BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The trip from the printed page to the screen has gone a little backwards for Irish author Sally Rooney. The series “Normal People” – that launched in 2020 – was based on her second novel. It was so successful that BBC Three and Hulu have now decided to adapt her first book in a series.
The on-screen version of “Conversations with Friends” will be available starting May 15 on Hulu. It follows Frances (Alison Oliver), a 21 year old college student, as she deals with a series of relationships that make her confront her own vulnerabilities for the first time. Frances is observant, cerebral and sharp. Her ex-girlfriend, now best friend, Bobbi (Sasha Lane) is self-assured, outspoken and compelling.
It fell to Lenny Abrahamson to transform the much heralded book into the 12-part TV series. It helped that Abrahamson was familiar with Rooney’s writing as he was a producer on “Normal People.” Despite his familiarity with the writer, “Conversations with Friends” came with some big obstacles to conquer.
“It’s always a challenge to go from page to screen. In this case it’s a first-person story so we’re listening to Frances’ voice all the time and we’re seeing all the characters from her point of view,” Abrahamson says. “So it’s quite a job of kind of translating that into a style that works on screen.
“I think just it was a process of kind of digging into parts of the book which maybe were suggested but not fully fleshed out because we’re approaching events in a different way on the page and just forensically trying to find a way of getting to the meat and the core of things in a visual medium as opposed to the medium on the page.”
The final solution was to make sure that the central quartet of characters – Frances, Bobbi, Nick (Joe Alwyn) and Melissa (Jemima Kirke) – came across as real as possible. That approach put a lot of pressure on Oliver – who was trained at The Lir Academy, Ireland’s National Academy of Dramatic Art – as she makes her professional acting debut with “Conversations with Friends.”
In a small way, the pandemic helped Oliver be prepared for such a huge acting role so early in her career. She was in her final year of college and living in Dublin during the COVID shutdowns. Her roommate told her that she had to read “Conversations with Friends.” Oliver had read “Normal People” and was already a fan of Rooney’s writing.
“Her writing is so intimate and sensitive and so characterful, I felt so attached to the book but I also felt like I really knew the people in the book. Like I felt like, oh, I know who this person is,” Oliver says. “And or even just could imagine them and had such a strong kind of imagination of who these four characters were.
“And so then kind of getting an audition tape in and doing that whole process was so kind of surreal because in my head I was like, ‘Oh, these are real people.’ I feel really lucky that I got to have properly read the book before I went into it because so much, for her at least, is in her head.”
It was necessary for the production team to feel the connection between the actors during all of the audition process when they paired various potential cast members. That was hard enough but because the production began during the pandemic, the chemistry between the actors had to come through virtual auditions on Zoom.
Oliver’s approach in a taped audition worked as the producers were willing to take a chance on casting the unknown actor in the key role. And, it was not just finding the right actor who could handle the demands of a lead character but also needing someone who could connect with the other actors because this story puts them all in very close, emotional situations.
Abrahamson says, “When you’re casting a quartet that’s so tightly bound together, every thought about one character informs your thoughts about the other characters. Nothing is up in the air. It’s so interesting as well that in the novel you have these like different pairings.
“The dynamic mover is the relationship between Frances and Nick in a way in that it’s the thing that changes the status quo. But it is just as important to understand really deeply the relationship between Nick and Melissa, the attraction between Melissa and Bobbi, and then at the center as well there’s this kind of a longstanding relationship between Frances and Bobbi. Getting that chemistry to work was so important.”