The TV version of Sally Rooney’s Normal People became one of the runaway hits of the Covid era, winning more than 60m views with its setback-strewn tale of modern love. So there was no small excitement about its follow-up, an adaptation of the novel that introduced Rooney as a new literary star. While Normal People told a relatively simple story of the on-off relationship between two schoolmates, whose furtive love affair is rekindled when they meet up again as students, Conversations With Friends spins a messier and more complicated yarn, which, perhaps inevitably, has had a more mixed reception since it hit screens last week.
Age, class and differing sexualities intertwine in the relationship of two couples, one a decade older than the other, who meet through a spoken-word poetry gig, and go on to form an asymmetrical foursome. The older pair, writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and jobbing actor Nick (Joe Alwyn), are locked in an affectionate but apparently sexless marriage. The younger two, Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), used to be lovers. “I’m her muse,” says gobby Bobbi, by way of introduction to the sleek, older essayist. “We dropped the fucking and kept the poetry.”
The line is delivered by Lane with such cheeky charisma that you’d have to have a vitrified heart not to fall for her, as Melissa duly does. It’s not long before Melissa has introduced Nick into the circle, and sparks start to fly between him and Frances. The casting of Lane, an actor of African American and Maori heritage who made her name in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, as Rooney’s convent bad girl, pays off handsomely, decisively answering the criticism of tickbox casting in Normal People.
It was love at first sight, as soon as she was sent the novel for consideration, says the 26-year-old actor over Zoom from New York. “I read it within like two hours: that’s how much I fell in love with it.” She had recently given birth and was getting fidgety. “I was in Texas, spending way too much time with my newborn, so we needed to see other people. This was the first time that I’d felt, ‘Wow, I want this. I’ll do whatever it takes to get it.’”
As it was all playing out at the height of the Covid era, what it took was a succession of nail-biting, long-distance “chemistry tests” with her Irish co-star Oliver. Even over Zoom, there’s a tangible forcefield around the two young actors, which ties Lane up in knots as she tries to explain it. “Sometimes as Bobbi is watching Frances look at someone else, I, as Sasha, get jealous, which is weird because, obviously, I don’t romantically love Alison,” she says. In interview, as in the series, they slip into a comfortable rhythm. Lane, who arrived with a reputation for edgy brilliance – not least as teenage runaway Star in American Honey – leaps into every silence. Oliver, who was still at drama school when she auditioned for the role, is more reserved. “...And then it was actually the day after I finished college that I got the call,” she says of her casting, with an understatedness that would do her character Frances proud.
As a student at the Dublin academy that Normal People’s Paul Mescal had attended, which is attached to the college at which Rooney herself had studied, Oliver was well aware that she was up for one of the hottest roles the TV industry could offer. “Sally’s books were just everywhere,” she recalls. “When Covid happened, and I was moving back to isolate with my family in Cork, my roommate gave me Conversations With Friends for the train home. I hadn’t read a book like it before, and it was kind of a surreal thing, because when the audition came, I felt like they were all real people.”
The imposing buildings of Trinity College, where both Normal People’s Connell and Marianne and Frances and Bobbi are also students, provides a strong visual link between the two series, which are produced by the same company and both directed by Lenny Abrahamson. The Dublin of late-night essay crises in student house-shares is set against the wealthier ambience of Melissa and Nick’s life, so carefully curated as to have become as glazed as the artworks on the walls. Their insouciance is shored up by money, but they need the different sort of power that Frances and Bobbi can bring – of youth, and passion and devil-may-care recklessness. .
Someone told me that the minute you turn 20, you go into this psychological puberty. I thought that was so true
At the heart of the story are questions about types and hierarchies of affection: whether friendship is the equal of love, and if it is possible to be in love with two people equally, in different ways. “It feels really stupid to love someone unconditionally. Sometimes there have to be conditions,” says Frances. She’s speaking about her alcoholic father, but could equally be addressing any of the permutations of the story’s wonky love quadrangle.
Frances is the child of divorce, a swotty outsider, whose school life was transformed by being “chosen” by the cool Bobbi. How does this familiar Rooney trope of alienation relate to the two actors? Alison Oliver grew up in a big family in a well-to-do suburb of Cork city. She went to an all-girls school with a gang of primary school friends who are still her best friends today, “so I didn’t have that kind of feeling of isolation as such. But I remember someone saying to me that the minute you turn 20, you go into this psychological puberty. I thought that was so true. All of a sudden, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my god, now I’m an adult.’”
Sasha Lane’s parents split up when she was young, and she hated school, while excelling at baseball and athletics. “I was more the type of person that could get along with everyone,” she says. “But I had younger sisters that I had to watch, so I never went to Whataburger or all the parties after school. I have always been a bit of a loner.”
When the time came to travel to Belfast, where most of the series was filmed in the spring of 2021, she spent a week settling in, before her brother – who decades earlier had left the family with their father – travelled out to join her, bringing her daughter, who by then was 18 months old. “She became just like a little homie on the set. We were each other’s community, and I think she helped, because we were totally locked down at the time.”
Lane describes her brother as her best friend, who helped her to cope with a success that hit her like an express train. She was spotted as a 19-year-old student on a spring beach holiday by the director Andrea Arnold, who had just lost her lead for American Honey. A month later she had dropped out of college and set off into the unknown. “Especially when I started, I was not mentally in the best place. Then you go from being in a regular kind of life in Texas to moving to LA after a movie. It was a really heightened experience,” she says. Since then she has appeared in six feature films and a handful of TV series.
Lane brings a dangerous edge, but also a sense of hard-won empathy to a series that has watered down some of the novel’s more difficult elements, such as the self-harm Frances inflicts on herself. “You didn’t need to see blood drawn; you didn’t need to see the physical act of it, because the reasoning behind it was self-destruction, lack of control,” says Lane. Oliver agrees. “It’s only when she really hits rock bottom that we get to see it.”
In earlier episodes, the pain does indeed play across Oliver’s face, but Frances is so wilfully inscrutable that it’s like a photographic negative that can only be read through Bobbi, whose huffy interrogations and demanding silences make the series increasingly seem like a double act. “I think female relationships are a lot more complex and a lot more intimate, even if they’re toxic,” says Lane. “The reason that Bobbi and Frances have a big hold on the show is because it’s two women, regardless of whether they have sex or not.”
You don’t, however, look to Rooney for easy resolutions. “What I found so interesting about it,” says Oliver, “is that it is a very modern love story and, to me anyway, it feels like something new. Frances really does love two people at the same time. It’s saying that any way people want to live their life is OK. Love is always going to be complicated. It’s all up for grabs, and so it will start conversations.” The conversations have already begun.
Conversations With Friends is on BBC Three, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Prime Video