Just weeks after the hit series based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel exploded onto our screens, some of the cast still can’t quite believe the impact it’s had. Leona O’Neill talks to two of its Northern Ireland-born stars, Aislin McGuckin and Desmond Eastwood
Enniskillen-born Aislin McGuckin played Marianne’s cold and distant mother Denise in the show.
The 45-year-old, who is recently divorced and lives in Dublin with her three children, Mireille (13), Lorcan (9) and Senan (7), says it was “difficult to be cold” to her on-screen daughter. And she reveals that the show has enabled her to reconnect with pals from her own school days.
“I’m the eldest of three children,” Aislin says. “We lived in Lurgan with my mum Margaret and dad Lorcan and spent our summers in Fermanagh. I went to school at Sacred Heart in Newry and I loved it. And in fact, on the back of the show, a crowd of us from school have reconnected. When you’re in drama school in London, maybe no one else has chosen that path and you can lose touch with people. It’s been a really gorgeous way of reconnecting with people. I had a big Zoom call with eight or nine of us from Sacred Heart at the weekend. It was just lovely to be back in touch.”
Aislin, who has starred in Casualty, Outlander, the Miniaturist and David Copperfield among many other TV shows, says she got the acting bug as a teenager in her home town.
“I got my first acting role when working with a charity company called Stage Aid,” she says. “It was a really professionally run company — there were expectations there that you came in and rehearsed properly — and I started with them when I was around 14-years-old. And my school Sacred Heart has a brilliant history with drama, so between the two of those they got me started in acting.
“My first role was in Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I loved the buzz of it and I loved being another character — of being unrecognisable almost, of being someone else.
“As I have progressed in my career I’ve found that you definitely need to be tough in the acting game.
“We talk about having a rhino’s skin. But the irony is that to be a performer you have to be in touch with the more vulnerable parts of yourself. But to actually get to perform you have to accept that there are going to be disappointments. And even when you’re working things can go wrong.
“I did Macbeth recently with the Royal Shakespeare Company and we worked so hard for 12 weeks. I was playing Lady Macbeth but, just after press night, my Macbeth had an accident and broke his elbow, and 12 weeks of work were just wiped. A lovely actor stepped in. But even things like that, a dream role in a dream play at the RSC and you put in the work — and even then something can happen to derail your plans. You just have to get on with it. The show must always go on.”
Before the stage beckoned, Aislin had thoughts of studying law.
“I had finished my A-levels and was about to study law in Manchester,” she says. “I had done theatre in England over the summer since I was 16 and I’d thought ‘maybe I’d do drama, maybe not’. But my parents were always pretty insistent that the A-levels were good and had to be used properly. I had the halls of residence booked for law. But I’d also sneaked over for an audition at the Rose Bruford Drama School. Gary Oldman had been there and he represented the type of actor I wanted to be. The school was considered to have a real socialist beating heart. I thought my parents would accept me going there because it wasn’t just a drama school. They weren’t very happy, but I did it. That was 1992.”
Aislin has played Queen Elizabeth and the Lady of Leoch in Outlander. She says she loves parts she can get lost in and found great joy in filming Normal People.
“I love period dramas such as David Copperfield and the Miniaturists,” she says. “And I love the TV shows where you are most unrecognisable. But the theatre is what jumps to the surface. It’s a bigger ask. I adore TV and although I haven’t done a lot of film I do enjoy it. But I love the pace of theatre, you really get to chew things for a period. And it’s the intimacy with the audience.
“The making of Normal People has been the most pleasure I’ve had in TV, from day one. The two directors, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, were amazing — you to turn up and you want to do your very, very best.
“For a show that went into some dark and horrible places, it was the most fun I’ve had.”
In playing Denise, Aislin did not have a lot of dialogue to work with so had to lean into her theatrical training to bring the character to life. “That’s where the process was quite theatrical,” she says. “We had a week’s rehearsal with Lenny. So from the book you have the skeleton and from our first meeting we talked about her not being a one-dimensional character — not just a bad, cold mother — we had to massage out the way she behaved the way she did. It didn’t mean we added a huge amount of dialogue.
“Daisy (Edgar-Jones), who plays Marianne, is such a delight. Her mother is from Fermanagh so we had that connection. It was very hard to be cold to her. The instinct was completely different, she is someone who draws warmth out of you.
“Denise has a history. There had been marital abuse, we don’t think that it had spread out to the children, but certainly things had been seen in the family over a long and extended period of time. There had been alcohol abuse maybe. So all of that was held in this woman who, on the surface, had a beautiful house, a great career and a holiday home but is holding all of those disappointments and pain and regret.”
Aislin said the cast were expecting big things from Normal People, but were astonished at how it travelled across the world.
“I think because the book had been such a hit we were absolutely aware of the weight that we were carrying,” she acknowledges. “But I think we were a little surprised at the reaction. Actors will often say that the best rehearsal period does not bring the best work, and collectively there was such joy on this set. Daisy and Paul were in almost every scene, but the feeling was that, regardless of how hard we were all working, everyone wanted to be there and wanted to honour it.
“When it exploded we were talking on our WhatsApp group. We were sharing things that we saw on Twitter. Like when Mia Farrow, Richard E Grant and the Kardashians were tweeting about it. It was slightly surreal and, to be honest, we were watching this like everyone at home was watching. I had to break the show down into four sittings. I couldn’t do 12 episodes all at once — I wanted the pleasure to be extended.
“I watched it as a fan of the book and a fan of the TV show and it was a revelation to watch, having had the small part I played in it.”
Aislin says she was surprised at the reaction to the Normal People in some parts, but proud that the show sparked conversations.
“One anticipates that there will be a certain element who won’t like it,” she says. “And they have to be allowed their voice. It was expected. And it created a conversation and debate which is never bad.
“By the same token, the priest in my parish — a very intelligent man, a free thinker — came by to pick up my copy of the book. He’s only at episode six and he wanted to quote something from the novel for the church newsletter. So it has opened conversations in so many ways.”
Aislin says she hopes the show will help widen all the cast’s horizons when lockdown is lifted.
“Covid has stopped everything,” she says. “There were some really lovely meetings and some theatre. But everything is on pause.
“But the reality is that Normal People coming out at this time had a potency that it probably would have had anyway, but when we’re locked down and unable to touch anyone, a show about intimacy really has grabbed our imagination and with that in mind, work will return.”
Desmond Eastwood (27) plays Connell’s friend Niall in the show. Like Aislin, the Lisburn-born actor almost pursued a career in law before treading the boards.
“I grew up with my mum Mary, dad Desmond, three brothers, Colum, Luke and Pearse, and two sisters, Holly and Lana,” he says. “It was a fun household. I attended Friends’ School. From there I went to Queen’s University in Belfast to do a law degree — and then I jumped ship into acting and moved to Dublin for a few years.
“I wasn’t into acting at school. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my university course that I started looking into it then. By that stage my eldest brother Colum was also a law graduate and he’s now a film-maker. Yes, my brother’s name is Colum Eastwood, like the SDLP leader. I think he sometimes gets tweets that are meant for the politician, which is always funny.
“Colum just shot his first feature film in Belfast in December, called Black Medicine, starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Amybeth McNulty. It was seeing Colum doing what he wanted to do that gave me the courage to chase down the acting.
“I started off doing extra work and a few short films and that gave me enough appetite for it to pursue it further.”
Desmond says he doesn’t look back at his career choices with regret, in fact it inspired him at times to merge his two loves — law and acting — in innovative ways.
“I have done some work with Hydebank and the Lyric Theatre revolving around young offenders,” he explains. “It was merging my love of law and my love of acting to do something worthwhile. There is a great project that the Lyric run called Blackout that I took part in and spent quite a bit of time with the boys from Hydebank. I toured the country with them and found that to be a really great experience and I learned a lot. It gave young people a great opportunity. I would love to revisit that one day.”
Desmond has had a wide and varied career so far and the future is looking bright for the young star.
“My first role was in a short film called Grace that was directed by one of my best friends, Jack Walsh,” he says. “I was around 20-years-old. It was a story set during the Troubles at a cross-community weekend with Catholics and Protestants coming together. Two young people fall in love. There’s ultimately a shoot-out in a barn and the British forces mistake the two young people for IRA gun runners.”
“Recently I played a young Saxon messenger in Vikings, which comes out in November, and I was in Blood, an Irish psychological thriller, with Adrian Dunbar, which aired recently. I also recently worked with Elizabeth McGovern, who was one of the leads in Downton Abbey, too. We were in rehearsals for three weeks for the Little Foxes at the Gate Theatre. But it got cancelled because of coronavirus.”
Desmond says that the cast of Normal People knew it was going to be something special while they were working on it.
“I think we were aware that the anticipation for it was so big, given how successful the book was,” he says. “But I don’t think anyone really projected just how well it would be received. But certainly when we got down to the work I think everyone was optimistic that we could do something great. You can kind of just feel it, I guess.
“The filming itself was just an absolute joy from start to finish. Everyone working on the project was so talented. So when all those collective minds come together, everything runs so smoothly and everyone is really enjoying themselves. It was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had filming.”
While Paul’s Connell has been propelled to sex symbol status, Desmond’s Niall has been branded “the soundest man in Northern Ireland” by Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee.
And despite the show’s raunchy undercurrent he says he didn’t forewarn friends and family about the 41 minutes of sex in the hit show.
“My parents and wider family had read the book, and they may have anticipated some of the sex scenes,” he says. “I didn’t watch it with them as I’m living with my sister at the moment. I didn’t give them any forewarning or anything, but they loved it.”
Desmond says he is glad that the show has sparked conversations about consensual sex, domestic abuse, toxic relationships — and he felt responsibility on his shoulders.
“There was a lot of pressure in that respect, because they were such important and topical issues,” he says. “You really want to treat it with delicacy and the whole production did that and everything was done right.”
Desmond says he’s spending lockdown keeping fit with Joe Wicks workouts, reading, watching films and planning ahead. Although two of his shows, The Little Foxes and Juno and the Paycock, have been cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, he is excited about future film and theatre projects when things return to normal.
Normal People continues on BBC One NI on Monday at 9pm