The stars of the twelve-episode series adapted from Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel discuss young love, miscommunications, and the language of tea.
By Anna Russell
Recently, a woman named Mary called into the popular Irish radio show “Liveline” with a complaint about “Normal People,” the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel by the same name, now airing on Hulu and BBC 3. “I imagine it was like something you’d expect to see in a porno movie, certainly not for family viewing,” Mary told the host. “But anyways, that’s my opinion.” Soon after, the tabloid newspaper the Sun claimed, somewhat breathlessly, that “Normal People” included forty-one minutes of sex scenes, making it “the BBC’s raunchiest drama ever.” In Ireland’s parliament, the tourism minister explained that a promotional video made to encourage fans to visit County Sligo, where much of the show’s filming took place, was “selective” in its use of clips from the episodes. It’s true: the video features majestic shots of Ben Bulben, a flat-topped rock formation which dominates the landscape, but no nakedness.
None of this has bothered fans of the show, which follows the on-again, off-again love story of two teen-agers in the small fictional town of Carricklea, in the west of Ireland. Paul Mescal, a twenty-four-year-old Irish actor, plays the handsome and insecure Connell Waldron, a popular sports star with budding anxiety issues. Connell falls for Marianne Sheridan, played with painful sensitivity by the twenty-one-year-old English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones. Marianne is an intelligent loner from a wealthy family, who lives in the mansion that Connell’s mother cleans, and this difference in their social stations creates a hum of tension beneath their daily interactions. Their similarities—they’re both bookish (they discuss “The Communist Manifesto” and “The Golden Notebook” in the novel), curious about the wider world, and intensely private—are undermined by an inability to communicate at critical moments, leading to heartbreaking misunderstandings.
At school, Connell won’t acknowledge Marianne, though they are sleeping together nearly every night, for fear of losing his friends. He’s sick with guilt over the situation, clamming up when confronted by his friends or his mother, played by the stellar Sarah Greene. Marianne, whose own family is guarding a dark secret, vows not to tell anyone about their arrangement (“Like I’d talk to anyone at school,” she says). Things implode when Connell asks someone else to the school dance, crushing Marianne, who withdraws from school, showing up only to ace her exams. Later, when they both move to Dublin to attend Trinity College, it is Marianne who is suddenly popular, surrounded by artsy, cosmopolitan admirers, and Connell who finds himself lonely. They are drawn together again by an unbeatable first-love chemistry (“It’s not like this with other people,” Marianne says), replicated onscreen with startling emotional intensity. Over twelve half-hour episodes—any longer, and the viewer would surely combust—Marianne and Connell come together, and fall apart, and come together again.
The other day, Mescal and Edgar-Jones came together, virtually, for tea, on Zoom. Edgar-Jones was calling from a patch of sunlight in her North London apartment, where she’s been living with her boyfriend and two roommates. Mescal, who moved to the city two days before the lockdown began, was in Hackney, in East London, alone, “which is weird,” he said. (His roommates were making noises about coming back, he added.) They were both wearing T-shirts—black for Mescal, white with an embroidered daisy for Edgar-Jones, who wore chunky gold earrings and had her hair up in a bun—and seemed delighted to see each other.
“Where did you get that T-shirt? It’s lovely,” Mescal said, peering into the screen.
“Thank you!” Edgar-Jones replied, beaming. “It says ‘Daisy’ on it.”
In the show, Marianne and Connell are constantly making tea for each other when they can’t find the right words—which happens often. When Connell shows up at Marianne’s dinner party with a bloody nose: tea. When Marianne suddenly starts crying while they are watching a film in bed: tea. “They have this way of communicating with each other that’s really honest and raw, which I think is so beautiful,” Edgar-Jones said. “They’re obviously both highly intelligent, and they can speak about big, big subjects,” she added, but, “on the simplest, simplest things they just seem to miss each other.”
One miscommunication halfway through the season, in which Connell, who has lost his summer job, can’t work up the courage to ask Marianne if he can live with her, was so painful that I had to watch it through my fingers. In the novel, Rooney often describes an incident first from Connell’s perspective, and then from Marianne’s, or vice versa. The show occasionally attempts this dual narrative as well, and in Episode 7, we first see Connell’s devastated face as Marianne appears cold and refuses to ask him to stay. Then we get the scene again from Marianne’s perspective, in which she believes Connell is breaking up with her. It was at this point in the series that I had to make myself tea.
“I totally agree with what Daisy’s saying,” Mescal said. “I think a lot of the time you see relationships onscreen, it’s just taken for granted that they’re good communicators, whereas in this show, the opposite has been done.” Connell says “I love you” to Marianne often, Mescal pointed out, but he does it in a “really panicked way,” out of a fear he’s not saying enough. While filming, Mescal said he would ask himself, “Why, at certain points, do they find it difficult to say things to the other person?” “I think that’s where a lot of the drama comes out,” he said.
The series was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, and adapted by Alice Birch, Mark O’Rowe, and Rooney herself, which might explain why it hews so faithfully to the novel. Rooney has sometimes likened writing sex scenes to writing dialogue, in the sense that every beat counts. The same care is evident onscreen, where every fumbling and tentative caress seems heavy with meaning. These scenes were achieved with the help of Ita O’Brien, an intimacy coördinator who also worked on Netflix’s “Sex Education.” O’Brien helped the actors to discuss things frankly, and to avoid euphemisms. “She would say, ‘We’ll just discuss exactly what the emotional beats are here,’ ” Edgar-Jones said. “The whole point of those scenes is never to have just a moment for the sake of it. They’re always carrying on some form of narrative.”
O’Brien also helped with the physical logistics, Mescal added. Sometimes, to get a scene right, Mescal would need to hold himself in a kind of plank above Edgar-Jones for minutes on end, his arms locked out, sweat dripping from his nose. (“That was really great,” Edgar-Jones joked.) “There was this wonderful thing where she would use her hands,” Mescal said, of O’Brien, holding up his hands to demonstrate. “She’d be like, ‘So, Paul, I need you to give more thrust!’ ” Edgar-Jones made the same motion with her hands, and they both burst into laughter.