Daisy Edgar-Jones, whose mother is from Co Down, stars in the TV version of the cult novel Normal People. She talks to Tanya Sweeney about working with an intimacy coach and growing up on set
Even on Zoom's video chat - where, let's face it, only a rarefied few look in any way presentable - Daisy Edgar-Jones commands a riveting, luminous presence. With huge espresso eyes and alabaster skin, the 21-year-old is equal parts sunny enthusiasm, measured politeness and fragility. Little wonder, then, that Lenny Abrahamson found his Marianne as soon as she walked in the door of the Dublin auditions for Normal People, the long-awaited TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's bestselling novel.
Except that Edgar-Jones was initially convinced she had fluffed her chances by gate-crashing someone else's audition.
"When it came to the chemistry read (with Paul Mescal, who plays Connell), I was bricking it," she admits. "I'd been filming in Bristol the day before and I was frantically learning all my lines the night before. I got a really early flight to Dublin and couldn't even eat anything, I was so scared.
"Paul had been cast for a wee while, and I knew I was in the final five for the part, so he was doing chemistry readings with other girls that morning," she adds. "It was very strange - at one point I accidentally popped my head in the door of an audition. It was a bit 'oh gosh, sorry, sorry', but I saw Paul. I'd read the book and I was like, 'oh, that's Connell'."
Clearly, Edgar-Jones aced her chemistry read with the Kildare-born actor, and the pair certainly make for a captivating team in the 12-part drama.
Normal People charts the with-benefits friendship of Marianne and Connell, who both attend the same school in Sligo. Where Connell is a GAA star thriving in his small-town milieu, Marianne is brittle, ill-fitting and awkward. Further complicating things is the reality that Connell's mother cleans Marianne's large family home. The 'with benefits' begin tentatively, but soon they find their rhythm as sexual partners (even as they ignore each other in school).
The two then move to Dublin to attend Trinity College, and their dynamic shifts entirely. Marianne is now the popular, socially comfortable one (or at least, is pretending to be), while Connell is the adrift one struggling to fit in. All the while, their sexual charge ebbs and flows, pulling their friendship hither and thither with it.
"I feel there's a level of Marianne playing a character of the popular Trinity person, more than she really is," admits Edgar-Jones. "At that stage, you're still working out how much you give off that you're still not somebody who fully knows herself."
Yet Edgar-Jones' path to the part of Marianne didn't run entirely smoothly. She found out about the role while her best friend, also an actress, was preparing for her own audition for the role. "I'd heard of the book because my best friend had bought it for my flatmate," she recalls, "I just fell in love with the character when I got given the book - I read it in a day.
"About a month before I got my audition, my boyfriend was at the kitchen table doing the self-tape (audition) with my friend. I was sat there thinking, 'ooh, that sounds quite good. I hope I get an audition for that'."
So, was it at all awkward when she eventually bagged the part that her friend wanted?
"Oh, she was so lovely about it," Edgar-Jones smiles. "It's a tricky thing when you're friends with actors - I've had it before myself. You're incredibly happy for your friends, but also like, 'I'd have loved that role!' I do know they're adapting (Rooney's debut novel) Conversations With Friends, so hopefully there's a role there in that."
After being told she had landed the part that every actress of a certain age was gunning for, Edgar-Jones had mixed feelings. "For the first three seconds, I was like, 'wooooow', but it's tricky. I think we all suffer from it but early on, I had an incredible sense of impostor syndrome. You just feel the findy-out police are going to knock on your door and say, 'sorry, it was a mistake'."
Like most women her age, Edgar-Jones found plenty to relate to in insecure, ever-evolving Marianne.
"I definitely felt certain aspects of her character in school - one line pinged out at me where Marianne talks about coming into school one day and trying to be different, and yet no-one treated her differently. I felt from 11 to 16 that I'd changed fundamentally, but I found it difficult to reintroduce myself as the person that I'd grown to be."
With a mother from Co Down and family living 'all over' Northern Ireland, Londoner Edgar-Jones notes that it took a 'wee while' to tune up her Sligo accent. "Lenny had such a specific idea of her voice," she recalls.
"When you're young and with your friends, you all start to speak like each other, but he didn't want Marianne to be like her school friends.
"She stands out, and he thought her voice would be one way of showing that.
"I watched a lot of videos of Sally Rooney, who is from Mayo. She's so intelligent and has such a measured way of speaking. That was quite helpful."
As executive producer, 29-year-old Rooney was also involved in the making of Normal People: "She was in New York most of the time writing her next novel, but she got the rushes every day after filming," says Edgar-Jones.
"It must have been so scary for her watching them, like is it going to be anything like she imagined?
"I met her for the first time at the read-through, and she was so lovely and seems very excited by it. I wasn't in Dublin much until we started filming, but I know Paul went for a coffee with her. He didn't have too many questions because she'd written the book so beautifully, it's all in there."
To say that audiences are chomping at the bit to see the bestselling novel's move to the small screen is understating it. With Rooney touted as the 'Salinger for the Snapchat generation', the book sold over 500,000 print copies in North America on its release last year, and over one million copies outside the US - sensational numbers for literary fiction.
It was also revealed this week that Normal People could well be the last new drama that audiences anywhere are likely to see for a while, due to productions shutting down because of the coronavirus.
"It's only now that I'm starting to wonder about other people watching it," Edgar-Jones says. "I forgot that was even going to happen."
And of course, when the trailer for the series was released in January of this year, a brouhaha ensued almost immediately. The BBC's first trailer for Normal People was too raunchy for American TV producers - so they released a less risque clip. The 50 seconds of footage certainly got the US media excited, with showbiz website Vulture noting: "Watch the Very Sex-Forward Trailer for the Normal People TV Show." Entertainment Weekly magazine chimed in: "Sally Rooney's Normal People becomes steamy TV romance in first teaser."
Just as there is in the book, there are many on-screen sexual encounters, but Edgar-Jones insists that each one is there for a reason.
"The sex scenes are so important in the story, and they're actually the best intimate scenes I've ever read, I think," Edgar-Jones notes. "(Rooney) writes them with an incredible detail. You're always carrying on a narrative beat and furthering the story in some way, and that was really helpful."
With Edgar-Jones in her first lead role in a TV project, and Mescal effectively in his first screen role, both parties were understandably nervous about shooting sex scenes. Enter Ita O'Brien, an seasoned 'intimacy co-ordinator', whose job on set was to choreograph and guide the actors through the scenes. "In some ways that was really helpful - I can't imagine doing things like that without Ita," admits Edgar-Jones.
"I hadn't really done any scenes like that before. You're nervous when you read it on the page, but then the atmosphere was so, so calm and safe. Lenny as well was very keen that we were comfortable with everything, so we all had an open dialogue. There was a sense with Ita in charge of the physical stuff, that all we had to worry about were the story beats, and doing the writing justice. Then, it becomes like a job. You're such good friends with the crew that you do a scene like that, then you break for lunch. It's a bit odd."
Edgar-Jones and Mescal were both relieved to note that when it came to 'having everything on show', it was very much an equal playing field.
"I think I'd already done a scene that week where I had my top off, so I'd had my baptism of fire (before Paul)," recalls Edgar-Jones. "What I loved about the series is that there's a real equality between Paul and I in what's being shown, and that's really important to me because it's always been one sided, just kind of the female.
"So the Friday was his first day of that experience, and it was a bit odd - we were filming it and lying in bed, and Marianne had to hold Connell's hand, and I remember squeezing (Paul's) hand, like 'it's OK, it's OK'. It's strange how you get used to stuff as human beings - things that you've never imagined doing, suddenly become very normal."
Just as he did on Room, Frank and What Richard Did, Dublin-born director Abrahamson elicits authentic, charged performances mainly through a spirit of collaboration.
"Oh, he's very much a team player - it never feels like he's the director and we have to do everything exactly as he says," enthuses Edgar-Jones. "He puts a huge amount of trust in everyone's visions. He loves a laugh, too, so it rarely feels like work."
The shoot for Normal People came at an especially formative time in Edgar-Jones' life.
"I felt like I'd grown up last year in particular," Edgar-Jones notes. "I had a lot of bad stuff that happened. It's interesting, that battle with your identity that Marianne has is something I really relate to." Pressed on what bad stuff might have shaped her year, she adds: "Yeah, just big life stuff. Getting used to living in Ireland on my own, and just growing up a lot."
While filming in Dublin, Edgar-Jones lived on Lower Baggot Street, opposite O'Donoghue's pub. "Xico's is the best nightclub! We were in there a lot," she enthuses. "A lot of the friends I made there now live in London - I'd have been so sad if I had to leave everyone over there," says Edgar-Jones. "It was just fun being in a cast full of people my age - I'd never really had that before."
Edgar-Jones' breakthrough role came in the retread of comedy classic Cold Feet in 2016, playing the daughter of Karen and David (Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst). Small parts in Outnumbered and Silent Witness also followed, all while she attended the National Youth Theatre, which counts Helen Mirren among its alumni.
"I joined when I was 14 (which is the youngest age you can join) and it was difficult to get in because they only want the best in the whole country, but I auditioned and made it," Edgar-Jones recalls.
No doubt Normal People will offer no end of propulsive power to both Edgar-Jones' and Mescal's profiles. Although social restrictions have put a halt to her gallop, Normal People is already opening up new avenues for the actress.
"I got my first chance to do a theatre just afterwards," she says. "Sometimes, because I haven't formally trained, it's harder to get into the room. But now (Normal People) is helping me get into the room a little bit more.
"I do feel so very lucky to have done it - if anything, it's given me a bit more confidence, I think, so I go out and audition for other things," she adds. "I learnt an awful lot on that job. I have this joke that I felt 21 when I started filming, and about 53 by the time I finished."
Which, if you think about it, is quite a Marianne thing to say.
Normal People will land as a box set on BBC Three via iPlayer tomorrow (Sunday, April 26), and will air with weekly double episodes on BBC One at 9pm from Monday, April 27