Filming sex scenes was a new experience for Edgar-Jones and filming anything at all was new for her co-lead, Paul Mescal, 24, who is primarily a theatre actor.
It was very strange because I felt that [Paul Mescal] was Connell and I knew everything about him.
Over time, says Edgar-Jones, the M-rated intimate scenes, which are key to the unfolding of the narrative, became just another part of the filming schedule. Well, almost. “They are odd. It is the most strange thing that you [shoot those scenes] and then you go off to lunch with everyone and have a jacket potato and chat about nothing.”
Rooney’s novel is about an intense on-again-off-again relationship between Marianne and Connell, who fall in love in their final year of school in a village in Ireland’s County Sligo and go on to attend Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne’s family is wealthy and abusive; Connell is the product of a working class single-parent household with complications of its own. At school, she is a whip-smart social pariah with a sharp tongue; he a popular athlete who also owns a very big brain. As time passes, the social cache of each character shifts, and a beautifully rendered series of misunderstandings thwart their relationship. The book has been variously described as an exquisite romance, a great Millennial novel and a compulsive read.
Rooney – who co-wrote the script for the first six episodes and was also an executive producer – devotes much of the novel to stating exactly what’s going on in her characters’ heads, which is often in frustrating contrast to what they say and do. This interiority presented both challenges and benefits when it came to the screen adaptation.
“It is quite tricky to communicate a lot of the unspoken stuff,” says Edgar-Jones. “But also we were so lucky because when else do you have your character’s psyche written out in such insane detail?”
Watching unspoken thoughts and feelings pass subtly across Edgar-Jones’s pale, dark-eyed face is one of the many pleasures of the early episodes of the series and it’s easy to forget that a camera would have been right up in her grill at the time.
The early episodes were directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the Irish film director and screenwriter who won numerous awards for his 2015 film, Room. Edgar-Jones says he has a “real knack” for using the camera to illuminate a character’s perspective and thoughts.
“There was this one shot called ‘the special’ where the camera would be like really close, just roaming,” she says, holding her hands up to her face like an open book and moving them around. “It would be right up close and you’d have to stop worrying about your moustache and just get on with it.”
The later episodes of the series were directed by Hettie Macdonald, who has a host of TV directing credits to her name, including The Tunnel, Fortitude, Howards End and “Blink”, the episode of Dr Who, from the David Tennant years, that many critics have lauded as the show’s best. Each episode of Normal People runs for an undeniably TV-esque 30 minutes, but the overall pacing and production values are decidedly cinematic.
Rooney’s involvement with the screen adaptation of her novel went well beyond co-writing the script. She was involved in everything from casting to critiquing the rushes. In her second year at university – Trinity, like her characters – Rooney won the European University Debating Championships and, in profiles, comes across as intensely cerebral and articulate, someone who would not be backward about coming forward with a scathing opinion.
Edgar-Jones concurs with this impression of Rooney. “Yes, she sounds quite terrifying … I was so worried because she is so intelligent and I am a big fan and quite easily intimidated by people to be honest so I was like oh, I am just going to crumble.”
The pair met several times during production and as it turned out Rooney “was absolutely lovely” says Edgar-Jones. “She is quite like Connell, like wholesome and lovely, just normal and approachable. It’s interesting, isn’t it?
“I met her for the first time at the read through. It was a bit of a scary time and Sally came up to me and said ‘this is crazy isn’t it, like absolutely mad’. It must have been mad for her, too. She has created these characters in her front room and then it’s being read out loud and talked about by a group of strangers.”
Abrahamson has said that finding actors with the vital on-screen chemistry to play Marianne and Connell took some time. Edgar-Jones had binge read and “fallen in love with” Normal People before she was called in for a “chemistry read” with Mescal, who had already been cast as Connell some weeks prior. She really wanted the role by then. She walked into the audition room, she says, and “it was very strange because I felt that [Mescal] was Connell and I knew everything about him. I was nervous, but as soon as we started doing the scenes it just felt very easy and very natural, and I started to enjoy it.”
The pair read through one of the more serious interchanges between Marianne and Connell, and when they finished “all the panel were crying, and I was like hmmm, that’s a good sign,” says Edgar-Jones.
Fans of the book who watch the series should be able to surrender their preconceived ideas about Marianne and Connell without too much heartache. Mescal and Edgar-Jones’ performances are accomplished and their bond convincing. As Abrahamson has said: “I believe people who know and love the book will feel the series is a very faithful transposition of the novel onto screen.”
Normal People premieres on Stan on April 27. (Stan and this masthead is owned by Nine.)
Lissa Christopher has more years’ experience as an editor and writer with The Sydney Morning Herald than she cares to count, and is now a print and digital producer for Traveller. She’s a glamper not a camper and wherever she travels she likes to start eating as soon as possible after making it through passport control.