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How They Made It: The Intimate TV Adaptation of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’

Director Lenny Abrahamson, stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, and more break down the production of the year’s most emotionally intense new show

Hulu/Ringer illustration

The first thing the makers of the TV adaptation of Normal People want you to know is that the show is extremely true to the book. “To its detail as well as its spirit,” says director Lenny Abrahamson. The second is that it treats sex with “humanity.” And by that they mean: sometimes awkward, sometimes involving power play, sometimes sweaty with soccer on in the background, but always pivotal.

The 12-part Hulu series is based on a novel of the same name by Irish author Sally Rooney. In it, two teenagers—Marianne and Connell—meet in their hometown of Sligo, West Ireland, and spend the next few years falling in and out of love. At school he’s working class, popular, sporty, part of the herd. Meanwhile, she’s a social outcast who snaps at teachers like Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You and lives in a big house with a cold family like a heroine from a gothic film. When they both head to Trinity College in Dublin, things flip. Her wealth and weirdness gain her a circle of hip friends. He feels like he doesn’t fit in and buries his head in books. They wrestle class differences, family troubles, mental illness, and figuring out who they are. Talking? They find difficult. Overthinking? They excel at. And sex, from first kisses to taboo kinks, is integral to their story.

When the book was first published in 2018, Rooney, 29, was hailed as one of the first great millennial authors. Normal People won Costa Book of the Year and was longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In the U.K. alone, it sold half a million copies. Across the world, more than 38,000 people have Instagrammed pictures of themselves reading it. Kaia Gerber loved it. When Rooney headed on a New York press tour, events had to be moved to meet capacity and bookshops had to get in 10 times as many copies as they normally would.

It’s no surprise, then, that a TV adaptation would land like a Supreme drop for literary types. (For months, social media has been full of debate about how much sex it will include and whether the casting of Connell and Marianne is right.) What is a surprise, though, is how right producers have got it. The show was released in the U.K. on Sunday—it debuts in the U.S. on Wednesday on Hulu—and already Twitter is full of praise for how intense and heartbreaking it is, how Irish it is, how positive the communication around sex in it is, how it really does feel like it’s the book come to life. How did they do it?

“I’m so glad we didn’t do something completely radical, like set it in the 1940s,” says Abrahamson, laughing. “Can you imagine?

When Normal People was green-lit as a TV show, the book hadn’t even come out yet, let alone gained its obsessive following. The text landed on the desk of Ed Guiney at Element Pictures in spring 2018. The producer, who’d previously made Oscar contenders The Lobster and The Favourite, read it quickly, then passed it on to Abrahamson. “There’s something very direct about Sally’s style,” says Abrahamson about what appealed. “It’s deceptively simple. It makes you feel like you’ve had a first-hand encounter with the characters and that’s a way I like to work as well. I try and, somehow, disappear as an intermediary.”

It seemed like a perfect fit for the pair, especially as both Guiney and Abrahamson are Dublin natives who met at Trinity. “We felt that it would be brilliant television,” says Guiney, about the fact that the story is filled more with slow, intense character development than lots of dramatic action. “It felt naturally episodic. We’d do it in half-hours, and in each we could have a close encounter with someone’s very dramatic moments in their lives, without having too much pressure on the story.”

They approached the BBC to make it and got the go-ahead before they even bought the rights—a rare move that Guiney puts down to increased competition for good TV dramas. “We were able to go to Sally,” he says, “and say that if we’re lucky enough to get this book, the BBC promises to make it. This was really persuasive.”

Rooney was heavily involved in the show’s development. She wrote the first six episodes alongside award-winning playwright Alice Birch and then fed into the rest of the script. (Some of the book’s most powerful bits of storytelling are turned into dialogue. Sally’s narration “It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody” is turned into Marianne saying, “I kept thinking how much I wanted to watch you have sex, I mean, not even with me.”)

“It would be interesting to give Rooney drafts of the later episodes,” says Abrahamson. “It was great to listen to her impulses and if they pushed in a different direction, and when they did it was usually subtle, but always worth listening to.” For example, Abrahamson says that one thing Rooney pushed for was that Marianne not be too likable. He says that she was insistent that the character had a “grating” quality to her and that she was “properly spikey and she can be difficult.”

“I’ve never been involved in an adaptation of a book that’s kept so close to the book itself,” says Guiney. “Of course, some things are modified, but there’s virtually nothing new in the show. We thought about creating story lines for characters that aren’t contained within the book. Like, you can imagine Connell’s mother’s life or whatever. But actually, what became clear is that actually what’s so fascinating and interesting about the book and, I hope, the show is the connection between these two characters.”

How do you cast two leads that millions of people have been frustrated by, fallen in love with, and imagined in minute detail already? In the case of Connell, quite easily. Paul Mescal had heard about the production while he was working on a play at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. “It was a predominantly young cast and we all got the breakdowns for Connell and Marianne and felt it was going to be an amazing project,” says the 24-year-old from Maynooth. He’d done no TV work before but Abrahamson describes him as “compelling from very early on.” “He was also a Gaelic football player and comes from a small town in the midlands,” he says. “He really understood [Connell], I think.”

Mescal explains that when he found out he’d gotten the role, he did two things. First, he ran out of a theater rehearsal, stood on the street, and screamed. “It was one of those moments I don’t think I’ll ever really forget,he says. “I knew on paper that I fit the character, but I also knew everybody was going to try and rip each other’s arms off to get it.”

Then he DM’ed Rooney and asked her to meet him for coffee. “I went bright red for the majority of the meeting,” he laughs. “It was basically me going and saying, ‘Hello, I love your book, thanks.’” (He’s not the only actor in the show to have a fan freakout when meeting Rooney. “I made a tit out of myself at the read-through,” says Sarah Greene. She plays Connell’s mum, Lorraine, the story’s warm moral compass. “I met Sally and I just fangirled over her. I was all, ‘I think you’re so amazing!’ And obviously you hear horror stories of people being recast after a read-through, so I spent the rest of my time going, ‘What if I lose this job.’”)

Marianne took longer to find. The search ended up spanning across the globe, with casting directors looking from Ireland and the U.K. to the U.S. and Australia. Then they stumbled across 21-year-old Daisy Edgar-Jones, a Londoner with an Irish mum and a background acting on British drama Cold Feet. “My friend had asked my boyfriend to make an audition tape for her, for it,” she tells me. “Because he had a tripod and white wall. So she came, and I overheard the audition and I was like, Oh that sounds good. I didn’t think it’d come my way. I thought the dates wouldn’t line up. But about a month later I got the audition through. It was a bit of a strange way to hear about it.”

Mescal says that as soon as he did the chemistry test with Edgar-Jones he knew she was going to play Marianne. “We were on a very similar wavelength with who we thought the characters were,” he says. “And she’s obviously an extraordinary actor and amazing person. I hoped she’d get the job and I was never really in doubt about that in my own head.” Guiney adds: “We were just so lucky to find them both. It was hard.”

Normal People opens like a teen drama. Marianne plows down a high school corridor to a locker, her hair scraped back, her body tense. She glances up and there’s Connell—popular, nice shoulders—talking football tactics and flirting with a blond girl. Later, he appears in the kitchen of Marianne’s vast, bleak mansion, waiting for his mum to finish her cleaning job there. Later still, they kiss in her library. “Are you sure we can’t take our clothes off?” she asks. “You were tempted though, weren’t you.” What happens next is not like a teen drama at all.

That’s partly because of the way it’s shot. Most of the filming took place amid the windswept beaches and rugged countryside of West Ireland and in the university buildings of Dublin (with brief trips to Italy and Sweden). Abrahamson says they were careful not to fall into Irish clichés of “conventional images of pretty pubs or carefully framed landscape shots which you would find on a postcard.” It was all “naturalistic,” capturing the incredible landscapes but avoiding making it “too pretty.”

It’s also because it’s a slow, intense burn. Tension builds through awkward silences and unsaid feelings. Climaxes come in bursts of violence and lust. Story lines about mental illness, emotional and physical abuse, and the accidental cruelty of teenagers linger. Everything’s both beautiful and bleak. Nothing feels played up for drama.

Abrahamson, along with cinematographer Suzie Lavelle and Hettie Macdonald, who directed the latter half of the series, used photographer Nan Goldin’s work as inspiration, capturing scenes in a way that’s half-raw and half-stylized. “Lenny will use angles where you can’t quite see what’s going on, and can’t quite see the expression on the character’s face, for instance,” says Guiney. “So you have to twist yourself to try and see and understand the drama of the thing. And sometimes he has an observational quality, almost like wildlife documentary filmmaking, where you just sit back and allow things to unfold.”

These visuals were joined by a script that got increasingly pared back during shooting. Cast and crew members realized the power of characters saying less. “There’s a scene when Lorraine calls Connell out for not taking Marianne to the dance, and it was much longer originally,” says Greene of one of her character’s pivotal moments. “And we realized actually we didn’t need to say everything. Most of the scenes were overwritten.” Mescal mentions that a scene at a pool, where Connell doesn’t ask Marianne if he can live with her even though he wants to, was also pared back. He explains that it originally included lines directly lifted from the book. “I remember turning to Lenny and saying, ‘These lines are absolutely beautiful, but they don’t feel real when I say them,’” he says. “Because if Connell says that, Marianne is intelligent enough to pick up on it.” It’s now stripped back to just:

Marianne: Yeah?

Connell: It’s nothing.

Meanwhile, Abrahamson, Mescal, and Edgar-Jones all cite the scene where Connell apologizes to Marianne for how he treated her at school as a favorite for them because of how they tweaked it together. “A lot of work had gone into writing and rewriting that particular moment,” says Abrahamson. “There were cuts where we felt that what was happening with the two of them was so captured in the atmosphere that it didn’t need some of the dialogue. The scene ended up being key to figuring out how to show them speaking honestly to each other onscreen.”

“I remember sitting behind the camera,” says Greene about her first day on set. “And seeing Daisy’s eyes on camera while she filmed her first scene with Paul in the kitchen. And I felt they were incredible. I had hairs on the back of my neck and arms. They were captivating to watch. Just watching how Paul and Daisy interacted on and off camera was a joy. I think audiences will see that.”

By the time shooting began in May 2019, Normal People had a cult fan base in the U.K. and Ireland. Abrahamson says he saw people reading it everywhere. Mescal and Edgar-Jones had started to feel the pressure. “It’s hard to play someone you love and you know a lot of other people love, and you want to do them and the book justice,” says Mescal. “And it was my first TV show. I was petrified.” Edgar-Jones adds that she found performing the most iconic scenes most challenging: “I’m an avid reader who watches adaptations and has strong ‘That’s not quite how I imagined it’ thoughts, you know. I didn’t want to be the person who makes it a damp squib.”

She admits that she hadn’t read the book when she first auditioned. “My best friend had given it to my flatmate,” she says. “And she loves everything Sally Rooney. I think she’s writing her English dissertation on Normal People and Conversations With Friends. She said I had to read it but I sort of didn’t get round to it. Then I got the first audition and I felt I understood and loved the character. And then as soon as I got my hands on the book I read it in about 20 minutes, and just loved it. Had I read it beforehand I would have self-sabotaged somehow because I loved it so much. It meant when I went for my chemistry read I was terrified.”

By the time shooting was over, Edgar-Jones says she and Mescal had probably read the book 15 times. “I was like, I’ll just read the book as much as I can read it,” says Mescal. “I got a really safe feeling when reading it, and any questions I’d have before a scene I’d just go back to the book.” Edgar-Jones even took it a step further. “I plotted out the timeline of Marianne’s life,” she says, explaining that she played the character as a combination of how she described herself and how Connell described her. “I assembled all my favorite quotes and wrote them down. I’m very methodical in that way. I like to dig as much as I physically can, even in school, even though I’m not intelligent I knew if I revised I wouldn’t be disappointed—at least I tried.”

The pair’s diligence paid off. Abrahamson says that the crew were so invested in the pair’s performances that you could feel the tension both in front of and behind the camera. “For example,” he says, “when we shot the scene where Connell tells Marianne he’s asked Rachel to the dance, like, honestly at the end of that Suzie Lavelle, who is a brilliant cinematographer, was like, ‘Jesus, how could he do it!,’ she was so invested in it. She cried a lot. When we’d say ‘Cut’ she’d take the camera down and just have to wipe herself off and dab her eyes.”

“If she cried you knew you were doing something right,” adds Mescal.

Normal People might be sad, but it’s also horny. Unfairly so, given we’re all locked down right now. Sex in the series isn’t played for laughs or drama or titillation like in Sex Education or Euphoria. It’s horny in a way that something like a spicy look, exchanged with a crush across a room, feels. “So much of what we see of sexual imagery,” says Guiney, “is an extreme and objectified version of attraction or physicality, from porn to Love Island. So we wanted something more ordinary and real.”

While sex is important in the book, in the series it’s even further in the foreground. (Dappled in nice light, of course.) To ensure that this was a good thing, the team hired intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien. The first of her kind, the former dance and movement teacher started looking into how to make sex scenes look realer on screen and feel better for the actors involved a few years ago. Then changes put in place by the #MeToo movement put her in demand. “Where previously an actor might be considered a diva and would be in fear of their job being in jeopardy [if they said no to part of a sex scene], we say we want to know where is off-bounds,” she says. Since then she’s worked on shows like Sex Education, Gentleman Jack, and now Normal People. “I bring a professional structure to the intimate content,” she says. “And understanding that just as with dance a choreographer has to bring a skill to learning a dance, or a stunt coordinator shows you how to throw a punch safely. I, too, bring a physical skill to the content.”

She implemented an approach that considered everything from giving actors a chance to talk through worries about scenes before they happened to making sure they could see the footage before it aired. She introduced “timeouts” where actors could step out of scenes if they felt uncomfortable and even asked producers to avoid shooting sex scenes when actors were on their periods, to avoid additional discomfort.

For Edgar-Jones and Mescal, the amount of sex in the show meant they spent 10 full days shooting only intimate scenes. “I think the idea of filming it was far more anxiety-inducing than the process of it. I remember coming home from set on Thursday and we were both like, ‘Ooo, we’re doing a full day of this tomorrow,’ and we were both quite nervous,” says Mescal. “But we had Ita on set any time there was any form of intimacy. A lot of the sex scenes were shot on the same day. Daisy and I would discuss what felt comfortable. There was a really open discussion between me and Daisy, and Hettie, Lenny, and Ita. And then we would film it. I don’t think you could feel more empowered doing a scene like that.”

That’s not to say it was always easy. Abrahamson mentions how they used a make-shift studio as Connell’s bedroom on one of the hottest days of summer 2019. “It was 28 degrees [about 83 degrees Fahrenheit] outside and had a tin roof, so it was nearly 40 degrees [about 104] inside, and we were trying to do these intimate scenes,” he says. “The handy thing was no extra sweat was required.” Edgar-Jones adds that the trickiest thing was avoiding giggling. “It’s a bit surreal, and we all became such good mates, so you end up in a room with all your mates and are having to pretend to do stuff with someone which you wouldn’t really do in front of all of your friends,” she says. “So we’d have poor Ita telling us to stop laughing—that was probably the most challenging part of it.”

O’Brien says the most difficult scenes she worked on were Marianne’s exploration into BDSM while she’s studying abroad in Sweden, toward the end of the series. She’s depicted bound up with ropes in one scene; in another she’s photographed as she undresses. O’Brien says that while filming they considered Edgar-Jones’s physical and psychological well-being and the way that the fetish sex with character Lukas was presented in the show. “It was really important to make sure we were taking care of the narrative,” she says, “making sure it was seen as a consensual exploration and not abuse.”

It means the TV series does more work than the book to set up that this is something that Marianne is keen to explore. “She drives him a little bit more perhaps,” explains Abrahamson. “There’s a scene where she suggests a different way of operating in the relationship.” Edgar-Jones adds: “It’s Marianne who initiates the relationship but it’s also her initiating its demise, and I think that’s an empowering thing for her. I’m proud of how that ended up. I think it’s healthy to show it is something she seeks and isn’t passive.” O’Brien also says she’s “proud,” describing it as a dream production. “I really felt through the writing that we were asking for groundbreaking intimate content,” she says.

The team behind Normal People hopes that the show is groundbreaking as a whole too. Mescal says he’s excited that it’s a good example of young people learning how to communicate healthily; he cites the scenes he filmed for episodes 10 onward, when Connell is struggling with depression. “I’m proud of the scene with the counselor,” he says. “Because that’s representative of something that’s really important to me, particularly among young men who are so stoic.”

Abrahamson adds that just making a story that shows younger people in a positive light feels like a success. “A lot of the stuff that’s out there is either glossy, or silly, or nihilistic, or problematizes teenagers and people in their early 20s,” he says. “It feels like it’s designed for older people to go, ‘Oh my god, they’re so fucked up, our culture is doomed.’” Meanwhile, Edgar-Jones says she loved being able to depict how “the simplest of conversations can take you somewhere you never expected to go to.” She says: “That’s what is wonderful about their relationship: Even though they do sometimes really miss each other, they are able to have this honesty in their dialogue, which is something I envy. I’d love to be able to be that honest when I talk to someone.”

Normal People might follow a romance between two people, but it’s a love letter to being truly alive: the power of risking being hurt to say how you feel, to getting to know someone physically and to discovering new versions of yourself as you move around the world. Coming out in the midst of horror and lockdown, it’s a 12-hour ode to normal life in abnormal times—and it’s both tormenting and incredible.

“It gives me hope,” says Abrahamson, “… and it’s Irish.”

Kate Lloyd is an award-winning journalist from London who writes about both pop culture and real life—often at the same time.

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