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Conversations with Friends Stars Reveal How Their Characters Change from the Book to the Series

The stars of the Hulu show shared their first takes on the 2017 novel

Lauren Piester

There's an irony to Conversations With Friends, Hulu's newest miniseries based on a book by Sally Rooney, that becomes more and more frustrating as the show goes on. It's on purpose, of course, but that doesn't change the frustration level. The show's story is primarily told through a ton of texts, phone calls, and face-to-face convos between a complicated group of friends. The problem being is that the main character, Frances, claims to be a writer but is almost entirely incapable of communicating. She wants to have sex with the actor-husband of a famous essayist and she also wants to get back together with her ex-girlfriend, but she couldn't possibly tell either of them that. She's also suffering horrible pain from an illness, but why would she mention that either? She, as she claims many times, is just not a person who has emotions, no matter how much she cries when she has sex. 

It's not the most desirable trait in a friend or a partner, but it's what will keep you watching as you wait for someone to finally speak all their feelings out loud and tell Frances why she's being so ridiculous. It's also what attracted star Alison Oliver to the role of Frances, and to the mess of sexy passiveness and silence that she finds herself stuck in with Nick (Joe Alwyn), who is equally un-talkative. 

"They're such complex characters, and there's so much to them, particularly with this relationship," she tells TV Guide of what struck her about Frances and Nick. "They're both the quieter of their pairs, and there's an intrigue there, and that's what draws them to each other. But they definitely struggle to communicate, but I think there's obviously an innate connection there, and that's what drives the affair." 

Alison Oliver, Conversations with Friends

Alison Oliver, Conversations with Friends


Alwyn was a fan of Rooney's books before they were being developed into TV shows, and he said that both when he read the book and when he would watch scenes from the show back, he "felt frustrated" about both Nick and Frances, "about not being more clear, or vocal with each other. And it's not because they're holding anything back, necessarily. It's just because they're not good with it, and haven't quite figured out what it is in the first place." 

The book, which was released in 2017, is entirely from Frances' perspective, and the show shares that quality. She's in every scene, and we're not privy to any conversations that happen out of her earshot. Even so, her real emotions mostly remain hidden, and other than confirmation that Nick is, indeed, very handsome, there are a lot of observations from her that he's passive and equally unemotional. At one point, despite her unrelenting attraction to him, she questions if he even has a personality. Alwyn was not offended by being cast as a passive, personality-less leading man, because he sees beyond Nick's surface. 

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"Nick, I thought, was really interesting," he says. "I thought there were loads and loads of layers, where he might start off in one place initially seeming very passive or enigmatic or not giving, I found it interesting peeling those layers away and seeing the story behind it, that you don't find out for a while. But I loved playing him."

For Oliver, Frances' lack of things to say gave her a unique and rewarding experience on set every day. "It was so great because I just got to watch everyone give really great performances," she says. "But also, because it's from her perspective in the book as well, everything that's happening in her head is in the book, so I found that I was constantly going back to the book and reading what was happening in her head at that moment, whilst also relating to what was in front of me. So I think that was one of the qualities I really enjoyed about her, how observing she is of people in the world. That kind of quietness is actually really fun to play." 

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

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

Enda Bowe/Hulu

She says director and executive producer Lenny Abramson, who also worked on Hulu's adaptation of Rooney's Normal People, really wanted to celebrate those "unsaid moments" and how sometimes, they can be more compelling than dialogue. 

There are some dark things going on in Frances' life that are a part of the book from the beginning, but aren't introduced until later in the series. Oliver says that for her, they were always there, informing how Frances was acting. "I always had that in my head," she says. "I think there can be things happening that we don't always see, and those things were always a part of her story." 

While Frances and Nick are engaged in their very quiet affair, viewers may just be waiting for their louder other halves to finally speak some truths. Jemima Kirke plays Melissa, Nick's wife, while Sasha Lane plays Bobbi, Frances' ex-girlfriend and current best friend. Since the book and series are both told from Frances' perspective and Frances is pretty defensive of her own actions, both Lane and Kirke had to piece together their characters through her. Bobbi and Melissa definitely don't have trouble expressing themselves, but they're also a little bit deceptive. 

"What caught me off guard about Bobbi is that as vocal as she is and sensitive and kind of blunt, she doesn't really stand up for herself a lot," Lane says. "She might stand up for someone else, or she might read the room, but in terms of herself, especially dealing with Frances, she kind of internalizes it. Kirke agreed, and said that Lane's performance made Bobbi seem like "much more of a victim than is portrayed in the book." 

Melissa, on the other hand, first struck Kirke as a better person than she thought she turned out to be, especially based on the book's biggest insight into her character—a letter, written to Frances. Kirke said she was "very careful" to go through that letter to create something "more nuanced" for the screen. "For me, as I was playing Melissa, it struck me that she is more antagonistic than my first read of her and more manipulative, and that this idea of her being the stoic wife who loves her husband so unconditionally that she would permit him to love someone else as well is not as straightforward as it seems." 

In fact, none of the characters in Conversations With Friends are as straightforward as they seem, even from book to screen, but it wouldn't be nearly as interesting if they were. 

Conversations With Friends premieres May 15 on Hulu.