The Big Picture

  • Saltburn marks Alison Oliver’s first feature following her series debut headlining the Hulu adaptation of Conversation with Friends.
  • Oliver discusses her experience working with director Emerald Fennell and what she appreciates about her most as an actor’s director.
  • On top of that, during her interview with Collider’s Perri Nemiroff, Oliver goes into detail revisiting her experience filming one of the best scenes of the movie — Venetia’s bathtub monologue.


The start of Alison Oliver’s filmography couldn’t be better. Her debut role on screen was a significant undertaking, a lead role in the Hulu series Conversations with Friends starring opposite acting heavyweights Sasha Lane, Joe Alwyn, and Jemima Kirke. After delivering a stunningly subtle and thoughtful performance in that, she ventures into completely different territory with her first feature film, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn.

The movie stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver, an Oxford student who struggles to fit in until the big man on campus, Jacob Elordi’s Felix, takes him under his wing. During summer break, Felix invites Oliver to spend the season with him and his family at their home, the sprawling estate of Saltburn. That’s where we meet Alison Oliver’s character, Venetia, Felix’s sister who seems to have everything in the world — a gorgeous mansion for a home, endless feasts, a massive wardrobe, lavish parties and then some — but still struggles with what she lacks emotionally.

With Saltburn playing in theaters nationwide, I got the chance to chat with Oliver about why she’s glad to have Saltburn as her Conversations with Friends follow-up project, what she appreciates most about Fennell as an actor’s director, and how she tackled what wound up being one of the very best scenes of 2023, Venetia’s bathtub monologue.

Hear about that and more in the video interview at the top of this article, or you can read the full conversation in transcript form below.

Saltburn Film Poster

Saltburn

Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, student Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.

Release Date
November 17, 2023

Rating
R

Runtime
127 minutes

PERRI NEMIROFF: A first feature is a pretty big deal, especially with something like this. When you were thinking about what to take after Conversations with Friends, what were some of your top priorities so you picked something that would help you evolve your craft, but also continue to show this industry what you’re capable of?

ALISON OLIVER: Thank you. I don’t know. I was just kind of auditioning and this came through, and I was just like, “Oh my god.” The script in itself was just astonishing to read. As much as the film takes you on a ride watching it, the script was the same. I was just gasping and had such a visceral reaction to the script that I was so excited to audition. It’s always really exciting getting to play a character that really makes you step out of your comfort zone where you don’t feel like yourself, or you get to kind of explore lots of different things, and this was definitely one of them. So, I just felt so lucky that I got to do that after Conversations. It was great.

I love how different they are. Anytime there’s back-to-back projects where you see such massive range, sign me up for that!

I’m very curious, with a film like this, what did Emerald ask you to audition with? What particular scene?

OLIVER: It was actually Venetia’s final scene in the bath.

Excuse me? [Laughs]

OLIVER: Honestly, I was so excited because I think that’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. That piece of writing just kind of blew my mind. It was obviously both kind of terrifying and also I was just so excited to get to work on it. So yeah, it was that. And then I think I may have done, also, the first scene with just Venetia and Oliver when they’re outside.

Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elrodi, Alison Oliver, and Archie Madekwe on the poster for Saltburn
Image via Amazon MGM Studios

So you audition and sign on to be in the film. At that point, what would you say are your biggest burning questions for Emerald in terms of who Venetia is and how her family operates?

OLIVER: This is a world that I’m not too familiar with myself and stuff, so Emerald was like my reference for everything. I asked her everything and learned so much from her as a director. She’s incredibly precise, and she knows exactly the kind of film that she wants to make, but then she also allows for so much fun and improvisation as well. But yeah, I pretty much asked her everything. I think the characters all have their own, I guess, personal vulnerabilities and arcs, and I think what’s really fascinating as an audience member with this film is you’re kind of seeing it through the eyes of Oliver, of learning who these people are and what their vulnerabilities are and also how to get under their skin. So it was really exciting to play with her because I think she’s someone who definitely presents a certain way, but actually is quite different.

Those qualities make this an especially satisfying movie to watch over and over. I saw it for the second time last night and now that I could track everything through, it’s a really rich, full experience.

OLIVER: It’s weird. I had the same thing when I read the script again. The first time I was like, “God, I’m so naive!” [Laughs] I really didn’t see it coming.

[Laugh] I did the same exact thing! I’m glad I’m in good company.

Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver) wearing heart-shaped glasses drinking champaigne straight from a bottle in Saltburn
Image via Amazon MGM Studios

When I get obsessed with a movie I become a backstory nerd and want to know everything about everybody. Is there anything you had to come up with for her that we don’t necessarily see on screen or hear about via dialogue but we can still feel informing your performance throughout the film?

OLIVER: What I always used to think about Venetia is, “What does she do when Felix and Farleigh aren’t there?” She just lives in that house all year round. I think she probably goes to London on the weekends for parties or events or whatever, but I think she, in an almost old-fashioned traditional way, lives in this home and waits for, I suppose, Felix to come and bring people, and then she kind of comes alive. So I thought a lot about what she does and, actually, I think she’s quite a bored person. She has a lot in a material sense, but I think is probably feeling like she’s lacking in terms of a lot of, maybe, emotional needs. She’s a very lonely person, I think. I spent quite a bit of time being like, “What does she do when she’s not in her element and getting to entertain people who come to the house?”

Do you know what her favorite movie is, if not Superbad? Maybe she picked Superbad.

OLIVER: Maybe Superbad. I don’t know what her favorite movie is. [Laughs] That’s something that I’ll ask Emerald!

What about her bedroom? Did you ever talk about what that might look like and what little details she would have? It does feel like almost every single room has, not necessarily a cold feeling, but a less personal feeling than the traditional bedroom would have.

OLIVER: Yes, it probably would have that feeling but then just filled with so much clothes and so much makeup and accessories and posters and CDs and magazines. Her mom was a model, and I think she probably took lots of her clothes and old bathing suits and probably has just the most incredible wardrobe. That’s probably how I see it. Probably quite pink and black.

I would believe all of that.

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Saltburn.]To get into the cast now and some of your scene partners, can you pinpoint a time on set when a scene partner did just what you needed them to do in a moment where it helped you reach something in your character that you wouldn’t have been able to access without them?

OLIVER: Wow. Oh my god. That’s a really good question. I mean, not to go back to this scene a lot, but I think the bathtub scene. Acting with Barry is one of the most exciting things in the world because he’s so unpredictable in that amazing way of, like, everything is so in the moment and so instinctual and primal. I think with that scene, it’s obviously very head-to-head and it’s all cards on the table, and I think there’s a kind of sinister line I think he’s walking of not exposing himself entirely. I think the writing does so much for that scene anyway, but I think just the way that he was looking at me and responding to what I was saying, I found, really drove me along.

All of the actors in this film are just incredible. Being in a scene with Rosamund, you really didn’t have to do that much. [Laughs] I’ve never seen anything like it. And so I think a lot of the scenes I had to do very much felt like I just had to, like anything, react because people were just bringing the most incredible things. I wouldn’t have done anything if it wasn’t for them, I guess.

Truly an example of a perfectly cast film.

Elsbeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) sitting on a lawn chair in Saltburn
Image via Amazon MGM Studios

To go back to the bathtub monologue, that is a pitch-perfect and expertly delivered monologue – probably one of my favorite dialogue-heavy scenes of the year. When preparing for a scene like that, what’s step one? The first thing that puts you on the right track? But then also, what’s the last piece of that puzzle? The thing that falls into place that makes you say to yourself, “I’m ready to get on set and nail it now?”

OLIVER: I really don’t know. You never know, I guess, how anything’s gonna go and you try and put your best foot forward. I suppose because I auditioned with that scene I was very familiar with it from the offset and just loved working on it. I found just really leaning into the language, and also, she is finally revealing all of the things that she can see right through. I guess just letting the words do it and responding to Barry. Also, I think there can be a thing sometimes you can do where you’re like, “Oh, today is that scene,” and I think I find that quite challenging because you can put too much pressure on things. So I tried to go, “Oh, this is the great piece of writing I love so I’ll just go for it.”

So, so good. This might be too hyper-specific, but is there any particular beat of that monologue that you found most challenging to calibrate emotionally? Because it basically is one big emotional roller coaster.

OLIVER: I don’t even know if it’s necessarily a challenge, but just the bit that made me feel most like, “Ohhh,” is just when they kiss. That part is just the worst kiss in the world! [Laughs]

It’s such a loaded beat, too. It’s not like before. There’s so much more to unpack there now.

OLIVER: It’s really grim. So maybe that.

Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver) reading a book and smoking a pipe in Saltburn
Image via Amazon MGM Studios

I know Emerald likes to be very collaborative on set, so of all the scenes you filmed, which one would you say changed the most from script to screen where you all found something unexpected and special in the moment?

OLIVER: I was in the other room, but I remember when everyone first meets Oliver and everyone’s in the sitting room, and he can hear them talking about him outside the door. I think Emerald just really let the guys run with that. I remember that just being lots of takes of, “What’s gonna come out now,” and being in the other room and just laughing my head off. But, to be honest, I think all of the group ones, like the breakfasts or the dinners or whatever, where everyone’s listening or everyone’s kind of involved, Emerald will sometimes just let it go and see what comes. Everyone’s just total pros, so I was just having a great time.

What is something you appreciate about Emerald as an actors’ director that helped you here and you hope to see in more directors you work with in the future?

OLIVER: She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever, ever met and she knows exactly the kind of films that she wants to make, but she’s obviously coming from characters’ perspectives as well and is sensitive to acting and the difficulties of that as well. She’s someone that really is with you every step of the way and is so approachable and available all of the time and creates such a playful, warm, and collaborative environment where everyone feels included.

And also, just speaking to Emerald generally, she has this insane film archive in her head, and literary archive. She’s one of those people that has a reference for everything. I think what she does so amazingly in her films – I think she did it in Promising Young Woman and with this – is her understanding of genre and how she’ll present you with a certain kind of genre that you recognize, start with that and then be able to totally flip it on its head and use that tool to kind of then do her own thing with it. So she’s just so skilled and extraordinary, but also is your friend and is really just there with you and having the crack with you. I just couldn’t speak higher of her.

She’s a genre-bending master, but I also want to see her do a full-fledged horror movie so badly.

OLIVER: Oh my gosh, that’d be amazing! Her understanding of horror is – she’s incredible.

Looking for more Saltburn talk? Catch my interview with Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan below:

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