Daisy admits that she hadn’t read it until she heard about the role through her boyfriend, actor Tom Varey. “My friend had auditioned for Marianne as well and he helped her tape [a screen test] for it,” she explains. “I thought, ‘That sounds really good.’”
“Then, when I read the book, I obviously fell ridiculously in love with it. I was reading it thinking
I was Marianne, which was even more intense.”
Her character is complex. While they’re in their teens, Connell is the confident, popular one; Marianne the shy girl who doesn’t fit in. As adults, the roles reverse and Connell struggles to establish his personality.
“I understood Marianne, I liked her sense of humour and her oddness,” says Daisy. “I really loved playing her during her school years because, even though she’s lonely and doesn’t fit in, she’s untarnished – she’s fresh and she doesn’t care what people think. She talks about the way people view her [as an outsider] and how, even if she tried to be different, it wouldn’t make any difference.
“I related to that; I changed a lot from 11 to 17, but when you’re with the same people, they will always look at you in the way they first knew you. Marianne doesn’t care; she’s maybe above the social ladder [of popularity at school], but I definitely wanted to fit in and be on it.”
Daisy’s first role was in a school play, aged five. At the age of 16 she was performing in her spare time at the National Youth Theatre when an agent spotted her potential and signed her, despite her lack of classical training.
“I didn’t get any roles for a while,” she says. “And it’s hard not to take it personally, but you learn that often it’s about something out of your control.
“Auditioning is like dating: you think something could be a match, you go on a few dates, then they ask somebody else out instead and you’re heartbroken. With Normal People, if I hadn’t got it, I would have found it really hard.”
Her first role came in 2016 in the TV drama Cold Feet. “I had a little part, but it was a great way to learn,” she says. “My first day, I did a scene where I just had to walk somewhere and I was so self-conscious. It was all training – when you have less to say, it’s sometimes more tricky because you then overthink every action. Try drinking an orange juice with a huge camera in your face.”
Both Daisy’s parents have a screen background – her mother Wendy was an editor on TV dramas and her father Philip was creative director of the UK’s reality TV show Big Brother.
“He’s got a good perspective on what the industry is, he knows how it works and he was very excited for me,” Daisy says of her dad. “He had some interesting insights into fame.”
“Obviously, I don’t know what Normal People will bring, but he said, ‘Always have perspective and remember that you as a person won’t change, but people around you might and don’t let that influence you.’ ”
An only child, Daisy’s accent is an arresting blend of north London with her father’s Scottish and her mother’s Northern Irish backgrounds. For Normal People, she adopted an Irish accent and says she took some inspiration from Rooney’s speaking voice, as well as working with a vocal coach.
“Sally was very involved [with the scriptwriting], so I met her a fair few times,” she explains. “I listened to her voice a lot, because she’s from Mayo which is very near Sligo, and it’s a similar ‘o’ sound. Because I was living in Dublin for filming, I started to speak in the accent all the time by accident. I couldn’t shake it.”
Daisy and the cast moved to the Irish capital for five months and she had what she describes as a university-like experience behind the scenes, “going out loads. I never went to uni, so I kind of had that experience through Marianne.”
Every formative event in the novel is captured from the perspective of either Marianne or Connell, as Rooney details the emotional changes they go through as they mature.
“There’s an age when you realise the people who had all the power in school don’t have so much power in life moving on,” Daisy says. “When I went to college, suddenly I felt I could be who I really feel I am now and make friends with people who were like-minded.”
On screen, the shift is even more obvious than in the novel because Marianne’s style dramatically changes. “The school uniform was a long skirt and big clunky boots which made me feel awkward,” says Daisy, laughing. “Then in Trinity I had mad clothes, higher heels and crazy jewellery. The clothes felt different, so it really helped me to play the different ages.”
The rapport between the two lead characters was critical for directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald (the latter’s projects include Doctor Who and Howards End) to get right, and Daisy had to undergo several “chemistry tests” with Paul.
“Paul was cast over a month before me, so he had met with quite a few other girls before I auditioned,” she says. “But finding that chemistry with each other was really easy. We’ve become like best friends.”
“I’m very envious of Marianne and Connell – how fun to have a secret affair. I didn’t have anything like that in secondary school, and I met my now-boyfriend a wee bit later, but I guess I definitely drew on that excited feeling when you fall in love.”
One of the key, excruciating-to-watch scenes is in the second episode, when Marianne loses her virginity. Connell offers her a cup of tea and makes clumsy chat for 10 minutes on screen while they dance around the idea of maybe, possibly, having sex.
“I love that scene, it’s one of my favourites,” Daisy says. “It’s beyond accurate, when you both know exactly why you’re there, but you’re going, ‘When do we get to the bit when we …’ “
“The bit where he was taking her bra off, it just happened to be the most awkward bra ever to remove and my arms were stuck. It was a moment for Paul and I to laugh, and it’s normally meant to be perfect and gorgeous on screen, but the directors said to play into all that stuff.”
Daisy lives in London with her boyfriend Tom, 29, who appeared in Game of Thrones; they met on the set of the indie film Pond Life in 2018.
“It’s definitely easier because he knows how the industry works,” she says, reassuring me that he was fine with the number of nude scenes. “He read the book, too, and I think he was a bit like, ‘Oops, okay …’ But he was really excited for me.”
Daisy’s Instagram account looks like any other 21-year-old’s: pictures of her hanging out with her boyfriend and friends (most of whom are fellow actors), art galleries, house parties and a lot of brunches.
“I’m quite private,” she says. “I’m not very good at social media. I find it a bit stressful – trying to project who you are into some pictures. I feel too much pressure to be cool and quirky [with my posts] and I’m just not.”
There was a definite turn in more recent (pre-lockdown) weeks, though – on the red carpet, front row at Roland Mouret’s London Fashion Week show. And the fashion offers are likely to keep coming in. “I do love fashion,” she confirms. “My style icon would be Annie Hall – the suits and the loose cuts. I didn’t really know anything about brands before; now I really like Miu Miu, and Gucci is really cool.”
Nicky Yates, who works with Eva Green and Felicity Jones, has been hired to style her for press appearances. At the Baftas in February, she wore a Mother of Pearl dress and Jimmy Choo heels, positioning herself as a viable new style muse.
“I’m not at all used to red carpets,” she laughs. “It’s great for people-watching, but a bit surreal. I need to be better at not staring and gawking.”
The attention is ramping up. Daisy and Paul have been featured in US Vogue, and Normal People is being aired by Hulu in the US, meaning it could achieve the same global popularity as another BBC Three series, Killing Eve. That show helped fellow Brit Jodie Comer to her first Golden Globe nomination in January.
“It’s hard not to, but it’s good to not let your imagination run too wild,” says Daisy, bringing the conversation back to earth. “Whenever you do a [TV adaptation of a popular book], you can’t please everyone. Reading is so personal and you imagine a world that only exists in your head.”
As for what she hopes will happen next, she’s pragmatic. “I’d just like to work again, to be honest, and not be anxious about whether I’ll get another role … but you just don’t know.”
With this role, for Daisy, more work should be the new normal.
All episodes of Normal People are available for streaming on Stan. (Stan and this masthead is owned by Nine.)
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 3.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)