises the distance between Bobbi and Frances. We are not quite so dazzled by the trans-Atlantic self-confidence as we once were, but we do, perhaps, still expect any US visitor to be the least inhibited person in the room. I wonder if Lane still got that sense when shooting the series in Dublin and Belfast?

She tells me: “When we were filming in Dublin, which only about two weeks, I felt more like: Okay, you’re just a person. I was there during Pride. I had my kid there. If you’re going to talk about being inclusive – and not being exotic – and everyone just accepting everyone, then that was the perfect opportunity. But in Belfast, where we shot mostly, I definitely felt exotic – or just different. I stuck out more, but I had my little house there and all the little local places I would go. And I fitted in more to Belfast than anyone else. This is my spot. This is great – the way they accept children in bars, which America would never do, is amazing. Everyone was taking care of her.”

Sasha Lane, Joe Alwyn, Alison Oliver and Jemima Kirke in Conversations with Friends.
Sasha Lane, Joe Alwyn, Alison Oliver and Jemima Kirke in Conversations with Friends

The core of Conversations with Friends remains Oliver’s Frances. Abrahamson and his team at Element Pictures have, as was the case with Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones, happened upon an actor with enormous potential. Raised in Blackrock (yes, the Cork one), a graduate of the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, she arrives with barely a mark on her Internet Movie Database page. Yet she succeeds in fleshing out a character who, often introverted, could easily have been blasted flat by the more demonstrative personalities around her. Rooney was already something of a hero to Oliver when she was cast out of the blue.

“I cannot believe that happened. It was just the most surreal experience,” she told me before Christmas. “Prior to getting the part, I was already a massive Sally Rooney fan. I had read the book before I auditioned. And so I guess I already had my own connection to it. When the audition came around I thought: Oh, my God! I guess in those situations, all you can do is do your best and hope for the best.”

In contrast, Jemima Kirke was something of a Rooney novice.

“No, I had never heard of her,” she says. “And I hadn’t read the book, nor had I seen the series. But I read the book, obviously, once I got the job. And I still haven’t seen the series, Normal People.”

It is hard to escape the suspicion that Frances is a version of the early Rooney. Both were students of English literature at Trinity College from a rural background. Both were active in extra-curricular life. (Rooney was, among other things, a distinguished debater. Frances performs spoken-word pieces with Bobbi.) But any such suggestion meets instant qualification.

Alison Oliver, Jemima Kirke, Joe Alwyn, and Sasha Lane in Conversations with Friends
Alison Oliver, Jemima Kirke, Joe Alwyn, and Sasha Lane in Conversations with Friends

“If you write a novel and it’s your first book, of course there’s going to be things that you draw on from your own experience of life,” Oliver says. “It’s set in Trinity and she’s an English student. I think you naturally bring parts of yourself to anything that you do. But I think Sally is so imaginative and such a genius and I think she really does create characters that are separate from herself.”

Abrahamson remembers that Rooney, raised in Castlebar, told him both halves of the couple in Normal People featured shades of her own personality. He, like Oliver, is wary of reading too much into comparisons with the sometimes cowed Frances.

“I think there are definitely bits of Frances that Sally draws on herself to create,” he says. “But, no, Sally is more is more self-possessed. Mind you, I know her as an older person.”

I make a wheezing noise at the word “older” being used to describe someone who has just crested 30 (and was still in her mid-20s when they first began working together). 

Sally Rooney is among those writers telling stories about contemporaries who have no real memories of an Ireland in which domestic feature film directors were as rare as domestic aircraft carriers

“This will make you laugh. When I was reading the novel, I was thinking: okay, so they’re getting involved with this ‘older’ couple. And the novel talks about her being having a relationship with a ‘middle-aged’ guy. We changed that to ‘cis-het guy’ in the adaptation. I realised I’m old enough to be everybody’s bloody father.”

Some full disclosure. This correspondent was at Trinity with Lenny Abrahamson and Ed Guiney, his regular producer at Element Pictures, during the later stages of the 16th century. Like Rooney, Abrahamson was a Foundation Scholar as an undergraduate – recognition also put the way of Samuel Beckett, Declan Kiberd and Mary Robinson – and always seemed destined for distinction. And yet. Expectations were so much lower then.

As a lateish millennial, Sally Rooney is among those writers telling stories about contemporaries who have no real memories of an Ireland in which books were banned, films were censored, emigration was fluvial, immigration was negligible, domestic feature film directors were as rare as domestic aircraft carriers and the Church still poked its fingers into every aspect of daily life. The cohort between Abrahamson and Rooney – younger Gen X – were concerned with the transition. All that is over for those born in the 1990s and onwards. The students in Normal People and Conversations with Friends seem more confident, more sophisticated and less inhibited than the crowd through which Abrahamson and I once moved.

DIrector Lenny Abrahamson on set with Joe Alwyn.
DIrector Lenny Abrahamson on set with Joe Alwyn

“It’s very true,” he says. “I noticed this reading Normal People, but it is true of both novels. I remember thinking to myself: here’s a novel written by a very perceptive Irish woman, about a love affair happening in small-town Ireland, and there isn’t a priest to be seen. And there isn’t a bit of guilt to be found. So many of those things that would have really animated a story of this kind in our day are not there. I was really excited. I remember thinking: that’s really interesting – to be able to tell a story about contemporary Ireland and for a big audience that doesn’t find itself mired in that stuff.”

Abrahamson was among those artists who showed the coming generation what was possible. It seemed scarcely possible that somebody from Ireland could make an Oscar-nominated film when he was a teenager. Neil Jordan’s low-budget Angel would have emerged when he was at the High School in Rathgar, but Lenny would have been an adult when Jordan’s mainstream period kicked off. Jim Sheridan’s Oscar success with My Left Foot followed after that. Now young Irish filmmakers can look to two preceding cohorts.

“I can remember being in the video shop. ‘Oh God, it’s an Irish film,’ someone would say in 1986 – or even later,” he says. “That doesn’t happen any more. It took things being successful outside the country to take that weight off our shoulders. I’m working with a crew who are younger than me. You never know when that flip happens. For years you’re the younger person. Suddenly I’m the veteran and people are moving apple boxes for me to sit on.”

That collaboration between generations certainly paid off for Normal People. I wonder when they first realised that the show – like Conversations with Friends, produced in collaboration with BBC Three and Hulu – had gone beyond mere success to register as the most talked-about TV event of the plague years? He remembers a conversation with his wife, Monika Pamula, during the period of peak adulation.

Sasha Lane and Alison Oliver in Conversations with Friends. Abrahamson cast American actress Lane as Bobbi because “there aren’t a lot of people who are charismatic in that very particular and quiet way that she is”.
Abrahamson cast American actress Lane (left) as Bobbi because 'there aren’t a lot of people who are charismatic in that very particular and quiet way that she is'

“I woke up the next morning, after maybe two days, and it was really building,” he says. “I was getting all these emails and I said to Monika that, after opening the internet and reading all this stuff, I actually, genuinely thought I might be dreaming. I really did. It felt unreal. I thought to myself: I’m just going to get away from it. It’s too much. I’m going to listen to one of my Brexit podcasts, because nothing depresses me more than that. It will be good for me.

“So I turned on Brexitcast – you know, the BBC one with Laura Kuenssberg? – and the title was ‘Normal People’. They were all talking about having watched it. At that point, I thought this is really weird. And then [BBC Radio 4 comedy show] Dead Ringers comes on and they’re doing a Normal People sketch. So we realised pretty quickly. But then it just continued to grow. I’m glad I’ve had that experience, because now I know what it’s like if something really does work.”

'Outraged callers on Liveline – it just doesn’t get any better than that'

Then came the greatest honour of all. Normal People was the subject of outraged callers on RTÉ Radio One’s Liveline. One caller described the sex scenes as “something you would expect to see in a porno movie”. Another ventured: “It’s giving the wrong message to young people, I have two young daughters and they think that is going on in secondary schools. It is shocking.” There was a time when this stuff would not have been funny. But the consensus was these voices were yelling at a train that had long ago left the station.

“Outraged callers on Liveline – it just doesn’t get any better than that,” Abrahamson says. “Especially now that, as you say, it’s been defanged. It can just be enjoyed. As you know, Monika, my wife, is Polish. She’s very positive about Ireland. She loves it. But her familiarity with Ireland goes back just 20 years. I’ve often tried to tell her what it was like and I don’t know if she’s ever really fully believed me. But then she got to listen to Liveline, and her mouth was hanging open. I said: ‘This was what it was like all the time.’ And these people were not just cranks. They were right in the middle of our culture. So it was amazing. I remember switching it on and it was magnificent. Having someone say ‘filth’ about what you’ve done on Joe Duffy! It doesn’t get any better.”

Might we get a reprise?

“There are aspects of Conversation with Friends. I was thinking that on the eve of one particular episode I may have to text Joe to remind him to have his Ready Brek.” 

'With Room, it was a transformative thing,' he says. 'None of this might have happened without it. And it definitely changed things for me'

It sounds as if the experience of Normal People was almost as dramatic as being nominated for an Oscar. That was an extraordinary year for Irish film. Brooklyn and Room shared seven nominations between them. Nothing remotely like that had ever happened for the domestic industry. It was the film business’s Italia ’90.

“With Room, it was a transformative thing,” he says. “None of this might have happened without it. And it definitely changed things for me. I’m glad I experienced what it’s like to be nominated and go through all that stuff – even if it never happens again. But, most of the time, we were there saying: ‘It’s doing reasonably well at the box office.’ But it was nothing like this. It’s very easy to be dismissive of things. If anyone else was saying: ‘Look at all the Instagram accounts dedicated to something else,’ as a grizzled old intellectual snob I’d be saying: ‘For f**k’s sake! What happened to great literature and film? Frivolous nonsense!’ But when it happens to your thing then, of course, that’s because it’s superb and people can’t get enough of it. Ha ha!”

The twin successes of Room and Normal People have made Lenny one of our era’s most sought-after directors. He followed up the Oscar nomination with a beautifully composed adaptation of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. One can only imagine the offers he has had. He is reading scripts. He is taking meetings.

Lenny Abrahamson directing Alison Oliver.
Lenny Abrahamson directing Alison Oliver

“I do read stuff that is sent to me. And I do get sent really, really good things,” he says. “So somewhere in between ‘Would you do a Marvel movie?’ and ‘I’m going to continue noodling around my own stuff’, there are wonderful, high-profile projects that are very good. I have not said ‘yes’ yet. But maybe some day I will. What I am planning to do is write an original thing.”

That project will be based around his “own background”. He deserves space to breathe.

“I want to just have a think about things and try and make something which is as grounded in me as I can. That’s the plan for the next little while.”

Conversations with Friends starts on Wednesday, May 18th, on RTÉ One at 9.35pm.