How Normal People Does Sex So Good

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Connell and Marianne in Hulu's Normal People.
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Connell and Marianne. Photo: Enda Bowe/Hulu

There’s a sex scene in the second episode of Normal People that lasts nine minutes and 24 seconds — or, put another way, a third of the entire episode. It begins with Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), our endearingly awkward heroine, haphazardly applying eyeliner, then wiping it off in frustration before pulling on a blazer and walking nervously over to Connell’s (Paul Mescal) house. The two, who’ve known each other for years but just confessed to a mutual attraction, know what’s about to happen, but neither knows exactly how it’s going to happen, and the buildup is deliciously uncomfortable. “Can I, uh, get you a drink?” asks Connell as they stand in his front hallway. Marianne laughs. “Uh, yeah,” she says.

The two make embarrassing teenage small talk as they build up the courage to make moves. “You have a lot of posters,” remarks Marianne as she sits on Connell’s bed, alone. Connell faces her, legs spread, in a desk chair as they discuss their respective social statuses: Marianne, an outcast, thinks people find her “annoying”; Connell, a popular jock, says that he “doesn’t have a clue” what he’s doing most of the time. What they’re really asking: But do you like me? Am I lovable? Marianne looks Connell directly in the eyes. “What about now?” she asks shakily. He stands up, cups her face, and kisses her. “Now can we take our clothes off?” she asks, with the sweet impatience of someone who’s been imagining a moment for a very long time. Connell laughs and says that yes, they can.

As they move toward Connell’s bed, their mood and rhythms change on a second-by-second level: Marianne’s bra gets stuck over her head, and both giggle. She stops mid-kiss to ask Connell if he “does this a lot,” and why he’s chosen her over the “plenty of prettier girls in school who like you.” He demurs, telling her, “If anything, you seduced me.” They laugh as they separately pull off their underwear, pause to stare in joyful disbelief at each others’ naked bodies. As they start to touch each other, they both stop to ask, “Is that okay? Is that good?” They grab a condom. Connell asks if it’s Marianne’s first time, and when she says it is, he doesn’t miss a beat, telling her, “If you want to stop, it won’t be awkward — just say.” And then, with the camera just inches from their faces, they lie down on Connell’s little plaid bed and have the sort of frank, authentic first-time sex that’s rarely seen on TV: shot through with a believable level of eroticism, but also a little bit of pain on Marianne’s end.

The scene is one of ten over the course of the series, most of which take place over the course of Marianne and Connell’s college years, and all of which share similar qualities: They’re realistic but surprisingly graphic, raw and genuinely sexy, never pornographic but quite explicit, and never too “clean” or overly cinematic. Each sex scene feeds the plot, lurching the characters dramatically in a new direction or stopping them in their tracks, intensifying their intimacy or wrenching them slowly apart. Each plausibly conveys an emotional journey as well as a physical one, and demonstrates healthy boundaries and consent without feeling didactic or like an after-school special. And each is unequivocally hot (except for when they’re not, on purpose — but we’ll get into that). In other words, Normal People has managed to do the seemingly impossible: convey good sex as it actually happens in real life, not good sex as it happens onscreen.

A lot of that can be credited to Ita O’Brien, the show’s intimacy coordinator, who worked with Edgar-Jones, Mescal, and directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald to create a space where the actors could feel comfortable while having fake sex in front of a crew and, eventually, an audience of millions. O’Brien, who’s been working in movement and movement direction for more than a decade, began coordinating intimacy specifically a few years ago when, as she puts it, “after Weinstein, the codes of conduct shifted within the industry, and everyone said, ‘Yes, what we’re doing isn’t suitable. We have to work in a better way.’” She describes her job as “creating a structure to allow the actor to bring their skill of acting to the intimate content, just like anything else.”

O’Brien kicked off the process of structuring the show’s intimate scenes quite early on. As the actors remember it, they’d only known each other for three or four days when O’Brien asked them to participate in an ice-breaking movement workshop. Mescal, 24, and Edgar-Jones, 21, remember the workshops as slightly mortifying. “We had to do a physical warm-up where we would inhabit animals, which is incredibly useful for the work, but my embarrassment threshold is quite low,” says Mescal. “I’m doing this in front of somebody who I was going to be working with for the next five months. I didn’t want Daisy to judge me or think that I was borderline insane.” Edgar-Jones laughs. “I was bent over because I was trying not to look at you.”

But both agree that the warm-ups were essential for creating a lighter mood and a deep sense of mutual trust that they kept up over the months of shooting. “Filming [sex scenes], you have to be able to have a giggle because it’s a strange situation to be in. You’re friends with all the crew. We’re all having lunch together. So you have to be able to laugh. And Ita just created an environment that was pressure-free,” Edgar-Jones says.

It’s not sex, but still. Photo: Enda Bowe/Hulu

When considering what the sex scenes might look like, O’Brien took her initial cues from Rooney, who co-wrote the script with playwrights Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. “There was such a clear charting of the progression of their intimacy, and also the quality of the intimacy, both in the scenes with Marianne and Connell, and then the scenes with the other people they had sex with,” she says. Sometimes the script’s stage directions would be explicit, but sometimes they’d be more vague, something like, “They make love.” In those murkier cases, O’Brien would sit down and discuss the scenes with Abrahamson, Macdonald, Edgar-Jones, and Mescal to find the answer to an essential question: “What shape might this lovemaking take?”

Abrahamson in particular knew exactly how he wanted the scenes to look and feel. He showed O’Brien the photographs of Nan Goldin as a sort of mood board, explaining that he wanted the scenes to feel “unglamorous, just natural and normal, with open nakedness.” He meant that both literally and figuratively: As Mescal puts it, Abrahamson “didn’t want them to feel different from a dialogue scene.” And then, of course, he wanted actual nudity, too, to make their relationship feel authentic. “Lenny spoke about the palette of nakedness,” says O’Brien. “Things like, when you come out of the shower, to not feel that you’ve got to hide — just take the towel off and naturally get dressed. Postcoitally, he wanted them to just naturally be lying there.”

Later in the series, when Marianne and Connell are more comfortable together and established as a couple, Mescal appears postcoital and fully nude with a flaccid penis; he laughs remembering how Abrahamson was “so nervous” about bringing up the nudity during his chemistry read with Edgar-Jones. “He was like, ‘Now you know, Paul, as you’ve seen in the book, we’re requiring and asking you for a full-frontal nudity clause,’” Mescal recalls. “I was totally surprised by the fact that there would be any other way of doing it. If you’re going to do the book correctly, I think that’s required.”

Both actors were thrilled but a little bit frightened by the volume and raw nature of the scenes. “Initially, when I read the scenes, I was really excited by them because they weren’t sex scenes that I had seen onscreen,” says Mescal. “And the prospect of bringing something to the screen that I felt was representative of the reality of young people in love having sex was really exciting to me.” He was admittedly wary, though, of the idea that his naked body would be forever immortalized on the internet. “That is going to be out there forever,” he says. “But then to know that the process was going to be in place with Ita and Lenny and Hettie, I felt totally safe and bolstered.”

When it came time to begin shooting the sex scenes, O’Brien wanted to ease the actors in with something low-key. But Abrahamson requested a different scene, where, after Marianne and Connell have been sleeping together for a while, Marianne sits on top of Connell and bites his ear. O’Brien describes it as “full-on intercourse with quite passionate content.” Looking back, she says Abrahamson was “absolutely right” to kick things off that way. “The whole point was that the [actors] could see it was about serving character and storytelling, and choreographing the intimate content in a sort of body dance, just like any other dance,” she says.

Before shooting that first scene, and every sex scene thereafter, O’Brien and the actors would plan out the movements beat by beat, fully clothed, leaving just a little bit of room for improvisation. “By the end of that they’re already going, ‘Oh, phew, I know how it’s going to be done.’ It takes away the fear around it. It makes it professional,” says O’Brien.

“Ita creates a very clear boundary, so there’s never any gray area as to what either of us are comfortable with,” says Edgar-Jones. “She creates an environment, and so did Lenny and all of the crew, that allows for us as young actors — who probably are wanting to please — to have some form of control. If we didn’t want to do anything, we were never ever made to do anything. We always felt that we had the right to say, ‘Ah, I’m not keen on that.’”

O’Brien even went so far as to create safe words for the actors — Wakanda and Guinness — as well as specific instructions for how Edgar-Jones could change the logistics of certain scenes if she was on her period, but all three say they never had to use these safeguards. And within those very clear boundaries, Edgar-Jones and Mescal felt the freedom to play around. “When that process is steadfast, you can really lean into the characters’ passion for each other because you’re not worried about the physical blocking anymore,” says Mescal.

Connell and Marianne, feeling sad because they’re not having sex. Photo: Enda Bowe/Hulu

It helped, too, that Edgar-Jones and Mescal were fundamentally incapable of confusing their onscreen intimacy with real sex. “There’s massive physical differences between sex in reality versus onscreen,” laughs Mescal, recalling how he would “hold his weight” whenever he was on top of Edgar-Jones in a scene. “For those long takes, I remember being fully locked out above Daisy. Lenny and Hettie would be feeding us notes while you’d be holding yourself there for about three or four minutes, shaking. And really sweating.”

Rarely did a sex scene go by without at least one of the two actors dissolving into laughter. “Ita let us let off the steam that we needed to by having a giggle, because it is a bit hysterical sometimes,” says Edgar-Jones. “I would just love for people to see the outtakes,” adds Mescal. “We’re in the throes of passion and our faces are about a millimeter apart, and then a note comes in, and we both immediately kick out of character.”

O’Brien also had to make sure there was no actual sexual contact between the two while still conveying a believable sexual experience. “Never do their genitalia touch, so Paul would be wearing a genitalia pouch, and Daisy will have a genitalia covering, but also possibly a flesh-colored G-string or flesh-colored shorts,” she says. “You never want to have pubic bone to pubic bone. You might have thigh into thigh, or a hand to a leg instead.”

As Marianne and Connell, Edgar-Jones and Mescal’s near-supernatural chemistry is made all the more obvious when their characters break up and have shittier sex with other people. O’Brien says just as much planning went into conveying the bad sex as the good. “We talk about a missed rhythm, a disconnect with the gaze. We talk about how important the gaze is between Marianne and Connell, and then we mismatch.” Edgar-Jones says she delighted in the challenge of conveying a bad lay. “Those scenes were always so funny,” says Edgar-Jones. “On the call sheet, it’s like, ‘Marianne has average sex.’ It’s quite fun to act like someone who is just a bit disinterested in it.”

Later in the series, a deeply depressed Marianne engages in an S&M relationship with a Swedish photographer. While it’s not entirely clear in Rooney’s novel whether the relationship is consensual, O’Brien says she and Macdonald discussed the scenes at length and determined that Marianne was a willing participant. “That was something that Hettie was really clear about — that while those scenes were fetish and went to a certain place, they were consensual, and there was a code and an end to that role-play,” O’Brien says. “The focus really is on how Marianne is feeling about herself, and then the quality of the intimate content reflects that. But the dynamics with all those partners are consensual, and it’s a fetish and an agreement of that fetish exploration, as opposed to being abusive.”

Marianne eventually carries that dynamic to Connell, during a sex scene where she asks him to hit her mid-coitus and he pulls out, stunned by her request. O’Brien remembers “really clearly charting” the beats of that scene with Edgar-Jones and Mescal, working to convey the release they feel in finally coming together again, then contrasting that with the shock Connell feels when Marianne “steps over that line.” O’Brien worked with Mescal to convey that shock directly with his body. “He had to recoil from that and go, ‘No, I can’t go there,’” she says. “He just can’t continue and has to withdraw.” After shooting a particularly intense scene like that, O’Brien says she’d help the actors “wash the character away.” “I’d invite a visualization of standing under a waterfall and cascading it down,” she says. “Sometimes I’d say, ‘Take your shoes and socks off and go and walk on the grass.’ Some people smoke. What’s important is that an actor chooses something that works for them, and it’s a conscious shift. You’re consciously going, I’m letting go of this, and then stepping back to yourself.”

But neither Mescal nor Edgar-Jones seems to have been disturbed by the darker sexual moments they created together. “I actually have so many fond memories of shooting those scenes,” says Mescal. “I think Daisy and I fundamentally really trusted each other throughout. That’s another part of the puzzle. It doesn’t matter how steadfast the process is: If Daisy and I didn’t trust each other, I think it would be a completely different situation.” Edgar-Jones emphatically agrees. “If we were ever to do those kinds of things again, I know exactly how it should be done,” she says. “I would never ever settle for anything less than the way it was handled.”

One of the last scenes that Mescal and Edgar-Jones shot happened to be that very first, nine-minute sex scene. By that point in the shoot, the two were so comfortable with one another that they found themselves “corpsing” — a British term for unintentionally laughing — continuously during the scene. Abrahamson left it all in. “The majority of those scenes are us corpsing in some capacity,” says Edgar-Jones. “Like, when Marianne’s bra gets stuck, we were actually laughing at it.” Mescal shakes his head in faux shame. “You do all the blocking all morning,” he says. “And I was like, ‘I’ve forgotten how to do the clasp!’”

Any sense of eroticism, as always, was completely fabricated. “Connell’s bedroom set was in a school gym with no ventilation, loads of light, and a lot of people crammed in. It was horrible,” says Edgar-Jones. Mescal echoes the sentiment. “Andrew [O’Reilly], our focus puller, he’s quite a sweaty man in general. He’s just one of those people who sweats. I felt so bad for him because that room was abnormally hot for any individual, but he was literally drenched. Absolutely drenched.”

Though the two were in fact sweating profusely, they were also drenched in a cream called Egyptian Magic, which mimics an after-sex glow. “Pointlessly,” deadpans Mescal. “Apparently, it’s a really great moisturizer,” says Edgar-Jones, laughing. “Would recommend. We had very soft skin by the end of the project.”

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How Normal People Does Sex So Good