- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
The way the producers tell it, when Sally Rooney visited the Normal People set for the first time, it was Rooneymania all over again. It was the first week of filming the TV adaptation of Rooney’s world-gripping novel, set to debut on BBC and Hulu this spring. The cast and and crew bugged out, kept coming over to say hi, wanted to impress her. And when Sally first stepped foot in Marianne’s house, she said, “It’s like walking into the inside of my head.”
You can understand why Rooney would get the rock star treatment. Her second novel, Normal People—which follows two Irish teenagers, Connell and Marianne, as they fall in and out of each other’s lives from high school until they graduate from college—debuted in Ireland in summer 2018. And Irish readers quickly took to Rooney's brutal-yet-heartening story of the relationship between Connell, a popular jock who later becomes an outcast when he goes to Trinity College, and Marianne, who has the opposite journey as a loner-turned-socialite. But when Normal People released stateside nearly a year later, it promptly blew the hell up, and critics dubbed Rooney "the first great millennial author."
And with great literary success comes, naturally, the screen adaptation. A little over a month after Normal People released in the U.S., BBC and Hulu announced that they would adapt the novel, along with Rooney, as a 12-episode, half-hour miniseries with an early 2020 release date. Room’s Lenny Abrahamson directs the first six episodes, and Hugo-Award-winning director Hettie McDonald helms the last six. They filmed many of the scenes on location, in Dublin, Italy, and yes, Sligo—whose residents were so hyped that they decked of the town with Christmas decorations for the parts of the show set during the holidays.
So how do you nail the adaptation of a novel that sometimes feels like it happens entirely inside the heads of its two leads? Stay extremely faithful, almost line-for-line, to what that head of Rooney's dreamt up. “I think almost nothing has been sacrificed,” says Emma Norton, one of the show's producers.
Norton isn't kidding. In September, Esquire visited the Normal People set in Ireland. And even in a warehouse buried in some strange office park 30 minutes outside of Dublin, hanging around there feels like you bought the premium ticket to RooneyWorld. And if you’re at all familiar with the cerebral, beautiful, heartbreaking—really, every emotion there is to feel and probably some new ones—Normal People, you can imagine it’s a hell of a trip.
If you get lost on your way to the bathroom, shit, you’re in Connell’s claustrophobic, purposefully-under-decorated dorm room. Walk outside, and it’s the weather of the novel: Chilly, rainy, makes you want to steal Connell’s proper Christmas sweater. Just about every member of the cast and crew felt the book, hard, and could lead a semester-long seminar of Normal People, which the producers admit they carry around like the Bible. And everything—the distant, gloomy camerawork, the under-your-skin awkwardness between Connell and Marianne on screen—rings of the same sense of detail and know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself intuition of Rooney’s writing.
Which brings us to Connell—played by TV newcomer Paul Mescal, who actually attended Trinity College, the school his character went to in the book. Told you the producers weren’t messing around with accuracy here. Mescal, who has an extensive theater background, also was somewhat of a Gaelic football star for his hometown club Kildare (Connell and Mescal played different positions, though. Shame.). “When I first read Normal People, it was like you could literally take Connell’s name out and put my name in,” Mescal said. “The level of anxiety and the things he goes through are incredibly relatable.”
But casting the jock-turned-writer Connell was the easy part. “When we started casting, we all went, ‘Well, that’s Connell,’” Norton says. “I watched Paul, and I was like, Oh my God. Oh my God.” It was finding the right Marianne—a role which Norton and Catherine Magee, another producer on the show, say drew massive interest from British, American, and Irish actresses—that took more time. Eventually, the role went to British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who, like Mescal, has a theater background, but recently started landing TV gigs, like BBC’s upcoming War of the Worlds adaptation (which was actually a funny challenge for Edgar-Jones, who had to film a guts-everywhere scene for the alien drama one morning, then eat chocolate spread in an audition tape for Marianne later that day).
“We needed to find somebody who, at school, is not attractive and that people are mocking and are sort of antagonistic towards,” Norton says. “So we had to be able to find in Daisy a sort of strangeness that people could react against. Daisy’s beautiful, but there were others that were conventionally very beautiful and it was hard to see how we could make them have that slightly off-kilter thing. And Daisy does it really brilliantly.”
And when the Normal People crew finally got Daisy and Paul in front of a camera for a chemistry test? Phew. Both Magee and Norton both started crying when they watched Daisy and Paul read their first scene together. “We knew immediately, immediately, that’s it,” Magee says. “We have it. It was so exciting because so much pressure was on that casting, and on them to carry that show… It had to be as good as they are.”
The work the Normal People team put into the casting shows on camera, too—standing out in the same way as the book, with all the subtleties in the back-and-forths between Connell and Marianne coming across. When we were on set, the Normal People crew was just around the part in the later section of the book when Marianne visits Connell’s house for Christmas. Marianne had just finished crying when Connell knocks on her door. And when the two talk, it’s stilted, painful, and somehow even more visceral at times than the book—Edgar-Jones plays Marianne with this about-to-burst anxiety, and Mescal nails Connell’s lean-against-every-hard-surface body language, and sometimes-monosyllabic way of talking to Marianne.
Funny side note: Daisy and Paul’s real-life friendship seems nothing like their on-screen counterparts. They had to keep restarting the scene because Connell’s teddy-beared Christmas sweater gave them the giggles. Director Hettie MacDonald shouted at one point, “Be less Daisy, and more Marianne!”
Until we see the first footage for Normal People, rest assured you fans of young love: The adaptation is in good hands. The producers emphasize that there’s no B or C stories—just the A plot, Marianne and Connell. And clearly, everyone gets along pretty well, which seemed to help the group through, you know, all the pains of depicting young love, heartbreak, inability to communicate, etc. Daisy’s even buddies with all the Sligo bullies now.
“We were all staying in a hotel in Sligo, staying up watching Love Island every night, Edgar-Jones said. “And then, going into work absolutely broken if something dramatic had happened on Love Island.”
You Might Also Like