With the upcoming award season shining a spotlight on exceptional programming and performances, even though there are a lot of TV shows and various networks and streaming services with countless shows to choose from, there are still some real stand-outs. One such performance is that of Paul Mescal in Normal People as Connell, one half of the complicated relationship that the Hulu series tracks from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Irish actor Paul Mescal talked about how deeply the romance between Connell and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has connected with viewers, being in the position where he was cast first and had to do chemistry readings with a handful of actresses, when she fell in love with this character, taking this journey with co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones, creating a safe space on set for the more intimate moments, whether we could ever get another season, shooting the final scenes between their characters, and what it was like for him to see the finished product.
Collider: What’s it been like to see the reaction to this show and to see how people have been affected by it?
PAUL MESCAL: The thing that has been the most exciting is just how positive the response has been and how many people have seen. That’s something that’s taken me most by surprise. I never anticipated the viewing figures to be as high as they did. And when you have people like Richard E. Grant posting about it, it’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. It’s also just really, really exciting.
Everybody watching the show is falling in love with your characters, but at what point did you fall in love with your character?
MESCAL: For me, it was when I read the book, for the first time. I find it very difficult to put both him and Marianne out of my head, which is the first step, in terms of falling in love.
Since you were cast first, what was that like for you to read with different actresses? Did it feel different, when you did the chemistry reading with Daisy Edgar-Jones?
MESCAL: Yeah. It was a really interesting position to be in. It’s not a position I was ever in before. At that point, all of the actresses that got that far were all incredibly talented and each audition was incredibly different, even though the character was written the same, on the page. At that point, it’s not necessarily just about talent. It’s about finding the right space for the characters. Ultimately, if me and Daisy didn’t connect the way the characters connected, in the sense of what we thought they were thinking, feeling and doing it, it doesn’t matter how good or bad we are, the show would suffer. Lenny [Abrahamson] and Hettie [Macdonald] had discussed that it was about getting the right two actors together for the characters. So, once I started reading with Daisy, I was like, “This feels like how I imagined their relationship to be in the book.”
Because these characters are left in a place where, even after everything they’ve been through, they might not necessarily have their happily ever after, fans obviously want to know if there could be more. Has there been any talk of a second season?
MESCAL: If there is or there isn’t, me and Daisy haven’t heard anything on that front. The wonderful thing about the book is that the two characters feel like they exist in the real world. I think it’s a testament to the show that people want to see more of their lives, but as it stands, the book is, in itself, a very complete thing. So, it could absolutely end there, or maybe, at some point, who knows? But there’s been no talk, that I’m aware of, that there’s gonna be a second season, at the moment.
What was it like to shoot the final scenes and to shoot their ending?
MESCAL: I feel like there’s a measured quality to it, in the sense that me and Daisy were with those characters for the majority of about a year and a half, in terms of between the start date and the pick-ups. The last scene was actually the last scene that we shot, so there was a sad celebratory quality to it, where me and Daisy were letting go of the pair of them. It was a difficult scene to shoot because it’s a sad scene, but it’s also an incredibly joyful scene. There was a lot in it to act. I did feel slightly melancholic and sad about the fact that could potentially be the last time you’re going to live inside that character’s brain for the rest of your life, which is weird, when you’ve spent so much time trying to climb inside his mind. So, there were lots of mixed emotions with it, personally.
It seems like when you do a project like this, that delves deep into the relationship between your characters, that you can’t help but get close during filming. What was it like to share this experience with Daisy? How did the first day working together compare to the last day working together?
MESCAL: They feel like worlds apart. I was definitely terrified on the first day, for loads of reasons. It’s a scary thing, walking onto any set on the first day, let alone it being your first day playing these characters that an audience already loves and has very clear opinions about it. And then, in terms of the last day, I knew me and Daisy were gonna get on, from the start, but at the end, we were best friends. The whole journey of their relationship is mirrored, in a certain sense, in terms of getting to work with her, for five or six months of last year.
There’s a definite intimacy to this relationship. It’s not just that you guys have sex scenes together, but these are very intimate scenes between these two characters. What was it like to have an intimacy coordinator on set? How did that help with putting you at ease and helping you feel like you had a safe space to explore those moments?
MESCAL: I didn’t know what it was to work on a set without one. It’s very hard for me to gauge because all I know is that I don’t know what it would have been like. I know it would have been a hundred times more difficult to shoot those scenes without the presence of someone doing that work. Even though it’s not something that took me by surprise because we always knew that the sex scenes were going to be a part of the series, I tried to mentally prepare for the fact that these were scenes that were going to take place. I didn’t know what a day on set with an intimacy coordinator, shooting sex scenes, would look like. Ultimately, it was far easier and dealt with in a way that made both me and Daisy feel comfortable, and also the experience of shooting those scenes as pleasant as it could be.
Was there a scene, a moment, or a day that you were most scared or most nervous about in doing this project, and then you were proud of yourself for just jumping in and doing it anyway?
MESCAL: It was the first day, for me. Obviously, there were scenes like that scattered throughout the show because there are big old emotional kitchen sink drama scenes, but for me, personally, the first day is really scary. You’re not remotely being judged, but these are the people that you’re going to be working with for the next five or six months, and you hope that they like your work, and you hope that you put out your own personality to people. But the first day, for me, was like, “Oh, this is quite scary.”
You fell in love with these characters and you had this experience together, throughout the shoot, but all you can do is give your performance and you don’t know what the finished product will look like. What was it like to see what this show turned out to be? How was it for you to watch and experience what you had done?
MESCAL: We watched it scattered, throughout the year, as the episode were getting picture locked. The first couple of viewings, I found it really difficult to comprehend because you’re trying to absorb everything and every last detail of the show. The show does have a lot of detail in it.. It’s one that you can go back and watch again, and see new things in it. I was proud of the show, and I was proud of the work that Daisy and myself and everybody had done. But I think I only really able to sit back and watch it was released on BBC, and I could watch the whole thing straight through and absorb the character, absorb the direction and cinematography, and everything. It’s always a bit odd, when you’re seeing yourself, a lot of the time, on screen. It’s a weird thing to try to get used to.
Normal People is available to stream at Hulu.