They’re running out of time. They only have the pool for one day, and the scene has to hit just right. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal know the storyline hinges on this moment: Their characters, tortured young lovers Marianne and Connell, have finally settled into an outward ease. When Connell sits beside Marianne at the water’s edge, wrapping his arm around her waist and kissing her shoulder, it’s the first time they’ve touched in public—and not with “six closed doors between us and another person,” as Marianne lamented in an earlier scene.
But Connell is distracted. He can’t bring himself to ask Marianne if he can move in with her for the summer. His embarrassment over not being able to afford his rent, not to mention the fear of her rejection, paralyzes him. The crowd at the pool party goes hazy, but when he locks eyes with Marianne, it grounds him. He knows she’s his home. He’s just not sure she feels the same way.
On set, the script’s not working for Mescal. It’s pulled word-for-word from Sally Rooney’s 2019 book, but Connell’s saying too much. Mescal turns to director Lenny Abrahamson and says something like, “This is beautifully written, but if Connell says the words written here, Marianne is smart enough to understand that something’s wrong.” He knows that the less Connell says, the clearer it would be that he’s really struggling with something. He also knows how “ballsy” this sounds—Normal People is his first-ever screen role, and Abrahamson has an Oscar nom. But the director pauses to consider Mescal’s point. Then he shoots the scene to incorporate his star’s suggestion.
It’s a tiny change, but it captures the particularly piercing interiority of the series’ source material. Through the lens of a young couple’s on-again, off-again relationship, Rooney’s Normal People explores issues of class and power dynamics as well as 21st-century concerns, like the inherent flaws in texting, email, and other context-bereft forms of modern communication. The series, naturally, leans more into the couple’s IRL interactions (“I don’t think Marianne has an Instagram account—I can’t imagine what would be on it,” Edgar-Jones notes), but when the book hit U.S. shelves last April, critics labeled the then-28-year-old Irish author the voice of her generation. Such praise is deserved, but doesn’t fully encapsulate her appeal. Edgar-Jones gets closer when she points out just how succinctly Rooney mines “the grief of 18 to 22 we all go through.” There’s an Austen-like quality to the story, especially in the couple’s flounderings and misunderstandings, which occasionally fuse with unspoken truths into rare, blessed moments of communion. “[Marianne and Connell] are very complicated, flawed, and sometimes quite unlikeable,” Edgar-Jones adds. “Sally creates characters who are real, and therefore make mistakes and can be ugly sometimes.” The adaptation gives a visual language to their dance, rendering a couple that says what they feel with their bodies instead of words.
Eight months ago, I flew to Dublin to observe filming on Normal People. Then, its leads were quiet and focused, eager to discuss the pressures and thrills that come with landing your big break. Now, as we reminisce about a pre-quarantine world over Zoom, Edgar-Jones is calm and cheerful, her excitement radiating through a layer of grime on my laptop screen. Likewise, Mescal shows no sign of Connell’s mumbling insecurity, and instead offers rapid, thoughtful analysis. “You don’t typically recognize your own sexual experiences on screen—it’s glamorized or it’s made to be incredibly sexy,” Mescal says. “But when I read the book and the script, I was like, ‘I recognize the situation both of these characters are in.”
Going by the chatter on social media, viewers agree. The show’s much-discussed sex scenes are a revelation—directors Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald (who helmed the second half of the 12-episode series) give space to the halting touches and swallowed words of a sexual awakening without any hint of voyeurism. You’re not merely observing—you’re in the room, and you’re the naked one. Unlike Normal People’s contemporaries—Euphoria, or Netflix’s recent sex-positive teen offerings like Sex Education or Never Have I Ever—the show isn’t trying to scandalize the audience or ridicule its characters for the sake of a meme. It’s depicting what a healthy, uninhibited sexual relationship looks like, with an emphasis on consent and mutual satisfaction.
Abrahamson, who also co-created and executive-produced the series, was committed to honoring the fundamental truths of Rooney’s book. “From the beginning, we said this adaptation would take its characters seriously in the way the novel takes the characters seriously,” he says. “The intimate scenes aren’t glossy—they’re not attempting to shock the older audience with, ‘look at what our young people are doing.’ It’s looking as honestly as it can at this remarkable love affair between these people.” Sex, then, is as essential to Marianne and Connell’s narrative as any line of dialogue. Take their first time: The camera lingers on their shy grins and stuttered breathing, the fumbled undressing, the hesitant assurances. “At no point do we stop telling the story of what’s passing between them,” Abrahamson says.
During our Zoom chat, Edgar-Jones and Mescal keep returning to the same word: “safe.” Trust permeated the set, from Abrahamson’s receptiveness to script change suggestions to the actors’ comfort level during the more intimate scenes. “If we don’t feel safe, we’re not going to communicate effectively,” Mescal says. “It’s not natural to be in a room naked with a camera in front of you. The key is to [make it] about the characters and the action.”
Edgar-Jones recalls the early terror of approaching the sex scenes. “When you’re a young actor, you want to please. You’re doing your best, and you don’t want to upset anyone. It’s a very vulnerable place to put yourself in. But we always felt there was a reason behind everything and that we were safe.” Both actors credit intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien with helping them ease into their characters and convey the reality of their situations. “I wouldn’t sign on to a production if I had to do sex scenes without an intimacy coordinator,” Mescal says. “It would be like asking me to do a stunt without a stunt coordinator.” Adds Edgar-Jones, “[Now] I will never stand for anything [less] than that.”
O’Brien recalls a scene in episode 5 which called for complete nudity from both actors. In it, Connell is resting his head on Marianne’s belly, a post-coital moment, revealing “that natural, dropped-open nakedness which I think is beautiful” O’Brien says. “Then again, in that same episode, [Connell] comes back from a shower, not hiding. Lenny’s intention was natural normalness—how the human form is beautiful, both in its masculine and feminine form, and to not focus on it, but to not shy away from it. You feel the rawness of these two beautiful people.”
Okay, but it wasn’t always so serious. “The intimate scenes always ended up being quite funny because then you’d go to lunch with all your pals and be like, ‘So that happened,’” Edgar-Jones says with a giggle. A quick skim of the leads’ Instagram feeds from the May-October 2019 shooting period reveals a joyful summer camp vibe on set. The day I visited set, a Christmas sweater sent the cast into such paroxysms of laughter, Mescal had to take it off in order to finish filming the scene. Production culminated in a two-week shoot in Italy, which involved smuggling Prosecco meant for the dinner party in episode 8. “They ended up being short of bottles for the actual scene,” Edgar-Jones recalls. But she doesn’t feel too bad: “We all had a wee plastic cup and were listening to music as we drove through this incredible landscape to Rome.”
The tears came later in the week, on the last day of production. While filming a tender sequence biking through the Italian countryside, Mescal kept saying, “I’m kinda looking forward to this being over. I’m not going to cry. I’m just exhausted.” Now he’s laughing so hard he can barely get the words out. “The coverage was on Daisy, and I’m in the car with Hettie and [assistant director] Gail. They called ‘Cut!’ and I ran to Daisy, bawling immediately.” Edgar Jones thought he was laughing at the time—“Paul had been making fun of me the whole day because I have bow legs and I cycle with my legs like this [she alternates raising her hands up and down] while my head stays very straight”—but that wasn’t the case. “I was a mess,” Mescal admits. “Full-on bawling.”
They watched the first two episodes together, their hands covering their eyes, in the second-to-last week of production. “That was a very scary hour,” Edgar Jones recalls. “It’s impossible for me and Daisy to decide [if] it’s good or bad—we’re too close to the project,” Mescal adds. “But I was really happy that I recognized the show that we shot. I recognized the discussions we were having prior to shooting in the scene. It gives me a massive sense of relief.”
Mescal and Edgar-Jones maintain that Normal People’s success is all to do with Rooney’s story and nothing to do with their performances or electric chemistry. “Connell is just a way more interesting person than I am,” Mescal insists. “I wish I could be as enigmatic.” Again, social media says otherwise—Mescal’s already been branded the “Internet’s new boyfriend,” and his Instagram followers jumped from 5,000 to 210k in less than a week. There’s even an account devoted to the simple silver chain Connell never takes off on the show. Back in Dublin, I asked if he was ready to become an “international heartthrob,” but Mescal refused to consider the possibility. “I’m ready for a rest,” he joked. “I just hope it’s well received.”
That’s one goal accomplished. In an oversaturated landscape, the post-“our show is a 73-hour movie,” era, Normal People marks a return to what makes TV such an immersive, necessary medium. The reality of contemporary life—the buzzing phones and social media pings and 24/7 pressure to be ”on”—rarely allows us to sit back and absorb the quieter moments of intimacy. Normal People lets Marianne and Connell’s relationship steep, and viewers surface after a weepy six hours as if from a cathartic dream. Perhaps all it takes is being a bit ballsy.