If you've already started on BBC Three’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (or binged every episode in one sitting), you’ll understand how the show has become a phenomenon. Last week, it launched thousands of rapturous tweets, Instagram fan accounts – and an unprecedented level of lockdown lust.
This is thanks, in part, to the electric performances of its two leads: Daisy Edgar-Jones’s portrayal of the intense and vulnerable Marianne and Paul Mescal’s faultless performance as Connell have made them overnight stars.
Actor Paul, meanwhile, has fast become the romantic hero 2020 didn’t realise it needed (‘Paul Mescal is just exquisite,’ read one tweet).
In the 48 hours after the show, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, dropped on iPlayer on 26 April, Paul’s Instagram following soared by 40,000 and thousands of us were furiously googling for more information on the formerly unknown Gaelic-football-player- turned-theatre-actor from County Kildare.
Over a Zoom call from his living room sofa, Paul, 24, apologises for his ‘dishevelled appearance’ (which although relatable is actually untrue) after a day of surreal virtual promotion for his first ever TV role.
Paul admits that his life has been ‘mad’ since the show aired, not least because he’s currently self-isolating alone. ‘It’s been an incredible few days, even being stuck in isolation by myself,’ he says. ‘I’ve felt a huge amount of love, especially from family and friends back home. There have been a lot of people screaming into their phones at me.’
The heart-throb thing has been, understandably, weird to take in. ‘When people meet me in person they’ll be disappointed,’ he says, laughing. ‘People are taking that from the character of Connell, and that’s something I actually never thought he would be. It was genuinely the last thing I was expecting, so I haven’t formed an opinion on it yet, I suppose.’ He adds that he’s been trying to stay away from social media: ‘You can lose a whole afternoon to Twitter,’ he admits.
The story of Connell and Marianne – from their unlikely and then passionate romance, which starts in secondary school and continues on and off for years – has taken a lot of viewers on a nostalgic replay of their own first loves. The romantic power of the story, which was filmed last year in County Sligo and Dublin, is ‘for everyone’, says Paul, even if you’re yet to experience it yourself.
The positive representation of sex in Normal People’s intimate scenes has been noted by viewers on social media, particularly when Marianne, a virgin, and Connell first have sex, and he repeatedly asks her if everything he’s doing is ‘OK’.
‘It’s incredibly refreshing,’ Paul says of the response to their depiction of consent. ‘And also I find it slightly sad that the response to that scene has been so visceral because it means that we’ve missed that. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of that television moment but it does make me slightly depressed that it’s 2020 and that’s kind of a major talking point. I don’t think the application of consent makes it any less exciting for the audience. In fact, it’s the opposite: consent can be sexier because it shows a deep understanding and a deep care for the feelings of the other person and that’s the most important thing in those intimate situations.’
While the cast and crew can’t celebrate the success of the show together, Paul says he’s on the phone to Daisy a lot, they have a cast and crew WhatsApp group, and were also planning a Normal People quiz night on Zoom last weekend. In the wake of the show’s positive reviews both here and in the US, Sally Rooney wrote him an email which, he says, was so beautiful that he’s ‘going to print it out, frame it and put it on my wall’.
‘Relief is the predominant feeling. It’s started to be fun now and you can relax into it,’ Paul admits. ‘But the anxiety I felt last week was so high. I was holding on to this process, which was about a year and a bit ago, since the audition, and you’re thinking about Normal People, day in, day out, and you build up a big sense of what you want to bring to people. I’m so glad that it worked. I’d be lucky to get a response like this again to anything I do in my career.’