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Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, Normal People
Photography Enda Bowe, courtesty BBC

The stars of Normal People on sex scenes, first loves, and Sally Rooney

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play Marianne and Connell in the hit novel’s adaptation – here, they discuss the pressures, challenges, and chemistry they felt on set

“How do you know what you want?” asks Marianne, as she sits across from Connell in his small teenage bedroom, the walls lined with posters of rugby players and grainy photos of friends. “I don’t,” he replies, “most of the time I don’t have a clue.” There’s a pause as they stare at each other, the air electric. “What about now?” she says softly. Connell stands, lit only by the bedside lamp and the fading embers of dusk, to take Marianne’s head in his hands and kiss her deeply.

This is one of the most anticipated scenes from the forthcoming TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller Normal People, a novel known for its enthralling, authentic sex scenes. “I always loved stories about love,” says Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays our captivating, complicated protagonist Marianne. “I’m a big romantic.”

Edgar-Jones joins Paul Mescal, who plays Connell, in taking on two of the most formidable roles in recent years for the BBC Three series. “I definitely feel a lot of pressure,” admits Edgar-Jones. “The book is so special and it’s its own thing, and it’s a different thing to the series.” Mescal agrees: “It’s a really true adaptation. But I also think it’s its own entity as well.”

Ever since her debut novel, Conversations with Friendsalso set for a TV adaptation – was released in 2017, Rooney has been regarded as the totemic author for the millennial generation. The Irish novelist’s writing thrives most in its painfully relatable depictions of young love and relationships, with all their gut-wrenching miscommunications. In its clumsy, intense romances, and two fervently intertwined coming-of-age stories, Rooney interogates gender, sex, class, and status. 

Normal People has sold almost 576,000 copies across the UK and Ireland, and been translated into 41 different languages. Endorsed by everyone from Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift, right through to Barack Obama, Edgar-Jones and Mescal have a very expectant audience on their hands, from a millennial Irish novel that’s resonated with a global, cross-generational audience. 

The story follows their navigation of complex school hierarchies, their class divide, and first love in their hometown Sligo. It opens with their secret trists, as school stud Connell – whose working class mother is Marianne’s family cleaner – is afraid his friends would mock him for dating Marianne. Marianne is a loner, alienated largely from her peers as well as her own turbulent family unit. As the story progresses and the couple arrives at university in Dublin, their roles are starkly reversed, and they struggle with Connell’s stagnation and Marianne’s stratospheric rise through Trinity University’s social pyramid.

Ahead of its debut, Edgar-Jones and Mescal tell Dazed what it was like working with Rooney, how they navigated sex scenes on set, and which moments from Normal People took them back to their own teenage years.

Neither of you had read Normal People until you got the audition for the series – when you did read it, what appealed to you most about it?

Daisy Edgar-Jones: Sally’s writing is so unique in the way it captures connections between people. What appealed to me was the depiction of such intense relationships, and seeing how conversations with someone who is very special to you can fundamentally change who you are.

Paul Mescal: When you read a book (as an actor), I think it’s always a good sign to become slightly terrified of it. I remember reading and not only recognising myself in Marianne and Connell, but many of my friends and loved ones too. That instigated a bit of fear in me, because I immediately started imagining how I’d play the role.

How closely did you work with Sally Rooney?

Daisy Edgar-Jones: Sally was very good at giving us her beautiful work and letting us work with the scenes and change them. What makes the book so special is that it’s very relatable and human, and in order to do that in a TV context, it’s good to be able to work with the script and make it stick a little better. So, Sally was amazing – she’s so good at being collaborative, and trusted us enough to work on it.

Paul Mescal: It was all about trust. It was lovely to feel artistically valued; it gives you a lot of confidence when you get into the shooting and people like Sally, Lenny (Abrahamson, the series’ co-director), and Alice (Birch, co-writer) go, ‘what do you guys think?’.

“(Normal People shows) how conversations with someone who is very special to you can fundamentally change who you are” – Daisy Edgar-Jones

The series is filmed in Dublin, which borders Paul’s hometown. How did it feel to work on something so close to home, and what makes the Irish dynamic so special in Normal People?

Paul Mescal: It was lovely! Getting to go home and visit my parents at the weekends was a massive luxury, and something that eliminated the pressure of my first screen job. It’s always nice to deliver something that you’re a product of, in terms of Irish culture, and is a massive privilege as it’s something you don’t generally get to do unless you’re British or American. The fact that it’s set in Ireland doesn’t eliminate itself in a domestic setting. It’s about interpersonal politics, class, love, communication, and miscommunication, and that’s why it reached an audience globally.

How did you build your dynamic from the beginning?

Daisy Edgar-Jones: I think we have a similar sense of humour, which was really important because some of the scenes are quite intense. The workload was thick and full-on for both of us – I’ve never played a lead like this before – so we were both in the same boat.

Paul Mescal: I don’t think it’s actually something you go about physically cultivating. I think it’s something that we were lucky to have naturally exist between us in terms of chemistry – I knew Daisy was someone I could happily spend five months of my life working with.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about intimacy co-ordinators and the importance of consent while filming sex scenes – how were you made to feel comfortable on set?

Daisy Edgar-Jones: Paul and I hadn’t done many of those scenes before starting, but Ita (O’Brien, the show’s intimacy coach) was so wonderful. She took the pressure off completely. The scenes ended up being quite positive, and it was like we got a day off because you didn’t need to remember any lines! (Laughs).

Paul Mescal: The first day in particular, they made us feel as safe as humanly possible doing something that is slightly bizarre in the context of the normal world. The fact that they put policies and structures in place allowed me to go about doing the things that are really important to the book as honestly as possible. Also, we were given guidelines in terms of the physical blocking, but it never felt like there was a disconnect from the emotional part of the scene – it never felt clinical or creatively dead.

In Normal People, there’s countless relatable, often painful moments, particularly for teenagers experiencing their first love. Which feelings or experiences in the book took you back to your own teenage years?

Daisy Edgar-Jones: Part of the book that I really related to was Marianne’s school years and her observations of the social hierarchy, because when you’re in school, those structures are so important – the dynamic of the alpha classmates and the people who are seen as outsiders. At school, I remember finding it really tricky to navigate; I was different to Marianne in the sense that I did care what people thought of me, but I related to the feeling of exploring who you are.

Paul Mescal: For me, it was the scenes between Connell and Marianne (that recalled) the excitement of finding somebody who you think you’re in love with. Not that I’ve experienced it personally, but you see the deterioration of a couple’s mental health, which was really important in terms of representing a huge amount of young men both in Ireland and the UK who struggle to communicate how they feel. It can be incredibly damaging and dangerous, so that was something I was keen on getting right.

Were there emotional moments on set throughout filming?

Paul Mescal: Yes, even in scenes that look quite basic on paper, like the miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, or scenes where he apologises to her for his behaviour. The longer you’re in the shoots, the more you realise the depths of these two characters’ lives, so it wasn’t always the big, emotional scenes that I found most moving.

Daisy Edgar-Jones: I think that’s why the book is so wonderful. What we tried to do with the series is show that massive moments in each other’s lives often happen in a small conversation. (The book shows) how conversations can influence the path you take, and how unique it is to find someone (to have those conversations with).

“The longer you’re in the shoots, the more you realise the depths of these two characters’ lives” – Paul Mescal

Often in Normal People, it’s the moments that are left unsaid in Marianne and Connell’s relationship that are the most poignant and frustrating for the reader. How did you convey the pain of their miscommunication?

Paul Mescal: You don’t get the inner monologue in those scenes, you normally see the aftermath of that decision. It’s about not showing too much, because I think they’re both incredibly intelligent people, but they exist interiorly a lot. They think a huge amount. Connell in particular doesn’t express much, which I think made him difficult to write for the screen.

Daisy Edgar-Jones: Marianne and Connell have a unique way of speaking honestly about intellectual subjects, but they can’t seem to communicate accurately on simple things, like how they feel. It was interesting coming to scenes, because obviously the book is so internal. (The chapters are written from each of their perspectives), so in scenes, I’d be thinking, ‘Marianne is a lot softer than she perhaps postures to Connell’, so it was a mix of wanting to play what your character is really like internally, as opposed to the way they come across externally. We had to play off how much we gave away to each other.

To say the series is highly anticipated is an understatement – how much pressure do you feel ahead of its release?

Daisy Edgar-Jones: When I first got the part, there was about three minutes where I was like, ‘woo’, then I was like, ‘oh my god’. (Laughs). I’m really proud of what we’ve done, but I definitely feel a lot of pressure now; I have to be resigned to the fact that we’re not going to please everyone. The book is so special and it’s its own thing, and it’s a different thing to the series – I hope people like it.

Paul Mescal: I’m excited because we’re both independent of having played the characters, and we’re both fans of the book, so we can objectively look at it and think it’s a really true adaptation. But I also think it’s its own entity as well.

The full series of Normal People is available on BBC Three from Sunday April 26, and is released on Hulu in the US on April 29