Daisy Edgar-Jones on Intimacy and “Normal People”
22-year old Daisy Edgar-Jones and her 24-year old co-star Paul Mescal had many intimate scenes as Marianne and Connell, who fall in love in Hulu’s TV-series Normal People. The TV series is based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People from 2018 and is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. It is an intimate depiction of young love as it develops from high school to college and evolves from a crush to deeper love. It is a story about the dynamic that exists between couples – how it shifts and turns, and how sex is an important and integral part of this. We spoke to the actress, who explains how an intimacy coach guided the young actors through their intimate scenes and how shocked she is that this is not always the norm.
You have mentioned that you read Sally Rooney’s novel while shooting the TV-series War of the Worlds. Can you explain the scenario of where you were when you read it the first time?
I was in a car. We were filming these scenes where our characters were trying to escape and get underground because there is an alien invasion. The book was under the glove compartment, and I kept getting it out and reading it, and then reading it later on in my hotel room at night. I read it in about two days because I loved it so much.
You read Normal People five times before shooting the series. Would you say it is one of your favorite books these days? And why?
It absolutely is my favorite book and when I put the book down, I still had not had my recall, so I was like “Oh no, this is my favorite book and now I have to sabotage it myself.” I really am a big romantic as well and my favorite types of stories are stories about love and relationships. That is the kind of literature that I am drawn to, and this one is written with such beautiful detail. It just captures their relationship so wonderfully. I would say that it is one of my favorite books. But I have a few others. I am also a big fan of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and I think what is quite interesting is that it is quite similar to Sally Rooney’s story in that it is very much an observation of human beings. It is set in a street and it observes lots of different neighbors as they interact with each other. I guess I just like stories about other human beings, and the simplicity of this story – there is no fantasy element, it is just a character study in a realistic setting – is also something that I am always drawn to in novels. Normal People obviously is the best version of that.
How would you describe Marianne to someone who does not know who she is? And how she develops from high school to college?
What I love about Marianne is that she is incredibly complex. I would say that is what is really interesting when you read the book and watch the series on TV. There is a real contrast between the way her inner life is as opposed to the way that she comes across to other characters. When you read the book, you have this idea that she is an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable person: even Connell’s mother Loraine says that she is a very sensitive person and that Liam should be careful with her, and yet when it comes to Connell’s perspective, he sees that she has these very smart come-backs, and thinks that she is this person who is very sure of herself.
Marianne is not popular in high school, although Connell is, she does not seem to mind. Is that a correct observation?
The reason she stands out in school is that she does not care about the social structure, which when you are at school feels like the epicenter of life. Obviously, when you leave school, you realize that this is not the case, but at the time it seems like everything depends on which position you have on the social ladder you are on, and Marianne just does not care about being on it at all: in the book, she talks about the fact that she tries to be different and nobody sees her differently, so she just has to accept that people don’t like her and that she has to live with that. It is through her relationship with Connell that she learns that she could fit in and be accepted, and that is why I found it difficult to play her at Trinity because it would be very easy to assume that she is very settled and happy now that she is popular, but she is not. She is still battling with low self-esteem and a low opinion of herself as she does not come from a loving family. So that is tricky too. She is just a very complex woman, and I love her.
You have quite a lot of intimate scenes with Paul Mescal, who plays Connell. How did you become comfortable while shooting the scenes? It seems you and Paul felt very at ease with each other.
I remember vividly reading those moments in the book and thinking about how beautifully raw and honest they were. We felt that it was important that they were done justice to in the series and we were so lucky that Paul and I had a wonderful friendship. We also felt that we were safe with the directors and Element (the studio) and they made sure we had an intimacy coordinator – she’s called Ita O’Brien, she was incredible. I am shocked to know that having an intimacy coordinator is a new thing, not the norm. I cannot imagine ever filming those scenes without someone like that. At the end of the day you are simulating something that is not real – just as you are with action scenes and fight scenes – and it is really important that you feel protected and safe and that everyone feels that everyone is comfortable. It is interesting the way that our director Lenny Abrahamson chose to film it – often with love scenes or even with fight scenes and car chases there seems to be a different set of rules, where the lighting is different and the camera is used differently from in dialogue scenes, but what Lenny and the production company, Element Pictures, were very keen to do was not to change the rules but treat the sex scenes just like they would in any other scenes because the two characters are still communicating something – it is just a non-verbal way of communicating emotion or feeling. So that was wonderful for Paul and me because it meant that we could just act the scene.
Marianne’s lowest point, as I see it, is when she is in Sweden studying. What does the trip to Sweden mean to Marianne?
That is a part of the book that I really wanted to do thoughtfully, and to do it justice. What is wonderful is that Sally does not paint any kind of view on the kind of path that Marianne goes down. It is a further discovery of herself as she was when she was growing up, and I think that it is really important to show that it is a very nuanced thing. The kind of relationship that she does seek in Sweden can be a wonderful thing if she is with someone who is kind and caring and who really loves her and treats her well. But in Sweden, I guess she seeks a confirmation of this view of herself that she is cold, unlovable, and unworthy of affection, and so it becomes quite a negative thing.
How was it to play those emotions?
I think it was tricky because when I read those chapters, she is going through this feeling of dissociation, and I think that is quite a difficult thing to play because, obviously, when you are dissociated you are very much inside yourself and it is quite a passive feeling, whereas when you are filming, you are always having to communicate something actively to an audience. So, I had to find a way of communicating an emptiness, which was quite tricky. Luckily I had the wonderful directors to help me, and I also remember this particular imagery in the book where Rooney talks about Marianne feeling like an empty elevator shaft: that was sort of something I would try to channel without speaking out loud – she’s finding it really hard to connect to her body and she talks about seeing blurred shapes and forgetting that she actually exists in the world. So finding active ways to play that passiveness was quite hard, but something that I enjoyed.
Marianne has a brother named Allan, who is not very caring towards her. You are an only child. How do you think your family situation has affected you?
As an only child, my relationships with my friends have always been very important: I did not grow up with a brother or a sister who was similar to me in age, and so my friends really mean a lot to me as I guess they replace that. I also have always had a very close relationship with my Mum and Dad, which I am very grateful for, and I guess I have grown up a bit quicker because I was around adults a lot. When I was little, I was not able to go and play with a brother or sister but had to sit at the dinner table and be quiet and be patient and things like that. I feel desperately sorry for Marianne that she has this relationship with Allan because it is so difficult.
Why do you think their relationship is so difficult?
What is interesting about the series is that we are also able to get a really interesting insight into the lives of Allan and their mother, Denise, too – we realize that they have emotional scar tissue that they are dealing with. Lenny and I talked about why Allan is the way he is – because we know that there was domestic abuse in the household – and we were wondering whether the reason why Denise was so sympathetic to Allan might have been because he was the one who was hit and maybe Marianne was not. Whatever, Marianne does not have the people at home who unconditionally love her the way that I am so lucky to have been loved by my parents, and so she has this view of herself that she is not worthy of love. It’s really sad, and I think that it is wonderful that her connection with Connell really allows her by the end of the series finally to find that she is worthy of the love she gets from her friends and the people she surrounds herself with. Being able to depend on somebody who is kind and caring is an amazing thing to have and really fundamental in our development.
You have had a lot of success with Normal People. What are your dreams for the future?
I think the thing I am most proud of about Normal People is that the representation of being a woman is really truthful to what it is to be a woman. What I like about Marianne is that she is complicated, and she is complex, she is dark and she is funny and really realistic, and I hope that I can continue to tell stories about women who are like the women that I know and love and that are not seen through the male gaze. I am done with that and that is why I am really proud of the fact that there is 50/50 nudity in this show too. Hopefully, after Normal People, there will carry on being more stories about women who are told by women, directed by women, and worked on by women. I just want to make sure that I carry on and represent the women I am surrounded by.