After talking with Paul Mescal, I don't know if I was more excited to share his insights on normality, sex and gender, or to declare my platonic love for the guy.
Mescal co-stars with actress Daisy Edgar-Jones in Hulu's Normal People, a new series out today adapted from Sally Rooney's hit novel exploring sex, class, gender dynamics and power through the lens of two young adults forging a relationship. Set in Ireland, the show features Mescal as Connell, a popular but insecure young man from modest means who falls for Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a whip-smart social outcast whose wealthy family employs Connell's mother as their cleaning lady. Combining the romantic pain of a novel and film like Atonement with occasional wry beats that echo Pretty in Pink, the series follows Marianne and Connell as they discover each other and, in doing so, discover themselves.
This is the first major role for the Maynooth, Ireland native and, as he's poised to break out here in the States and around the globe (the series will simultaneously air in the UK and Ireland along with the US), we wanted to get his perspective on the same themes we spoke to Edgar-Jones about gender dynamics, sexuality and what it means to be a "normal person."
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
I think the show really captures the book.
I've gotten to watch it a few times now. The first time I watched it I was in absolute stress — because I am a massive fan of the book — but the more I've watched, I see how we've done our absolute best to represent the book as accurately as possible.
Is this your first time seeing yourself on television?
Is that weird?
It's not pleasant [laughs]. But it's not as bad as I thought it would be. I'm so proud of the show; I can imagine if you weren't proud of what you were doing it would arguably be one of the most painful things you could expose yourself to.
Has anyone in your family seen it?
Yeah, I've shown them. It's odd watching some of the stuff with your family, though.
I was going to say, are the sex scenes weird to watch with your family?
I have a younger sister and that's the weird one. Whereas my mum and dad pretend to be cool with it, and I have a brother who is genuinely cool with it. I just have to tell my sister — because some of them are quite long — "you have to take a walk."
Speaking of the sex scenes, how do you feel like they compare to other films' or TV shows' depictions of young people and sex? I'm thinking in particular about the first sex scene we see in episode two.
I don't know if I'm just saying this, but I don't know if I've seen sex like that represented — like the way that the conversation they have leads seamlessly into sex. The form of communication goes from verbal to physical. And I think that's a power that they both possess [but] that they don't necessarily possess with other sexual partners that they have throughout the series.
I agree. I think how Connell is constantly asking her questions of how she feels—
Yeah and it's not pedantic. It doesn't feel like, "Oh I should be asking those questions" — it's not like, "Oh I'm covering my bases here" —
It's like, in another show, or in reality, you could have the guy playing the good guy saying "are you okay?" but knowing regardless [of his partner's answer], this is going to continue.
He's really attentive to her and I love the bits in the scene where she's saying "it hurts a little bit but I'm okay" and we — the audience — believe her.
Let's talk about some of the more complicated parts of Connell and Marianne's relationship. I'm not sure if "mistreatment" is quite the right word but there are times when he ignores her or when he stands passively by when she's being hurt by others. Without giving too much away, I'm thinking about two episodes — one in which she's verbally assaulted and Connell does nothing and another time when she's hurt physically and he finally steps in.
I wrestled with that a lot. And I think a lot of that has to do with social constructs that we inherit as men to a certain degree — that violence requires action whereas verbal abuse is easier to remain passive on. And that's not [to say] that I agree with that. In that scene where Marianne is called "ugly and flat chested," she genuinely offends [the guy who calls her that] and he comes back and says that horrendous thing to her.
He feels small.
Yeah, but then when [another character] grabs Marianne, she is relatively powerless in that situation because the guy has asserted his physical dominance. In that situation I think Connell's impulse kicks in and it overrides the deeply anxious part of his brain where he's like, "What do I say, when do I say it and how do I say it?" which kind of mutes him.
Right. That's interesting. When Marianne looks like an equal, and it's a verbal back and forth, there's no need for Connell to jump in. But when she's physically smaller, there's something—
Yes exactly, and we see that later in the book. I don't agree with the depiction of Marianne as a damsel in distress and Connell coming to rescue her. In the book I never saw it in that regard; it just sort of was the right thing for Connell to do and as the audience you're so relieved that he does do that because it's something that he wrestles with, and the audience sees [him wrestle] with [that] all the time. It's not something that comes easy to him to be chivalrous or to be the kind of classic leading man of a novel or a story that we see typically.
OK, so onto a broader question re: the usage of the word "normal" in the show, and the book. In the show, from what I've seen so far, the two times that I was aware that "normal" was used were when Connell is speaking to his mom and she's really pissed at him for not being kind to Marianne—
"Will you act normal?"
And then when Connell and Marianne are talking about how they can read each other's minds in bed and otherwise and—
I think that's my favorite scene of the whole series.
Yep, I love it so much. It's just really well done.
So how, in this context, would you define "normal?" Why do you think that is the title?
Holy shit. Great question. That's a really great question because my brain is working against itself right now. Maybe it's because I'm too close to it [that] I think that both Connell and Marianne are extraordinary. Like, I think they're the furthest people from normal in a sense — and also the closest people to normal. Like, I want to marry their brains.
[Laughs] Oh same.
They are deeply intelligent in a way that is really not imposing on the world or the people around them while there's this waffle and noise by other characters about how smart they are and how brilliant they are. But it's almost like they share this intelligence between them. And they're at their best and worst when they're together. And I think that is extraordinary. But I also think that socially there are people that we know who we would never deem extraordinary and I think that's the power of the title. Like I think normality is a term or a tool that we use when things are getting away from us. So I think Connell yearns for normalcy in his life [when] I think things are getting away from him.
As a woman watching the show, I'm struck by how easy it is to love Connell, despite how unkind his actions can be. How do you think — or hope — male viewers will perceive your character and react to his actions?
This [answer] might be nonsense but I think the show challenges men to be kind but also to be braver than Connell is, if that makes sense. In a way that's not "knight in shining armor" but is like, be brave and respectful in a sense that if you're called into action— and not in a kind of heroic sense— do it. And good things come of that. And I think the show is excellent in portraying that that is not an easy thing and it's not something that comes easy to any human being. And that's why I think we don't just purely criticize Connell. Because in another portrayal, he's an absolute villain. Like in a poorly made TV show, he's the villain. But he's so not that; he's just somebody who struggles with... action. And we see how Connell knows in his heart of hearts that his passivity is not the right thing and I think that's why he's redeemable in that sense. We see that the pressure of his friends bullying... it doesn't sit easily with him. He's deeply aware of the fact that it's wrong.
When I was reading Normal People at my office, actually, a man came up to me to chat about the book. And he said, "Connell is a really bad guy. He's horrible to Marianne; it's abuse, and it's toxic and it's certainly excused [by the author]." Do you have thoughts on this?
My thoughts are difficult to articulate in a way that's fair because I obviously don't see him as an abusive, toxic character whose actions are excused by Sally [Rooney]. I think it's very easy to castigate from a position when you're reading somebody who's flawed and I'd definitely agree [with him] if he had said that Connell certainly doesn't exercise the power that he has over Marianne in a very positive way at all points. But I don't think Connell does it in a manipulative way. I think the flaws and the issues that he has [are] in a self-reflective way, in the way he sees himself... I just think it's way too easy or too narrow-minded to suggest that somebody — who at his core is a decent, good person — is toxic and abusive. [With that accusation] I get slightly angry and I think that's not the point of the story. The point of the novel is that people are flawed and they're trying to figure out their way in life. I think he's struggling with his identity but I don't think he's toxic.
It can seem sometimes like we overuse the term "toxic" and that language doesn't allow for the gray conversations around behavior, identity and gender.
Yes, that's definitely how I feel. I feel that Connell's actions enter that gray area, but none of those decisions that he makes are irredeemable. I think they're something that a lot of good people may have done in their lives.
Which is a good distinction.
But that doesn't mean that that's not one abusing power. And I think the whole book is about who has power when and how they use it.
Let's talk about another kind of power — economic power — and the dynamic between Connell and Marianne. At the most basic, Marianne has money and Connell doesn't. How did you think about this dynamic's effect on their relationship?
[Money] is not something that they ever discuss. At all. Until later on in the show. Because up until that point, they're both on an intellectual level together, they're both on a physical level together. And they're kind of, even in their early 20s, living their best life and then something that exists in a massive reality for him—which is his service job that he's balancing with University — doesn't exist for her. And therefore he has to discuss something that highlights his social class to her, which kind of strips him. It would be like asking him to stand naked in front of her. It strips him in a way that isn't comfortable for him. It's easier for him to just step aside. There's that whole miscommunication, which was tricky to shoot because in the book it's never fully explained. But in reality how does it get to the point where someone half asks something and the other person isn't attentive enough to understand what's going on?
Do you believe that Connell is afraid of Marianne?
Yeah, I do.
You do, okay. Why?
Because of how she makes him feel alien in his own body sometimes.
Do you think that that speaks at all to gender dynamics?
No, I think it has more to do with... from my own experience...I don't know, when you meet somebody, that can happen. I think it's to do with the physical chemistry between two people and when that's right it can make you feel... incredibly alive and terrified and in love at the same time. And that's... difficult to comprehend. Even if you're intelligent.
How do you feel playing Connell has informed your real life, if it has at all?
I think I've got a good understanding about the power that I have as a young, white man in this world where it's a very privileged position. And it's not something that I take lightly. If that makes sense. It would be naive to say that's not a power that is handed [to] you in a society that not everybody is afforded. But that doesn't mean that there are not struggles to be had. I think Connell has all of those things but we see how somebody can really fucking struggle and be really lonely and sad and loved and all those complexities that can be really confusing. But also there's a huge amount of just this is what it is to grow up when you're not fully sure who you are but you know you're in a powerful position. That's what I love about the way Sally wrote it is that it clearly highlights the fact that he has a strong position in society but he doesn't thrive off it. Because I think he's a good person.
Watch Normal People on Hulu here.
Photos courtesy of Hulu
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