Paul Mescal didn’t think he’d be talking this much about his penis.
Well, he knew he would be talking about it some. The nudity and the sex scenes in Normal People would be of natural interest to people. They’re integral to the new Hulu series just as they were integral to the blockbuster 2018 Sally Rooney novel from which the show is adapted.
But this? This is a whole other thing. About his thing. Over and over again.
“It has been quite a prominent topic of conversation,” he says, bursting with laughter.
“I think if you told me before the show that there would have been this much conversation, I would have understood it a bit better,” he goes on. “But I think because me and Daisy became quite used to filming the scenes and we felt quite safe in it, that they didn't feel like massive events when we were filming. It was just kind of part of a week's work.”
The Daisy he is referring to is Daisy Edgar-Jones, the actress playing Marianne to Mescal’s Connell in Normal People, which hits Hulu on Wednesday.
Just the names Marianne and Connell are likely triggering to anyone who has read Rooney’s novel, a lightning-rod romance about high schoolers in a small Irish town whose secret sexual relationship becomes the defining connection of their lives, as they weather college years, coming of age, depression, loss, and their own identities.
It’s an almost excruciatingly intimate novel, told through dueling monologues from the star-crossed lovers’ perspectives. It’s a window into their feelings, anxieties, and desires so voyeuristic it borders on titillating as they figure out their relationship to the world, each other, and sex. It’s also, depending on which reader you talk to, incredibly irritating, as you become acquainted with the uglier parts of a person’s inner self that are rarely glimpsed, even in novel form.
Some hailed Normal People as a seminal millennial work, announcing Rooney as the voice of a generation and Connell and Marianne as its emblematic avatars: “The first great millennial love story,” “Sally Rooney writes books millennials want to read,” “A millennial’s answer to George Elliott.” Such crownings, of course, are reliably followed by a cultural coup. Backlash arrived swiftly, which is how you know Normal People was a literary event of the rarest kind.
Mescal and Edgar-Jones, at age 24 and 21, respectively, may not technically be millennials—born in February 1996, Mescal is on the cusp, depending on whose definition of the age range you consider to be official—but they were more than aware of the scrutiny they were facing being cast in a series tied to such a phenomenon.
Talking from their separate isolations over a Zoom video call, both say they first read the book during the audition process, and wondered how in the world something so immersive would be translated onto screen, let alone the sex part of it. “Mostly, you feel the pressure of it, yeah,” Edgar-Jones says.
Edgar-Jones, who grew up in London, began racking up notices in recent years for roles in the series Gentleman Jack and War of the Worlds. Normal People is Mescal’s television debut, coming two years after the Irish actor graduated from drama school.
A global shutdown means a scaling-back of the typical pomp and circumstance that would accompany a major coming out like this. “I think we'd be lying if we said we weren't looking forward to kind of coming over to New York and all the kind of fun bits,” he says. “You do kind of fantasize about those opportunities, but fingers crossed the other opportunities come our way at some point in our careers.”
In the meantime, they blush and laugh and seem, all in all, quite good-natured about the whole thing: the unusual circumstances in which they are promoting the show, the way they complicate what should be major moments in their careers, and, especially, the incessant invasive questions about sex.
“It's funny because we’re both happy enough to talk about it because we are very proud of that aspect of the show,” Edgar-Jones says. “I think it is handled really well. And it was really important in the book, so it’s important to do it justice. But, yeah, it has become strangely sort of massive, the amount of questions there have been around it. But I guess it’s understandable.”
To call the fascination understandable is an understatement. When you read, let alone watch Normal People, the sex is all you can think about.
Normal People is drenched in the melancholy of Ireland—the rain, unassuming handling of monumental feelings, the whole grayness vibe—which somehow makes it all that much hotter. Getting to know Marianne and Connell’s relationship means getting to know their turn-ons, their kinks, their throes of passion, and, most importantly, their post-coital connection, a time when two people lost in the world around them finally feel understood.
Sex is how these characters communicate. Their sexual experiences together change their respective lives, and not in the crass way that statement can be used to describe good sex. It’s transformative. It’s thrilling. It’s therapeutic. It’s awakening. It’s healing.
An intimacy coordinator was hired to stage the scenes in a way that was respectful to the actors, but which still telegraphed the rawness and carnality that is so vital to the book. That meant nudity, yes. But there’s something poignant in how it’s used here. When the characters are fully naked—and we mean fully—it’s when they’re in repose, the moments after sex when they’re talking, breathing together, sweating and thinking. Above all else, it’s quite beautiful.
If portraying intimacy is the goal, then holy hell… the show gets it. You might find yourself scandalized, embarrassed to have witnessed something so personal. You also might find yourself incredibly horny.
It goes without saying that it’s a unique experience to be watching a show that is so sexually intense at a time when, in our quarantines, human contact and physical interaction is impossible. Those pangs you feel missing the touch of another person are strummed like an Irish fiddle watching this show.
“Even if there's just a handshake on TV at the moment, I’m like…” Edgar-Jones says, feigning a gasp. “Now you got to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re not two meters away.’”
Still, this is not smut. The reason Normal People is talked about with such reverence and respect is because of the emotional heft behind those scenes, and how crucial they are to understanding Connell and Marianne.
“They never made a sex scene more or less important than the conversation,” Mescal says. “It’s as old as time that audiences are interested in sex and that dynamic and what comes with that. But you kind of forget about it because it’s something that was part of a much longer and bigger process.”
The word “journey” is far too often used to describe things like this, but that is precisely how Rooney wrote Marianne and Connell’s narrative, and how it plays out on Hulu, too.
There are human truths at play here that are devastating. The amount of love you can feel for someone can be unmanageable. You can be bad at loving them. You leave unspoken the things that desperately had to be said. You make decisions that seem small but ruin everything. You bungle circumstances, opportunities, gestures, platitudes, feelings...all of it. The most maddening part about it is how much you love them when you do it.
Maybe it’s the gravity of those ideas that have made Normal People so polarizing. Survey those who’ve read the book and you’ll find a near-even split between those who empathize deeply with the lead characters and those who find them absolutely insufferable.
Edgar-Jones never wavered in her compassion for Marianne when reading the book, but encountered this particular phenomenon after she was cast and began searching the #NormalPeople hashtag on social media.
“I always found it interesting when they kind of had opinions on Marianne that were quite negative, like they thought she was very cold and very hard to like,” she says. “For me that was really refreshing because it’s fun to be playing a character that is a real person and therefore isn’t always perfect and does things that are unkind. Maybe people find that hard to read, and maybe it’s because they relate to those bits more than they’d like to think.”
When it comes to Connell, there are those who see him as the consummate sensitive soul, a well-meaning guy who creates barriers to happiness in spite of himself, especially with Marianne. And then there are those who see him as the literary version of a fuckboy.
Mescal explodes with laughter at that particular accusation.
“I’ve heard him called a lot of things, but that’s not one of the titles I’ve been given,” he says. “I understand where it might be coming from. I definitely would disagree. I think it’s just too cheap a statement to use with him. I think it’d be different if Sally didn’t give us any context or any insight into how stressful that period of his life is. And that’s not me excusing his behavior. I think ultimately he suffers as a result of the decisions that he makes. And he also causes Marianne to suffer, obviously, but it’s not something that is easy for him or that he’s like, kind of discarding Marianne and her feelings, which would be the typical trait of a fuckboy, which I don’t think that he is.”
Sex, social media, and a dissection of the proverbial “fuckboy.” Maybe Normal People is the seminal millennial work after all.