English actor Joe Alwyn has been a notoriously lowkey star who made his debut with a lead role in Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In the six years since, he has played well-received supporting roles (in Harriet, Boy Erased, The Last Letter From Your Lover, The Favourite, The Souvenir Part II, Mary Queen of Scots) whilst digging his teeth into his vulnerable side for those on-screen parts.
Now, the 31-year-old Grammy-winning actor is about to become a household name as he earned his first lead role in a series with Conversations with Friends, an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s beloved novel. She’s the same author whose other bestselling novel Normal People became a worldwide phenomenon and put stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones into the spotlight after it was adapted into a limited series.
For Alwyn, it’s the directors and filmmakers that draw him to roles and as such, he has carefully selected all of his projects to date. He finds acting cathartic — an outlet to feel things he’d otherwise bury.
In this series, he plays actor Nick, who is married to author Melissa (Jemima Kirke). The couple meets Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), a pair of Dublin college students and ex-lovers. While Bobbi catches the eye of Melissa, Nick begins an affair with Frances.
Ahead of the series premiere on Prime Video this Sunday, we sat down with Alwyn to discuss his role in Conversation with Friends, what he likes about being an actor, and how he would describe his sense of style.
Congratulations again on the series! This is a major moment for you playing the male lead. What were you most afraid of when it came to stepping into the scale and scope of this series, especially after the success of Rooney’s Normal People?
Yeah, I suppose there’s something about stepping into something that’s so loved by so many people, myself included. I was such a fan of the book that maybe you feel a sense of responsibility, and you want to create something that people feel is faithful to the way they felt about the book, and why they liked it. So at the end there’s responsibility, but I think if you overthink that too much, it’ll probably get in the way of doing the job. We just felt like it was a privilege and [I felt] incredibly lucky to be a part of something like this; a collaboration with [Rooney] and a collaboration with Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. I’ve been a fan of both of their work for a very long time. So more than anything I was just excited to be a part of this.
You have great on-screen chemistry with your fellow co-star Alison Oliver. For a show that hinges on relationships, chemistry is key. How did you two work on that?
We did a lot of talking. Of course, we were all lucky that we got on. When you spend five months with a group of people, you’re crossing your fingers that you get along and we did. The more you look at your character, and the more others look at their characters, and you look at why they are syncing together and if you’ve discussed those things, then you can try and tap into that. It was interesting because you usually have chemistry tests, but because of COVID or I don’t know for whatever reason, we auditioned independently, and we were cast separately, so to speak, and then came together after. But yeah, we talked a lot about it. We were lucky that we really got on and Lenny guided us through it as well. It would have been rubbish if you hated the person, obviously, but luckily that wasn’t the case.
What was the first thing that came to mind when you thought about Nick, and how would you play a character like him?
Well, very early on we had we had really good conversations with Lenny. He was very collaborative straightaway, jumping on a Zoom and wanting to send over episodes and wanting feedback about where things were going and what was working and what wasn’t. That was the first time I’d probably experienced that level of collaboration from such an early stage. Normally, I have a bit of back and forth, but you essentially turn up to start the job and that’s when it begins for you. But in this one it got pushed back a bit because of COVID — so we had a fair bit of time. He was really great and making me feel very involved and talking about ideas for Nick and about where Nick was coming from as a character and about his relationship with Frances, Melissa, and how that all changes. It was just a lot of thinking and a lot of talking and a lot of working on the scripts, which continually evolved and changed.
I read that you want this series to provoke a discussion. How so?
I meant in the same way that when the book came out — everyone had opinions about it generally that it doesn’t tie things up at the end in a very neat way. Sally asks a lot of questions throughout the book about love and about how we’re able to find love and the different shapes of that. I think it’s quite a modern story in that sense and even after the end of the story — without giving things away, she doesn’t tie things up. I remember a lot of people talking about what will happen beyond or who should be with whom. It’s complex and messy in a way that feels appropriate. Hopefully, there’s joy in the acceptance of that kind of complexity. I hope that is translated in the show as well and that people respond to that in a similar way.
You haven’t actually met Sally Rooney so what would you most want to know about the characters and this story from her?
I think it’s probably too late to ask anything now. I don’t know what I would ask about the characters. I would love to meet her at some point, though. I mean, there was a plan initially because I thought we were going to film in Dublin and then COVID and life happened. So we didn’t get to meet but only shared a couple of emails. But I really would love to meet her at some point, just as a fan and hear her thoughts on the show.
In the show, Frances asks Nick, ‘Did you always want to be an actor? What is it you like about it?’ So I wanted to ask you the same question.
I like it because it’s kind of a weird duality, in that you can step away from being yourself, which is a nice feeling but at the same time in stepping away from yourself and pretending to be someone else, you’re actually able to kind of find yourself. So it’s this weird feeling of removing yourself, but at the same time, expressing yourself through something else. It’s a kind of cathartic release in that you get to feel things that you otherwise might bury. There’s suddenly an outlet and I like that. I mean, there are many parts of the job that I find hard as well and frustrate me. But that’s, in its essence, I think why I’m drawn to it. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time; I always wanted to be a part of that, while I didn’t necessarily quite know where I would fit in with it. And even when I decided I wanted to be an actor, or I thought I wanted to be an actor, I didn’t really tell anyone, it was more just something in my head — it took me a while to actually say that out loud. I mean, I was 14 or 15 or something but it took me a while to know how to go about actually trying it.
I’ve heard you’re selective about the roles you choose because you want to work with the right people. As an actor, what did you find most rewarding after playing a role like this in a story like this?
It was great. It was amazing material, of course, but in terms of collaborating with people, someone like Lenny is, in my opinion, one of the best filmmakers, and one of the best directors, as well as being a great guy. He was someone who I would work with again in a heartbeat. He’s so good at his job, and so incredibly detailed in a way that isn’t overbearing, and so intelligent with the way he approaches things, and empathetic and in this instance, it was really him and Sally. I could have been, you know, playing a chair, and I would have done it. I just wanted to be a part of it. So I tend to be, I suppose, filmmaker-driven, but this was a lucky one where there were so many components to it that I was never going to say no.
Nick has a good sense of style, laidback and relaxed. How would you describe your sense of style?
I’m glad you like Nick’s sense of style. I don’t know how to describe my sense of style. I tend to get items of clothing that I really like and just wear them until they fall off me. I’ll just wear something for ages and ages rather than get a million new things all the time. I like a few solid, well-made things that will just last. So whatever style that would be called [Laughs].
Conversations with Friends premieres Sunday, May 15 on Prime Video.