'Normal People' Stars Talk the Raw and Real Depiction of Their Sex Scenes & More on the Drama (Exclusive)

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Hulu's Normal People
Hulu

Prepare to fall in love with Hulu's Normal People.

The series, which dropped on April 29 on Hulu, is based on Sally Rooney’s 2018 bestselling novel (one of Barack Obama's personal picks of 2019), young stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play star-crossed lovers Marianne and Connell, whose romance spans several years -- from their days in high school to university. As the 12-episode series set in Ireland progresses, Marianne and Connell go through incredible highs and the lowest of lows in their friendship turned all-consuming love story. For the 29-year-old Rooney, finding two capable actors to step into Marianne's and Connell's shoes was a tall order, considering how beloved her characters are.

"It's not an operatic kind of a book or show, so it felt like the most important thing was that in every moment they needed to be able to inhabit that reality, and even in the very quiet periods, to still feel like that emotional intensity was there," Rooney, also an executive producer on the series, told ET of Edgar-Jones' and Mescal's performances. "And that's what they brought. It wasn't tough. It was like, 'Oh. Here they are.'"

In January, ET sat down with Edgar-Jones, 21, and Mescal, 24, in his onscreen debut, at a five-star Pasadena, California, hotel for a 20-minute conversation about playing beloved literary characters, stripping down naked for intimate sex scenes, and why the characters' romance transcends time.

ET: When you first got the scripts, what immediately drew you to these two roles?

Paul Mescal: I like stories that involve romance and love. But I think when you look at it, I feel like in Connell, from my perspective, I'm representing a lot of people that I know and people that I understand. They all blend into Connell. You can take traits from those of my friends and put them into him and it forms him. When you see the script, that highlights that. It's a pressure in and of itself, but it's also... If I was to put down on paper without knowing that Connell existed in literature, that's the kind of character that I would have formed and wanted to play. I hadn't read the book before my first audition, but a lot of my friends had, and had loved it. So I'd heard a lot about it. After I got my first audition, though, I just fell in love with the character from the sides, particularly with Marianne. I think she's really funny and she's very witty and she's very clever. She's a brilliantly rounded person as a woman.

Daisy Edgar-Jones: She's got nothing obvious about her. She's completely nuanced and complex. I love that. I love to see women be written in that way. It's not always that you get those kind of parts, especially as a young person. A lot of the time if you're getting subjects through about teenage romance, it's usually quite light. But this is completely full of depth, darkness and all that comes with falling in love. I thought it was very rare that you get something like that in your email.

Mescal: Yeah, and it's the kind of thing that, you look at the script, initially you see it as a love story, but the more we played it, it spirals. It's about love. It's also about two people growing up independent of each other. Two people growing up in love with somebody else and all the joys and difficulties that that brings. The more we started digging into the scripts, the more it snowballs and the more joyous it is to play.

What was that first day on set like, where you were like, "All right, we're diving straight in"?

Mescal: Scary!

Edgar-Jones: Yeah, it was terrifying. We actually did the first scene of the whole series on our first day, which is great because that's when they're the most uncomfortable with each other and the most awkward. We were very self-conscious and very aware of everything. Your internal brain's going, "Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god." But on the outside you're going, "I'm ready. I know what I'm doing." There's this thing of the finding-out police. I always talk with my dad about this. He was like, "Dais, in whatever stage of your life, you think the finding-out police are going to knock on your door and be like, 'You're actually not meant to be here. It was a complete mistake.'" So I was just trying to quiet that voice in my head.

Hulu's Normal People
Hulu

When did you feel comfortable in your characters' shoes?

Mescal: I felt comfortable even prior to rehearsals. I felt comfortable with my thoughts of the character, but the scary thing was delivering that and -- this was brand new to me -- figuring out how I work on set. It wasn't necessarily not knowing what the character's thinking or feeling. It was about delivering those things in a new environment for me.

Edgar-Jones: Similarly, I felt quite comfortable with who Marianne was and my idea of her, but actually it wasn't really till my chemistry [read] with you that I suddenly was like, "Ah, I feel the click."

Mescal: Yeah, totally.

Edgar-Jones: Because I think there's something quite unique about their bond that I felt we were both able to communicate, and that helped me understand her further.

Mescal: It's impossible to describe. [Director] Lenny [Abrahamson] did say he suddenly started seeing the characters in a myriad of different planes. It definitely felt like that when I read with you, it was like, "Oh, Jesus. These scenes feel like we're actually talking to each other and not just auditioning the scene."

Marianne and Connell's love story has this timeless appeal to it. They're trying to figure out their identities separate from each other, but also together. They fail and they succeed. What is your take on their journeys?

Mescal: I think Connell's a lot happier with Marianne in his life than he is without her. I think he is less independent than he believes that he is. We see him at his happiest and at his most rounded and engaged with the world when he's in that constant conversation with Marianne, I think. Without her, he's rudderless.

Edgar-Jones: It's this real battle with Marianne, between her idea of herself and who she thinks she is versus who she actually is. In the book, it talks a lot about how she feels she is ultimately an unlovable person who doesn't really deserve happiness, who's cold. But I never felt that that's who she was. When she's with Connell, she starts to be able to become this person that she really is, which is someone who's full of love, warmth and kindness. He sees her, which her family and lots of friends at school never did. He really sees who she is and helps her to become that. I think that's what keeps drawing them together. They have a special way of communicating that nobody else does.

Did your perspective on your characters evolve over the course of filming?

Mescal: My core understandings of who he is didn't change, but the more we shot and the more we got to play them, the sadder I got for him, because when we're in the second block [of episodes], that's when he starts to deteriorate. It's all well and good to know them on paper. Anybody who reads the books, because the book's so well structured, you get a really great understanding of who they are. But when you're stepping in and playing them day after day, and then you have to go to the heavier places, you go back and you go, "I feel bad for him at the end of this."

Edgar-Jones: I was the same. We'd lived with them for so long and the schedule was quite intense, so there wasn't much time in the day when you weren't being Marianne and Connell. Block two is a very dark block, I felt that my mood was massively connected to Marianne's -- not that I was low the whole time. I was still having a good crack, but you know...

Mescal: You were having fun...

Edgar-Jones: Yeah, I was having fun. But you just felt desperately sad because I really care about Marianne and I really care about Connell, and I just wanted them to... We were sometimes coming on to scenes like, "Oh man, why can't they just talk? Why didn't they just talk?"

Mescal: "If they just said this or did this, we wouldn't have to play this sad scene."

There is a lot left unsaid between the two characters, which adds to the drama, the tension and the tragedy of it all.

Edgar-Jones: It's so funny because they're able to communicate about massively huge topics. But they just can't tell each other how they really feel. I think that's integral to being a really intelligent person, is that you're socially not so able sometimes to just cut through to what you mean. You over intellectualize everything.

Mescal: Or telling someone that you love them has nothing to do with intelligence. They can talk about global politics and all these things, but when it comes down, in both of their settings, to say how you really feel is the most naked you'll ever be, I think. They struggle with that as everybody does. Some people less so than Connell.

Hulu's Normal People
Hulu

You do have a lot of intimate scenes in this series. Was the nudity something you had to break through? Were you hesitant at all with the nudity?

Edgar-Jones: For me, and we talked about this a lot with Lenny, they are so integral to why the book is so brilliant. Those scenes are so wonderfully written in that they're not shied away from. They are really honest. The first time I read that book, that was one thing that strikes me. I couldn't believe how incredibly beautifully those scenes were written and how raw they are. That was really important to bring to the series too, because a depiction of what real sex is is not often what you see a lot of the time. It's very glossy or it's very romantic.

Mescal: Pornographic, in a sense. It's not. 

Edgar-Jones: We wanted to, and Lenny was really brilliant, and [director] Hettie [Macdonald], about wanting to weave that massively into the show without it being [a big] moment.

Mescal: And nobody was under any illusion that you can't do the book justice without doing those scenes justice. It might sound weird saying it. You get over the nerves of having to be naked in a room of strangers, but when you get to the point of shooting something that you really believe is a really healthy depiction of sex that you don't see on television a lot, once the parameters of safety are in place, which they were, and we felt really safe on set...

Edgar-Jones: Massively protected.

Mescal: You can actually really enjoy those scenes because they're a huge part of Marianne and Connell's relationship.

When did you know you were in a groove?

Edgar-Jones: I feel like the first time I really felt like, "Gosh, I think we've got it," was when we did the first kiss scene in the library.

Mescal: Yeah, that was day two of the shoot.

Edgar-Jones: I just remember thinking, "Gosh, this is really special." I felt it was quite intense, just like the book was. I enjoyed doing that scene.

Mescal: The one that jumped out into my head was the scene where they meet at Trinity College for the first time. The first two weeks of the shoot, we were obviously under time pressure, but that was the first evening where they first came up to us and was like, "OK, we're under time pressure here." We didn't even communicate it, but we both stepped up. I always loved that scene on paper when you see how they're put in a position where they can't be together and it allows their chemistry to really exist in the room. That was one of my favorites scenes to shoot because we were under pressure and, for me, it was a big moment. 

Do you share any common traits with your characters?

Edgar-Jones: Marianne's got a similar sense of humor to me. She's quite dry. She's probably funnier than me and cooler than me.

Mescal: She's not. Daisy's very cool.

Edgar-Jones: Shut up! Thanks. We're similar in that I really related to her in school. Maybe not so much in that she doesn't care so much about the social ladder. I definitely did. I wanted to fit in and be liked. That was a big thing in my life. I've always wanted to be liked. Marianne's lack of needing that, in school especially, I wish I'd had that. I also remember in the book she comes into school one day and she tries to change the way she is to see if it has an effect and it doesn't. I always really related to that in school. When you start at 11 and you finish at 16, you're such a different person. I found it hard to be different myself because people always saw me as who I was when I was 11. I was probably a bit mad. So, I really related to that. Her relationship with anxiety is definitely something I relate to. That would be me.

Mescal: I had a similar secondary school experience to Connell, in terms of sport. I played sport growing up. In terms of him going to Trinity to study English, I went to drama school to study acting in Trinity, but that was a surprise and a shock to my friends because that's not what they had pegged me down to do. Similarly, it's something that a lot twentysomething people will relate to. There's a crisis of identity around 16, 17. Then it comes around again in your early 20s, and I definitely felt that. 

This article was originally published at 8:30 AM PDT on April 28, 2020.

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