Normal People Star Daisy Edgar-Jones Says "Nothing Will Prepare You" for Onscreen Nudity
Daisy Edgar-Jones has the weight of the (literary) world on her shoulders.
In Normal People, her most-anticipated project to date, the British actress takes on the role of Marianne — the female half of the passionate (though often misguided) Irish couple at the core of Sally Rooney's critically acclaimed 2019 novel and Hulu's serial adaptation of the same name.
Like the novel's legion of megafans, Edgar-Jones is nervous about the end result. "For at least a few weeks, I was like, "Oh, my gosh. I'm going to get a call and the police are going to be like, 'Sorry, you got it wrong,'" she joked about her performance.
Marianne is hardly the typical ingenue. She's the outwardly intellectual foil to her on-again, off-again love Connell's (Paul Mescal) thoughtful jock. In high school, she's a loner with short, ragged bangs — a mark of individuality, or perhaps an at-home haircut gone awry. In college, she's content to stand out less, finding a group of friends and a less divisive hairstyle. Her truest self emerges when she and Connell are alone together.
Edgar-Jones approaches Marianne's nuances with care — whether it's perfecting her Irish accent to find a "posh" dialect that's "maybe a little bit alienating for [Marianne's] peers," or internalizing the narrative importance of her character's many sex scenes.
In person-ish (over Zoom), the 21-year-old Edgar-Jones is the anti-Marianne. She peppers her responses with generous laughter and, well, humanity — she seems to treat our interview like a genuine conversation, avoiding curated soundbites or forced praise. She is (by her own estimation, and also mine) "quite a nice person."
While Edgar-Jones isn't new to the spotlight — she's held supporting roles in the serialized War of the Worlds, the Cold Feet reboot, and several other projects — her quiet and layered performance in Normal People will undoubtedly become her best known. For many viewers, the Hulu series will be an introduction to the actress, and a very intimate one at that.
Normal People doesn't shy away from the explicit. There's sex — a lot of it. And the actors' modesty isn't protected by well-placed limbs or conveniently-clinging sheets — the nudity is full-frontal, for both Edgar-Jones and Mescal.
"Nothing will prepare you," Edgar-Jones said of shooting those scenes, though she acknowledged that the process became less nerve-racking as time went on. "It's mad how quickly you do get used to it."
Read on as Edgar-Jones discusses stepping into Marianne's ("clunky") shoes, quarantine bangs, how she grew comfortable shooting the show's sex scenes, and more.
InStyle: How are you coping with self-isolation? It must be strange to be celebrating this major professional milestone without all of your friends and family around.
Daisy Edgar-Jones: Yeah, it does feel a bit odd to kind of speak about the show when all this kind of mad sort of huge thing is happening to the world. It feels like miles away that we filmed it, but yeah, it's exciting for it to be coming out and to have something to kind of structure the time.
How did you celebrate when you learned that you'd landed this role?
It was a very strange feeling, because I was a massive fan of the book as well. I wanted it with every possible cell in my body. I was home alone, and then I got the phone call, and then I rang my mum and dad, and then leaped around the room for a little bit. And then my flatmate came home, who worked at [British bookseller] Waterstones at the time, and he was like, "Oh, my God, it's our book of the year." So he couldn't believe it. So yeah, it was just mad.
Did you work closely with Sally Rooney to get the character right?
Not really. Sally was in New York through most of the filming. I know that she was on top of all the footage and things. I think she got sent the rushes every day, but she was working on her next novel. I mean, she's amazing. She trusted [director Lenny Abrahamson] and the filming process. But I mean, it was amazing to have the book. It's so detailed and beautifully written, that you've got your whole character's kind of psyche on the page.
There is sort of an added pressure with that, though. You have all of these resources, but you also have this fan base that is expecting something. Do you think it was easier because you had all of that at your disposal, or is there this added level of difficulty because of the established fans?
Well, definitely. I mean, I think Marianne as a character is a very nuanced one — she's quite complicated, so I definitely felt pressure to get her right. Before we started filming, it was very nerve-racking to think about taking on the character. And obviously, we all suffer quite badly from sort of imposter syndrome. So, for at least a few weeks, I was like, "Oh, my gosh. I'm going to get a call and the police are going to be like, 'Sorry, you got it wrong.'"
But Lenny and all those filmmakers made such a safe environment, and it ended up feeling like a big bubble. We felt we were just sort of making this thing — we all loved the book, and we were all kind of making it for fun.
Was there any particular thing, like a clothing item or mannerism, that really put you in Marianne's shoes?
I think that actually, weirdly, the accent was quite helpful, because it's different from mine, and I think she sort of has a very specific way of speaking that is different from me. I'm quite like, flappy, and I think Marianne is a lot more measured and to the point, and she's very intelligent. So I always found the accent actually helped me kind of ground her.
I wanted to ask you about the accent too, because I didn't know that you're not from Ireland until after I finished watching the show. How did you perfect that? Were there things you studied?
Yeah, I had a brilliant accent coach who helped. Also Lenny had a very, very specific idea of her voice, because Ireland is amazing — there are so many different accents, and it was really important to get the nuance right.
Like in Sligo, particularly, there's a very sort of specific "O" sound that I wanted to make sure I got right. But yeah, Lenny had a very detailed idea of how her voice should be, because he didn't feel she should be really strong in terms of the accent, like her friends. Because I think when you're a young person, you start to speak like your peers. But obviously, Marianne doesn't have very many friends at school, so it's kind of good that she has a slightly more upper-class, sort of posh way of speaking that's maybe a little bit alienating for her peers.
How would you say Marianne's wardrobe and style compared to your own?
Oh, man, she's so cool. I really love Lorna [Marie Mugan], who was the costume designer, because I couldn't really picture how Marianne would dress, particularly in Sligo, in the earlier [episodes]. There isn't much description of costume other than like heavy, clunky shoes, and a corduroy skirt.
I think when she was in her more confident era, outfit-wise, it was so fun. I particularly liked the outfit where they reunite for the first time in Trinity. You can't really see it in the scene, but I have these pantaloons on, these kind of silk culottes with this vintage sort of jacket. The costumes were so fun to wear.
It's an interesting role, because the story spans several years. You mentioned that the clothes and shoes she wore in the later episodes helped to change the way she walked, but what else did you do to sort of show the evolution?
We were very lucky that the scripts were so brilliantly clever in the way they kind of detailed that aging. But I think what's interesting is actually, Marianne in Trinity isn't massively different from Marianne in Sligo. She's more accepted at Trinity. She kind of comes into her own. People think she's really cool, and all the kind of stuff that made her stand out for the wrong reasons in Sligo make her stand out for the right reasons in Trinity, the kind of oddness about her.
But even though she sort of postures at this kind of confidence, I think she ultimately still isn't 100% OK with herself. And I think that is something that over the four years, she sort of starts to learn and comes to terms with — this feeling of being unworthy is something she's constantly battling, even in Trinity, where she seemingly has all these friends early on.
I loved playing the school stuff, because I felt it was so fun when [Marianne and Connell are] first kind of finding each other, and that kind of first crush of love is wonderful. But by the time they get to Trinity, they've both got a lot more pain, and they have more sort of different aspects that they're holding on to when they're in conversation together.
I wanted to ask about the bangs in those early episodes. Marianne has some pretty blunt baby bangs. What is your take on that trend? Would you wear them in real life?
Oh my god. No, living with those was so stressful. I'm not edgy enough at all for them. You have to be edgy and cool, and I'm just not. So I think I'm going to stick with the bangs that mostly cover your whole face. Those are the kind I like the most. Though they're very hard to maintain in isolation. Having a fringe is like having a small child. You have to constantly maintain it and make sure it's happy, or else it sticks up.
Have you been cutting your own bangs in isolation?
My flatmate has scissors, and it was a very sort of tense couple minutes, because had she messed up, I don't know how we would've dealt with the rest of isolation. But she did a really good job. So she's my personal fringe trimmer now. [Laughs.]
That's great to have. So with a project like this that relies so heavily on this single relationship, I'm sure you really needed to form a bond with Paul. How did you work on doing that on set?
We were really lucky that we sort of really got on from the start. And I think we did spend a lot of time together as well, because we were in most of the scenes together. And from the start, the first two weeks of filming were just kind of one location, and it was mostly just me and Paul. And we had rehearsals beforehand, which was great. I think we had a very clear idea of the sort of rhythm of the way they communicate together, and it always came very naturally.
It never felt too difficult to kind of reach for that sort of chemistry, so that was really good. But yeah, thank goodness we got on. I don't know how you would do that kind of stuff if you didn't, because it was really important that you could trust each other and you had each other's best interests. So it was brilliant that we did get on so well.
Class and economic division are major themes in the novel and the show. In playing Marianne, did you learn anything about capitalism and privilege?
Marianne is very lucky that when she goes to Trinity, she doesn't have to worry about supporting herself. She's able to go, and all she has to worry about is her degree. Whereas Connell, he really feels he has to earn his place there, and he also has to support himself and work on the side. And I think it's really interesting that Marianne isn't really aware of that.
I think for Connell, class is a much bigger thing for him, and I think the depiction of university is particularly interesting in Normal People. I didn't go to university, but it's that interesting sort of thing where people of all classes are lumped in together and perhaps not aware of their privilege so much.
Obviously, there's a lot of sex and nudity in the show, which I know you've spoken to a bit. But what was the process of working on those scenes with Paul and an intimacy coordinator like?
Well, we had [intimacy coordinator Ita O'Brien], who's an amazing person. She was the sort of forerunner of that job, of an intimacy coach, and she worked in sex education and stuff like that. And it was great having her, because she took the pressure off of us when it came to those scenes. Because you are a little trepidatious going into it. You know?
I hadn't really done anything like that before, so it's something you want to feel is well-handled, and it really was. She just created an environment that was incredibly safe, and it just meant that all Paul and I had to worry about was the acting of it. And they are very important scenes to the book. What I love about them is they're always carrying on a kind of story beat, they're always furthering on a narrative, and they're never just for the sake of it. And it was important to do them justice. And yeah, Ita just created an environment which meant that we could do that and we felt safe in it, which was so brilliant.
Was there anything in particular that you did to sort of feel comfortable being naked in front of all these people?
I mean, nothing will prepare you! [Laughs.] It's so funny, because if I'm in a female changing room, I'm like hiding in the corner. And then you're kind of going from that to a room full of people that you sort of just met and being like, "Hello. Nice to meet you. Here we go." It is a bit strange, and then you all kind of lunch together and have a jacket potato and just ignore what happened that day.
I think what's funny is, as a human being, you just get so used to stuff so quickly, and it's mad how quickly you do get used to it. And kind of by the end, it didn't even sort of faze you so much, which was really nice. But I guess you just kind of have to go, "I really trust in everyone. I trust in the decision to have this. I trust that it's not just for the sake of it. I trust that it is a truthful depiction of a relationship."
I was very lucky that I felt safe in why I was doing it. I wasn't just kind of going, "Oh, God, we should do it because I have to." I felt it was important to the story. I mean, after the first day [of shooting] I was walking to Tesco like "Woohoo!" [Laughs.]
What did you personally want for Marianne and Connell at the end of the series?
I personally want Connell to go to New York and flourish as a writer and I want Marianne to finish her degree and continue feeling settled and worthy of the love she deserves. I think they'll always remain in each other's lives but I love the fact that I don't know in what capacity. They're still very much living and breathing and that means I never have to say goodbye to them.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
It would be Blue Valentine, Romeo + Juliet, the Baz Luhrmann one. I love that film. And oh, there's a great film called Sightseers, which is like a small British indie, which I watched a while ago. I just think it's brilliant. It's like a dark comedy about this couple that goes on a caravan holiday. It's great. So yeah, probably that.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Oh, it was actually Logan Lerman in Percy Jackson. I just loved that book so much … Yeah, it was him.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
It was white with pink flowers on it, and I had a bunk bed. And at one point, I had a princess net curtain that hung over, which was cool. I always had a spiky lampshade, which I got really scared of, because I watched The Snowman, like a stage production of it, and Jack Frost looked very similar to my spiky lampshade, so I had to sleep with one of my parents holding my hands for like five months after watching that.
I found Normal People so soothing to watch. Even though there's so much drama, there's something about it that really calmed me. What is something you turn to when you want to relax?
My favorite thing would be ringing my mom. I know that's really sad, but she's got a really wonderful way of giving me perspective and cheering me up. So yeah, probably ringing my mom.
What's one book you could read over and over again?
Just Kids by Patti Smith. I just read it, and I loved it. I loved her description of her 20s in New York at that time and the artist she loves, and that relationship she has.
Do you cook? If so, what?
I do, actually. I bought a roasting tin, and I love it, because you just whack everything in one pot. I can't really do complicated, so I just put it all in one pot and put it away. I made a very good five-spice pork the other day, which I was very proud of, and sausage and sweet potato and red onion-like thing. That was very nice.
What's one thing you want more people to know about you?
Ooh, I guess that I'm quite nice. I think, on the whole, I'm quite a nice person.