it is an overcast Thursday afternoon several months ago, and we are in a generic, brutalist state secondary school building in the less affluent suburbs of Dublin. Sitting in an upstairs classroom, the actor Daisy Edgar-Jones is contemplating the oddness of wearing school uniform again. Daisy pulls the sleeves of her white shirt over her knuckles, leans her elbows on the desk, rests head on hands and twitches her nose. ‘Yeah, it’s horrible,’ she laughs. ‘It does make you feel like you smell of BO and you’re sweaty and greasy. It takes you right back. I’m supposed to be 18 but I look 12.’
The uneasiness becomes her. Daisy is a lovely 21-year-old actor from north London currently shooting only her sixth screen role and first lead. She’s seven weeks into inhabiting the role of Marianne in her generation’s defining love story, a flawless adaptation of Sally Rooney’s million-selling novel Normal People. It’s a role that is likely to turn her into a major star. Her performance has echoes of both Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures and Keira Knightley in Atonement; breakout roles for gifted, fledgling young talent unafraid to reach deep into their darker sides.
Daisy looks aghast at the suggestion that fame may soon be tapping at her door. ‘I can’t imagine it,’ she shrugs, looking as if it hasn’t so much as passed her mind. ‘You just never know with these things.’ But this is Normal People, the most hotly anticipated TV drama of the year – set to air next week. ‘It’s definitely going to be watched,’ she demurs. ‘I loved the book as much as anyone else, so I wanted to feel like I’d done justice to it. But everyone’s going to have their own view of the characters and their own image of who Marianne and Connell are. We’re going to create our version of what that world is. Me and Paul are really just trying to focus on the end of this job.’
Paul is Paul Mescal, a strapping 23-year- old with a boxer’s nose, lantern jaw and rugby build. He looks like he’s just stepped from a Bruce Weber fashion shoot. Playing Connell to Daisy’s Marianne is his first screen role. He trained at The Lyric, Dublin and has been working in Irish theatre.
Today, Paul is shooting a scene at the lockers in a school corridor. He’s just rescued Marianne from a sexual assault at a fundraising dance but pretending to his pals that nothing is going on between the two of them. ‘When I’m playing him,’ he says, ‘I think Connell’s a smarter person than I am. So, it’s about trying to interrogate the way he thinks. That’s the key to understanding him. He thinks at a faster pace than I do. He expresses at a slower pace than I do. It’s about tilting and shifting that balance.’
Normal People, the novel, is an indisputable phenomenon. It’s a study of two people’s mindsets as they figure out why they are made for one another while not quite able to spot why, or indeed if they should trust why the connection works.
The mood of the screen adaptation of the story is still, tense and present, a beautifully cinematic rendering of one generation’s anxieties about fitting in. It follows Marianne and Connell from their burgeoning high-school romance across a class and popularity divide. She’s the diffident, friendless posh girl who answers teachers back. He’s the son of her mother’s cleaner who won his peers’ affirmation as star of the soccer pitch. As they intertwine across to Trinity College, Dublin for their uni years, Connell is beset by his crippling inadequacies against a new set of ‘normal people’, while Marianne blossoms into an intellectual, social powerhouse. Neither seems quite sure who they are, as normal or abnormal inhabitants of their worlds.
‘The novel itself is boy meets girl,’ says Paul. ‘That structure had the potential to be very tropey. I think why people have had such a strong reaction to the book is because they recognise either huge parts of themselves or little moments of their romantic relationships in it. I hope that an audience will look at this, as they did with the book and go, “I can see myself in that, as that normal person in that normal situation, experiencing massive emotional waves and burns at the same time.” That’s what resonated with me. I always see the title as ironic. Like, what is a normal person?’
Casting newcomers for the screen adaptation feels like a baller move for the producers of the show. Perhaps mindful of the squandered opportunity of translating One Day to screen – a novel that Normal People has frequently been compared to – with all the baggage a huge star like Anne Hathaway brought to it, Daisy and Paul are allowed to simply be Marianne and Connell. They both say that Sally Rooney, who co-wrote the screenplay, was incredibly generous with her time before rehearsals began, handing them Spotify playlists of the soundtrack she wrote the book to. Inevitably, Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne figured.
It’s like that with relationships. Often your insecurities are what ruin them, rather than any actual problem. It’s very real.
‘When I met her we talked about how she listened to this music,’ says Paul, ‘and I found that bizarrely such an intimate experience for the writer to tell you about. She’s lived with these characters for four or five years and you’re sitting in front of her hoping to present him. She was so lovely and generous with her thoughts and time.’
Neither Daisy nor Paul had read the book prior to being asked to self-tape for the roles. Paul’s first read for the part was November 2018. He gulped the novel down backstage in his dressing room while in a play. Immediately he fell for Connell, seeing little echoes of himself in the character. ‘The predominant attachment I had to him was that social anxiety in school that comes to fruition when he goes to college, when he is on less of a sure footing. That kind of displaced feeling, that anxiety. He’s a highly intelligent man but his capacity for love is really internal.’
Daisy knew many actor friends who’d tried for the part of Marianne, so avoided reading the book. ‘I was quite glad that I didn’t read it beforehand, because had I done so, I’d have wanted it so bad I probably would’ve messed up.’ When the call came through, she says, ‘I ate it up in one day.’ The book moved her profoundly. ‘The way Sally writes is so fresh and minimal. She doesn’t overwrite things or overtell stories. She very much explores conversation.’
Daisy says the moment after Marianne kisses Connell for the first time was truly transporting. ‘She really starts to look at her face for the first time. She’s always thought she has an all right face. It’s symmetrical-ish and it works, sort of. But when you’re in love and somebody looks at you in that way, you believe that, yes, I could be gorgeous. Maybe I could be funny and kind.’
Both say their first chemistry read as Marianne and Connell was ‘a dream’. ‘I had a very clear picture that it should be myself and Daisy,’ says Paul. The pair spent two weeks before filming started under the watchful eye of BAFTA-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson talking through the themes of the text. ‘I find them so fascinating as characters because they’re so flawed, in lots of ways,’ says Daisy. ‘They’re not always very nice. They’re quite ugly at times. It was important to get that across.’
‘I think she’s brilliant,’ continues Daisy of her character, ‘but she isn’t always very nice. What’s fascinating about her is the way she views herself, as this very unlikeable person, because that’s what she thinks her family think of her.’ Connell and Marianne’s mothers are set directly up against one another, the latter cold, unfeeling, repressed, the former warm, frank and loving. There are no significant father relationships, one of Rooney’s most important, purposeful storytelling ellipsis. ‘Marianne’s opinion of herself is so low that other people’s opinions are never going to be as bad as her own. Connell unlocks those things inside of her that she didn’t realise.’
Daisy says she was nervous when she first picked up the script, ‘because I wanted them to be as good as the book’, but was then pleasantly surprised. ‘They were so cleverly done. Marianne and Connell feel like they have hurdles and things that are affecting their relationship. But actually, a lot of the time those things are personal, inner thoughts that mess them up.’
Just like life? ‘It’s so painful when you’re reading the script,’ she says. ‘You’re just like, please! Don’t be like this! But it’s like that with relationships. Often your insecurities are what ruin them, rather than any actual problem. It’s very real.’
In its interior documentation of a troubled love affair, Normal People probably has more in common with 21st century classics Call Me By Your Name and Blue Is The Warmest Colour than it does with anything on TV right now. It’s lyrical, sensitive, perfectly cast and highly relatable. ‘I found the book both claustrophobic and expansive at the same time,’ says Paul. ‘I just hope we’ve brought that to life.’