When it comes to complicated matters of the heart, no one does it better than Sally Rooney, author of Normal People, the book that was adapted into a cult favourite series by Hulu (Prime Video in Canada). The same team that engineered that series is back – director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Alice Birch – to adapt another one of Rooney’s books, Conversations With Friends, which premieres on Prime Video Canada on Monday.

The series follows Dublin college students Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), former-lovers-turned-best-friends, who perform feminist spoken-word poetry. One night they meet a couple in their 30s – actor Nick (Joe Alwyn) and his author wife Melissa (Jemima Kirke). While Bobbi catches Melissa’s eye, Frances and Nick spiral into a full-fledged affair soon enough.

In a video interview with ELLE Canada, the cast discussed bringing complex relationship drama to life between the four leads, bringing their characters to life and intimacy in modern day love.

Exploring Modern Day Relationships

Relationships are messy and complicated and the show relishes the complexity of modern day dating. “Hopefully, you can feel it in the show that it kind of seems to enjoy the messiness and the complexity of the situation and of love,” says Alwyn. “Sally’s exploring ideas that, [and] I’ve said this before, can find love and happiness outside of conventional relationships which we have created for ourselves, whether it’s friendships or families or couples.”

The 31-year-old British actor and Grammy-winner explains that the book and TV series aren’t neatly tied up but left open-ended, which appealed to him. “It feels like a very modern love story. I felt that when I was reading the book at the time, and it kind of answers these questions and opens up all these ideas without landing on an answer or kind of saying, at the end of the day, it must be this or it must be that. It’s quite open ended at the end of the day, which feels appropriate,” he says. “I think it’s really interesting the idea of love and happiness, and how you can love more than one person.”

Lane, 26, who made her debut with indie film American Honey, agrees that this is an honest exploration of interaction, which drew her to the story. “It’s a bit messy as it involves marriages, friendships. It involves crossing the lines and blurring lines,” she explains. “[Sally Rooney] writes about anxiety and loneliness and insecurities—you’re getting all of those things while involving romances in relationships, whether it’s a friendship, or just an interest [in someone] or thinking that [they are] the love of your life. It’s a very real and honest way to show people interacting and caring for someone or thinking they care for someone. It’s intriguing to me.”

The series doesn’t give a morally right or wrong answer to the relationships that unfold between the married couple and the college students. Kirke, who previously earned a fan base with her role on Girls, liked the idea that no one person alone is a victim in this. She stressed that this show comes without any judgement.

“I think that the story is about what’s right and wrong, and about the things that are generally perceived to be wrong without being questioned and challenged,” she explains. “Because everyone has conflicting feelings about it within themselves, about the things that are societally-accepted or not accepted, such as affairs or being in love outside of your marriage. This story does not paint a picture of a relationship that is wrong, or right. I don’t know if it makes any one root for them or not root for them. We’re just watching how one relationship can affect everyone involved and there’s no judgment on it. Everyone behaves really, really poorly. So it’s hard to see anyone as a victim here, which I think is going to be interesting to people.”

Prime Video (Conversations with Friends)

Depicting Intimacy While Being Grounded

In Conversations with Friends, the intimate moments and sex scenes never feel gratuitous or racy, since it’s grounded in the story. Both Oliver and Alwyn agreed that those scenes were crucial to understanding the characters and their relationships.

“[In the show] we’re in the spaces where [the characters] struggle to communicate and articulate, they communicate physically a lot and through intimacy, and that’s what always felt like what was such a big part of their relationship, ” Oliver explained. “When coming to put that on screen, it did feel really important, and the way that they’re approached. We had an intimacy coordinator, and also, Lenny—he approaches everything with such an attention and detail, that he would never just put something in there that didn’t feel gratuitous. Everything that’s in there had a reason or was telling a story in some way or each intimate moment had a different quality and they’re a way of seeing how their relationship is progressing.”

Alwyn shared that the intimate scenes were “a bit like choreographing any kind of physical scene or action scene or fight scene. You’re making shapes to tell a story.”

Prime Video (Conversations with Friends)

Bringing the Characters to Life

When it came to bringing their characters to life, the actors found something to relate to which helped them flesh out their roles.

For Kirke, it was the armour that she puts forward everyday, just like Melissa. What made sense about me playing her is this composure, which I do have—this sort of seemingly self assuredness in a room with other people. When I’m in a room with people I put on my armour, which is the costume that we all put on that is protective and is the character essentially that you want to put forward in a social setting,” she explains. “ The one that I tend to go to when I’m in a social setting is very similar to Melissa’s, which is confidence, however false, and a bit aggressive and a bit deflecting. I was excited to play that because it’s not something I always get to do. I think that Melissa has a kind of restraint that I relate to, and one that I don’t often get to play.”

The weirdness of being an actor is what grounded Alwyn with Nick. “I think I could relate to him. I don’t think to the same extent that he struggles with certain aspects of his moods like being up or very low, or but I think he’s an actor, and I’m an actor. I can identify with some of the weirdness of that job and the struggles of that job and the kind of toughness to express yourself sometimes not just within the job, but genuinely in life.”

Oliver, who makes her debut with this role, could certainly relate to feeling lost in a new world. “The great thing about Rooney’s book is they all have something in them and each character that you can kind of recognize in yourself because there’s such kind of universal things of figuring out who you are, and who you want to be in the world. With Frances, she does have that kind of feeling like she’s a little bit lost and not really sure who she wants to be and I definitely relate to when I was kind of coming into college and things like that. So there are totally parts of her that I really, really resonated with,” she shared.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Conversation with Friends premieres on May 16 on Prime Video.

Read more:
Sally Rooney Is Your New Favourite Author
Normal People Is Coming Back
Listen To Every Song From Normal People Here