Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a novel about class, power, depression, young love, and sex. Lots of sex. The Hulu adaptation, out today, covers the same moody, lustful territory, now supplemented with visuals of young, attractive people exchanging meaningful looks and staring into the Irish scenery. Paul Mescal, the 24-year-old Irish actor who co-stars in the series, is, to put it mildly, a visual highlight.
Mescal plays Connell, whose relationship with Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) is the central focus of the novel, and the show. A former college soccer player turned actor, Mescal insists Connell is more “interesting and sexy” than he is, though some people might beg to differ — this is a guy who prepared for the role by creating a Connell-inspired playlist on Spotify, featuring Phoebe Bridgers and “So Long, Marianne” by Leonard Cohen. The latter is very spot-on, but when two actors manage to portray a relationship this successfully, it’s hard not to be.
Scenes between Connell and Marianne feel so intimate it’s sometimes hard to watch, like you’re getting caught reading someone’s diary. This includes the sex scenes, of course, but also smaller moments, like when the two lock eyes at a party while Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” plays in the background. You watch this, and you know — even if you haven’t read the novel — that these two are going to destroy each other without even trying. Just before the show’s premiere, Mescal and I talked about what it’s like to film such intimate moments, and what he hopes happens to the fictional Connell and Marianne in the future.
This show, as one of my colleagues phrased it, is best watched alone, and with a vibrator. There’s a lot of sex in this show, in other words. What can you tell me about shooting those scenes?
My overall experience of shooting those scenes was really quite positive. Me and Daisy felt safe, and ultimately, if you don’t feel safe, the scene is going to suffer because you’d have two incredibly self-conscious individuals fumbling around trying to get the scene right. You would never dream of doing a double backflip with a car without a stunt coordinator. Why put actors in an incredibly vulnerable situation and not support them? And I felt supported by Ita O’Brien, the intimacy coordinator.
We would discuss the scene emotionally first, what we feel is going on with the character. And then we’d discuss the stage direction, whether it’s the physical action or what the sex physically looks like. And then you start rehearsing it fully clothed.
It’s like a dance: Okay, so my hand is going to be here for the majority of the scene, and then we’ll start kissing and there’ll be a shift to a new position. It’s actually quite mechanical, so you rehearse until it feels natural. And then you hand it over to the characters.
How do you think the sex scenes helped to serve the story?
You allow the characters to be in the scene as they would any other scene. That’s why I think these scenes look accurate to real life. They look like two people who love each other, how they have good, healthy sex. You need certain scenes to look sexy and other scenes to look awkward and negotiated. It’s not billowing curtains and candlelight. It’s in your parents’ house in your childhood bed. I think it’s really refreshing to see.
Are you nervous that a lot of people will have seen you naked after the show premieres?
I am a bit nervous about that. But I wouldn’t like to have done the show without nudity in it, because the book is so visceral and raw, and when I read the book the characters are clearly naked in my head. Do I have to get naked? Yeah, absolutely fine. Do I want screenshots all over the internet? Probably not, but that’s ultimately something I can’t control.
What do you hope happens for Marianne and Connell?
I absolutely think that they find their way back to each other. I’m aware that the ending is ambiguous, but I do think they find their way back to each other. Does it happen simply? Probably not. I’d be just desperately upset to know that those two people have that connection and that they aren’t together — that would literally drive me mad.