The Waterstones Interview: The Cast and Crew of Normal People
As the new twelve part television adaptation of Normal People gets underway on Sunday, we quizzed the show's co-director Lenny Abrahamson and stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal on the challenges and rewards of bringing Sally Rooney's modern classic to the screen.
The producer of Normal People, Ed Guiney, has stated that, despite the fact that we are living through a time when complex dramas about young people are far more prevalent, Normal People would have been adapted for the screen in any era. Do you agree with this assessment and, if so, what is it about the novel that makes it such great source material?
Lenny Abrahamson: It amazes me that Sally can write in such a simple and direct voice and yet manage to create a fully realised interior world for Connell and Marianne and to sketch the texture and significance of their relationship. It’s the quality of writing that makes this a book which can captivate anyone, regardless of their age or background. It’s a novel about young people but it’s not limited to being a young person’s novel.
Daisy Edgar-Jones: I do agree, I feel the themes presented in Normal People are fundamentally about what it is to be a human being, and all the light and dark that comes with that. It's about love, it's about heartbreak, it's about growing up, it's about self discovery, and all these topics are ones that affect human beings of all eras and generations. It's wonderfully simple in its premise, but the detail and care with which Sally writes about these two characters interweaving between each other over four years is distinctly unique. Sally has a way of capturing vividly how it feels to fall in love, to feel heartbreak, to feel anxiety, how it feels to grow up. It is utterly timeless.
Paul Mescal: I certainly would have to agree with Ed's statement. I think ultimately drama comes out of relationships and situation. In this novel we see how well Sally has observed that and as a result it allows us to imagine what it would look like on screen. The scenes that Sally writes often take place in bed or in a car or a kitchen which I personally find incredibly refreshing. Ultimately the drama comes from the conversations Connell and Marianne have, and the novel is full of them, and those conversations that Sally has so beautifully written are the bedrock of the adaptation.
Sally Rooney was heavily involved in the production, writing six of the twelve episodes and garnering an executive-producer credit. Given how much of the novel’s success was based on her literary style, do you think that that distinctive voice has translated to the screen?
LA: It feels to me – and I hope readers feel the same when they see the show – like the adaptation is essentially true to the novel. There is no way of carrying a literary voice directly to the screen. The medium is different, the storytelling language is different. But the sense of intimacy and internality in the novel, as well as the feeling of direct encounter – a sense that the artifice is hidden – these things are there.
DEJ: I do, I think it's incredible how Sally and the team have managed to take a story that is written so much from the characters thoughts, and translated it to a visual medium. The novel is incredibly raw and realistic, and I feel Lenny, Hettie and Element are the perfect filmmakers to capture that unique tone on screen. Lenny has a special ability to allow audiences into his character’s minds from the way he films, and this style works perfectly for a story that is so internalised.
PM: Absolutely. Sally observes the way her characters interact and documents it with such detail. I certainly felt her presence and voice in the scripts as much as I did in the novel.
This adaptation is twelve episodes long, which, considering the relatively short length of the novel, may surprise some people. Are there elements of the book that have been fleshed out or additional plotlines that have been explored?
LA: There were sometimes single lines in the book – quick references to something which happened or something someone said – which we found it really useful to expand into scenes or sequences as a way of getting into territory which, in the book, was mapped out in ways not easy to externalise. But it wasn’t like we had space we were struggling to fill. Doing justice to the central story of the novel, really getting into the granular detail of what’s going on between Marianne and Connell really took those twelve episodes. It’s interesting with a story like this on screen: when it’s condensed it can lose the intensity rather than, as you might think, gaining momentum. It’s in those quiet moments where big things are shifting under the surface that so much of what’s really interesting happens. We needed the time to be able to sit with the characters and feel our way into the relationship.
DEJ: There are certain elements of the book, particularly involving the other characters in the story, that can be explored in more depth. This is because in the novel we only get a view of them from our protagonists' perspectives, whereas in the series we are able to see the actual interactions between these other characters, and their different facial expressions and tones. I feel that the twelve episodic instalments work perfectly for the novel, as though it's arguably a short one, it is full of such depth and detail that to do it justice, time needs to be taken and pace to be measured, to allow for the nuance and subtlety of the story to be translated as successfully as in the novel.
PM: There are no "b" storylines if that makes sense; it’s not different to the book in that regard. The main difference I feel is that we spend more time with certain characters, maybe more time than we do in the novel.
At various points in the story the central characters come across as quite unsympathetic. How do you maintain the audience’s engagement with these characters at these points and get the viewers to keep rooting for them and their relationship?
LA: They are just such rich and well drawn characters and when they do things that don’t reflect so well on them we understand them well enough as people to see where the impulses are coming from. For me, I empathise with them most, perhaps, when they are failing or letting themselves down.
DEJ: I feel that it's precisely because the characters are sometimes unsympathetic that an audience can maintain engagement with them, it's refreshing to see a character that is both dark and light, that’s complicated. An audience can relate to the truths of what it is to be a human being, flawed but on the whole, trying to be better. We fundamentally know these characters are good people, so seeing them make mistakes and be complicated is refreshing.
PM: I was never disengaged from either Connell or Marianne when I read the book. Yes they can be infuriating at times, but we understand that there is something bigger at play that is fuelling their behaviour. This is where the drama exists. They are flawed but fundamentally good human beings.
Daisy and Paul are relatively unknown actors. To what extent was it a conscious decision to cast fresh acting talent rather than established ‘names’ for these roles?
LA: I just wanted to find the right people and didn’t go into the process with a view about well-known names one way or another. I suppose, given how young the characters are, chances were that the actors would be relatively new. Having said that, it’s always really exciting to bring incredible, relatively unknown actors to a big/bigger audience for the first time. I’m so proud of Daisy and Paul and in awe of their talent. They are all I could possibly have hoped for in this show.
Daisy and Paul, were you both familiar with the novel before you auditioned and, if so, did you find its reputation daunting or exciting as an actor?
DEJ: I was aware of the novel at the time, my best friend had bought it for my flat mate and was singing its praises from every roof top, however it wasn’t until after I sent off my initial tape that I read the book myself. It was a very intense experience to read the story as I was imagining myself as Marianne. I read it in one day and have since read it around fifteen times in total. I was absolutely terrified to do my final recall as I fell so in love with the characters and the story that to get the chance to represent them was something I wanted with every cell in my body!
PM: I read the novel after I received an audition for the project. I certainly found the reputation of the novel daunting. I still do. But ultimately getting to work on source material like that is an incredible experience and one that filled me with excitement, day in day out.
Lenny, you have recently been commissioned to direct Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s debut novel. What challenges are different in adapting this book as opposed to Normal People?
LA: It’s very early days in the adaptation process so the specific challenges are still becoming clear. While there are definitely similarities, as you’d expect, with Normal People, it’s very much its own thing. I’m really happy to be working on it. I enjoyed the work on Normal People so much and I’m very happy to still have a connection to the world of Sally’s writing. I’m looking forward to getting into the detail of Conversations and finding the best way to bring it to life.
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