Unless you're one of those "we bought a house together at 18" weirdos, your first serious relationship is rarely something you care to remember, but often something that finds its way into your mind regardless. For example, the boyfriend I had just before university – who used "liking bacon" as a personality trait and genuinely loved LMFAO – ghosted me the day I moved into halls. As much as I'd like to never think about him, it's something that pops up every now and then.
For those of us invested in analysing every detail of a relationship, whether it be our own or someone else's, Sally Rooney's 2018 novel Normal People provided the perfect read. Following an intense relationship between Marianne and Connell across the space of four years – from the high school in County Sligo where they meet, to Trinity College Dublin – Normal People is a remarkable story about something that happens to pretty much everyone, tracking how two teenagers handle a relationship as they grow up and fuck up during life's most confusing and hormonal period.
Ahead of its long-awaited TV adaptation, which hits BBC Three this week, I video-called Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, who play Marianne and Connell. As we all looked into each other's homes over Zoom, it was difficult to ignore the fact that we were all in lockdown, and Edgar-Jones joked that the series being released now could be too much for some viewers: "They’re certainly not social distancing in this series!"
I spoke to the pair about first loves, first times and what they’ve learned about relationships from Marianne and Connell.
VICE: Congratulations on the new series! Everyone seems to see themselves in this story and have been anticipating the adaptation, kind of like when Twilight came out. What was it like to step into the shoes of the modern day Romeo and Juliet?
Paul Mescal: After I'd been cast, I feel like everyone I saw was reading Normal People, and that adds its own pressure. People are reading it because the characters are so well written, so I was trying to put a positive spin on it, being like, 'Okay, we're in a privileged position to get to have a go at playing these people.' It's very hard to make pressure seem positive, but that was my little game with myself, I think.
Daisy Edgar-Jones: Definitely! I'm a big book reader and I always watch adaptations, and I'm like, 'Oh, that's not how I imagined it,' and it's really hard not to do that. Even when we were filming sometimes, I'd come to set and it would be exactly how I pictured it. Other times, I would come to set and think, 'Oh, that's interesting that that's someone else's vision of what Marianne's bedroom looks like,' for example. But I feel we've captured the tone very well. Personally, I think [directors] Lenny [Abrahamson] and Hetty [McDonald] have done such a good job of finding a way to tell a story of these very inward characters in an external way. I do feel a wee bit of pressure, because I know we're not going to satisfy everyone, but I hope that people enjoy a different way of carrying on and watching the story with this TV format.
Do either of you see your past relationships in Marianne and Connell's story?
Daisy: The times where they miscommunicate is a very relatable part of being in a relationship. It's so strange when two intelligent people can speak so deeply and intellectually about massive subjects, but can't seem to do the simple thing of communicating about whether they actually like each other or not.
Paul: When you're playing a part that's written about you and your peers, you definitely take parts of yourself to it. There are also parts of Connell that I think are very different from me, and getting to blend those two things is the ideal place to come to a character.
Daisy: When you love someone a lot, you feel like you know them better than they know themselves, or you read into the way they act as something that isn't really what they're intending. I really relate to that, and the pain. [Marianne and Connell] are not always the best people for each other. Sometimes they don't treat each other kindly, and they aren't always the happiest they can be. We [usually] see relationships on TV that are ones we can't relate to because they're seemingly perfect, so it's refreshing to see a relationship where that isn't always the case.
In terms of representations of young love, it's really different to what we grew up with, which was always a lot more lighthearted or comedic.
Daisy: Yes! What I really love about the series and the book is that it doesn't take young love lightly. It's full of depth and darkness and all the things that are true to falling in love, like feeling heartbreak for the first time and starting to find out who you are, and pieces it all together in a way that isn’t patronising. I think sometimes young love is seen in that way, like, "Oh, you know, just growing up." But it’s actually a massive period of change when you're 17 to 22. You have a lot of self-doubt and self-hatred, and that's just part of being human.
And it’s usually focused on young women being heartbroken over men, so it's refreshing to see Connell's emotions as they start to bubble up and over.
Paul: Totally. In our own relationships in life, you're only seeing the dissolution of a relationship from your own perspective. In a classic narrative, you’d be like, "Connell's a dick here," which he is a bit, but you're also seeing the battle that he's having with himself over his own behaviour. It’s not common that you get to see that, and I think that’s really exciting to watch in a non-judgmental way.
Along with Connell acting like a dick, his friends are usually a lot worse, which definitely affects him. How much do you think our friendships negatively affect our romantic endeavours?
Paul: His friends behave in such an awful way – and it's not that I'm defending their behaviour in any way shape or form, but I think that it's an insight into one of his friends who commits suicide. Sally never allows their behaviour to be OK just because a terrible act has happened, but you also see they’re deeply insecure individuals, which is motivating that behaviour. I think Connell is lucky that he has Marianne to challenge his behaviour, whereas someone like Rob doesn't have that. Rob exists by trying to make people feel inferior, and ultimately that's why I think he commits suicide, and I think it's horrendously sad that he has no awareness of his place in the world because of the behaviour that he's allowed himself to impose on others.
Eric has a really small but important conversation with Connell at the end of episode three, when he says that none of us cared that [he and Marianne] were having sex – and for Connell that flips his whole perspective and what he thinks his social position was, because he was dating Marianne. The truth is that his friends didn't actually care, they just didn’t like Marianne for whatever reason. Suddenly, that forces Connell to lose his mind a little bit, and he realises that the social position he was trying to protect for himself had nothing to do with him, dating or sleeping or being with Marianne. That’s a really important life lesson for him at this point.
Is being influenced by your friends something we grow out of?
Paul: I think it comes down to the individual. If I liked someone it wouldn't bother me what my friends say, but I think it would be a different story if I were 17 or 18.
Did you learn a lot about relationships while filming?
Paul: When Marianne and Connell are completely isolated from each other and only communicating through Skype or email, you can really feel their absence is almost as important as when they’re together. That's when they suddenly start to realise that they can’t really exist to their best selves without each other. That’s a really beautiful thing to discover, but also incredibly sad when you’re not in a position to be together. I find it quite poignant and quite beautiful that you realise the necessity both of these people feel for each other.
Is there a scene that you think captures the notion of a first love really well?
Daisy: I loved the first sex scene because it’s so awkward and clumsy and funny and not perfect. What I love is the way Connell treats Marianne, and I think that’s a really important depiction that we should see more of. Connell is wanting to make sure that she’s comfortable and safe and that she’s feeling OK, and Marianne’s just like, 'Shut up get on with it.' The actual sex part is quite short, but there's such a long build-up where they’re awkwardly making conversation while they’re there. That’s something I love watching: two people just kind of making conversation about posters on a wall because they want to get to the bit where they don’t have to speak.
Paul: I think it’s slightly different to other films and shows, in that it’s not a gratuitous sex scene. It’s a sex scene that is advancing the relationship of these two characters. From an actor's perspective it’s not like, 'Shit, I have to do this empty sex scene just for the sake of it.' You’re still playing a very important scene for both the characters in it.
Daisy: We were filming that scene on a set in the middle of a gym where we were filming quite a lot of the school scenes, so there were a lot of hot lights and no ventilation. It’s a tiny room with four of the crew cramped in, and all I could think about was fresh air! I actually couldn’t believe that I communicated any words during filming because I was so hot. Do you remember that, Paul? We were sweating.
Paul: Two days of just sweat! What’s funny is that they were putting fake sweat on us, too. We're [already] literally dripping in it.
Dating has definitely changed since the time that Normal People is set in. Do you think Hinge or Tinder would have changed their relationship like it has everyone else's?
Daisy: The book is often called the book for millennials, and what I love is that they speak. They really talk about massive subjects, and they have a wonderful way of communicating. I do hope that if there was such a thing as Hinge that they would communicate more in person than over messages, because I think there’s something very thrilling about the way they talk to each other. We’re a generation that’s thought of as a dating app generation, and there’s nothing wrong with that – I think it’s a brilliant way to meet people and also meet friends – but I do like the way that Marianne and Connell talk in person.
Has playing Marianne and Connell taught you anything that you’ll take into your relationships?
Daisy: I love Marianne and Connell, and they have such a beautiful relationship, even if it is flawed. I’m very envious of the way they can speak about stuff on such a deep level and they’re so highly intelligent, but there’s lots about Marianne and Connell’s relationship that I’m glad I don’t have with my partner. We’re a lot less intense! What I love about when they get together is that Marianne sort of starts to reevaluate the way that she is, and starts to think that maybe she is a lovable person. I’ve definitely had and love that feeling.
Paul: I imagine Connell would be a very stressful person to be with [laughs]. I think we live in an age where Connell and Marianne are definitely in the minority, in the sense that most people I know do generally meet either through work or through dating apps, but [Connell and Marianne] just seem to connect. In an ideal world, that is how I’d like to meet my partner – just by connection. But that’s not something you can go out looking for, it’s just something that happens to you.
BBC Three’s 'Normal People' lands on BBC iPlayer on Sunday the 26th of April, and airs on BBC One from Monday the 27th of April at 9PM.