Daisy Edgar-Jones on What 'Normal People' Gets Right

Daisy Edgar-Jones on What 'Normal People' Gets Right

by Abigail Glasgow

Daisy Edgar-Jones is the type of person who concludes an interview with: "I want to ask you some questions now. I've just talked about myself!" Cheerful, humble and, occasionally, breaking into buoyant giggles, Edgar-Jones brought a lightness to our phone call that made me feel like I was catching up with a new friend — one who just so happened to be starring in the TV adaptation of one of the most popular books in a generation.

Along with actor Paul Mescal, Jones is the other half of the duo starring in Hulu's Normal People, based on the explosively popular novel by Irish author Sally Rooney about two young people from different sides of the proverbial tracks embarking on an intense, sometimes fraught relationship. In the series, Jones unravels the complicated character of Marianne seamlessly, gracefully portraying the hard-headed, brilliant mind whose resilience and frailty oscillate like a seesaw.

The 21-year-old actress and native Londoner trained at the renowned National Youth Theatre, whose notable alumni include the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Idris Elba and Helen Mirren, among others. Having previously appeared in a handful of British TV series, this will be her first big introduction to American audiences.

The series, like the book, explores themes like sexuality, self-esteem, class, self-discovery and, perhaps most centrally, the power dynamics that exist between two individuals and how those can ebb and flow over time. In tandem with the series' premiere today, PAPER wanted to hear from both its stars about their experiences filming the show, its nuanced depictions of gender dynamics and sexuality and what it means to be a "normal person."

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

What, if any, responsibility did you feel in playing Marianne, a character from such a beloved, widely-read book?

The environment created on set was so free and fun. Sally [Rooney] adapted the first six scripts and she was very involved with them but [director] Lenny [Abrahamson] also works in a way where he's quite loose with dialogue. So it wasn't like we were sticking to a script exactly, which meant that we all felt very relaxed. Initially I was like, "I can't do this, oh my god oh my god" [laughs] but during the filming, I forgot this was ever something that was going to be seen. It always felt like we were just making this thing together that was really good fun.

It's only really now that I'm suddenly thinking gosh this a character that people really love. Sally [Rooney] writes in a way where you get so attached to these characters. So, yeah, I do feel a bit of responsibility. I hope people like it, but I also know that with books you read whatever is true to you into a character. So, for me, what I understood about Marianne is my relationship with the world so I brought that to it. I'm a big book reader... and I'm very attached to the world I create. I hope people like it.

Gender and sex are so intrinsic to the plot and to the chemistry of the characters. How do you hope people will respond to these dynamics as they're depicted in the show?

I am really proud of those [sex] scenes in particular because I think they are really truthful and well-explored. Particularly the first sex scene in episode two with Marianne and Connell. I think it's such a healthy depiction of Marianne losing her virginity, because I think the way that Connell is with Marianne is so generous and kind. He makes such a safe space for her and I really hope that people — young people particularly— watch that and realize that that's what [sex] should be.

[Their sexual relationship] such an exploration of power. That's a real part of Marianne's discovery of sex as she starts to understand herself more. She has quite unhealthy ideas of herself. She feels unworthy and unloveable sometimes. And their growth in their relationship with their sexuality is really interesting. But it was important to tell that story in a way that doesn't make Marianne into too much of a victim. It's important that she is in some ways empowered by her relationship with sex. That it can be a healthy thing if it's with the right person and in the right relationship. When [sex] is with Connell, her [vulnerability] is empowering, I think. But when that giving away of power is with the wrong person, it can become toxic and that's when you've got to tread the line very carefully.

Do you think Marianne is ultimately an empowered character?

I think what's really interesting is when they first meet each other, even though Connell does really have the power [within] the secret relationship, socially [Marianne] is quite empowered in that she doesn't care about her social standing. And I think when she goes to Trinity and becomes more accepted, she feels at first that that's something she wants and seeks. But as she starts to grow up she realizes it's not something that makes her happy. I think that we've tried to tell the story of Marianne's relationship with herself being something that she has to come to terms with because she doesn't come from a very loving family so she has to work that out on her own.

I think we see the balance throughout the whole series of them empowering each other. That's what's so wonderful, and one of my favorite themes of the book. I think Sally writes in the story [how] being dependent on one another can be a wonderful thing, and to not fight that if you find someone you can be like that with. I think that's what's lovely about their relationship, as they grow up and come to terms with themselves, their dynamic is always shifting. I think there's a real balance between the two and we've really tried to make sure that that story is told. But it is very nuanced.

Was playing through that nuance difficult to get into?

I feel like it came quite naturally. I don't know if I'll ever have the chance to play a part where my character's whole brain is written out [laughs] in a well-written book. I mean, Paul [Mescal] and I would find it interesting because sometimes you'd be battling with the fact that certain chapters are written from your [character's] perspective and some are written from the other's. So [either] you'd be coming into a scene [wondering] whether you play what your character is feeling — because you know from the book — or do you play what the other character sees you as. Because I think we all in life have an idea of ourselves and how we're coming across that might be different from how we actually come across. So I took a lot of my hints of who Marianne was from how Connell talks of her. Like he talks about when he looks at her, how her eyes are kind of burned into the back of his head so I was like, "Okay she uses a lot of eye contact then."

Do you feel like Connell and Marianne are opposites? Do you feel like they're complements? How would you describe their relationship?

I feel like Marianne and Connell are both complements and opposites. They can talk frankly about things in a way they can't with others. They're both highly intelligent and very interested in the world and seem to see the world in a similar way. But I think it's their relationship with themselves [that] gets in the way. Marianne feels she's unworthy or unloveable so she acts in a way that she feels Connell must feel about her. And then Connell, he's got such social anxiety that he sometimes stumbles and gets in the way because he misunderstands Marianne and what she feels about him. So they're both similar in that they have a quite tricky relationship with who they are. They're quite an enigma.

Truly. Do you feel like Marianne's gender influences how she is and who she is?

I don't know. I don't think it does massively. I think she doesn't really think about it. I never felt that Marianne was at a disadvantage because of gender or that that came into play really. There's a scene [where] she talks about men generally—

Oh yeah when she says, "Men seem more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than in exercising their own."

Yes, yes! So I think she's so intelligent that she's able to kind of look at [gender dynamics] from the outside. I don't think she feels trapped by her gender in any way. I would say really that the dynamic that's the most tricky to navigate with them would be their class differences. But I think Marianne doesn't realize that, until they have a conversation.

That's when Marianne realizes the class dynamic actually exists. When it's specifically vocalized.

Yeah and it's actually Connell who — even though Marianne comes from wealth — it's actually Connell that has more privilege really because he comes from a loving family and Marianne doesn't.

What is your favorite part about the role and series?

I absolutely loved filming Marianne at school. I loved the innocence of the time when they were first together and she started to think that she could be loved by someone. I also really connected to Marianne at school. She talks a little bit about going to school one day and trying to change who she was to see if it would make a difference in the way people saw her, and it doesn't. And I think I found that at school, too. You know, you grow up a lot between 11 and 16. I felt that I was significantly different by the time I turned 16 but your friends will only see you as they have when you were 11. [Those scenes really hone in on] that feeling of not knowing who you are until you leave school and you meet new people and suddenly you're like, "Oh, finally I've got people who are more like me."

I loved that whole story. I just loved playing Marianne. I think she's an amazing woman. There were times where I felt really sorry for her. I just wanted someone to go tell her she needn't feel that way about herself. And I just loved what Connell gave her. Sometimes Paul and I would be coming up to a scene thinking oh man, it's a shame they can't just communicate. I just loved it. I loved being in Ireland. It was a very special time.

As you mentioned, Normal People really does portray a healthy version of sex. Can you talk through what it was like filming those scenes?

Those scenes actually became a really positive part of the whole process. I mean, they were so important to the series because they're such a massive part of the book. It was so wonderful having Ita who was the intimacy coordinator; she made those scenes completely professional. Because they're a stunt. There's no real acting involved to be honest; more than anything it's like a fight. So she was kind of in charge of making sure the story beats were correct, because you can see a lot about where [Marianne and Connell] are in the way that the scenes are choreographed. But also Lenny made such a space where we were allowed to just laugh and be natural and we didn't feel like we had to stick to script. And I'm really proud of the way they look. They're shot so beautifully.

So, last question: the use of the term normal. How do you define normal and how do you feel it plays out in the book?

For me, what I gained from doing this series is my understanding of the word. I think normal is so messy. It's like a big scribble. I think that's what life is like for everyone. And I think there's times where Marianne and Connell's relationship is not healthy, it's not a positive thing. It's times when they miscommunicate, it's times when they're quite mean to each other. Marianne's got an ugly side and so does Connell. I think that's a really positive thing to see because I don't think it's depicted very often.

We live in a world where everyone is constantly projecting the perfect side of themselves, and we live in a world of envy. Marianne and Connell's love is quite beautiful but I also think it's quite normal in that it sometimes doesn't work and sometimes you kind of want to go, "For God's sake just talk" and I think that's really relatable. And same with the way the sex is filmed, too, because I think that it's not [under] beautiful candle light and, I don't know, sheets billowing. It's messy and it's funny and it's awkward and it's all the things [sex] is in real life. I just think it's a really healthy depiction of what it is to be a human being and I think — I hope— people watch that and agree. And feel that they can see themselves in it. I think that's why the book is so loved because it's not that hard to imagine yourself in that place.

Watch Normal People on Hulu here.

Photos courtesy of Hulu