The Hulu and BBC Three series Normal People is the show of the pandemic. Audiences, including Brief Take, can’t get enough of this series about two young people, Marianne and Connell, and how they grow together, through pain, loss, reconciliation and everything in between. And truly, a star is born in Daisy Edgar-Jones as the transformative Marianne, as she offers a complete knock-out of a performance and should bring the English (and amazingly, not Irish) actress front and centre into the awards conversation.
Edgar-Jones was massively impressive on a Zoom call with us recently that saw her wearing a designer green dress, statement earrings and bringing an extremely pleasant demeanour, in other words she was the ideal interview subject. She fielded our rapid-fire questions with ease and was the best Zoom companion.
The following is a transcribed, condensed and edited version of our chat with the charming Daisy Edgar-Jones of Normal People.
Brief Take: One thing that I noticed about you in a recent YouTube video is that you’re left-handed.
Daisy Edgar-Jones: [waves her left hand in the air Vaudeville-style]
BT: When I was watching the show the second time, I noticed that you chose to play Marianne as a left-handed person, which makes the character yours in a way. Did you think about the ways in which you dedicated yourself to playing a fictional person that is in some ways inherently Daisy?
DE-J: Yeah! I think it’s so interesting because when you’re forming a character, obviously your interpretation of the world is unique to you because of your upbringing. I think that when I read the book, there was a lot in Marianne that I did feel I had easy access to, those particular parts of her character which I felt that I really understood. But then I think that also the joy of an actor is being able to then explore parts of somebody that are completely different to you, and there is much about Marianne that is very, very different, that I had to work out how to explore and empathize with. We were just lucky, really, that we had such a brilliant reference in the book because it’s so detailed and it’s full of depth and imagery and also, it gives such a different perspective of your character, because you’re allowed to explore the world through their lens and see it through the way that they think and feel, but you’re also allowed to see it through somebody else’s lens, and see how they think and feel about your character. You’re getting a real mixture of how to form your character. I took a lot of reference of when Connell describes the way that Marianne is, I took that a lot with the way that a physicality for example and the fact that he talks a lot about her eye contact and when she looks at him, it’s like she’s staring into the back of his head. And Lorraine (Sarah Greene) talks about Marianne being a very sensitive person, I think that in who she was, to me that was a really good pointer. But then, yeah, kind of the way that Marianne also observes the world, she observes the social structure and social ladder in such a funny and intelligent way. She’s just got a really brilliant perspective of the world. Yeah, it was really fun to piece that together bit by bit.
BT: On that point, I read that you mentioned what to wear in an Zoom interviews such as this one, you said that the greys in the wardrobe that you wanted to splash a bit more colour. I tried to do a little bit of the same as well, too. And then of course, like both editor-in-chief Leora and myself, you’re a Gemini, a classic Gemini. How much of your performance feels utterly real and how much belongs to the realm of art?
DE-J: Yeah, I think that is something, it’s interesting that you talk about being a Gemini, about that idea of duality and that idea of I guess being able to fit into whatever situation you are in and then sometimes being the more confident person depending on the room or being the shy person and being able to adapt to that is the same as acting, as there were moments that were like we created that story and it’s kind of the world is so truthful and real, that I do feel like those characters are alive, I don’t feel like they’re me, but I feel like Marianne and Connell exist somewhere and I myself am curious as to what they’re doing. [laughs] And I completely felt that way when I read the book because I think that Sally writes in such a way that you actually feel like you’ve stood next to them and that they almost the life that she creates in the world is more real than the one in which you are living [chuckles] at the time when you’re reading it. I remember putting down the book and being like: [sighs] I need to get back to my life [laughs] and away from the world that she created. It’s amazing.
BT: And yet much of the book exists in the interior and the series is a different medium. How much did you feel as though you were drawing out the character from a book into a show?
DE-J: I think that is what was so clever about the way that Sally (Rooney) and Alice Birch adapted the book to a screenplay, in that they never, ever felt the need—you know, it would be very easy to feel that you had to dialogue-ize the interior monologue and have it written all out and so that we sort of say what we are thinking the whole time. But they really, really rely on allowing the audience to fill in those characters in a world by having quite sparse dialogue, very naturalistic dialogue and allowing the camera to be really close to you, both Paul and I, because I think as human beings, we all have the ability to empathize by observing others and I think that’s for what the story really allows, as an audience can watch and observe and understand somebody without them having to explain what they’re feeling. And you know, as well, because I think that the story is so raw and so realistic that we were really allowed to have freedom with the dialogue, and if anything ever didn’t kind of quite work or felt that it was beautiful to write and read, but not beautiful to say, or easy to say naturalistically, we were able to tailor it to us, so it felt like we were really creating dialogue that was incredibly naturalistic, yeah, which is a world that Sally just created so well. Yeah, just down to incredible writers, really.
BT: What were the moments in which you felt like you were really living it?
DE-J: I think there is a beautiful scene in episode five and it’s when Marianne and Connell are seated quite far apart from each other in a room. And there’s no sound, it’s just them sitting across from each other and Marianne is reading and Marianne asks him: “How does it feel like, you’re the top of the class in English, you’re the star” and the conversation starts to develop and they end up speaking about something completely different than what they started talking about, which is that Marianne finally says to him: “Did you ever think about asking me to the dance?” and he says no and she reacts to it and they finally talk about that sort of thing, the elephant in the room, I guess, that has existed in this whole relationship and I guess I think that is really amazing, because it really observes…often those two characters are known for miscommunicating, but I actually think that when they’re able to have honest communication, it’s so refreshing that you can sit opposite someone and genuinely talk and not have any pretense and not have any hidden meaning or hidden kind of thought going on, because a lot of the time in drama, it’s about what’s not said. But I think that what’s so brilliant and dramatic about that scene is that everything is said. They lay themselves bare to each other and speak really honestly about how they feel and I just think that’s so beautiful. I remember doing that scene and I knew obviously at the start of it that we were starting at one place, but I had to get to a very different place by the end, because Marianne gets quite upset and you’re always nervous because you’re trying to like do that, and I just think that it’s written so wonderfully and it’s so still and we were able to just talk that I did, I got to that place, because I had been with Marianne for a while and I knew how much pain that had caused her. That was one of the scenes in which I felt like that this was quite special.
BT: Do you see the work as a transformation?
DE-J: I do think that Marianne is very different from me. I guess that as a character she really transforms from scene to scene, which is really interesting. Sometimes we’re with her and she’s incredibly soft and vulnerable and quiet and sometimes we’re with her and she’s cold and steely and can’t get past that, and she has this wall up and she also transforms so much from Sligo to Trinity—from episode one to the end, she’s continually transforming and that was such a joy as an actor as well because it was transforming from shot to shot, because if you’re in a wide shot, you might play a Marianne that, one that Connell understands and sees, but if you’re in a close-up, you might play the Marianne that is her interior and what she’s really feeling and thinking that she’s actually trying to hide from him. That was such a joyous feeling to try to play that.
BT: How does it feel like a transformation after the fact—sitting with it, breathing with it, doing interviews about it?
DE-J: I think that it’s kind of hard to still be objective because I’m watching it going: [laughs] “I remember that day! Aww! We ran out of time or whatnot”, it’s like blah blah blah, but I guess that what’s really interesting is watching that a scene is so elevated by the editor’s choice and the choice of grading and the choice of music and the music in the series is so incredible and then the score is just beautiful and I guess it’s taken on another life. It’s quite hard sometimes to watch yourself do things but I found it easier to lose myself in similar moments because of the work that Lenny (Abrahamson) and Hettie (Macdonald) did in post, it’s just incredible.
BT: Speaking of transformations, Brief Take had the chance to interview Sebastian de Souza who plays Gareth, and he was a huge supporter of your work in this series. What is it like to be around this ensemble and getting to know them as people?
DE-J: Yeah, I think that Normal People was really my first experience being in every day and really being present on set the whole time and that was such a joy because I got to have such a wonderful friendship with the crew and everyone behind camera. And that’s really important because Paul and I have to be able to play those characters and have to be able to play them in a vulnerable way. And having such a huge amount of love behind the camera really allowed us to do that. But similarly, my best, best friends in the whole world came from that show. Yeah, it’s been an amazing thing. Sebastian (de Souza) is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met and he actually worked with one of my friends on The Great, [laughs] so it’s really nice when you like them. And then obviously, Fionn (O’Shea) and India (Mullen), like I know they’ll be in my life forever and that’s a really special thing, so I’m very, very excited for when we’ll be able to be together again.
BT: I would like to go back to the idea of transformations. The seasons play a large role. Did you fake some of those?
DE-J: [laughs] We did! In fact, we were doing some of the summer scenes and it wasn’t summer and it was like shorts and [laughs] like yeah, trying to pretend that we’re really sweaty but we’re like freezing [laughs], and we faked a lot of the snow as well for Sweden, we did quite a lot of, that was actually done in Ireland, in Dublin, other than the walking shots. And so, yeah, I remember we had to put fake snow on my boots and my hair and I had to come in like: [makes chilly noise] [raises voice] “It’s really cold!” even though it wasn’t, so yeah [laughs] it’s quite cool that they’re quite present in the story.
BT: Did you have a favourite scene?
DE-J: A favourite season?
BT: Well, I was thinking scene, but as a fellow Gemini, I would say that I am thinking spring, perhaps?
DE-J: I do like spring. [laughs] I think my favourite, favourite scene was…it’s hard to choose, I think the scene in episode two when Marianne and Connell are together for the first time. I think that it’s so full of funniness and awkwardness and it’s so kind and loving and brilliant. And then I also love the scene in episode 11 in which they’re seated on the bed opposite each other and then they talk for…basically the whole episode and it ends with Marianne going to her brother’s and getting her nose broken and the song that they play as he drives her off in the moonlight and I guess they play a David Byrne song, ‘Strange Weather’ and yeah, I love that song, so I remember watching that and being like: [whispering] “I love this. This is such a great song [laughs] That’s a great ending!”
BT: Do you have theories about the show? Do you think there’s a hero, a villain, that someone wins, that they both win? What do you think happens to the characters?
DE-J: I think that’s what’s really special about the way that Sally writes is that she doesn’t give us a biased view of either of them, she doesn’t give us a kind of a role…she doesn’t push us in a way or a line of thinking, she just really observes those two characters and they’re allowed to be complex and a lot of different things. I think that both of those characters are heroes but I also think that both of those characters at times are villains and they are incredibly complex and flawed and I think it’s just really refreshing because that’s what we are as human beings, we’re not one thing and we change day to day and we change so much even over a space of four years, you can be a completely different person, and it really celebrates that they are a mixture of it all.
BT: When you watch the series what I imagine is many times now, what does it feel like for you? Does it deepen? Does it grow?
DE-J: Hmmm. I think that it’s interesting seeing, because there’s scenes that we shot that aren’t in the story. So it’s interesting watching it and thinking: “Oh, it’s fascinating that that’s the scene, or the order that they chose to put it in” and I guess that something I saw much more from watching it was the kind of development of Marianne from episodes seven to 11 is very quiet and internal, she kind of starts to become kind of in herself and disassociated, and there’s a moment in which she’s kind of lying outside her house looking at a little bug on the ground and then suddenly I remember thinking “that was really interesting that they chose to linger on that because it has a different meaning now”, because it feels like you see her becoming a bit disassociated and kind of slip into a place in which she kind of gets in nine and it didn’t really break until 11.
BT: What about you, when you’re playing the role. Did you disassociate? How immersed were you?
DE-J: I think I was quite lucky because the dynamic between Connell and Marianne is very different than that of Paul and I, so often we would be doing this quite deep and complex dialogue scenes and then all of a sudden afterward, we’d be having a giggle about something completely different. [laughs] I was able to have the kind of disconnect in some ways, but I definitely found filming episode nine, I’d been with that character a very long time and she’s in a very, very dark place, and I remember she seems desperately sad, because I know that I love her and I know that she just needs a hug. [laughs] But then I was also able to then take myself out of it and have a laugh at the same time.
BT: This is a really incredible series. Did you know this from the beginning, while you were filming it, did it really sink in afterward? When did that click come in?
DE-J: Yeah, I think that I knew it was a very special story when I read the book actually, because I’d never had an experience like it and the way Sally captured the world, and so I found she can explain a whole massive theme by the way that she describes, for example, a drop of condensation running down a bottle. I just feel like her observations of like the potency of how it is to…you know, be alive, I just found that to be really moving. I definitely felt like it was very special and I was very desperate to have a chance to try and play that character. And then I guess you know, we had such a fun time making it and it was just a brilliant job to do. Everyone behind it was incredibly passionate about it, were big fans of the book, were big fans of Lenny’s, were big fans of Hettie’s, and we all knew that we had an immense amount of trust in our directors. And Element, our production company, is incredible, and we knew that the scripts were so special and the book was, and I think that we had a feeling like for us at least it was going to be a special job that we’d always remember. But I think that you never really can imagine whether that will resonate as well with viewers, so I think that’s been something that I didn’t quite expect it to be, yeah, quite so [chuckles] far-reaching. I expected those who loved the book to come to it and hopefully like it. [laughs] But I didn’t quite expect it to resonate across generationally as well, with people like my grandparents and grandparents’ friends being like: “It reminded me of being young”, and I’m like: “Wow!” That’s so nice that it brought that feeling of nostalgia to people.
BT: What are some shows or movies that have moved you?
DE-J: I’m trying to have a think. I watched Blue Valentine and I remember thinking: “Oh my goodness, it doesn’t just show you the golden parts of love, it shows you all the rusty bits,” and I just thought that was beautiful. And recently I have been watching a show called I May Destroy You. I just think that that is such a visceral piece of work and the talent behind it, and I just remember being like, I’m still watching it but obviously now, it’s still going out, but I think that is a beautiful, beautiful show. And recently I watched Euphoria as well. I watched Euphoria actually when I was filming Normal People and I remember being like: “Ah! This is so brilliant!”, like I like love watching the way that they film this and the camera choices and all the actors that are similar to my age, which was just amazing and the style of that, I remember really resonating with that and loving it.
BT: Do you think that there’s more of the story to be told, do you think that it ends? Where do you want it to go from here?
DE-J: I’m not sure, it’s a kind of mixture because I think that Sally has ended it in such a brilliant way, because we end the series in the same place that the book ends as well, and I guess I kind of love that. There is no definitive tie-up of their story, it’s like here’s an observation of them in their early twenties, here’s where we go to, and though we’re not going to continue writing about it, they’re still living and breathing and still existing. Unless Sally, because she’s the genius behind that world, unless she was kind of wanting to write another segment, it’s kind of wonderful that it has kind of ended without us knowing…yeah, I’m not sure.
BT: What about your story? How do you feel like this series has affected you into your future roles?
DE-J: I think that I feel very lucky because Normal People is my dream project, really. Two directors that I admire so much, a book that I love so much and a character that is complex and very special. I feel very lucky that that I’ve had that experience, so the hope really is to continue to find stories that are powerful and important and characters that are complex and brilliant, and then filmmakers as well that have a special style and a vision, because I find the whole process of filmmaking really fascinating, I’d like to learn more about it.
BT: It’s such a strange experience to not be out there, to not be able to promote it in the same way, to not be around the people who created it with you, but have you had a favourite moment of someone reaching out and connecting with you?
DE-J: Yeah, I think that you’re so right. It’s been very hard to even comprehend that the conversations I have are over Zoom are actually real, they’re not some sort of [laughs] digital thing that’s happening as I am in my bedroom. So I think it’s been really wonderful being able to go out a little bit more now and I’ve had the odd interaction and it’s like: “Oh! People have actually seen it”. These numbers I see online and these digital handles are real people, which is nice. [laughs] But I’ve had so many people I really admire reach out and been so kind, actors I love. So that’s really cool. But yeah, it’s been nice to be able to have a bit more of a human interaction because it’s hard to register things that happen as actual…truth [laughs] until you’re outside.
Normal People is now available on Hulu and CBC Gem