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Playing the other woman

Aoife Hinds told David Hennessy about playing Helen, the girlfriend who could not quite compete for Connell’s heart in Normal People, about those sex scenes and the show’s extremely positive response.

“I have a couple of friends who are actually from Sligo and they’re back there now and they were telling me that there have been some strong reactions,” Normal People actress Aoife Hinds says of the outrage directed to the show.

The show has been praised for its depiction of sex, taking the care to show consent is sought and given and also a condom is used.

However, the sex scenes have been too much for some with people complaining to RTE. One caller compared it to pornography. Another said actress Daisy Edgar-Jones had been exploited.

“I think the show has been praised for their portrayal of sex and how it’s kind of revolutionised the way that sex scenes are done.


“Ultimately if you do watch it, you can’t really see a naked actor. You see these characters who are in this situation where they are naked but it’s more about the connection between the two people and the intimacy that they share.

“The narrative of the sex scene is different and it really contributes to portraying in an open, honest, real way.

“Maybe it could forward the evolution of people’s ideas of sex. Some of these old fashioned ideas are so ingrained in some people that it’s very hard for them to get onboard which is a shame but I like to think that it could change some people’s ideas. But I don’t know.”

Liveline callers described the show as “something you expect to see in a porno movie” and “promoting fornication.”

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Aoife says: “Different generations are going to react to things in different ways.

“It’s a shame that some people can’t get on board but the majority of people seem to really enjoy it and praise not only the show but also the portrayal of sex in it which has rarely been shown in such a way.

“That’s what you need to focus on, there are always people who are going to have different ideas and not approve of certain things. That shouldn’t get in the way of things too much.”

Aoife says she was comfortable at all times.

“We worked with this intimacy director and in the scene that me and Paul did, I felt completely safe and trusting. There’s a whole protocol now that you go through to make sure you’re protected and to make sure that you feel safe, make sure that you know that if you don’t feel comfortable about things, you can say it.

“You’ve got a safe word, all these things just to make sure you can focus on the emotional side of it because sex scenes can be quite daunting.

“Actually you kind of forget about it, it just makes your job easier. It makes you as an actor do your job better because you’re not worrying about all that stuff. It was definitely a good experience and very well handled.”

The show has been a runaway success with record numbers of people streaming and downloading the 12 part series from BBC iPlayer.

“Because the book that Sally Rooney wrote had already been such a big success and had a big following, we kind of knew that people were going to watch it but what’s been so brilliant and lovely is that it’s been so well received.

“Working on it, I think there was definitely a sense of being part of something quite special.

“I know people can get nervous about portraying a character from a book and obviously people will have expectations of how that character is but it seems that everyone has really responded to it and given it their stamp of approval which is amazing. That’s all you can really ask for as an actor, just that it resonates with people as much as the book did.”

Aoife’s character Helen becomes Connell’s girlfriend after he has broken up with Marianne due to a misunderstanding. Although they have a good relationship, she is jealous of his secondary school lover, knowing she can’t compete with the connection they have.

“Obviously the central relationship is so dear to the reader and you’re really rooting for them the whole time. The kind of relationship Helen has with Connell, I think the idea for me is that their relationship is quite easy.

“She is quite a lovely person. It doesn’t work out but I thought that would make Connell and Marianne’s friendship even stronger, the fact that there is this girl who he has a lovely relationship with. But ultimately the draw to Marianne is so unique and special that it doesn’t work out for them but I definitely felt that sense it had to be a really lovely character.”

As lovely as Helen is, she was doomed in any relationship with Connell by the simple fact that she is not Marianne?

“That’s it. That’ exactly it. In life you can’t really put your finger on why someone makes you feel in a certain way and no matter how lovely another person you’re with is, it just doesn’t quite match.

“I think that’s also what is at the centre of Marianne and Connell’s relationship and they keep saying it, ‘It’s not like this with other people’. It is a truly unique bond that they have.”

Aoife acted her scenes with Paul Mescal who is now being talked about as a James Bond of the future and a sex symbol of the present.

How was it working with him? “It was lovely. He’s hugely talented. When you get to work with another actor who is so talented, it makes your job easier. You play together and you go off what the other person is giving you and he’s such a lovely guy and deserves all the praise and success that he’s getting now because I think he and Daisy are just sublime in it.”

Would he be comfortable with the sex symbol label? “It’s daunting being suddenly labelled as something or other because you yourself haven’t changed. It’s just the kind of label that the world puts on you and you don’t really have any control over that. As much as it can be flattering, sometimes it can be a bit daunting and you would never regard yourself in that way. It’s quite funny that it’s blown up in that way.”

Aoife’s character was only seen on screen with Marianne at the funeral of one of Connell’s friends, an event that spelt the end of her relationship with Connell. Despite their lack of screen time together, she says Daisy Edgar-Jones was hugely welcoming.

“Even though we only had one scene together, we did become really good friends. I came in at the second block and straight away she was like, ‘Oh yes, we’ll go for dinner’. We created that relationship even though on screen we don’t have that much to do together. She is just the loveliest person and so funny and extremely talented.

“It’s wonderful that people have really recognised how brilliant she is and of course that Irish accent which is flawlees. People don’t actually realise that she has an English accent naturally. Her mother is from Northern Ireland so I think she has always has had Irish sounds in her ear.”

Aoife also has one parent from Northern Ireland. Although raised in London she has already done Irish accents in Normal People and prior to that, Derry Girls.

“We’ve seen so many dodgy accents in the past and bless the actor who’s doing it but it can take you out of a performance if the accent isn’t done right. She really nails it. The accent is brilliant but it’s also what goes with the accent and what that accent tells you about Marianne, what that can tell you about a character the way they speak.”

Aoife Hinds acts in i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) with Tuyen Do who played her mother in the background. Credit: Fran Cattaneo

Aoife’s father is well known actor Ciaran Hinds while her mother is French-Vietnamese actress Helene Patarot. Aoife has told us before about encountering casual racism in Ireland, being looked at like she doesn’t belong due to her ethnic mix.

Normal People include among the cast a number of minority characters and their ethnicity is not mentioned to make them some sort of token or add anything to the storyline.

“It’s great that more and more all people are being represented on screen. Some people might think, ‘I didn’t see that character that way, I saw that character being blonde’. I don’t know but at the end of the day, people can choose to focus on that physical aspect and nothing else. It does represent Ireland and it’s great.

“Cultures have always been coming together. It’s always been happening and it’s taken some time for it to slowly start being portrayed on screen and hopefully this is the beginning and there will be more and more of telling those stories. I’d love to see more leading parts played by actors from ethnic minorities, i hope that it will build and go from strength to strength.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has halted production on all TV and film sets.

“We don’t know what the future holds for TV and films but thank God it was all done and dusted before this madness came into our lives.

“As we have seen, during lockdown everyone’s been turning to TV and film and stage shows being streamed. People need it. There will always be drama. Hopefully it will come back sooner rather than later.”

Aoife starred in i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) at the Bunker Theatre before Christmas.

“I loved that. I was actually talking to Tuyen, the actress who played my mother in it, saying, ‘Can you imagine we were onstage in November with an audience and who knows when that is going to be possible again? It really does seem like a lifetime ago.”

Her father got to see her in this play and told us before Christmas that it made him proud.

“That was really lovely because it was the first time he had seen me. When I did my shows at drama school, he was always working so he never got to see them so it was great that he was able to see this one and he was really proud.”

Normal People is on BBC One on Mondays, all epiosdes available on BBC iPlayer.

Check out our interview with Lenny Abrahamson here.

Check out our interview with Normal People’s lead actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones here.

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