The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is quintessentially Rooney: it’s meandering, it’s full of observation and yearning, and it doesn’t shy away from grappling with moral quandaries. But don’t fear; it also brings the heat that audiences lusted after in Normal People.
At the heart of the new series is the dynamic between two best friends, Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (Alison Oliver). It’s the narrative pull that newcomer Oliver tells Refinery29 Australia was most compelling for her about the role. The friendship between Bobbi and Frances is messy, fraught with emotion, and tinged with jealousy — and the lines between platonic and romantic are constantly blurred.
“Sally has such a deep understanding of that female dynamic, whether it’s platonic or romantic. There’s just this innate, deep understanding between two women that I found so compelling to read and so relatable,” Oliver says.
“Sally’s not afraid to write characters, particularly women, who [are] really flawed and messed up. Female characters kind of get softened to be made more understandable or likeable — and Sally just really doesn’t do that.”
Rooney is consistently pegged as the purveyor of brutally honest musings about relationships, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree, but it’s what drew Oliver to Conversations With Friends.
“I felt like I had never read a woman like [Frances], I thought she was so rare,” Oliver shares. “Sally’s not afraid to write characters, particularly women, who [are] really flawed and messed up. Female characters kind of get softened to be made more understandable or likeable — and Sally just really doesn’t do that.”
Bobbi and Frances’ complicated relationship is largely underscored by the fact that they broke up three years ago, yet they are still inseparable. It’s a dynamic that many women can see a little of themselves in.
“[There’s these kinds of pools of unresolved tension [that] are under the surface,” Oliver says, adding that there’s still “deep love” between the two. Sasha Lane agrees, telling Refinery29 that the extremity of charged emotion “has the ability to be toxic”. In a refreshing change, however, the characters’ queerness isn’t what leads to conflict.
And while bisexuality is commonly used as a trope to signal indecisiveness and untrustworthiness, Conversations With Friends negates this completely.
“I liked the fact that they had Francis as someone who identif[ied] as bisexual without actually knowing that she had never slept with a man. And [I liked] then for Bobby to be a lesbian who never wanted to touch a man but will not stand for you attacking them,” says Lane, who identifies as queer. “I liked the fact that it wasn’t like, ‘Just because you’re sleeping with a man now I’m disgusted by you,’ it was kind of giving room [to Frances to] be able to find who [she is].”
The plot is propelled by the deep emotion of the friendship between Bobbi and Frances, but its intensity has leaked into the pair’s off-screen friendship.
“We both really understood what that [female] dynamic was, and so developing that with [Lane] felt really special and we got so close because of it; women just get each other and we loved exploring that relationship,” says Oliver.
“It’s a weird way of how me and [Alison] became emotionally attached to each other and then would get frustrated having to film where we weren’t… there’s always weird jealousy involved.”
“The more I got to know Ally (Alison), it became so easy to play the friendship part when we were filming. But then, in a weird way, if Francis would yell at [my character Bobbi], it would be hard sometimes. Or sometimes Frances, her character, annoyed me, but I loved Ally so it was confusing,” Lane says.
“I also would get really jealous when she would have these scenes with Nick (Joe Alwyn) and she was supposed to be watching Nick more, [while] I’m watching her and I’m kind of like, ‘How annoying is it to sit in this room watching someone who’s watching someone else?’,” she shares.
Lane tells me that she was recently watching one of the episodes in which Frances chooses Nick over Bobbi. “I [got] jealous and text[ed Alison] and I was kind of like, ‘But you would choose Bobbi, right? Like this is just in the script’. It’s a weird way of how me and her became emotionally attached to each other and then would get frustrated having to film where we weren’t… It’s just a weird thing and females are very much like that; there’s always weird jealousy involved.”
Accurate representation also came from Rooney and director Lenny Abrahamson’s decision to explicitly portray Frances’ struggle with endometriosis on screen. Oliver tells us that she and the team spoke to doctors and a woman with endometriosis who is doing a dissertation on it to understand and learn about the different forms chronic pain.
“Not only did I not want to shy away from the real pain of it, I felt it was really important to show the psychological or emotional effects that it has. I think I really tried to let [Frances] be really heavy sometimes in herself,” Oliver says. I’ve heard people with endometriosis talk about that it feels like you’re carrying this massive weight all the time, and your body feels kind of stuck. I just wanted it to feel as truthful as it was.”
For Refinery29 writer Jasmine Wallis who has polycystic ovary syndrome, watching this on screen was “incredibly validating”. “While it’s not nice to see anyone in pain, watching Frances crawl to the bathroom and lay on the floor was like looking in a mirror. When you’re in that much pain it can feel like you’re the only person in the world going through it. Couple that with the taboo around period pain and it can feel incredibly isolating.”
Conversations With Friends is not afraid to dive into taboos of all kinds: chronic illness, infidelity, polyamory and sexuality. It’s pushing us to have these kinds of conversations with our own friends — and for that, we’re grateful.
Conversations With Friends is streaming now on BBC iPlayer
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