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.