Normal People Stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal Bring the Novel’s Electricity to the Screen
The pair, who play Marianne and Connell in the Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's novel, hop on a Zoom call to discuss their highly anticipated roles.
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal have the sort of electric chemistry that is immediately evident, even in the strange, antiseptic medium of a Zoom call. The two actors star in the new Hulu adaptation of Normal People, based on the novel by Irish writer Sally Rooney, the green-and-blue cover of which was visible in the hands of seemingly every tuned-in Millennial when it came out last year.
Edgar-Jones, 21, and Mescal, 24, play Marianne and Connell, the brooding Irish students whose on-and-off relationship is the focus of both the novel and the 12-episode television series, which debuts April 29th. In the book, chapters alternate between Marianne and Connell’s perspectives, allowing us to spend time in both of their heads and become intimately familiar with their desires, neuroses, and insecurities. In the series, without that same access to their internal monologues, the expressive faces of Edgar-Jones and Mescal are our guides.
The interiority of the book is reflected on screen in their glances, their intense eye contact, their sighs of dismay, their love scenes, with the series ultimately distinguishing itself as its own distinct work, even as it adheres quite strictly to the contours of the original story. (The first six episodes of the series were co-written by Rooney and British playwright Alice Birch, and were directed by Room’s Lenny Abrahamson—the second half of the series was written by Birch alone, save for one episode, and directed by Hettie Macdonald.)
The series is debuting, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic, which has necessitated that the pair complete their press duties from their respective homes in London. “I think me and Daisy are pros at this point,” Mescal says of their Zoom prowess, and, as if to prove it, the two instinctively nod left or right to signal when the other should speak, making it look as though they’re taking part in a TikTok couples quiz video.
When they haven’t been doing press for the show, their quarantines have been relatively low-key, spent mostly reading and listening to music. While Mescal says he has appreciated the opportunity to spend some of this time focusing on the show’s release, he notes the strangeness of discussing work at the moment. “I find that it’s great to have some sort of structure to your day that feels like work,” he says. “But also it is odd to be talking about a show when there’s this mass pandemic causing such destruction.”
Both Connell and Marianne—inward academic types—would adapt well to quarantining, they conjecture. “They’re both quite solitary people anyway, so they’d probably be fine,” Edgar-Jones says, with a laugh. “Yeah, [they’d] definitely do loads of reading and overthinking about stuff. It’d be great.” Mescal picks the thread right up: “Imagine the kind of mad conversations they’d both have with each other. They’d be at the forefront of understanding the trends of the pandemic and the economic impact it’s going to have. They’d definitely be a good sounding board to have in your flat, I think.”
The two actors met for the first time after the Irish-born Mescal had already been cast. Edgar-Jones, who grew up in London, immediately hit it off with her counterpart during their first chemistry read. “We just had a very similar understanding of the way that they communicate and the kind of humor that they have,” she says. “It just was always kind of there, really.”
The series does not shy away from depicting the sexual aspect of Marianne and Connell’s evolving relationship, and there are several raw, prolonged sex scenes in the show’s early episodes. There was an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, on set, and both actors say they’re proud of the way the show portrays the authenticity of those scenes. Edgar-Jones says O’Brien’s role made it possible to focus mainly on the “acting part of it” and the emotions of the sex scenes, which often required partial or full nudity for both actors.
Mescal says he believes the way these sequences were handled should be used as an example for other productions: “The filming process is something that I think should now be the gold standard of how sex scenes are done on set, in terms of an intimacy coordinator and closed set, but also how they’re written. I don’t think sex scenes should be in films or T.V. shows if they’re not serving a purpose.”
The pair are aware that—particularly with a book as widely read as Rooney’s—there will be all sorts of expectations and judgments from viewers regarding how well they fit their characters. Mescal says he was nervous at first about the reaction. “I think first and foremost, I came to the project as a fan of the book, so I had every intention of observing the book and observing the character whom I adore, regardless of the fact that I get to play him. The pressure that I put on myself is probably the same pressure that people who love the book were applying to the characters. There is a constant pressure with a book that is so heralded and that has been received so well.”
While Edgar-Jones didn’t get to speak with Rooney before filming began, Mescal sat down with her for coffee before the 29-year-old author left for a press trip in New York, when production was soon to kick off. “I remember it was after I’d been cast, I reached out [to her] via Twitter,” Mescal recounts. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m Connell…’ It was just lovely to sit down opposite her and thank her for writing the most amazing book and for saying yes to me playing the part.”
The two actors have remained in constant touch since filming; Mescal calls Edgar-Jones one of his “best friends” and the two refer to some recent “Zoom quizzes” they’ve partaken in during quarantine. They won’t be able to celebrate the show’s release in traditional manner, in person, but they are very excited for the series to be out in the world, and will find ways to mark the occasion. (“I’d like to get so drunk that I wake up in four weeks’ time and it’s just happened,” Mescal jokes.)
Mescal says that, since Connell and Marianne are “representative of [his] peers,” he’s excited for the “conversations that come out of people who watch this.” Edgar-Jones says her friends are still very excited about seeing her career begin its ascent: “My best friends are so funny. My friend Beck rings me up, and she’s like, ‘This is crazy.’ If I put a picture up on Instagram, she’s like, ‘What are you doing!?’” (They both note, laughing, they’ll have to warn certain family members and friends about the racier scenes in the series for which they might suggest shielding their eyes.)
Edgar-Jones cites Michelle Williams, Saoirse Ronan, and Florence Pugh as acting role models, and Mescal notes the strength of the young performers in films like Little Women, which he finds “inspiring.” It’s easy to imagine either of them appearing in whatever the equivalent of a buzzy Gerwig literary adaptation is in a few years’ time.
Abrahamson will soon be directing a BBC adaptation of Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, and the pair say they are sad they won’t be involved and reuniting with the Normal People gang. But they break out into large grins when brainstorming other possible projects for the two of them to act in together. Edgar-Jones suggests, “We could do a Wes Anderson film?! And have really cool costumes and be really strange and a bit quirky!” Mescal exclaims, “Let’s do True Detective season four!”
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