Normal People's Paul Mescal on bringing Sally Rooney's novel to TV: 'What if I get this wrong?'
In his first TV role, the Irish actor plays one half of the couple at the center of Hulu's adaptation of the poignant (and extremely sexy) coming-of-age story. No pressure.
Paul Mescal, the star of Hulu's Normal People, is pretty, well, normal.
When he connects via Zoom for an interview with EW, he's distracted and immediately apologizes, tossing his phone aside. "Sorry, Houseparty is going f---ing crazy," he says, referring to friends pinging him on yet another video-chat platform. "I can't go in right now — I'm working!" Mescal had better get used to all the attention. When all 12 episodes of the Ireland-set drama arrive on Hulu this Wednesday, it seems likely the newcomer is going to be inundated with requests, queries, and, let's face it, a healthy dose of thirst.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howards End) and adapted from Sally Rooney's best-selling novel of the same name, Normal People stars Mescal in his first on-screen role as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones (War of the Worlds) as Marianne, a couple whose on-and-off relationship spans the course of the series, from their insecure high school days to their time as students as Dublin's Trinity College. While Connell seemingly breezes through his teen phase as the popular kid in school — keeping his romance with Marianne a secret from his cool-crowd pals — when they meet again at university, it's Marianne who has settled into herself, leaving Connell feeling out of place.
As the story unfolds, the twosome come together and fall apart, never quite fully conveying their feelings and unintentionally distancing themselves from each other in the process. In the novel, it's Rooney's rich prose that keeps readers clued in to Marianne and Connell's inner thoughts, concerns, and confusions as the narration flips between them, but when it came to adapting those internal monologues for screen, subtlety was key. "Ultimately it came down to both myself and Daisy being incredibly familiar with the thoughts that the characters were thinking," says Mescal. "Lenny trusted us to communicate that with a degree of subtlety that's maybe slightly higher than in the book because Sally has the luxury of explaining to us what they're feeling. There was a responsibility to communicate all of that with looks, glances, breaths or half-finished sentences."
While shooting, Mescal kept a copy of the novel on hand, ready to dive back into Connell's thoughts whenever he needed. "I re-read and re-read and re-read," he says. "When you've got a piece of source material as rich as that, that you're not going to get in every job, you definitely embrace it." When it came time to meet with Rooney herself, Mescal wasn't as chill as he might've hoped, however. "I definitely wasn't cool when I met her," he says. "I was in total awe. Any time I meet her now, it's still the same."
Although he became a fast fan of the book and was certainly aware of all the buzz surrounding it early on, it wasn't until he heard about auditions for its adaptation that Mescal plowed through a copy. The young actor was in the middle of appearing in a play in Dublin when the casting call went out. "We were all saying that we were going to play Connell and Marianne and reading the book furiously," he recalls. "It was a really exciting time because we all recognized that it was going to be an Irish story and that they were looking for Irish actors." After a few strong auditions, a little white lie about the status of his driving license ("My agent was like, 'We are not losing this job over you not being able to drive so I’ll tell production that you can and in the meantime, you go off and rattle through as many lessons as you can.'"), and a callback meeting with Abrahamsom that went well, Mescal settled in for "what felt like a very long Christmas period" to await chemistry reads with potential costars. "I met Daisy at the chemistry reads and it just seemed to fall into place," he says.
In such an intense and yet quiet story, the importance of authentic chemistry can't be understated. "From Lenny's perspective, that was why being rigorous with the audition process was so important," says Mescal. "He couldn't take a risk on two people who may or may not have chemistry because obviously that's the real central anchor of the series and indeed the book." Luckily, for everyone involved, the spark between Edgar-Jones and Mescal was undeniable from the get-go. "I never felt any doubt that chemistry existed between us since we got in the room and auditioned together," says Mescal. "Daisy and I just got on. We have a very similar sense of humor and she's also just an astonishing actress and an even better person."
That bond was even more integral when it came to shoot one of the many intimate scenes between the two young actors, as Connell and Marianne explore their sexual relationship. For the first-time TV actor, the idea of filming those scenes gave him more anxiety than the actual process itself. With the help of an intimacy coordinator, both Mescal and Edgar-Jones found a "sense of security and safety that the nudity required on the show wasn't going to be used perversely or feel pornographic." The sex scenes have an authenticity to them, with ragged breathing and fumbling favored over soft lighting and mood music. "It was always Lenny's intention for it to be honest and truthful," says Mescal. "When you trust people of Lenny and Hettie's caliber, you trust what they want to do with the film. Ultimately, both Daisy and I felt incredibly autonomous within that process and I think that's really important, especially for young actors when there is a desire to please a lot of the time. We felt incredibly empowered throughout to discuss things that might make us feel uncomfortable if we were to see it back on screens."
The tougher days on set may have come when Mescal was portraying Connell's anxiety and deep depression, but once again Rooney's source material provided much of the support he needed to tackle it authentically. "I was really excited by how Sally wrote it," he says. "She didn't try to over explain why Connell has anxiety, why Connell has severe depression. Instead she shows the effects of those things. I think that's really refreshing because often in TV dramas and films you see depressed characters, but there's a really incredibly dramatic reason as to why that's the case. When something is written that well you feel an onus to try and match it in terms of performance and it was something I was really keen to get right. I put a lot of work and effort into trying to imagine what he was going through and trying to portray it as honestly as possible."
With all the intelligent effort and hard work put in, now all that awaits is the response from viewers, fans of the book and newcomers alike. Mescal would be lying if he said he isn't feeling the pressure. "From day one I was aware of how popular the book was and how people related to Connell," he says. "With great power comes great responsibility and there's an immense power behind the novel and the fans of the book are fanatic — and rightfully so. I have thought, 'Oh s---, what if I get this wrong? I’m gonna be hated and I’m never going to work again.'"
Considering the positive early reviews, it seems more than likely he'll work again — and often. Now all he has to do is try and stay as normal as possible. "It's a weird feeling, because I still feel a degree of ownership over it with Daisy and everybody who made it and that's about to be lost," he says of the show's imminent release. "It's suddenly going to be a very public thing, but I'm genuinely proud of the work and I'm really looking forward to an audience seeing it, in particular, those people who are fans of the book. I think we've managed to maintain the spirit of it."
All 12 episodes of Normal People arrive Wednesday on Hulu.
Normal People (TV series)