7 Questions with… Normal People’s Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones: ‘Having an intimacy coach for sex scenes was wonderful'

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, who play Connell and Marianne in the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People, talk about the show that’s got everyone talking...

By Sophia Moir Published: 6 May 2020 - 11.48am
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It's been smashing records on BBC iPlayer since its box set release last month, with its 16.2million viewer requests in its first week breaking the previous record held by the mighty Killing Eve.

And the BBC’s 12-part series Normal People - adapted of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel - has got the nation talking, with everyone from BBC Three’s youth market to older audiences lapping up the masterful story of young love. 

The show is led by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, who play the show’s two leads Marianne and Connell, and who have shot to fame almost overnight since its launch.

Speaking ahead of the release of Normal People, the pair discussed how it felt being cast in the roles, how they worked with Rooney on their characters, and why having an intimacy director on set for sex scenes was a "wonderful, positive experience".

1. How would you describe Marianne and Connell’s relationship?

Normal People BBC/Element/Enda Bowe
Normal People - First Look

Daisy Edgar-Jones: They’re such an enigma. I’ve read the book loads and I still can’t get my head around them 100%. What I think is amazing is they really shift and change.

They’re two people who are very intelligent and have a massively full and deep inner life, and they have a really unique way of communicating with each other in a way that’s really special.

As the book goes on, they grow up and change, but their interest is one another is undeniable. 

I love the quote in the final chapter that talks about them kissing on New Year’s and all their friends finding them interesting because they can’t leave each other alone.

They have a special way of connecting. It’s a real depiction of what true love is, because they want each other to be the happiest they can be. I think that’s why people are addicted to their relationship because it’s so relatable.

There’s times where it really doesn’t work and they miscommunicate and they’re ugly, and that’s relatable to watch as human beings, because relationships are messy sometimes. 

2. How did you prepare for the role?

Normal People Marianne and Connell BBC/Element/Enda Bowe
NORMAL PEOPLE

Paul Mescal: I first read the book in the context that I knew I was going to be auditioning for Connell. I’d heard the book was successful, but I was very much looking at it from a hungry actor perspective, like "I’m going to prepare for this audition and read the book".

I very quickly forgot that I was going to be auditioning, and whenever I remembered that fact, I found it quite terrifying. You’re going up for roles that sometimes you’re not right for, but that’s far easier than going up for something that you can relate to on a very human level [like I did with Connell]. 

I think that for me was terrifying, because I was like "I feel like I understand where this guy comes from, from a geographical and mental level". But also I think it was something that I knew was going to a global audience, and I wanted to be part of an Irish production that is going to go global.

I just found my first reading of the book incredibly profound, and scary, and full.

 

Daisy: I came to it from the perspective that I’d done my first self-tape, and I’d sent it off. I felt I really understood the character, and how it was written and who Marianne was being described as being.

Then when I read the book, it was incredibly profound. Everyone who reads the book falls in love with it, it touches on something that is very unique.

The feeling of experiencing Sally’s writing for the first time is very intense, because she manages to project you into the story. You feel like you’re a part of their whole world. It feels like it consumes you. 

So as I was reading as Marianne, I felt so connected to her as a character. I fell in love with her. It meant the stakes were very high when I was auditioning for her because I felt like I really wanted to tell her story, and I felt like I was right for it actually, which doesn’t happen very often. Usually it doesn’t happen, so I can’t believe it actually did!

I just think the world Sally writes is amazing, and what she talks about is amazing, even just the simplicity of how she writes about their first time having sex. I wanted to be a part of it for sure. 

3. Did you work with Sally Rooney during the adaptation process?

Normal People author Sally Rooney Getty
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Paul: Sally (above) happened to be in Dublin a month or so after I’d been cast [as Connell] so we met up for a coffee.

It was strange because I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous going for a coffee, because you’re going to sit in front of somebody who has a far greater understanding than we will ever have of these two people.

You’re trying to sit in front of her and not try to impress her, but you’re just like "Please give me your blessing!" 

I didn’t have a huge amount of questions for her because the book is there and it’s so incredibly thorough. Also the book is an internal monologue so any questions you have are answered in that. But she was incredibly generous, and she did give me her blessing, which is amazing!

It’s also really nice just to get to know her on a more personal level as the months have gone on. That’s an incredible privilege and I pinch myself as the months have gone on, like "I’ve emailed Sally Rooney!"

 

Daisy: Sally had so much to do with the first six scripts, she helped write them, she worked closely with Lenny [Abrahamson, the show’s director] and Alice [Birch, co-writer] and everyone at Element on adapting them. I think she got sent the rushes every day as well.

She was really brilliant, I’ve only met her three or four times. I met her for the first time at the script read-through. She was so lovely. She was like ‘this is mad!’ and I was like ‘yes this is mad, I hope you like me!’. But she’s just so cool. 

She was very good at giving over her creative baby that is Normal People to Lenny and all the filmmakers. She’s a novelist first and foremost so she was like "I trust you as filmmakers to do this", which I think is amazing.

I don’t think I’d be able to be so free with my work, I’d be like "You have to do everything right!" She’s really wonderful. 

 

Paul: The first time I met Sally, she said "Connell’s a very difficult character to write in a television setting, because he doesn’t actually say a huge amount". In the book, she’s obviously able to give him this internal monologue, and I think it was just about constantly referring back to the book.

That’s what’s captured nicely in the book as well, that he doesn’t speak a huge amount when it’s not necessary, especially without Marianne being there - she’s his sounding board. 

It was about trusting that I had understood how his brain and mind worked, and not trying to make that a display, or show what he was thinking a lot of the time.

I’ve always imagined him quite physically similar to me, so it was more about trying to access the brain of somebody who I think is far smarter than me. That was the challenge!

4. Daisy, was there anyone in particular that inspired you with Marianne’s accent?

Normal People Marianne BBC/Element/Enda Bowe
Normal People - First Look

Daisy: I watched Sally Rooney interviews religiously for a long time, so I’m a bit of a super fan! She’s from Mayo and she’s so intelligent, she’s got such a measured and articulate way of speaking and I really found that useful as Marianne has such a unique voice.

Also Lenny had a very detailed idea of how Marianne sounded - he kept telling me to anglicise her accent because I think he wanted her to stand out from her friends in that she didn’t speak like her peers, because I do think when you go to school you start to sound like your peers more than your family, whereas Marianne doesn’t really have many friends so she has an uppity way of speaking perhaps.

5. How did you find working with an intimacy director on set?

Normal People kiss BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

Paul:  I’ve obviously got no experience of sex scenes prior to it, so it’s something that I’m really grateful that I’ve encountered at the start of my career because I couldn’t imagine doing a job without it an intimacy director going forward.

On a political level, I’d be saying that it should be necessary. I just can’t envisage a way for it to be possible without one and also I think the work would suffer both for actors and for audiences if intimacy co-ordinators weren’t involved. I think the work is better as a result of an intimacy co-ordinator, so it’s a big thumbs up from me.

 

Daisy: It was wonderful. It was amazing. I can’t imagine doing anything like that without one.

She was such a brilliant person to have [on set] and it meant that those scenes became quite positive, actually really positive, for Paul and I.

They’re so, so integral to the book and we wanted it to feel like we did them justice in the series because they say so much about their relationship and I think Ita [O’Brien, the show’s intimacy director] just allowed us to concentrate more on the acting beats while she focused on the choreography, and also the safety of both of us, and our comfortableness in the scenes. She was amazing, she really was.  

6. Were there any scenes you found challenging to film emotionally?

Normal People Daisy Edgar Jones BBC/Element/Enda Bowe

Daisy: There were quite a few. I think what’s interesting is some of the biggest emotional scenes happen in a very domestic, normal setting. There’ll be a big conversation where they’re just sat opposite each other chatting, and suddenly they’ll move onto a subject that will take them somewhere they didn’t expect.

I always found those scenes tricky to navigate because it’s just getting the beats. Probably the stuff in Sweden I found trickiest, because I think in the book Marianne is in such a state of inwardness, she’s dissociated almost with her surroundings. I found those tricky to navigate because they are quite emotional but she doesn’t outwardly show it. 

7. Paul, can you actually drive now?

Normal People Connell BBC/Element/Enda Bowe
Normal People - First Look

Paul: Yes, I can drive although I wouldn’t be allowed to drive legally if I was by myself in the car.

I lied to the casting director essentially at the start. I said that I had a full driver’s licence - my agent and I had to concoct little white lies… the closer I was getting to the job, the more I was furiously doing driving lessons!

I should now do my driving test because there was a lot of driving on that job, and I think Daisy would say I was a good driver! Saying that, there was one day where we had to do a hill start, and I couldn’t get my biting point, and I couldn’t get the car up the hill!

Normal People is available to watch as a complete boxset on BBC Three now.

It also airs on BBC One Mondays at 9pm with weekly double episodes.

Catch up on Normal People with the BBC iPlayer app on BT TV.