The RTS hears how the BBC’s Normal People energised the careers of its two stars.
A year ago, Normal People became the huge TV hit of the first lockdown, changing the lives of its young stars, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, overnight.
The adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel was the BBC’s most-streamed series of last year, clocking up almost 63 million views on iPlayer in the eight months following its April launch.
“I felt incredibly surprised, not at the show being received so well, but at the volume of people who were watching it so quickly,” recalled Mescal, who was talking at an RTS event last month. “It felt quite overwhelming. And then I felt a great sense of pride because it feels to me like a show that was made the right way, not just creatively, but… with great spirit. Good shows that are emotionally heavy don’t have to be traumatic experiences to film. A lot of joy went into making it.”
Since appearing in Normal People, the careers of the two actors have taken off. Edgar-Jones has landed starring roles in two films, Fresh and Where the Crawdads Sing, while Mescal is the male lead in Carmen, a modern-day reimagining of the opera, filmed in Australia.
“Before Normal People, the idea of choosing what you do next was never something – it was just about hoping to goodness something would come [at all],” said Edgar-Jones.
She had been working “on-off” since the age of 17, picking up “very small parts” in shows such as Cold Feet. Today, five years on, “at least now, when I’m sending [off] a self-tape, there’s less of a feeling that this is just going into the ether, which it often felt like [before].”
Pre-Normal People, Mescal had made an impression on the Dublin stage in The Great Gatsby and The Red Shoes, but now “film-makers and companies want to sit down and talk”, he says.
The two actors recalled auditioning for the roles of Marianne and Connell. County Kildare-born Mescal said: “I really wanted to play the part… I felt an attachment to [Connell], I understood who he was and what motivated him.”
With Mescal confirmed as Connell, Londoner Edgar-Jones flew to Ireland for a “chemistry read”. Mescal recalled: “When I was working the scene, I found it just way easier to act with her and for Connell to come to the surface a little bit more. Auditions are just such awful experiences, full stop, I find. So, to be in an audition and feel comfortable is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I felt calm when I was working with Daisy… I really felt the script come off the page.”
To play Marianne, Edgar-Jones, helped by her Northern Ireland-born mother, nailed a widely praised rural Ireland accent, and read the novel over and over. But, she said, “there’s only so much prep that you can do because so much is found on the day. You have an idea from your reading of a scene, but it’s then so changed by the other actors you’re performing with.”
Marianne and Connell’s relationship changes as they move from school in Sligo to university in Dublin, and beyond, over 12 roughly half-hour parts. “By the end, we see that they are content with who they are,” said Edgar-Jones. “I think they’ll always be in each other’s lives but I don’t know in what sense.” Clearly, if Rooney ever felt the urge, there is more to be written about the characters.
Mescal is adamant that he does not want any more Connell-like characters: “I love him deeply, but I want to play characters that scare me a little bit.”
But would he return to the original if his and Marianne’s story continued? “Happily,” said Mescal. “One hundred per cent,” added Edgar-Jones.
Report by Matthew Bell. ‘In conversation with Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal’ was held on 29 March, hosted by journalist Caroline Frost and produced by the RTS.