Lockdown lovers: meet the stars of ‘Normal People’

First-time leads Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal just snagged the roles of a lifetime. They tell NME about teen love, awkward sex scenes, their TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel – and trying not to fuck it all up

“It was like an armpit fart, can you even do them?” It’s six days before lockdown and NME is sat in a gloomy office backroom in central London watching two unknown actors make fart noises at each other. Daisy Edgar-Jones is the main culprit, clutching her underarm and cackling as she eggs on Paul Mescal, her co-star in TV’s Normal People, out on BBC Three this weekend.

“Yeah, I can do!” says Mescal, before launching into a display of pit-flatulence that would make Bart Simpson blush. It’s all part of an anecdote they’re trying to tell, from their first day of filming sex scenes together.

Daisy Edgar-Jones
Credit: Enda Bowe

“We had to be covered in this cream called ‘Egyptian Magic’,” says Edgar-Jones. “We’d be sponged with this stuff and then sprayed with water to make us look sweaty. But because we were so lubricated, when I had to switch positions, our bodies…” she whispers, “farted.”

“None of the crew reacted, but we were pissing ourselves,” adds Mescal. “They thought one of us had actually farted so they were trying to be polite! But we obviously said ‘did no one hear that?’ – and everyone started cracking up. I hope it doesn’t make the cut.”

Luckily for them, it didn’t. But we’re not here just to discuss embarrassing bodily functions (not officially, anyway). We’ve actually come to get the lowdown on one of the most anticipated TV shows of the summer – Normal People, adapted from Sally Rooney’s mega-successful and much-loved book.

“The crew thought one of us had farted during a sex scene”
– Daisy Edgar-Jones

First printed in 2018, the steamy romance novel has shifted more than a million copies to date. It’s been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, voted ‘Best Novel’ at the Costa Book Awards and was recently ranked 25th on The Guardian‘s ‘100 Best Books Of The 21st Century’. Lapped up by readers on a global scale, the tortured tale of teen love follows Marianne (played by Edgar-Jones) and Connell (played by Mescal), from different backgrounds but the same small town in Ireland, as they weave in and out of each other’s lives over a number of years.

Stuffed with longing, introspection and awkward sex scenes, the BBC 12-parter is an emotional exercise in melancholia. There’s soap opera drama, but it’s set against a backdrop of arty visuals – all windswept beaches and swooping crane shots of teenagers staring out to sea. Basically, it’s Hollyoaks for existentialists.

One of Rooney’s terms for signing over the rights was that the show retain its Irish setting. So, in May 2019, directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who) were packed off to Sligo and Dublin – with mid-season trips to Stockholm and Italy. They were joined by a crew of hundreds, plus their newly-cast first-time leads – Edgar-Jones and Mescal.

Paul Mescal
Credit: Enda Bowe

Born and raised in London by her Irish mum and Scottish dad, Daisy, 21, made her screen debut just four years ago during a cameo appearance on family sitcom Outnumbered. After supporting turns in indie movies (Pond Life) and recurring jobs on British telly (Cold Feet, War of the Worlds), she finally snagged her “first main part” in Marianne.

Paul, meanwhile, has even less experience than his newbie castmate – that’s none, to be exact. From County Kildare, just outside of Dublin, he first got into acting via a school production of The Phantom Of The Opera. But that passion soon took a back seat because he “couldn’t see a career in it”. Later, when faced with a choice between studying law at uni and attending acting college, he had a change of heart and decided to chase his dreams instead. But after ping-ponging around the Irish theatre scene for a few years, he still hadn’t worked on-screen. Now aged 24, Normal People will be his TV debut.

“I was so nervous I’d forgotten how to use My limbs”
– Daisy Edgar-Jones

In order to win the parts of Connell and Marianne, the two actors had to ace countless auditions during an exhausting casting process. Mescal was confirmed first, and then came many, many “chemistry tests” with potential Mariannes. Edgar-Jones was one of the last he met.

“I was the second-to-final person and I’d been waiting all day,” she says. “I was so nervous I’d forgotten how to use my limbs. Anyway, I opened the door into the audition room where Paul was [testing] with someone and I remember thinking: ‘Oh my god, that’s Connell!’ Then I felt really embarrassed and shut the door. I was terrified all day after that.”

Later, they actually got down to running some lines together – and although their first encounter was fairly nondescript, Mescal knew Edgar-Jones was his “perfect” match.

Normal People
Credit: Enda Bowe

“It comes down to the right person coming into the room and the right dynamic being achieved,” he says. “At that point, I don’t think it’s a question of talent – it’s about the right fit, and that was very apparent when Daisy walked in.”

The pair’s chemistry is also apparent to anyone that watches even one episode of Normal People. Mescal is perfectly cast as the quietly broken jock, Connell, while Edgar-Jones revels in Marianne’s quiet fragility, each wringing more meaning from the uncomfortable silences than some shows do after hours of dialogue. “They were very stressful characters to play,” says Mescal. “Whenever I watch new episodes back, they actually give me anxiety.”

It wasn’t all raw emotion and difficult feelings though. On-set, they countered the suffocating atmosphere by cracking jokes. “There was a low-budget, indie atmosphere and it got quite intense in most scenes,” says Mescal. “But often, we would be getting the giggles about stupid stuff. For example, I’d been stressing all day about telling this not very funny joke in the script. And then we got into character and I wasn’t even able to speak the whole line because we were so hysterical about how unfunny it was!”

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As Marianne and Connell in ‘Normal People’. Credit: BBC

Clearly, it must have been at least slightly amusing, because the mere memory causes Mescal and Edgar-Jones to fall about laughing. Amidst the spluttering, NME discerns a few words: “cheese” and “old ladies”. There’s no such joke in the series – hilarious as it sounds – so we’ll assume it was cut. Something for the DVD extras, perhaps.

Aside from terrible humour, the pair also bonded over music. Rooney, who co-wrote the script – as well as the source material – and looked over footage from the set each day, provided an invaluable Spotify playlist, packed with tunes she’d imagined her characters obsessing over. On Connell’s was Swedish folk outfit First Aid Kit, while Marianne was a Bombay Bicycle Club stan. Indie pop duo Angus & Julia Stone were a mutual favourite. The tracks proved invaluable inspiration for Paul and Daisy, who spent hours listening together in their trailers.

“After filming, I gave my chain to Daisy to keep”
– Paul Mescal

“You know that thing when you’re falling in love with someone and suddenly music becomes ridiculously intense,” says Edgar-Jones. “When I was falling in love with Marianne as a character, suddenly some songs meant a lot more. It’s the same when you break up with someone.”

Apart from musical inspiration, Rooney didn’t try and interfere with her cast’s process. Instead, she let the words on the page do the teaching. “It’s a testament to her work that she didn’t need to tell us how to paint the painting,” says Mescal. “The book is so thorough with how it presents the inner workings of the characters. She was happy to answer any questions that we had, but all I needed was for her to tell me that I was OK to play Connell – which she did.”

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‘Normal People’ arrives on BBC Three in full from April 26. Credit: BBC

One year later and shooting has long-since wrapped. Dublin’s chilly streets and Sligo’s picturesque countryside are just a distant memory for the cast and crew as they eagerly await the show’s release. Luckily, Normal People managed to finish post-production before lockdown started, but it was the last BBC production to do so. NME’s interview is the final in-person chat of a truncated press tour. By the end of the week, coronavirus will have forced the industry to grind to a catastrophic halt. Tellyheads, on the other hand, will have even more time in which to fill their eyeballs with bingeable box sets like Normal People. The increased viewership, massive fanbase and added studio pressure means the weight of expectation resting on its two young stars’ shoulders must be back-breaking. How are they coping?

“I hope people like it and are pleased with what we’ve done with the book,” says Daisy, a nervous grin on her face. “I hope they gain what I did when I read it for the first time and the beautiful story that’s being told.” Naturally, Rooney superfans will have their own unique interpretations of the characters, which might differ to her and Paul’s. Are they prepared for the disgruntled keyboard warriors spouting nasty comments on social media?

“They were very stressful characters to play… they actually give me anxiety”
– Paul Mescal

“I read a brilliant tweet [after the trailer came out] which was like, ‘what are those two 30-year-olds doing?’” says Daisy. “I was like, ‘I’m 21!’” Thoughtfully, Paul tries to reassure her. “To be honest, I think they’re referencing me,” he says. “I can testify, you definitely look like a teenager in a school uniform.” And then there’s the newfound fame. This might be the last time either of them can walk down the street without being recognised. “I think as we were making it, it just felt like we were having loads of fun making this thing that no one was ever gonna see,” says Mescal. “It’s only now, in interviews, we get asked that and you suddenly think: ‘Oh gosh, I haven’t even thought about that!’”

“We were laughing earlier,” adds Edgar-Jones. “What if we start walking down the street and everyone’s like: ‘No one cares who you are!’ We’ll have to hire paps to pretend we’re famous!”

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At school during the opening episodes of ‘Normal People’. Credit: BBC

If everything goes to plan, there’s little chance of that happening. The newest trailer, posted just a few weeks ago, has racked up eight million views on YouTube already – and a flurry of glowing reviews hit the Internet just yesterday. If anything, there’s more chance of a second season than the first flopping.

“Series one is the book,” says Mescal, when NME asks what’s next. “But we don’t know what’s on the other side. The great thing about these two characters is that their lives continue.”

“That’s what’s so wonderful about the book,” adds Daisy. “At the end, they’re very much alive and you’re left not knowing where they’re gonna go. It’s upsetting to read, but it’s also quite thrilling and realistic. We’ve left the series in a similar way. I think it’s quite interesting to leave it open.”

Even if it doesn’t work out – and these 12 episodes are all we get of Connell and Marianne’s gripping story – both Paul and Daisy say they’ve had a cracking time. And as an added bonus, they nabbed some keepsakes from the costume department.

“I gave Connell’s chain to Daisy to keep,” says Paul. “But she lost it!” For the record, Edgar-Jones disputes this. “No! I got it from you,” she says, turning to Mescal. “And then I had to bring it in for reshoots – and then they lost it because I attached it to the back of the coat racks.”

The interview ends, as it started, with TV’s newest super-couple deep in argument, struggling to get their point heard over the other’s protests. At least this time, though, there’s no farting involved.

‘Normal People’ airs on BBC One on April 27 at 9pm with weekly double episodes. It is available to stream in full on BBC Three from April 26