Sally Rooney’s phenomenal Normal People is coming to the screen and its stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones chatted to David Hennessy about playing young lovers Connell and Marianne and the pressures of bringing the work of such a revered and cult novelist to the screen.
Since her debut novel Conversations with Friends hit the shelves in 2017, Castlebar author Sally Rooney has become a literary sensation. The follow-up Normal People cemented her status even more with critical success, awards and celebrity fans such as Taylor Swift, Barrack Obama and Sarah Jessica Parker gushing about how much they relate to it.
Normal People follows Connell and Marianne from their school days through college to the brink of adulthood. Although they go to the same school, they inhabit different worlds of class and popularity. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s family home but while her family is richer than his, Connell has a parent he can actually talk to while Marianne is as alienated from her own family as she is in school. Contrastingly, while Connell is popular and revered in school for his abilities on the soccer field, he has few real friends and in truth is as lonely as Marianne who has no friends and is openly mocked by the ‘in crowd’ that Connell is an uneasy member of.
They begin a relationship that doesn’t survive the end of the school days. However when they run into each other at college again, their roles are revered. While Marianne has found herself and her crowd at college, Connell finds it hard to fit in. They are soon back together again and while they break up and are with other people, they continue to be drawn back together.
The eagerly anticipated adaptation of Normal People is about to hit screens. Partly directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-nominated director of Room, the series is also co-scripted by Sally herself and renowned Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe.
21-year-old Daisy Edgar-Jones from London is known from roles in Cold Feet, Gentleman Jack and War of the Worlds while 24-year-old Paul Mescal, who has played underage football for Kildare, has starred in The Great Gatsby at Dublin’s Gate Theatre and Normal People marks his screen debut.
The stars of the 12 part BBC series (in partnership with Hulu) are aware that expectations are high for the first screen representation of this new cult author.
“I was terrified before we started,” Daisy Edgar-Jones told The Irish World. “Then we started and I forgot about it. Now I’m suddenly like, ‘Oh God’. I think it’s a tricky one because I love reading and I’m always someone who watches the adaptations and I’m always like, ‘Hmm hmm, no, I know that.. I like…’
“She writes in such a special way that everyone falls in love and feels they own the characters and I think that’s what is amazing about Sally’s writing is you feel such a part of their lives.
“I know you’re never going to live up to everyone’s idea but having watched it, I think we’ve done a very good job of capturing the tone at least of the story and I think Lenny is amazing and his way of letting you into someone’s mind as a film-maker is really special.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done but I am also aware that you’re not going to please everyone and it’s going to be heart breaking for some people who might have imagined Marianne blonde or whatever.”
Paul adds: “I find it really scary because I’m not good at it yet in terms of when there’s stuff posted on social media and you can see 100 people being like, ‘Oh they’re exactly what we imagined’. Then one guy just says, ‘Who are these people and why are they playing these characters?’
“I think the fact that both myself and Daisy care what people are going to think is a good sign, it’s also a weird thing being in it but also such a massive fan of the book. It’s just a really difficult place to be when it comes to an audience seeing it.”
Daisy says: “We’ve watched most of it and there’s bits that I watch and go, ‘Gosh, why did I do it like that? That’s not how Marianne would have done it..’ Even I am doing that about my own performance.
“We were really desperate to get the chance to play Marianne and Connell because I think they are quite iconic in the way that they’ve been written. I definitely feel like this is a real big opportunity.”
Both heard about the part in different ways. Part of a young cast onstage in Dublin, Paul saw everyone around him buzzing about possibly being involved: “We were all furiously reading the book side stage, kind of walking around being like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I’m Connell’, ‘I think I’m Marianne’, all this stuff.
“You walk into the audition being like, ‘Oh f**k, I’m gonna be meeting Lenny here’. Walked in and he has this wonderful way of kind of making you forget that you’re auditioning in front of somebody who is so successful and he became very collaborative straight away. We work shopped. It felt very work shoppy and that’s a word that’s thrown around a lot but he was very playful in terms of how he wanted the scene to be played which I thought was interesting considering the book is there as a reference point.
“I think he wanted to see how we engaged together. I was the only boy called back for the first set of chemistry reads but they didn’t give me the part at that point. It was awful. Before the next round of chemistry reads, they put me out of my misery and offered it to me and then I met Daisy and she was amazing and that was it.”
Daisy more overheard about it in her own home: “I had heard about the fact that they were making it into a series because my friend had auditioned for it in my kitchen. My boyfriend self-taped with her and I was kind of listening thinking, ‘That sounds good’.”
At the time she wondered why she was not recording an audition tape herself and weeks later Daisy sent off a rushed audition tape of her own.
“I didn’t have much time to kind of prepare because I was in the middle of a job so I just filmed it at lunchtime and sent it off. Then I read the book and then the stakes were massively high because I loved it so much. Because i was auditioning, it was quite an intense thing to read because I was really imagining myself as the character.
“Then I got a recall and it was in Ireland and it kind of went from a self tape to a chemistry read with Paul and Lenny. I got sent to Ireland and I kind of just had to wait around all day getting increasingly more terrified: Couldn’t eat anything, I was just absolutely bricking it.
“Then I went in and I had my audition and I kind of relaxed straight away because I think Lenny is very good at making a room feel productive and not like we’re being tested which is nice so we ended up just having a really fun audition.
“It’s the worst thing ever because you’re trying not to let your imagination run wild. I try to not let myself get too excited but I couldn’t get it off my mind to be honest.”
Asked if they can see themselves in the characters, Paul answers: “I think very much so. I think that’s why the book has been so popular because I think anybody who reads it, they either recognise themselves when they were younger or their current selves because of the way Sally has written, it’s just very relatable across the board.”
Daisy adds: “I think she writes in such a way that you can kind of find yourself in both characters. I related a lot to Connell, probably more to Connell than Marianne in Connell’s social anxiety, his self-consciousness, his awareness of other people’s opinion of him and his struggle to fit in.
“There were bits about Marianne that I also really related to in her struggle to express who she really is. She puts up a kind of shield and I definitely related to that: Not really knowing who I was in school and finding it hard to become that because i was with the same group of people that I had known since I was 11 and they were always going to view me a certain way. Then going to college and kind of feeling like I could find my people, I definitely related to that.”
Connell and Marianne’s relationship is so complex, the sex scenes were going to be important. The first time they are seen taking things, it is preceded by a conversation that, as awkward, as it may be, shows Connell making sure there is consent there. He can also be seen to use a condom.
Daisy says: “That’s one of my favourite scenes of the whole series. I think it’s brilliant.
“First of all I love the depiction of the awkward small talk before the deed. They’re both in the room, they both know why they’re there, yet they’re making conversation about posters and stuff. I love that because I think It’s really accurate and It’s nice to see a real relationship that’s not incredibly romantic where they’re on this cliff and they kiss and all this stuff. They’re just in his bedroom having a cup of tea which I just love.
“I’m very proud of that scene and it was very important to get that right. I think it’s hopefully healthy for younger people to watch that and realise that’s how it should be. It should be safe and it should be consentual. It should be a conversation that is healthy and positive. We were really lucky intimacy we had a wonderful intimacy co-ordinator. She was kind of in charge of orchestrating all of the sex scenes because obviously they’re a massive part of the book and really important to the show as well so we had lots of conversations and it meant we could relax into just doing the acting part which is always really nice.”
Paul continues: “I think it will be really interesting to see how a younger audience, people who could potentially encounter a similar situation, react. What I really like about it is it’s not, the way Lenny shot it, it’s not sanitised but it’s very gentle and full of love.
“I find it really romantic and sexy at the same time but the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I think what’s great about the way Sally writes it as well is that the scenes in themselves aren’t innately just a sex scene. They’re kind of seismic moments in their relationship and they’re normally punctuated by a moment of intimacy. I think from the outset when I knew I was going to play him, they were scenes obviously I was nervous about but also excited to get right and do in a way that feels honest and current.”
Daisy says: “I had done quite a few smaller parts in TV and as an actor sometimes you feel that you’re almost like a prop, you’re coming on to say the lines, you’re told where to walk and that’s what you do.
“It really felt nice to work with Lenny because he creates an atmosphere where your view on the character is quite important which I had never really experienced.
“It was really nice to have at least a couple of weeks to get to know Paul really know and we could just get to know each other as people first of all which I think is really important to enable us to relax and do those scenes in a way that didn’t feel pressurised or awkward. He really is amazing and just a lovely, normal man. Even though he’s been nominated for an Oscar, he doesn’t make you feel at all like he’s Mr. Authority, he’s very good at making a fun project for everybody.”
21-year-old Daisy grew up in Muswell Hill. Although her mother is from Northern Ireland, she had to perfect the Sligo accent: “It was incredibly important. My mum’s from the North so I’ve always had an Irish accent in my house.
“Obviously it’s quite different in Sligo to where she’s from but it was incredibly important because it’s an Irish story and I wanted to do that well and accurately and I definitely think having family from there I had an idea of the sense of humour and the sensibility.
“It was really good living in Dublin because I immersed myself a bit and I worked on the accent as much as I could. I listened a lot to Sally Rooney interviews because I thought her accent was quite good because she has a very measured way of speaking. She’s very intelligent obviously and I thought that was quite good to try and incorporate that into Marianne’s voice.
“But Lenny was also very helpful because he had a very detailed idea of what he thought Marianne’s voice should be like. He didn’t want her to be too strong in her accent because I think he felt that obviously Marianne comes from a wealthy family and I think he wanted her to stand out in the way of her voice be different. He wanted Marianne to kind of have a slightly posher accent, he used to tell me to Anglicise it a little bit so it was really helpful.
“It was incredibly important because I’ve watched things before where the accent isn’t right and it’s very hard, it takes you completely out of it and I didn’t want to do that.
“There was also a lot of asking Paul about what the leaving cert is. I still can’t get my head around third year, fourth year instead of year 11, year 12.. My mum always talks about, ‘When I was in third year..’ And I’m like, ‘I have no idea what that is..’, still not got a clue.”
Normal People deals with themes of mental health with Connell seeing a counsellor at one point as he struggles with anxiety.
Paul says: “Those themes aren’t explored in isolation, they’re explored over a period of four or five years. From Connell’s perspective in particular you see how his social anxieties at the start kind of manifests itself into a bigger problem in terms of what I would describe as chronic depression.
“He’s definitely suicidal at certain parts of the book. I find it very difficult to isolate the themes in terms of one by one because I think they all kind of come together at different parts of the book.”
Daisy enjoyed playing Marianne who liked to act aloof and arrogant as a counter to being something of a pariah: “My favourite part of Marianne to explore was certainly the school time. I don’t know, I think there’s something really interesting about her relationship with the social ladder and how she navigates that at school.
“But I really enjoyed school because I really liked the way that Marianne observes the social structure, she talks about how there is a ladder and sometimes she feels like she’s on it just very far down and then sometimes she feels like she’s not even involved in it and can just watch it from the outside. I related to that feeling of being aware of your place in school society or the social hierarchy system.
“I’m quite different from Marianne, I wanted to fit in and I did care about what people thought of me whereas I think Marianne doesn’t really which is quite refreshing. I enjoyed that part of Marianne.
“It’s really interesting exploring someone grow over four years because we change so massively in that time, from 17 to 22 is a massive period of growth and I think it was really interesting to explore both their interweaving relationship and their interweaving relationships with themselves.
“They are lonely at times and I think that’s what’s really interesting. Even when they’re surrounded by people, they are quite internal thinkers and I definitely relate to that feeling of being in a big group of people but feeling like I’m only in my own head and I can’t quite be in the room.
“There’s a scene with Connell at the pool party in episode 6 and he’s sitting by the pool and everyone’s hanging out and having fun and it’s just he’s unable to connect with his surroundings,so socially anxious he’s inside his own head, I definitely relate to that feeling.”
Paul adds: “Marianne is someone who forces him to step out of his comfort zone and sometimes that increases his isolation because his anxiety is increased.I think Sally writes isolation really well and makes it accessible to your own memories of what it is as well.”
What about the author herself? How much was Sally Rooney seen around the production? Paul answers: “Obviously Sally’s an exec producer on the project and she had a say in casting and things like that and she was there a couple of days on set but I think something that I really respect in her was that she was able to allow the film-makers in Lenny and Hetty (McDonald who directed six episodes) and from that creative side she took her hands off in a way that was really healthy.
“I met her for a couple of coffees before we started shooting and that was obviously really useful but she wasn’t directly involved on a day to day basis.”
Normal People begins on BBC One on Monday 27 April, also available on iPlayer.
Check out our interview with Lenny Abrahamson here.