Last spring, Daisy Edgar-Jones appeared in the BBC’s 12-part dramatization of Normal People, the Sally Rooney novel that concerns the on-off love affair between two young Irish students. There is Marianne – played by Edgar-Jones – who begins the saga as a bookish and aloof loner, and there is Connell – played by Paul Mescal – who, while ostensibly popular and sporty, is deeply sensitive though often emotionally opaque. The two form a profound intellectual and, very quickly, sexual bond that is charted as they progress from secondary school in Co Sligo and then on to Trinity College Dublin.
There is a good chance you already know all this. The 2018 book was a best seller and the TV adaptation was the BBC’s most streamed series of 2020, with 63 million views between April and November last year. Beautifully shot and with note-perfect performances, Emmy nominations followed, and when the Golden Globes nominations were announced earlier this month, there was Edgar-Jones among the contenders for best actress in a limited series. It was great.
So by rights, Edgar-Jones should have spent the past eight months or so living the life of any talented, 22-year-old breakout actress: of chat-show circuits and red carpets, of meetings in Los Angeles and Fashion Week front rows, of paparazzi scrums as she glides out of Soho in a blacked-out people carrier at two in the morning. Only, obviously, this hasn’t happened at all. She is living with her mom and dad in Muswell Hill, north London. And while she is now a star in a virtual sense – she has attracted nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram, for instance – she says that it feels a strange, disembodied kind of fame.
“There’s a part of my brain that’s like, ‘Wow, this simulated video game I’m playing on my phone is really fun! And really cool!’ But it doesn’t always feel connected to something,” she says brightly. It’s as though, she continues, she has created a character in The Sims who has somehow managed to become a famous actress. “It’s like, ‘Wow! My Sim is doing pretty well!’ ”
Whereas the character of Marianne was marked, she says, by a “stillness and quiet thoughtfulness”, in person, Edgar-Jones is big on movement and expression, dark doe eyes swelling to saucer size and back again over the course of her sentences, little chuckles, frowns and nods punctuating pretty much everything. She is funny and articulate, employs an occasionally Malory Towers-ish vocabulary (“Gosh!”, “Oh my goodness!” etc) and understands better than anybody that she is not the character she shot to fame as. “There is an element of her quietness that I’m trying to retain,” she says. “But I’m not sure how well I’m succeeding.”
Normal People was more than a commercial and critical success. It became – and remains – a sort of pop-culture phenomenon, the quintessential TV show of lockdown 2020. At a time when so many viewers found themselves isolated and lonely, six hours’ worth of drama about physical and emotional intimacy was always going to ignite, well… something. As heady a depiction of first, formative love as you’ll see, it was a show that launched untold numbers of late-night Facebook messages to old school flames. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve actually reached out to my old boyfriend from when I was 17,’ ” says Edgar-Jones. “ ‘Because I just wanted to thank them. Even though it felt like a random relationship at the time, they were actually a massive part of my forming as a human. So I wanted to say thanks. And I hope you’re well.’ ”
The depiction of the sex enjoyed (and enjoyed and enjoyed…) by Connell and Marianne was, without a doubt, part of what made Normal People so potent. During filming, Edgar-Jones and Mescal worked with an “intimacy coordinator”, and there was a mandatory 50:50 split between male and female nudity. The result was something that was neither the bombastic sex of Hollywood blockbusters nor the coy, billowy-curtain stuff you get in a lot of TV drama. Instead, there was talking. Condoms. Connell politely asking Marianne if she wanted to have sex or not and that, should she change her mind at any point, then that was fine. And something about the reality of this depiction made audiences sit up.
Edgar-Jones is big on movement and expression, dark doe eyes swelling to saucer size.
“I think it’s healthy,” says Edgar-Jones. “You can still have tender and passionate scenes like that, with elements of consent and using protection. And I don’t think that’s something we often see.” Indeed, as viewers we learn a lot about both characters in those pre and postcoital interactions.
“I think deciding to concentrate mostly on the moments before and after sex, or on their faces rather than just some distant and disconnected observation of something, is what makes it so resonant, I guess,” she says. The sex, in other words, was not just a crowd-pleasing, pulse-raising break from the drama. “Fight scenes, car chases and sex scenes all seem to be grouped together as kind of action sequences that you have before going back to the emotional scenes,” she says, frowning a little. Hopefully, if nothing else, the millions of viewers who enjoyed Normal People will have had their expectations of TV sex raised by what they saw. “Gone are the days, I hope, where it’s in there for the sake of it.”
Growing up, both of Edgar-Jones’ parents worked in the media. Her father is a TV executive – among other things, he was a producer on Big Brother – and her mother worked as a film editor. “I had a very lovely childhood,” she says. Before moving to a sixth-form college she attended a small private girls’ school where she made sure that she was in every school play – not particularly difficult given there were only 22 girls in her year. “I’d be 12 and all the other cast would be, like, 5 years old. But hey, I was loving life,” she says, mimicking cocksure swagger. “I got to be Peter Pan. That was one of my big moments.”
Normal People was more than a commercial and critical success. It became – and remains – a sort of pop-culture phenomenon, the quintessential TV show of lockdown 2020.
She is being self-deprecating. She was a naturally talented performer and was asked to join the National Youth Theatre at the age of 14. Within three years, she’d won a recurring role in a revival of Cold Feet, although as time passed and her mates all went off to university, she says she struggled to land parts and began to feel increasingly neurotic about who she was and what she was doing with her life. “If anyone said, ‘What do you do?’ I’d say, ‘Well, I guess I’m doing… the… acting?’ ” she says, wincing. “I never felt confident enough to be like, ‘I am an actor.’ And it’s funny because acting is one of the only jobs where if you tell someone what you do, they’ll say, ‘Oh are you? Well, what have you been in then? Prove it.’ ”
She got bits and pieces of work, but nothing to stop her worrying and wondering whether she should have a back-up plan. “For a while I was in the process of trying to set up a youth company, like a small drama school for primary school kids. I thought that could be fun.” She says she would be turned down for roles with bruising regularity. “The nice thing about being an actor is it really sets you up for dating life, because you’re being rejected all the time,” she says. “It does feel like you’re dating a part sometimes and you’re like, ‘Wow, we’re going to have a great life together! This person is the one for me!’ And then just when you think they are going to ask you out, they tell you they actually fancy someone else.”
She had spent most of last year living with her boyfriend, the actor Tom Varey, and two flatmates. But today she explains – very politely – that she’s not going to say anything about the state of her love life. “I think maybe it’s probably best not to, if that’s all right?” (Which could have been worse. I’ve had actresses use far fewer words to respond to the same line of questioning.) But then she’s been prepped for this kind of scrutiny. When she was starting out, her dad sat her down and talked about how being on-screen had the potential to turn her life upside down. It was the same talk he would give each contestant on Big Brother during his time as an executive producer.
“He gave me the Talk of Doom,” she says. “Which was basically just saying that there is a part of acting that means you’re going to be in the public eye. At the time, Big Brother was huge… So it was just a way of saying, ‘Make sure this is what you want. Because there are some parts that are a bit weird.’ ”
Did she take it on board?
“I was like, ‘Oh Dad! That’s not relevant to me!’ ” she says, miming an affectionate slap on the arm. “I didn’t really think about it at the time. But yeah. There is some truth in it.”
She had roles in Gentleman Jack and War of the Worlds under her belt by the time she began filming Normal People. The process was intensive, with 12 episodes filmed over four and a half months. She and Mescal became – and remain – something close to best friends. When the show aired, Mescal’s Connell became easily the most lusted-after man on TV, his silver chain becoming a symbol of sexual potency and even getting its own Instagram account, which has almost 180,000 followers.
Edgar-Jones says she can understand how his performance as a sensitive, thick-necked beefcake elicited such a response. “We’re used to seeing jock types depicted in a certain way. But then actually showing you the reality of what it is to be a young man, discovering themselves and dealing with anxiety and depression and all of that, is refreshing to see… His performance is so beautiful. It’s impossible not to feel close to him.”
The depiction of the sex enjoyed (and enjoyed and enjoyed…) by Connell and Marianne was, without a doubt, part of what made Normal People so potent.
Both of them, she says, felt an acute pressure to deliver. They both knew how much people loved Rooney’s book and that, as a result, many people already had a very clear idea of what Marianne and Connell should be like. “I remember the night before it dropped on iPlayer I wrote in my diary. ‘Well, listen, you know, you tried your best. You did your best. And as long as you and your family are proud of yourselves, that’s all that matters,’ ” she says in a clipped tone. But as the days passed and it became clear that people liked it – really liked it – she says she just remembers entering a kind of bliss state of relief.
More recently, she has finally allowed this feeling of relief to be replaced by pride at having pulled the whole thing off, although thanks to lockdown after lockdown, she thinks she still hasn’t quite had closure on the whole experience. She, Mescal and the rest of the cast still haven’t been able to meet up in real life for a big blowout, which seems genuinely to pain her. “I think if I could go back and do it all again, I would probably try to really enjoy every single minute of it. Even though we’ve done the odd Zoom cocktail drinks, I still haven’t been able to really celebrate with everyone.”
She has already been cast in a couple of forthcoming Hollywood productions, including a lead role in Where the Crawdads Sing, which will be made by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, and a thriller called Fresh, which Edgar-Jones describes as “very fun, very different, very stylized”.
But for now, she is still a star stuck in her parents’ spare bedroom, trying to find ways to fill her days. “Tidying up, washing clothes and going for walks,” she says. “I’ve started an online book club. It’s mostly Normal People crew.” She’s acquired a pair of DJ mixing decks to teach herself how to play house music. “I don’t know whether you should mention that though, because I sound very sad.”
She says she thinks about Marianne a lot. At the beginning of Normal People she is a schoolgirl and by the end, she has finished university. “You see who she becomes over those four years, and she changes so much, that it makes me realize that everything that’s happening in my life now is still incredibly formative. It makes me think about who I’ll be in a few years’ time, and who the people in my life will make me become. I’m still forming, you know,” she says thoughtfully. “I wonder who I’ll be?”
Ben Machell is the author of The Unusual Suspect: The Rise and Fall of a Modern-Day Outlaw