There’s something odd about Normal People. It is, ostensibly, a show about two teenagers who fall in love, then navigate a very typical series of bust-ups and reconciliations. So far, so normal. And the show begins innocently enough. Set in Ireland, we see the popular and sporty Connell (Paul Mescal) get together with awkward school outcast Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). But then comes this weird sorcery. As you watch the couple move from high school to college, somehow the story creeps up on you, tears out your heart, chucks it out the window, and runs it over with a bus.
Based on Sally Rooney’s New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, Normal People elegantly and succinctly shows us how humans mess up our relationships, how we misunderstand each other; how our defenses—designed to protect us—in fact keep us from the very things we want most in life. The experience of watching it as an adult is to find oneself rethinking every missed chance and reviewing every past relationship.
Such is this Normal People effect that, Edgar-Jones reports, when I meet her in a corner of her London bedroom via Zoom, “I have had a few people who are older message me and say [after watching], ‘I just rekindled my old flame from high school.’ I’ve had two or three people tell me that.”
In Ireland, Normal People is so popular that even a rather staid national newspaper ran a trivia quiz on the show. In the UK, endless articles expound upon the appeal of the previously-unknown Mescal and Edgar-Jones. On Instagram, accounts have sprung up solely devoted to Connell’s ever-present silver necklace (@connellschain, 184k followers) and Marianne’s effortless trademark fringe (@mariannesbangs, 8.6k followers).
Director and executive producer Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-nominated helmer behind Room, rubs his forehead in consternation as he goes over the viewing figures. “I still can’t quite believe it,” he says. “The numbers are just absolutely unbelievable.” The BBC’s streaming service, BBC iPlayer, has been the most shocking for him so far. “I remember the first week was 16-point-something million, which was double the previous highest figure. There was 16 million for Normal People, and something like 21 million for the [entire] iPlayer. And the previous record [high] was Killing Eve, and that was something like 10 million.” Then there are the Irish viewing figures. “RTÉ just published their results from their domain. Normal People is three times higher than the best ever previous drama on the channel. It really blows my mind.” In the U.S., Hulu has not released any numbers, but, says Abrahamson, “from what we understand, they seem very happy.”
So, what is this show’s secret sauce? As with every great project, a perfect storm of talent is obviously required, but that doesn’t explain these vast viewing figures. Abrahamson humbly offers that during COVID lockdown, people have needed a show about love and connection. He also says that while this era of high-quality television has hit the crime, thriller, and drama genres hard from the beginning—he cites The Sopranos and The Wire—no one had yet put a love story in that space. And it’s true that elevated television has not featured much in the way of pure romance before.
Normal People’s elevation is largely down to Abrahamson’s gentle hand on the tiller, and the way he deliberately hides his machinations, rather than showing them off, which ironically, is the hardest sort of directing there is. As he himself says, “If you’re hiding the scaffolding, then it’s harder to seem like you’ve disappeared, because if you did really disappear, the whole thing would just become documentary or something. So, you’re making all these decisions, but you’re trying to do them in a way that leaves a sense of taking ownership to the audience. It’s more personally meaningful if it feels like something you’ve discovered. I think one of the reasons why people perhaps are affected by Normal People in the way that they are is that they’re encountering something, rather than having somebody predigest it for you and tell you what’s happening.”
He points out that without the talent and chemistry of Edgar-Jones and Mescal though, this delicate balance of ‘show, don’t tell’ wouldn’t have worked. “I wouldn’t have had the chance of working at that level, with that depth. I would have had to tell the audience they are mad about each other, and that is a poor substitute for what seems to the audience to be just an act of authentic observation.” Given that he had actors who could carry this approach, Abrahamson sometimes has the camera so close that we feel we are not watching them, we are them. And thus, he set the tone for the whole series—the first half directed by him, the latter six episodes by Hettie Macdonald (Howards End).
One much-discussed scene that seems to have deeply affected viewers sees Marianne losing her virginity to Connell. He asks for her consent in the most perfect way imaginable. “If you want to stop or anything, we can obviously stop,” he tells Marianne. “If it hurts or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward. You just say.” The actors seem to connect so openly and honestly that what might be an embarrassing moment becomes sexy. She asks him to get a condom. These are conversations we don’t often see on screen.
“What I found so amazing,” Edgar-Jones says, “is how much that scene in particular sparked a wider conversation about first-time scenes. It seems that when we come to intimate scenes, those awkward bits are rushed over. This highlights that those moments are actually incredibly intimate. And it’s amazing that you can feel safe, and be able to ask, and not have to be clunky or awkward. If anything, the scene is deeper, and more emotional, and sexier because those moments of realness are there.”
Usually, Abrahamson points out, sex scenes have some dialogue and then cut to a very separate, voyeuristic view of bodies. Normal People eschews all that. Instead the camera is most often on the actors’ faces, and the physical feels like a continuation of the dialogue.
Another thing the show does is take its 17-year-old characters seriously. Abrahamson says, “Quite often, stories centered on that point in people’s lives, and on that generation, can have the effect of diminishing them, as if this was a naïve and silly phase of life, before you’ve learned wisdom. And I thought the opportunity was really there to make something about that moment which shows it to be potentially the most alive and truthful and intense and lived part of a person’s journey. I think that’s where the longing comes from, because there is loads about that time that I would not go back to, but on the other hand, there’s an amazing depth of feeling, and how intensely you feel things when you’re younger.”
When Abrahamson’s longtime producing partner Ed Guiney of Element Pictures first read Rooney’s novel, it was as an unpublished galley, and, since Element was already developing her first novel, Conversations with Friends, Guiney actually hoped he wouldn’t like this new one. It would be simpler if he didn’t want it—surely, he thought, Rooney would not want to have the rights to both her books with the same company? “Unfortunately,” he says, “I completely fell in love with it.”
Guiney shared the book with Abrahamson, and things began to click into place. Not only did the material really sing for the duo who had made Frank together in Ireland, and whose 2015 film Room got them both Oscar nominations, but the story’s setting had to seem almost serendipitous to these two friends who’d attended Trinity College together, and who met as 15-year-olds in Ireland. “It was a kind of coming together of my own biography, Ed’s biography, and the desire to do something set in our home country,” Abrahamson says. With him on board, the BBC greenlit the project.
Bringing on Rooney as screenwriter was a bold but essential move. A successful but still young novelist, Rooney had never written a script. “She read scripts and she read treatments and she just immersed herself in the how-to of screenwriting,” Guiney says, “and then she had a go, and it turns out she’s a bloody brilliant screenwriter.” Then, together, Rooney, Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth) and Mark O’Rowe crafted the unicorn of literary adaptations: a script that loses absolutely none of the novel’s poignance and power.
It helped that the chapters of Rooney’s novel seemed made for a television series, the shape of them fitting perfectly into 12 half-hour episodes, although that shorter length is unusual for a drama. “In a way, doing 12 half-hours is almost like chaptering it, like a book,” Guiney says. “It just allowed for a more pleasurable experience of the piece. And we really just cleaved to Sally’s book. We’ve done a lot of book adaptations over the years, but I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that’s stayed as close to the source material. There are no new characters, there are really no new plot lines.”
The casting had to be a kind of alchemy. Along with casting director Louise Kiely (The Lobster, Dublin Murders), Guiney says, “Sally was very involved in finding the right Connell and Marianne. We wanted to cast Irish, ideally. And also, Lenny always likes to cast close in age to the characters. He did that on Room with Brie [Larson]. Obviously, the characters span age 17 to 22, so I guess that means that you’re not looking for people who are well-known, because there aren’t that many well-known actors at that age.”
Mescal was an early find for the team. Completely unknown to television, he had done some excellent theater work, Guiney says. “We loved him from very early days.” Finding Edgar-Jones took another couple of months. She had done some television before, including ITV’s Cold Feet and later, the BBC miniseries War of the Worlds.
When she met Mescal, Edgar-Jones immediately recognized the character from the book. “I think I was down to the final five girls that they were seeing,” she says. “I had obviously read the book and [the characters] feel so real. So, it was very odd then, meeting Paul and being like, ‘I’d like to know you, because you’re Connell.’”
For Mescal, the magic was there too—an experience so ephemeral it’s impossible to pinpoint. “How do you know when you meet your best friend?” he says. “Or how do you know when you meet any potentially lifelong partners, from a first meeting, that they are going to be that thing? You can’t. It’s a process that builds. But I knew very quickly, as we got into the shooting process, that Daisy was the perfect fit for Marianne as an actor.”
Their first chemistry read brought the room to tears. Abrahamson describes it thus: “There’s a very complicated scene, where she says, ‘I would lie down and you could do what you wanted to me.’ In the audition we simplified it. And I think we did the first kiss. And we did that lovely scene where they meet each other again in college. Oh my God, it’s so sizzling, that scene. Paul on that day… It was one of his great days. When he says to her, ‘You were always pretty. You’re beautiful,’ there was such an electricity between them. I looked around and Emma Norton, producer, Catherine Magee, producer, Louise Kiely, casting director, they were all having a cry. I remember just thinking, God, this is one of those onscreen relationships that you can really go with very light touches as a director.”
What Abrahamson also did beyond those light touches was to pare back the script even further. “What I spend a lot of time doing in pre-production is removing dialogue,” he says. “[With a book] you start with something blank and you’re adding. Nothing is there if you don’t decide to describe it. But cameras are a bit stupid. You take the lens cap off and everything floods in. And so, I find the process of removal is a part of really good filmmaking. It’s what you really don’t need. And that’s always a challenge in an adaptation.”
Edgar-Jones says, “It would be very easy to take all of the dialogue [from the book] and put it on the page and bring it to the scene. Often, we’d have that. And then Lenny would say, ‘Let’s cut back. Let’s really allow the audience to fill in the gaps.’”
Guiney and Abrahamson also knew that the intense, very intimate scenes were key, and they were aware of the need to protect everybody involved. So, an intimacy coordinator was brought in. “We had this wonderful person,” Guiney says. “A woman called Ita O’Brien, who, with Lenny and Daisy and Paul, and with the DP Suzi Lavelle, worked very closely together to create an atmosphere so that the actors could actually cease to worry about the choreography of those scenes, and could actually act. Because we had such young actors, we just wanted to make sure that they were as comfortable and as protected as possible, had as much agency in how those scenes were done and didn’t feel any pressure. Ita just creates a very—to use that well-worn phrase—safe space. But it is a really safe space where really good work can happen.”
“I wouldn’t ever sign on to a job now where sex is required without an intimacy coordinator,” Mescal says, “because I can’t imagine how you would do it.”
“Lenny was really keen that [we had] 50-50 nudity,” Edgar-Jones adds, “and making sure that was equal, but also that if you were going to use nudity, it wouldn’t just be thrown in for the sake of it, it would be a natural moment that it would occur.”
Lavelle and Abrahamson showed the actors the work of photographer Nan Goldin as a reference point for how relaxed and natural Marianne and Connell are in these scenes. “She did The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, during the ’80s,” Edgar-Jones says, “when she did these amazing photographs, like one of this couple in bed with the woman having dirty feet. Just these amazing observations of human beings.”
Having Macdonald direct the second half of the season was both a practical and tonal decision, Abrahamson says. Part of it was simply not having the time to shoot all 12 episodes himself, and some of it was knowing that in setting the tone, creating the style, and building the crew himself, he wouldn’t feel he was giving up half the show. He also felt that the script, and the original book, naturally fell into two halves. “There’s no massive shift,” he says, “but there is a kind of darkening in the second half. I thought it might be interesting for a really, really good director with their own strong, creative impulses to bring their own vision to it. So, even though it was going to have to work within the tone of what I created in the first block, we didn’t want somebody who was just going to come in and copy that; we wanted somebody with their own voice.”
Macdonald really embraced close camera work in those latter episodes, which fit with Abrahamson’s approach. “Hettie would sometimes say, ‘Okay, we filmed these shots, but this time, this is your secret camera,’” Edgar-Jones says. “This is where you tell the audience what you’re really feeling.’” The ‘secret camera’ was set up close to her face and in such a way that it allowed a kind of private communication. “I knew Marianne was this very vulnerable and soft person and she had a lot of self-doubt. She wasn’t actually this cold person. So, you give me a secret camera where I could go, ‘Okay, I’ve done all of that bit, but now I’ll show this camera exactly what’s really going on.’ That was really fun, learning skills of film acting. I’ve never really had the chance to do that. And I really enjoyed that process.”
An intense, months-long shoot, when you’re in almost every scene, and those scenes are deeply emotional, would be tough on any actor. But Mescal and Edgar-Jones developed a genuine friendship that helped lighten the load of the toughest beats. “[Marianne and Connell’s] dynamic is quite different from mine and Paul’s,” Edgar-Jones says, “because they are wonderful, but they are quite serious at times. And I think Paul and I are quite silly and we get hysterical quite quickly and easily. So, if we were ever doing things that were quite emotional, we were able to have a good giggle off screen.”
“Towards the end of the shoot,” Mescal says, “discussions around scenes just happened less and less and less, because—and this is kind of insane—we both knew without speaking to each other how we were going to play the scene. I feel like I got to the point with Daisy where I knew what we were both going to do before we did it, which is lovely.”
Their friendship is something both actors speak of very fondly. “I’ve definitely found a friend, one of my best friends for life,” Mescal says. “If the show had been an absolute failure, that’s something that brings me massive joy, that I found somebody who is an amazing person and who I really enjoy working with.”
“I think Paul and I will always be best friends,” adds Edgar-Jones. “One of the most special things I gained from Normal People was meeting Paul. Because it was a scary thing, and we were both very scared to go into doing it. It’s a lot of pressure taking on characters that people have already fallen in love with, and that were locked in their own imagination.”
Perhaps the scene that best showcases Mescal’s work comes when Connell experiences a serious bout of depression at college. While Marianne, temporarily studying in Sweden and split from Connell, tries to support him, even leaving their Skype connection open so she can watch over him as he sleeps, his friend from back home has committed suicide and Connell feels desperately adrift. As Mescal puts it, “The line that really jumped out to me, made me upset when I read it, is when he says, ‘Back home people liked me, here I don’t think people like me that much.’ I was like, Oh, this is f**king brutal. Ultimately, he feels so let down by his life decisions and events, that he says, ‘I thought that if I moved here, I’d feel better, but I don’t, I hate it here.’ Everything that he thought was going to make him feel content in the world has somehow not happened.”
We see Connell in a therapist’s office, first fighting tears, then sobbing as he describes his feelings, the camera barely moving from his face. “You prepare as much as you can,” Mescal says of doing emotional work, “and then you pray to God that something happens on the day, I don’t know. I haven’t worked consistently enough to know how to do it.”
Edgar-Jones enjoys the way Rooney ultimately shows how much goodness Connell and Marianne have brought to each other’s lives. “The simple thing of Marianne saying, ‘Oh, you go to sleep, I’ll stay up on Skype.’ It’s such a simple gesture, but it has a profound effect on how Connell heals, and eventually it builds him up in Episode 10. I think it’s about making sure that the people you surround yourself with are the people that are worthy of your love. Obviously, Connell is, but someone like [her other boyfriend] Jamie isn’t worthy of Marianne. It’s never going to work. It’s knowing that if you surround yourself with people who give you goodness, that can be the most formative thing, the most wonderful gift that human beings give each other.”
As with the novel, the ending of the series leaves Marianne and Connell at an ambiguous crossroads. Connell has been offered an opportunity to study creative writing in New York, and Marianne persuades him to accept, suggesting things between them are romantically over for now, but with the implication that they might find each other again one day. An ending aggravating enough that viewers will surely be clamoring for another season. Would Rooney write a follow-up?
“We’ve talked about the possibility of how interesting it would be to check back in with them,” Abrahamson says, “but apart from just general musings and over a drink, no, there have been no concrete discussions about what it would be like. As Sally says, the book stops where it stops because it feels right. But, I have a sneaking thing in the back of my head that if everybody was willing, and if the stars aligned, I’d love to revisit them in five years and find out what happened, where they are. Is somebody a father or a mother? What relationships are they in that then get disrupted by their meeting again? But it would be really strange to pick that up eight weeks later with him traveling to New York, I think. There needs to be time.” He would want to let the actors truly age those years too. “You’d do it for real, you’d do it á la Before Sunset.”
For now, though, Abrahamson and Guiney will be working on what Abrahamson calls “a cousin” to Normal People—Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends—which will be another Hulu series. It’s a love story set in Dublin again, this time between two young women, one of whom takes up with the husband of their older mutual friend. “But it’s different [from Normal People],” he says, “and we don’t want to do a sort of secret Season 2 thing.” Surely, he will be inundated by Normal People fans? “I hope we fulfill their now very high expectations.”
It seems then, that Marianne and Connell will have to live on in our minds for the foreseeable future. Where does Edgar-Jones imagine them? “I don’t know,” she says. “A little bit of me imagines that they’ll always be in each other’s lives. I just don’t know if it would be in the romantic sense, but at the same time, I find that quite hard to believe, because they do have this uniquely special connection. And so, I hope that they do end up getting married and have loads of kids.”
Mescal has also given this some thought. “Connell, I believe, would potentially get married to somebody else,” he says. “It’ll destroy lots of people’s lives along the way, because ultimately they’re going to be drawn. But they will consciously resist the idea that they’re supposed to be together. It’ll be a long process of discovery until they finally find each other permanently, I think.” Then he adds, more emphatically, “I really need them to be together. If Sally ever decides to do the second book or second series, I need them to be together.”
Why does he think they, and actually people in general, as he put it, consciously resist, or sabotage that kind of life-changing, intense connection?
He leans toward his laptop camera, revealing a silver necklace exactly like Connell’s. “I think it’s nuts,” he says, “and I think we all do it, and I don’t have an answer. If I had that answer, I’d be a billionaire.”