Wonderland.

PAUL MESCAL

Normal People’s male lead (aka Connell) on small-town stories, honest representations of sex on screen, and destigmatising mental health.

BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Marianne Connell beach

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Marianne Connell beach
BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Two young lovers embrace in a sardine tin – it is the memorable book cover which appeared everywhere from sun loungers, airports, billboards, bookshops to Instagram feeds back in the summer of 2018. It is none other than Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a remarkable tale that has pioneered the literature for our generation. Rooney’s razor-sharp, sparse novel details the complex love story between Connell and Marianne, two teenagers at school together in County Sligo, then later Trinity College Dublin.

Now, this millennial story of first love and coming of age has been memorably brought to life in a 12-part series by BBC Three and Element Pictures. The beloved roles of Marianne and Connell sees the emergence of two extraordinary rising stars, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. While there were fears that the adaptation might not live up to Rooney’s novel, these actors have created an addictive, bold and breath-taking world of their own.

I meet Irish actor Paul Mescal for elevenses over Zoom, par for the course right now. He is fresh-faced and eager to talk. “I want to tell stories like this. I like discussions about relationships, friendships and growing up. Those are the conversations that trigger my imagination the most.” Normal People is the 24-year-old’s first major television role, after acting in high-profile theatre productions across the country. One of these was the theatrical adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It, a story of sexual consent set in the small Irish town of Ballinatoom. What with Normal People being partly set in County Sligo, there are similarities between these two narratives. Why have the settings of these narratives been so effective? “I think there’s a real sense of community in small-town stories, which can be positive, but when harnessed in the wrong way it can be deeply negative.”

Which elements of Connell did Mescal resonate with from the start? “I think how inarticulate he is with someone he really fancies, especially from the start of the book,” he explains. “I recognised his inner monologue, when he’s saying about ten words but what he wants to say is, “I really fancy you, can we kiss.”

Normal People also kicks off important conversations on mental health, particularly with Connell. He is a character who first appears indestructible: confident, popular and healthy, but as the narrative transgresses, this image deteriorates, when he struggles with anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Tackling this involved personal experiences for Mescal, “I felt like Connell was representing a lot of people I know and a community that I come from. A lot of these men appear to be healthy and in the prime of their life, which is often not the case.” A raw portrayal of mental health in young people at university in Ireland has not been represented like this in television before.

BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Connell and Marianne red

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Connell and Marianne red
BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

One parallel with a YA series that could be made is Euphoria, but as Mescal rightly points out, “In Euphoria, Rue is depressed and the writer is giving her reasons, because she’s addicted to drugs or the death of her father. Whereas with Connell, Rooney doesn’t give you any big dramatic reasons as to why he is the way he is.” Normal People normalises anxiety in a way that will reassure young people that you don’t have to have something wrong with you to have depression or anxiety, it’s an illness.

And the future? Paul Mescal would like to continue to tell stories like Normal People. “Now is a good time to figure out the kind of stories I want to be involved with and relationship-drama is something I enjoy working on.” It’s wonderful to see an actor this early on in their career taking control of the narratives they want to be involved with. “I won’t do a good job if I can’t buy into a story.” It’s a good job he bought into this one.

Normal People will TX on BBC3 via iPlayer on April 26 and will be broadcast weekly on BBC1 from April 27 

BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Connell swimming pool Marianne
BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Connell car

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Connell swimming pool Marianne
BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu
BBC's adaption of Normal People - First Look Connell car
Words
Issy Carr
PAUL MESCAL

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