Normal People stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal talk onscreen chemistry and why "it’s important to represent sex accurately onscreen"

By Kara Warner
April 29, 2020 10:35 AM
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For anyone looking to lose themselves in a rich, realistic romantic drama about life-changing first love, Hulu's Normal People is the series for you.

Based on Sally Rooney's bestselling novel, the Irish drama follows the complicated romance that develops between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from high school through college. She is a highly intelligent outsider from a wealthy family; he is a shy jock, part of the popular crowd, and his mother happens to clean Marianne's family's home. Their attraction is undeniable and sets in motion a many years-long affair that changes them both forever.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie McDonald (Howard's End), and co-written by Rooney herself, Normal People is a beautifully intimate portrayal of that once-in-a-lifetime, all-encompassing kind of love that shapes us forever, anchored by the powerful, palpable chemistry between its stars. (We challenge you to not binge all 12 episodes in one sitting)

PEOPLE recently spoke with newcomers Edgar-Jones, 21, and Mescal, 24, about their easy onscreen connection, falling in love with their characters and why everyone's talking about those sex scenes. "It’s important to represent sex accurately onscreen," Mescal says.

What did you think of Marianne and Connell when you first started to get to know these characters?

Edgar-Jones: I fell in love with both of them actually. I read the book after I sent off my first self tape. I really loved Marianne just from the audition scene I got, because she was so odd and quirky and funny, I thought "Who is this person?" Then I read the book and had my final chemistry read. I just love them, I love their story, I love how wonderfully flawed they are and how much they’re battling with themselves as they grow up, and it really resonated with me as it does with so many people, I think, because it is incredibly honest and truthful, and it’s amazing to see yourself in so many of the pages.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in 'Normal People'
Enda Bowe/Hulu

Mescal: I became obsessed with both of them very very quickly and still am obsessed with them. They’ve been at the forefront of my brain for a year and a half now. I don’t think there’s been a day since I’ve read it that I haven’t thought about them. It’s different because we worked on it all last summer, but they’re constantly in my brain.

What was your first meeting like and how did your friendship develop?

Mescal: I was in the process of doing chemistry reads with other actors that day, the kind of thing where I’d sit in, do the audition and be kicked out [of the room] while the powers that be discussed the audition that preceded it. I made a point when I’d be kicked out, to go say hello to whoever was going to be next, and went down to Daisy. It’s just weird looking back at it now, how shy we were which makes total sense, it’s a big day for both of us when we’re gonna hopefully find the person that’s playing opposite each other, but I think there was a very easy connection between us. We have very similar senses of humor and I think fundamentally enjoy each other’s company. It’s very hard to describe, I think.

Mescal and Edgar-Jones
Enda Bowe/Hulu

Edgar-Jones: I completely agree. We really laugh now because that day when we first met, I was, to use the right word, I was cacking it, would probably be the word I’d use, because I hadn’t been cast obviously and didn’t believe that I would have been. When you’re offered that kind of opportunity it’s like, "Oh God." I really wanted it obviously. Paul was really nice, he came and had a chat with me. I don’t think I said anything in English. We got cast and we were lucky we had two weeks rehearsals beforehand. It was really funny, we laugh now but we were really polite with each other and very serious when we were first chatting, just because it’s a strange thing, and within the first week of filming we were both cracking up over the stupidest things. I think we have a very similar sense of humor, which is really good.

How did you navigate those especially intimate scenes? They're so tastefully done, but realistic as well.

Edgar-Jones: We knew going into it that it was going to be part of the process because it’s a big part of the book, and it was important to do those scenes justice. I think we were really lucky that we had an immense amount of trust in everyone we were working with. Lenny, the whole of the production, Hettie and Ita [O'Brien], the intimacy coordinator, they made for such an environment that we always knew that we were allowed to be completely comfortable with everything and never feel like we had to do anything we didn’t want to. That’s really important, especially as a young actor when you’re eager to please, to not feel like you have to do anything unless you feel it’s something that’s important for the scene and is necessary.

Enda Bowe/Hulu

They became a positive thing, we always felt very very safe in the environment, and I think they come across really nicely. What was wonderful is that they never felt for the sake of it, they never felt like they were coming out of nowhere just to have a sex scene, which sometimes is the case. They were always very important for a particular story beat or narrative that we were furthering. Particularly their "first time" scene is really interesting because it comes at the end of this long dialogue scene. We filmed that all in one go and I’ve never seen an intimate scene that has started with a full on conversation and then ended in the act, so it was interesting to explore that. And it felt very truthful because that’s what it’s like, it’s a bit awkward and fumbly, and it was nice to portray that.

Mescal: I felt totally empowered and safe throughout the whole process, and I think that is the key to getting sex scenes right onscreen. Because ultimately if me and Daisy felt insecure, and don’t get me wrong, they are difficult things to film, there’s an unnatural elements to them, but ultimately, when the process makes you feel safe and creative and open, it’s a gonna make the sex scenes better, and I think it’s important to represent sex accurately onscreen.

Daisy Edgar-Jones
Enda Bowe/Hulu

They are beautifully done, I want to say aspirational, I hope that’s not weird ...

Mescal: No I totally know what you mean, it’s aspirational in the sense that what I’m taking from that is it’s how sex should be portrayed and that sex isn’t taboo, it’s not by candlelight and through billowy [scenery]. It’s a natural thing that occurs in most people’s lives, and it should feel no more stylized than a dialogue scene is onscreen. And I think that’s what Lenny and Hettie have done really well with Normal People.

When did you know you wanted to be actors?

Edgar-Jones: I think I’ve always found other human beings quite interesting and I’ve always loved storytelling, that’s been a big part of my life in any capacity. I love reading and I love being read to, watching TV, I just love learning about other people. And I always did school plays, but it wasn’t until I joined the National Youth Theater when I was 15 because my mom said ‘You should audition.’ And I think it was there that I imagined that it could maybe be a career possibility. I didn’t really think it was an option beforehand.

Paul Mescal
Enda Bowe/Hulu

Mescal: I came to it a little bit later. I did a school musical when I was 16 and kind of got bitten by the bug, but again wasn’t a career that I saw other people doing, it was just a hobby I enjoyed. Then when it came to applying for colleges, I very quickly had to decide what I most enjoyed doing the 18 years prior, and it was being onstage. I hastily applied to some drama schools and I was late, so I only ended up applying to the Lir [National Academy of Dramatic Art] in Dublin and got in through the drama school regimen, and I’ve loved it ever since.

What do you enjoy most when you’re not working?

Mescal: I’d say we’re a bit of both. I love exercise, watching television, reading; fairly generic and probably boring answers, but that’s me.

Edgar-Jones: I’d probably be the same. I like to think I’m artsy, probably not as artsy as Marianne, but yeah, I’m an artsy type.

Normal People is now streaming on Hulu.