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Normal People: Lisburn actor Desmond Eastwood's star on the rise thanks to latest TV role

BBC drama highlighting teenage struggles with mental health, sex and love proves a huge success

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Desmond Eastwood on the set of Normal People, taken by Enda Bowe, BBC/HULU

Desmond Eastwood on the set of Normal People, taken by Enda Bowe, BBC/HULU

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones in Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones in Normal People

Desmond Eastwood on the set of Normal People, taken by Enda Bowe, BBC/HULU

The Lisburn actor who plays Niall in the record-breaking BBC drama Normal People said he believes the show has been such a huge success because so many people can relate to the joy and heartache of first love.

Desmond Eastwood, whose character befriends the story's protagonist Connell Waldron while studying at Trinity College in Dublin, said the drama also tackled important issues such as sexual consent and mental health, and encouraged discussions around them between young people and their parents.

Normal People, based on Sally Rooney's bestselling eponymous novel, follows the on/off relationship of two young people from the west of Ireland, Marianne and Connell, as they navigate the changing landscape of their love story into adulthood.

Although the drama was aimed at the under-25 age group, it has proved to be a hit with older viewers, too, setting a new audience record for BBC iPlayer.

It was watched 16.2 million times in its first week, beating the previous record of eight million requests for the first seven days of Killing Eve, while episodes are currently being shown weekly on BBC One.

Speaking to Sunday Life, Desmond, who recently moved back home to Lisburn after living in Dublin for several years, said the cast knew they had a hit on their hands while filming was under way but could never have imagined how much of a phenomenon it would go on to become.

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Niall (DESMOND EASTWOOD), Connell (PAUL MESCAL)

Niall (DESMOND EASTWOOD), Connell (PAUL MESCAL)

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Niall (DESMOND EASTWOOD), Connell (PAUL MESCAL)

"Because the book was such a great piece of work and was so successful, we knew there was a lot of anticipation for the drama. Even Barack Obama had it in his top 10 books of the year," Desmond says.

"So, we knew it would attract a lot of interest but I don't think we could have foreseen just how well received it would be.

"The viewing figures are unbelievable and there have been so many recognisable people around the world tweeting about it.

"The novel itself is so well written and captures the intricacies and challenges of first love and just how heart-wrenching and wonderful it can be. The story of first love has always been there and always will be. It's a subject that has universal appeal."

Desmond, who graduated from Queen's University with a law degree before moving to Dublin to study acting, said he had presumed the television adaptation would be popular with a young audience and was pleasantly surprised to hear it had resonated with older viewers, too. Of the 16.2 million requests to view the show, only five million of those were from the 16-to-34 demographic.

"First love is universal; it doesn't matter what age you are but also, the drama tackles issues like consent and mental health," says Desmond. "It's been a great way of opening up dialogue between sons and daughters and their parents. Then there's the fact that it showcases Ireland so well. There are many reasons why people are relating to it."

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Connell (PAUL MESCAL), Niall (DESMOND EASTWOOD)

Connell (PAUL MESCAL), Niall (DESMOND EASTWOOD)

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Connell (PAUL MESCAL), Niall (DESMOND EASTWOOD)

In Normal People, Desmond's character Niall hails from Belfast and becomes friendly with Connell, played by Paul Mescal, when they bond at Trinity College. It is Niall who encourages Connell's relationship with Marianne, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, and who supports him when he has mental health struggles.

The compassionate, easy-going Niall has drawn praise from many quarters, with Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee describing him on Twitter as the series' "soundest" character. Gavin And Stacey star James Corden revealed on Twitter that the Sally Rooney adaptation "changed my life".

In an impassioned post, alongside a trailer of the show, James wrote: "I honestly think it may have changed my life. It's the best show I've watched in so long."

Desmond, a fan of the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, said he was delighted that Niall had been so well received and said he'd like to think he shared similar traits with him.

"Niall and Connell bond because they're both a bit different to most of the Trinity students around them. I think they see that in each other," he says.

"I am fairly laidback and fun-loving like Niall and I think I'm as good a friend as he is. I hope so, anyway. To have someone in your life like Niall would be great. He's the type of friend everyone needs."

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Desmond Eastwood  with his brother Colum who is a filmmaker.

Desmond Eastwood with his brother Colum who is a filmmaker.

Desmond Eastwood with his brother Colum who is a filmmaker.

It was while studying law at Queen's that Desmond first toyed with the idea of acting. Inspired by his older brother Colum, a film-maker who had also studied law, he made the move to Dublin and studied at the Gaiety School of Acting. He has appeared in several TV productions including Krypton, Vikings and Blood, alongside Adrian Dunbar, and worked as an extra for a time on Game Of Thrones.

Desmond also made an appearance in his brother's first feature film Black Medicine, which was shot last December and starred Antonia Campbell-Hughes.

He couldn't commit to a bigger role at the time as he was in rehearsals for The Lieutenant Of Inishmore with Normal People co-star Paul Mescal, but the production itself was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He was also due to appear with Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern in Little Foxes at the Gate Theatre but this, too, was cancelled. And another production, Juno And The Paycock at the Olympia Theatre in August, looks unlikely. In the meantime, Desmond's star is on the rise thanks to Normal People and he has already been invited to the States to discuss a future project. It is likely that the drama will change the lives of all its key players, given the show's global success.

"It's weird watching it all and reading all the comments and reviews from behind a computer screen," says Desmond. "It would be different if I was back in Dublin with Paul and we'd be seeing people's reactions. But for the moment, we're just watching it all on Twitter.

"To see the way it has blown up is just crazy. I don't know what's next for me but Normal People has certainly put me on the radar of a few more people so I'm excited to see what happens next."

Belfast Telegraph