Normal People stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal have found themselves in a strange limbo. Both relative newcomers to the industry — Mescal, 24, has done several stage productions in his native Ireland, while the English Edgar-Jones, 21, has a handful of TV credits to her name — they were cast last year as Marianne and Connell, the leads in the BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s wildly popular novel, then quickly headed off to Dublin, Sligo, and Italy for a whirlwind five months of filming. This week, Normal People premiered internationally to a slew of positive reviews. In a normal world, Mescal and Edgar-Jones would be experiencing a Twilight-esque fame level-up; in this one, both are stuck in their respective homes, lives almost entirely unchanged, save for a few cross-continental Zoom interviews.
The surreal nature of their situation hasn’t escaped them. Both say it’s incredibly weird to go from being almost entirely unknown to scrolling through Twitter, for example, and finding themselves confronted with an onslaught of thirsty tweets. “You’re in your front room, and you’re in such a familiar kind of setting — your house — and then you go on your phone and it’s like, all this stuff is happening,” laughs Edgar-Jones. “It’s very hard to compute that it is actually happening. Especially because I can’t even go and see my mom and dad and talk about it properly. It’s odd.”
But the thirst is understandable: Normal People, co-directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, is a sexy, angsty romance about a tortured first love between intellectual high schoolers on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Marianne is a rich, outspoken outcast who’s mocked by the cool kids; Connell, whose mother cleans Marianne’s house, is an easygoing jock shot through with an endearing insecurity. After the two confess their attraction to each other, they fall into a secret quasi-relationship, having incredible sex on the low as Connell slowly breaks Marianne’s heart. But their affair doesn’t end there: The series, which is an extremely faithful adaptation of the book, follows them over the next four years as they meet up in college, where their social and mental-health dynamics morph, and where they continue to navigate the minefield of their powerful, tormented chemistry.
A few days before the U.S. premiere of Normal People, I hopped on Zoom with Mescal and Edgar-Jones to talk about filming the series, how they felt shooting dozens of extremely intimate sex scenes, if they’re just as frustrated as me about their characters’ inability to get their shit together romantically, and whether or not their real-life relationship mimics the one they created so believably onscreen.
We can hang for a minute while we wait for Paul.
Daisy Edgar-Jones: I’m just messing with my fringe. Just before Christmas last year, I hadn’t got a job in a wee while, and then I got my fringe. Then a week later I got the job, so I was like, Oh, maybe that’s the only thing that’s getting me employed.
It’s a good look!
DEJ: It does work quite well for aging me in the show. I have a very tiny fringe for early Marianne, and then it gets really long later.
I did want to ask you about the aging and how they subtly made you look different over the course of four years. What sort of fashion and makeup changes did you undergo?
DEJ: I know, it’s amazing. Early Marianne, it would be just concealer. I would get blush all the way up — you know when you’re young and you kind of blush a lot. For later Marianne, it was the eyeliner and the eye shadow and a bit more fun. And then later later Marianne, when she stops projecting this image of herself, it was more pared back, just with mascara just to make me look a bit older.
When was the last time that you saw Paul?
DEJ: In person, it was a photo shoot for The Observer. That was like four or five weeks ago. It’s a bit mad.
How has it been to promote your first big project right now?
DEJ: It does feel a little bit strange to be talking about Normal People while this is happening to the world. All I can think about is the coronavirus. Though it’s quite nice, I guess, to have a distraction, because it’s quite a nice show. Even though it does go to quite dark places, on the whole it’s quite lively. I think that’s the kind of TV that we’re after at the minute. I can’t handle anything too heavy or dark because I’m just anxious.
[Paul Mescal enters the Zoom holding a mug, sitting on his couch.]
Hi, Paul. Daisy was just talking about how it feels strange to talk about Normal People with everything that’s happening in the world. But I was about to say that I think people need art and distraction right now.
PM: Totally. It does feel … futile isn’t the word. But people do need some degree of respite from it. Hopefully this will give them that.
It did for me! You two have such strong chemistry in the show. Was it like that when you first auditioned? What do you remember about meeting each other?
PM: I had done one day of chemistry tests and then Daisy came in and she absolutely smashed it. She was just absolutely brilliant.
When you went in, Daisy, were you thinking, I have to create a connection with this person instantly?
DEJ: For that chemistry test in particular, there was no kind of preamble chat beforehand. We literally went straight into scenes. For most actors, that’s the worst bit — when you have to go in, have that pre-chat, and then have to be doing intense scenes. Lenny [Abrahamson] creates a great audition room because it feels like it’s workshopping something, rather than trying to pass a test.
Do you remember your first non-audition conversation?
DEJ: Paul was so nice because he had been cast and I was down to the final five. I think he’d had loads of chemistry reads. I’d flown from London, but I was not seen until second to last, so there was a lot of waiting around, psyching myself out and whatnot. Paul, you went for a cigarette, didn’t you? And I just strung together some words. I had no banter at all because I was so nervous. I have no idea what we talked about.
PM: Absolute blur.
DEJ: [Imitating herself] “Love the character!”
PM: Probably very polite. It would be very on-brand. What was it? Do you remember?
DEJ: I remember after my audition you came and sat and I said, “Oh my gosh, how do you feel about being cast?” Do you remember?
PM: We had done the chemistry test and you were waiting for a taxi or something to go to the airport. I remember saying to Lenny up in the room, “Lenny, please tell me tomorrow who’s going to be playing Marianne.” He was like, “Okay, I promise I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Because in my head, I was like, Daisy is going to get it. When I saw you downstairs, I really wanted to say, “I think you’re going to get it.” I wanted to put your nerves at ease and be like, “In my opinion, you did the best.” But that would have been such an awful thing to do. And then Lenny didn’t tell me straightaway [the next day]. He was like, “The offer has gone out to the agent so I can’t tell you.” But then he was like, “Just out of curiosity, who do you think we’re going to cast?” And I was like, “I think it’s going to go to Daisy.” And he was like, “Okay, yeah, but you can’t tell anyone.”
DEJ: [Laughs.] I sat at home by the phone just waiting for it to ring.
Did you have a sense that your lives would change in this massive way?
DEJ: I don’t think so. It’s strange, even now it’s odd seeing people talk about Paul and I. It’s something I’m getting used to. You’re being talked about, but you’re like, “I’m reading this. I can see what you’re saying.” Stuff like that is a bit odd.
PM: My friends at home are going mad and they’re showing me all the tweets. People don’t realize that it will probably come back to me and Daisy. It’s this weird thing. Suddenly if you’re in a show that has been reviewed quite well, as this one has, [people think] that we are immune to feeling bad if there’s a bad tweet. Ultimately I was just like, Oh, people are a little bit crazy on Twitter.
DEJ: I’ve never liked Twitter. I’m staying off of it on the whole, I think. Usually the [reviews] I do read properly are the ones my mom and dad sent me, because I know they’re going to have filtered out the negative, but I actually find that reading that stuff has made me feel a bit anxious. I think I’m going to be blissfully unaware. I’m proud of the job we’ve done. I’m proud of the show. Nothing else matters, really. You can’t control how people are going to feel. If they’re not going to like it, they’re not going to like it. But I’d rather just them not like it, and me be happy.
Let’s go back to the early days of this process. There is quite a lot of sex on the show. What were your initial thoughts when reading those scenes?
DEJ: I was obviously a bit trepidatious. We hadn’t done any of that stuff before. It’s a very foreign thing, especially as a newcomer, but I really felt safe in the way Lenny wanted to handle them. He didn’t want them to feel different from a dialogue scene. And we had [intimacy coordinator] Ita O’Brien to help us through it. I always felt that we were in very safe hands with them.
PM: Initially when I read the scenes, I was really excited because they weren’t sex scenes that I had seen onscreen. 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. I felt like it warranted the nudity, and I felt safe in the context of what the scenes were going to portray. That excitement then turns to trepidation when you realize that it is going to require nudity and intimacy that is going to be out there forever. It’s not like it’s onstage — stuff that you commit to film is going to be out there forever.
At what point did they bring up the nudity?
DEJ: It was when I went for my chemistry read. My agent was like, “Just so you know, this is a part of the character.” But I’d read the book at that point, and I really loved Lenny’s work, so I knew that his decision was always something that had reasoning behind it.
PM: I remember Lenny sitting me down during the chemistry reads. I could just see he was so nervous about approaching the subject. I think that’s such an indication that nudity, to him, was never going to be something that he would use cheaply. He was like, “Paul, as you’ve seen in the book, we’re requiring and asking you for a full-frontal-nudity clause.” I was totally surprised that there would be any other way of doing it. If you’re going to do the book correctly, I think that’s required. But I just thought it was funny how nervous he was.
One of your first sex scenes happens in the second episode, and it lasts almost ten minutes. What do you remember about filming it?
DEJ: That was fun because most of that scene is actually a dialogue scene. It’s so funny seeing two characters make light conversation when they both fully know why they’re in each other’s presence. I just love the awkwardness when Marianne comes in and he’s like, “Tea?” And she’s like, “Yeah.”
PM: That was actually us corpsing.
DEJ: The majority of those scenes are us corpsing in some capacity. Like, when Marianne’s bra gets stuck, we were actually laughing at it.
PM: That was the very first take. You do all the blocking all morning and you’re like, “This is the moment that Connell takes off Marianne’s bra.” And I was like, “I’ve forgotten how to do the clasp!”
DEJ: It’s so fun when you’re given space as an actor to have a laugh. We were filming in Connell’s bedroom, but the set was in a school gym. There was no ventilation or anything. That’s a lot of people crammed into that room. It was hot.
PM: It was so hot.
DEJ: It was horrible.
PM: Andrew [O’Reilly], our focus puller, he’s quite a sweaty man. 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. It was so funny.
You also had to wear fake sweat, right?
PM: [Laughs.] Pointlessly.
DEJ: Egyptian Magic! The smell of that stuff. It’s a really great moisturizer though. Would recommend it. We had very soft skin by the end of the project.
How involved was Sally in developing your onscreen dynamic? I read that she gave you a playlist for your characters.
DEJ: We were creepy and found it on Spotify.
PM: I literally did, full-on. Kind of like stalking someone’s Instagram. I hunted down Sally Rooney’s Spotify, and then when I met Daisy, I told her that she had two separate playlists for Connell and Marianne.
Did you tell her that you found them?
PM: I did, yeah. I got over the shame of it.
What did she say?
PM: She was just like, “Oh, great!”
So much of what goes on between your characters is unspoken. They’re afraid to be straightforward with each other, and as a viewer you’re like, “Come on! Just talk.” How did you interpret that mutual fear?
DEJ: It’s really helpful that both characters have such deep inner lives written in the novel. You know that when they’re coming to a scene with each other, there’s so much going on in their minds because the book is just reams and reams of their inner dialogue. And you don’t just know the way your character views themself — you also have the way the other character views them, so you know how your character comes across to other people. For example, it would always say that Connell thought Marianne’s eyes would burn into the back of his head. So I was like, Right, so she uses a lot of eye contact.
Was it frustrating to you that they just couldn’t get their shit together?
DEJ: We’d come to scenes sometimes and be like, “Uh …” We’d be reading them like, “My God, can you just talk properly?”
PM: And we’d argue about who was right and who was wrong.
What do you think it is about them? Why can’t they make it work?
DEJ: For Marianne, I think she has a very low view of herself. She has this difficult family life. It’s made her feel that she is this ultimately cold, unlovable person, and therefore she seeks relationships that confirm that. When she’s first with Connell, that’s why maybe she says that it’s fine to keep it secret — because she believes that he would find her embarrassing to be associated with. Through their relationship with each other, and also growing up, Marianne, from my perspective, comes to terms with being okay with who she is and stops feeling unworthy of love.
PM: I think that ultimately Connell is the person who causes the relationship to stop at various points. He is obsessed with Marianne. He’s obsessed with the way that she thinks and acts. There’s an almost alienlike quality to her in his eyes. But he’s wrapped up with this insecurity. What I love about the novel is that Sally doesn’t give you a reason for him to be insecure. He’s good at school, he’s sporty, he’s a very talented individual, but that doesn’t make him any less insecure. And those insecurities get in the way of the thing that he loves most. That’s the battle for him: finding a way to be braver in the world and to articulate his feelings about the person that he loves. I think Marianne is an angel and is incredibly accommodating to those insecurities. When they meet [at Trinity College], she could absolutely blank him and ignore him, but she is angelic. She welcomes him in and allows him a second chance. I think that totally testifies to the connection that they have. It’s able to survive Connell’s misgivings.
When you said that Marianne is angelic, I saw Daisy smile. You guys were inside of these characters every day for months. In your real-life friendship, did you find yourself falling into your character dynamics?
DEJ: It’s actually completely different. Paul and I don’t take ourselves seriously at all, and Marianne and Connell have quite deep, intense conversations. There’s lots about our characters that are similar to us, but on the whole, you’re acting.
PM: We found solace in each other. There were days that we would both come in like, “I’m exhausted.” We would share the burden of the pressure. The more you get to know somebody personally, the prouder you feel when you’re seeing them produce the work. When you’re watching Daisy step into Marianne, it’s an incredibly uplifting thing because you’re watching one of your best friends deliver in such a pressurized environment.
How did you shake off the intensity? Would you go out after work?
DEJ: We were so knackered, weren’t we? We’d go out on the weekends and stuff.
PM: I’d be like, “We’re going out. We’re going to have fun.” Cut to like two or three drinks in, I was like, “Okay, I’m going home.”
DEJ: Irish good-bye.
PM: When you’re playing the character for four or five months … I’m not going to sit here and say that I became depressed playing Connell. You experience his depression for the duration of the shooting day. The next day you could be shooting one of their joyous moments. The pace of filming helps me not to linger on the sadness or the euphoria of it.
The show feels very real in terms of capturing how it feels when young people fall in love. How much of your own experience with falling in love did you bring to it?
DEJ: It takes you right back to the feeling when you have this connection with someone, and you’re in a room together, and you’re really hyperaware of everything they do. When Marianne starts to dress up because she thinks, Maybe I am beautiful and can be loved and can be accepted, that’s something that I related to. When you’re falling in love for the first time, you feel like you could do anything. You just feel like you could conquer the world.
PM: When reading the book you kind of go, Oh, Sally is writing about me! She has an incredible ability to make you feel like she’s writing specifically about you. But I think the difference is that, certainly the first time I fell in love, I didn’t feel that I had to keep the relationship private. I found that frustrating.
Were there any particularly difficult scenes to film?
DEJ: I found the scenes when they’re not together quite tricky. It’s like they’re missing a limb. They’re their best selves when they’re together.
PM: The counselor scene [where Connell breaks down crying] was one that I really wanted to get right because it’s a really important theme in the book, mental health and depression. It’s really well documented by Sally. And then, the scene where he tells Marianne that he’s invited Rachel to the Debs. He’s trying to normalize it, and he just knows he’s messing it up.
On the flip side, what about a particularly fun scene?
DEJ: We went to a beach in Sligo and we were just frolicking around on sand dunes. We were not good by the end of that week because the crew and the cast all stay in the same hotel, so you all go drinking every night, which you probably shouldn’t. So I had a cold. But it was like we were all on a school trip.
PM: The last day of the shoot, cycling in Italy. Daisy has this way of cycling where it’s just incredibly diligent. Her head stays perfectly still. I couldn’t stop laughing at it. Daisy was slightly nervous if I had to do no hands. I think that’s actually in the final take. I go, “No hands!” and you can see Daisy saying, “Stop doing what you’re doing!” while keeping her head incredibly still and straight.
DEJ: [Laughs.] I don’t know what happens with my head.
What is your take on the ending? How do you feel about it?
PM: I love it. It’s a really uplifting yet sad melancholic, nostalgic, romantic ending. I don’t think it’s overly romantic, yet I find it incredibly romantic.
DEJ: I love that the characters are very much alive. They’re still off living their life and intertwining with each other. It’s really lovely how they love each other that much — they’ve done so much good for one another that they’re able to part and exist without each other. Fundamentally, they are different people because they’ve had each other in their lives.
Do you think they’ll make it work someday?
DEJ: We have arguments about this, don’t we, Paul? I think that they’ll always be in each other’s lives. I guess a little bit of me can’t bear for it to not be in a romantic way. But I’m comforted by the fact that they’ll always be friends. [To Paul] You’re not happy with that.
PM: I’m not happy because they tried the whole friends thing. I totally agree with the fact that there is a world in which they aren’t together, but I don’t think, for example, that Connell or Marianne could sit by and watch the other get happily married. I don’t think that’s feasible. I think it’ll be something that will happen over a period of time — that they will realize that they have to be married and be together forever.
How did it feel to let the characters go?
DEJ: By the end, we were so knackered. Our final day of the full shoot was in Italy, when we were doing the cycling scene. I’d broken my bike but they still needed a shot of me, so Paul was in the car, and they were like, “We’ve still got our three shots left.” So I was like, “It’s not the end; it’s not the end.” And then as I stopped, Paul came out red-faced, blubbing. I was like, “Why are you crying? What happened?” And he was like, “It’s done.” Everyone was crying. We were on this incredible, beautiful landscape. The sun was setting and you could just hear the wails echo across the valley. Then, at the wrap party, we were all so knackered and upset that there was no celebration. We were just like, “It’s ended.”
PM: I was in bed at 11 p.m. on wrap night.
DEJ: You were too fragile and upset.
Paul, what upset you so much?
PM: I had stupidly convinced myself that I was too tired to be upset. I was like, I’m not going to cry. I’m going to be delighted that it’s done and celebrate with everybody. But when I heard, “That’s a wrap on Normal People,” I immediately just started bawling.
How have you guys kept in touch since the shoot?
DEJ: We chat a bit, don’t we, Paul? It’s a shame we can’t watch it together because it would be nice to go out and celebrate. But yeah, we’re just keeping in contact throughout all of this madness. It’s a very surreal thing. We went through the shooting project together and that was a life changer. This feels a bit like that, so it’s nice to have Paul to share it with.
PM: I don’t know if I can speak on your behalf, but I find this part of it slightly daunting. Ultimately, I’m just looking forward to seeing Daisy.