In a conversation with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, the stars of Normal People, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, discuss the show’s honest depictions of first loves and intimacy —and their star-making performances.
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Watching them on screen in Normal People feels like magic because you just know you are seeing two people on the precise of superstardom. They are magnetic.
Edgar-Jones’ Mariane will break your heart and put it back together with just one glace. And Mescal manages to be both vulnerable and elusive. You can’t take your eyes off of them. Louise Kelly struck gold when she cast these two as the young lovers at the center of Normal People. If there’s any justice this awards season, both Mescal and Edgar-Jones will find their own gold —in the form of much deserved Emmy wins.
Read the transcript of our interview with Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones below:
Awards Daily: My first question for both of you is how your personal experiences that you may have had before the show shaped your view of the relationships and intimacy? And the second part of that is how you think playing Connell and Marianne has shaped your views of intimacy and relationships moving forward?
Paul Mescal: That’s a hard one.
Daisy Edgar-Jones: Yeah, that’s a great question!
PM: Because Connell and Marianne feel representative, not only of Connell and Marianne, but of a lot of young people that both me and Daisy have in our lives, I think you definitely draw on certain personal experiences. But ultimately, Connell and Marianne are two very distinct individuals. And Sally gives you a real insight into them and from an acting perspective, gives you a real opportunity to step into somebody who feels both incredibly familiar and incredibly different from you at the same time. That’s kind of the dream to get to play.
I was asked a similar question about how Normal People changed my relationship with intimacy and romance. And the truth is, I have no doubt that it will, but that’s not a position I’m in at the moment. It definitely will change my idea of relationships and things, but I don’t know in what way yet.
DEJ: Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t really put it better myself, really. I think Paul is right. I think the reason that these characters have been so well-received by both people our own age, and also people who are older, is that it’s a really relatable story of falling in love and growing up, which we all go through. The parts where Marianne sort of falls in love for the first time, I guess I was drawing on what it felt like for me to fall in love for the first time and the similarities in that. So yes, there are parts of Marianne and Connell that I really relate to. But, there are bits that I do feel like are really quite different than me, which was quite fun as an actor—to be able to try and imagine and empathize with someone that you are different from.
I think what is so wonderful is the maturity of their love for each other. I think particularly at the end where Marianne allows Connell to go to New York, even though selfishly, she probably wished he would stay, the love for him is so strong that she’s able to let him go. And I think perhaps the maturity of love is something where I’ve learned a lot from them. And also, even though they miscommunicate a lot at the time, their ability to speak so honestly is something that I think is so wonderful about their relationship. I think something we struggle to do a lot of the time is being able to speak about big subjects and be really open. That’s something I’ve learned from them.
AD: Yeah. I think the maturity of love is a great way to put it. And I wanted to ask you about that because throughout the course of this series, not only do we see them mature as individual characters, but they also mature as a couple. They do learn to communicate better. How were you able to approach your character arcs individually, but then also show their collective growth as a couple?
DEJ: Yeah. I mean, it was quite interesting because I remember when it was first released that the show was going to be in 12 episodes, a lot of the people who’d read the book were like, “Gosh, that’s a lot of episodes for quite a short book.” But I think it really is important that there is time and that the pacing is slow because the whole point of the story is the amazing massiveness of the tiniest things that happen in your life when you’re young. The things that really have such a ripple effect on who you become as an adult. And that was a real joy to film because we obviously didn’t film it all in order. So, at the time, we were kind of stepping in between different parts of their lives.
Block one and two are different. They were separate. [The first six episodes of Normal People were directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the last six were directed by Hettie Macdonald]. And there is definitely a shift in their relationship with each other and with themselves. So, it was quite fun to be able to play that ripple effect in such a detailed way. For example, a really small conversation where Marianne says, “I think you should study English at Trinity” and then seeing how that fundamentally changes Connell’s life. It was brilliant to have such wonderful directors who helped us and guided us through that to make sure we were playing each beat properly.
It’s so brilliantly plotted in the script. I think there are so many different graduations of maturity, like Connell being able to kiss her on New Year’s Eve at the end of the story—he couldn’t even hold her hand at the fundraiser way back in Episode 3. That was really wonderful—to see him be able to express his love for her in public and not feel cripplingly anxious about that.
And Marianne being mature enough now in their relationship to be able to let him go. There’s that bit in the book where she talks about how the pain of loneliness is nothing compared to the pain of feeling unworthy and how Connell has allowed her to finally feel worthy of the love she deserves; and therefore, she’s able to let him go. That’s just so beautiful.
PM: Yeah, I agree. Totally. [Laughs]
AD: [Laughs] Daisy, one of the things that really struck me about your performance was how quiet it was. You have these moments where the tears were welled up in your eyes, but they don’t fall. You’re sort of stuck in this moment of wanting that release, but you can’t quite get it.
I wanted to ask you about those scenes, what they say about Marianne as a character, and your approach to your performance, because it’s so beautiful. I mean, really, I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you, your performance is so profound and yet so subtle.
DE: That’s so kind, it really is. Thank you! That was really the joy of playing that part, because obviously you’re playing a character where you know, intimately, their whole inner life because the book is so detailed.
It would be really easy to then come to a scene and want to express everything and say all the words that were going on in her head so you knew that the audience would get it. And I think what [directors] Lenny and Hettie, and Alice Birch and Sally who adapted this script, were so clever in doing in that they didn’t feel the need to overexpress anything in terms of dialogue.
Sometimes it’s easy to take the audience for granted and assume that they won’t be able to read other human beings [on screen] the way we do in our daily life all the time. Allowing an audience member to empathize with the character without needing to spell out exactly what that character is feeling was a real gift for Paul and I. We were able to really think those things through and really imagine those things and hope that somebody watching will also be able to watch and empathize with that person without them saying, “I feel sad” or “I’m really crying.” You know?
It’s just really nice because that whole story is about relationships; and relationships with other human beings; and missing each other; and sometimes being far too wrapped up in our own internal minds to really look at the other person and see what they’re going through.
That’s something that Connell and Marianne go through a lot—where they seem to be able to talk about these massively deep subjects and yet, with simple things, just saying, “I like you,” they struggle. Whereas, if they just took the time to look into each other’s eyes and think about what the other person was thinking, it would probably be a lot simpler.
I was just very lucky to be able to have all that internal dialogue at hand from the book. Therefore, when you were coming to those scenes, it was just a matter of saying the lines with all the thoughts that you knew were going on in your character’s head, and have the camera be so close that you could kind of just think them, you didn’t have to project them so much.
AD: I’m curious, for both of you, what would you consider the most profound scene? Or the scene that you hope sort of lasts the test of time? The scenes that you hope people will come back to and think about?
PM: Personally, I think that’s really hard because I feel like we’re too close to the job to be like, “Oh, this is the scene that’s going to last the test of time.” But in terms of scenes that I’m really proud of—there are really a lot of them because the script gives me and Daisy the opportunity to be in long seven, eight, nine, 10, 11-page scenes on television in the half-hour format— which doesn’t really happen even in a one-hour-long format. Any of those big, long scenes where Connell and Marianne are either communicating effectively, or miscommunicating, I’m really proud of. Hopefully, people will continue to come back to them at different points of their life and be like, “Oh, I get this now.” Or, “I don’t get this anymore. I must be moving into a different phase of my life.”
DEJ: Yeah, I think I agree. But, what’s been interesting is the reaction to the scene in Episode 3, where Marianne loses her virginity. I’ve seen quite a lot of people say like, “They should share this at school! We should study this!” And I think that’s something I’m quite proud of. I don’t know. I think that sex education at school is often quite lacking in emotion. It’s about biology or like, “This happens. and then you have a baby.”
PM: Ta-da! [Laughs]
DEJ: [Laughs]. It’s not about the emotional things. I know I’ve never seen the representation of using protection on screen. We take it for granted that that should be an element you should always discuss.
You watch sex scenes and there just never is that dialogue about, “Are you on the pill? Should we use a condom?” You know what I mean? And I just think that’s so unhealthy because it shouldn’t feel awkward to have those honest conversations. It’s really important. And same with Connell and those consent elements of him saying, “We can stop whenever you want.”
We’re able to have a scene that’s still full of all sexiness and connection, and yet, we’re able to still have those open and honest dialogues—you need to know that you’re safe in my hands and you can stop if you want to.
Marianne was able to have some control in those scenes. And I’m just really proud of that. I definitely know that I would have benefited from watching scenes like that as a young person and knowing that it’s okay to be able to ask for something, or ask for things to not to be the way they are, if you know what I mean. I don’t know if I’m making any sense. [Laughs]
AD: [Laughs] You are! I promise! I talked to Ed Guiney, the executive producer, and something that he said that really stood out to me was that he hopes people learn about communication and how to be kind to one another.
And I think a lot of the conversation around the show is around the sex scenes, which are beautiful and profound, as you were saying, Daisy, but Normal People is also about communicating with people and establishing intimacy in general.
So, as all these young people are watching the show, what do you think is going to be the message about how we move forward? Especially because we’re all so separated right now with everything going on [due to the Coronavirus pandemic]. It’s kind of the perfect time for this show about intimacy.
PM: I think there would probably be an influx in relationships very quickly.
PM: Not necessarily to do with the show, but we have dating apps where you can essentially form relationships very quickly. And I think the absence of the opportunity to see other people, to meet other people, will lead to a lot of people going like, “Right, I want to be in love now. And I’ve got to make sure that it happens.” And I think that’s totally to do with the symptoms that we’re experiencing from the lack of that opportunity.
I think the show definitely positions itself as a very intimate show about a relationship. And I don’t know, it makes me feel lovely when you see characters like that interacting.
DE: Yeah. I agree. And I also think that what the show does so well, and actually, what I really remember taking away from the book is the idea of that all of us, all human beings, have a massively deep inner life and to never forget that the way that you treat others is really important. You never know what someone’s going through or what’s happening in their mind—always treating people with care and kindness. I guess we’re all thinking about that at the minute. And I think that’s something I love about the show is that it’s about the effect someone can have on your life.
Sally uses a wonderful quote at the start of the book about how it’s so magical when it’s with the right person and to surround yourself with people that make you a better person. It’s something that I think Marianne and Connell ultimately achieved by the end.
AD: I know it’s a basic question, but do you think the Connell and Marianne find their way back to each other at some point? What are your thoughts on that?
PM: Yes, at some point!
AD: Yes! I think so, too!
AD: I know a lot of people say no, but I’m a hopeless romantic, I guess. I think they do.
DE: Yeah. I feel…I don’t know!
PM: Come on!
DEJ: Paul, listen, I don’t know! [Laughs]
PM: That’s the most depressing thing ever.
DE: I feel like they’ll always be in each other’s lives, but I don’t know whether it is in a relationship sense. [Laughs]
AD: Okay. I like that. Also, Paul, I have to ask you about the chain before we go.
AD: Daisy, you have the chain, right? That’s what I’ve read.
AD: So Paul, how do you really feel about this chain? [Laughs]
PM: [Laughs] I feel like it’s doing me wonderful favors. [Laughs]
PM: I was just saying earlier, I was like, “Thank God I wore a chain for the show.”
AD: I wish I could talk to you forever, but I have to wrap. Thank you so much! A year from now when you two are the most famous people on the planet, please remember this interview! [Laughs]
PM: [Laughs]. I will.
AD: This show means so much to me, so much to so many people right now. Thank you for your work and your time.
DEJ: Thank you!
Normal People is available to stream now on Hulu. Paul Mescal is Emmy eligible in the Best Actor in a Limited Series category. Daisy Edgar-Jones is Emmy eligible in the Best Actress in a Limited Series category. Awards Daily also has interviews with Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson, executive producer Ed Guiney, sound designer Steve Fanagan and music supervisor Maggie Phillips