2020 was the year of Normal People.
With the world stuck indoors, the adaptation of Sally Rooney's best-selling novel was the perfect recipe for a lockdown sensation. It captured the hearts of viewers, before breaking them and putting them back together again.
Before its television debut, Normal People already had a loyal legion of literary fans, including star Daisy Edgar-Jones.
“I devoured the book in about a day,” says Daisy Edgar-Jones, who received an RTS award nomination for her portrayal of Marianne. “I’m quite glad I read it after my first self-tape because I think I would have put too much pressure on myself and completely messed up if I had read it before.”
A self-confessed book lover, Edgar Jones was excited to play a literary character.
“I was a massive reader as a child, there’s no purer form of escape than reading a story. I used to be so devastated when I finished books because I knew I had to say goodbye to the character,” explains Edgar-Jones, so she was thrilled to be able to stay with the characters from Normal People for a bit longer during filming.
Normal People tells the complicated and unique love story of independent outsider Marianne and the quiet but likeable Connell as they navigate their teenage years and try to discover who they are.
Using both the script and the beloved book as her guide, Edgar-Jones was able to get a very detailed vision of Marianne’s inner life and she quickly fell in love with the dichotomy of the character, “she’s steely and strong, which is my favourite Marianne to play, but also incredibly soft and vulnerable.”
But just as she had developed a personal connection with Marianne, she knew other readers had too, putting a “level of pressure” on her performance. She explains, “everyone has a very personal connection to that character before you've realised it yourself.”
The series takes a raw and unfiltered look at the realities of being a teenager, from first love, to peer pressure, to mental health.
Looking back at her own teenage years, Edgar-Jones could relate to Marianne’s ability to see through school politics and understand it would mean nothing in the real world.
“Unlike Marianne, I wanted to be liked,” she reflects, “at school, it can be hard to realise that you can surround yourself with people that make you feel happy.”
Edgar-Jones’ own school days took place at the independent The Mount School for Girls before she was accepted into the National Youth Theatre.
At just 17, Edgar-Jones landed the role of Olivia Marsden in the long-running comedy drama Cold Feet and went on to gain parts in Gentleman Jack and War of the Worlds, before a life-changing role in Normal People.
Due to Covid-19, Edgar-Jones has found herself in a world where self-tapes and virtual auditions are the new normal.
“Chemistry tests are kind of odd, because can you find some form of chemistry over Zoom?” she muses.
Edgar-Jones remembers that on the morning of her self-tape for Normal People, she had to film a gruesome death scene for another audition.
“I was covered in blood and I knew I had to get the self-tape in that evening, I was trying to wipe off all the blood!” Edgar-Jones laughs.
Edgar-Jones may now be a bona fide star but that doesn’t make her immune to audition nerves.
To overcome them she tries her best to just appreciate the experience, “if this is the one and only time I can play this character, I’m going to enjoy it,” she reasons.
After watching the magnetic chemistry between Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, who plays Connell, it is hard to imagine there was ever anyone else in the running. “It was really nice when I read with Paul I was still able to do my Marianne with his Connell,” Edgar-Jones recalls of the audition.
Telling the story of a young relationship meant intimacy was an important part of the series. Edgar-Jones explains executive producer and co-director Lenny Abrahamson and the team “didn’t want to make it a stylised, beautiful thing”.
“They wanted it to have an emotional beat behind it and not just fancy music and billowing sheets,” she explains.
The series was widely praised for its authentic and natural intimate scenes, which accurately reflected the nuanced vulnerability of intimacy as a teenager.
However, Edgar-Jones believes the physical moments in the series weren’t always the most intimate. “There are some incredible moments of intimacy just in conversation,” muses Edgar-Jones.
One standout moment for her is when Marianne suggests to Connell that he should study English at Trinity.
“It’s an amazing moment because it’s so simple, but it really is such a keystone on what his life becomes and who he becomes as a person,” she says. “The show celebrates those insignificant moments and interactions that are so important in changing you.”
During filming, Abrahamson was not afraid to get in close with the camera, just capturing the characters existing to show the emotion play out across their face.
Edgar-Jones describes those moments as a “fun challenge”, she adds, “it’s an opportunity to show what’s really going on in your character’s world because we can say one thing and think an entirely different thing… the camera allows you to give a little secret to the audience.”
Getting the intimate moments right wasn’t the only challenging thing on Edgar-Jones’ mind, nailing the Sligo accent was something else she was nervous to tackle.
Abrahamson was clear he wanted Marianne to have a slightly anglicised version of the Sligo accent to separate her from everyone else, emphasising her position as an outsider in the town.
“I was lucky my mum and family are Irish,” laughs Edgar-Jones, “so I had an idea about the humour and sensibility.”
Edgar-Jones will put her impressive accent versatility to the test for her next lead role in another literary adaptation, Where The Crawdads Sing.
Produced by Reese Witherspoon, the adaptation of the 2018 best-selling novel by Delia Owens tells the coming-of-age story of Kya, a woman who raises herself in the marshes of the Deep South of America.
Edgar-Jones describes the world created by Owens as “visceral and beautiful” and, as a bibliophile herself, hopes that her version of Kya is one that audiences “can also accept and love as much as the one they've created themselves”.
As for the future, Edgar-Jones is looking forward to when she can finally reunite with the cast and crew of Normal People and celebrate what they have achieved.
“Much of the experience I had of the show coming out was solo, whereas the whole process of making it was such a team effort,” she says. “Just be able to reflect and go, ‘that was crazy!’”