When the 29-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney quietly published her second novel Normal People in 2018, she had no idea it would shoot so quickly to phenomenal success, selling almost a million copies in under two years and winning numerous awards.
Perfectly capturing what it is to be young and in love, Normal People has now been turned into a much-anticipated BBC Three series, with 21-year-old Brit Daisy Edgar-Jones in her first major role as Rooney’s lead character, Marianne. She is still processing her luck at getting the part. ‘I have imposter syndrome, I pinch myself that I got it,’ she grins as she slumps on to a sofa, following her shoot for Stella.
Daisy stars alongside fellow newcomer Paul Mescal, who plays Connell in the retelling of Rooney’s will-they-won’t-they young-love story. Across 12 episodes, we see Marianne and Connell start out as naive teenagers in County Sligo, having a fling they keep secret from their classmates. They mature into university students at Trinity College Dublin, meandering in and out of other relationships, making new friends and returning to each other frequently along the way. The book is compelling, raw and relatable, hence its rave reviews as a future classic.
Daisy admits that, before her audition, she hadn’t actually read it and only heard about the role through her boyfriend, actor Tom Varey.
‘My friend had auditioned for Marianne as well and my boyfriend helped her tape [a screen test] for it,’ she explains. ‘I thought, that sounds really good. Then when I read the book, I obviously fell ridiculously in love with it. I was reading it thinking I was Marianne, which was even more intense.’
The character is complex. In their teens, Connell is the confident, popular one; Marianne is the shy girl who doesn’t fit in. Later, the roles reverse and it is he who struggles to establish his personality as an adult.
‘I understood Marianne, I liked her sense of humour and her oddness,’ considers Daisy. ‘I really loved playing her in her school years because, even though she’s lonely and doesn’t fit in, she’s untarnished – she’s fresh and she doesn’t care what people think. She talks about the way people view her [as an outsider] and how, even if she tried to be different, it wouldn’t make a difference. I related to that; I changed a lot from 11 to 17, but when you’re with the same people, they will always look at you how they first knew you. Marianne doesn’t care; she’s maybe above the social ladder [of popularity in school friendship groups], but I definitely wanted to fit in and be on it.’
It was at school that Daisy first started acting, appearing in plays from the age of five. Not classically trained, it was at the National Youth Theatre, where she performed in her spare time, that an agent first spotted her potential and signed her at the age of 16.
‘I didn’t get any roles for a while,’ she says. ‘And it’s hard not to take it personally, but you learn that often it’s about something out of your control. Auditioning is like dating: you think something could be a match, you go on a few dates, then they ask somebody else out instead and you’re heartbroken. With Normal People, if I hadn’t got it, I’d have found it really hard.’
Her first small role came in 2016, as Olivia Marsden, one of the two children of Karen and David (played by Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst) in ITV drama Cold Feet.
‘I had a little part, but it was a great way to learn,’ she says. ‘My first day, I did a scene where I just had to walk somewhere and I was so self-conscious. It was all training – when you have less to say, it’s sometimes more tricky because you then overthink every action. Try drinking an orange juice with a huge camera in your face.’
Both of Daisy’s parents have a background in TV – her mother Wendy was an editor on TV dramas and her father Philip is director of Sky Arts, and was one of the creators of reality TV show Big Brother.
‘He’s got a good perspective on what the industry is, he knows how it works and he was very excited for me,’ Daisy says of her dad, who created a TV format that was innovative for its time and arguably changed what it means to be famous. ‘He had some interesting insights into fame. Obviously, I don’t know what Normal People will bring, but he said always have perspective and remember that you as a person won’t change, but people around you might and don’t let that influence you.’
An only child brought up in Muswell Hill, her accent is a unique blend of north London with her father’s Scottish upbringing and her mother’s Northern Irish background. For Normal People, she adopted an Irish accent and says she took some inspiration from Rooney’s own speaking voice, as well as working with a vocal coach.
‘Sally was very involved [with the scriptwriting] so I met her a fair few times,’ she explains. ‘I listened to her voice a lot, because she’s from Mayo which is very near Sligo and it’s a similar “o” sound. Because I was living in Dublin for filming, I started to speak in the accent all the time by accident. I couldn’t shake it.’
Daisy and the cast moved to Dublin for five months and she had what she describes as a university-like experience behind the scenes, living near Trinity College and ‘going out loads. I didn’t go to uni, so I kind of had that experience through Marianne.’
Every formative event in the novel is captured from the perspective of either Marianne or Connell, as Rooney’s descriptions zoom in on the emotional changes they are going through as they mature.
‘There’s an age when you realise the people who had all the power in school don’t have so much power in life moving on,’ Daisy says. ‘When I went to college, suddenly I felt I could be who I really feel I am now and make friends with people who were like-minded.’
On screen, the shift is even more obvious than in the novel because Marianne’s style dramatically changes. ‘The school uniform was a long skirt and big clunky boots which made me feel awkward,’ Daisy laughs. ‘Then in Trinity I had mad clothes, higher heels and crazy jewellery. The clothes felt different, so it really helped me to play the different ages.’
The rapport between the two lead characters was critical for directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald (whose former projects include Doctor Who and Howards End) to get right, and Daisy did several ‘chemistry tests’ with Paul before she was cast.
‘Paul was cast over a month before me, so he had met with quite a few other girls before I auditioned. But finding that chemistry with each other was really easy. We’ve become like best friends,’ she says. ‘I’m very envious of Marianne and Connell – how fun to have a secret affair. I didn’t have anything like that in secondary school, I met my now-boyfriend a wee bit later, but I guess I definitely drew on that excited feeling when you fall in love.’
One of the key, excruciating-to-watch scenes in the second episode is when Marianne loses her virginity – Connell offers her a cup of tea and makes clumsy chat for 10 minutes on screen, while they dance around the idea of maybe, possibly having sex.
‘I love that scene, I think it’s one of my favourites,’ Daisy says. ‘It’s beyond accurate, when you both know exactly why you’re there, but you’re going, “When do we get to the bit when we…” The bit where he was taking her bra off, it just happened to be the most awkward bra ever to remove and my arms were stuck. It was a moment for Paul and I to laugh, and it’s normally meant to be perfect and gorgeous on screen, but the directors said play into all that stuff. And we had a wonderful intimacy coordinator; it’s a stunt, which means it takes you personally away from it, it’s just about the choreography.’
Daisy lives in north London with her boyfriend Tom, 29, who has appeared in Game of Thrones and No Offence; they met on the set of indie film Pond Life in 2018.
‘It’s definitely easier because he knows how the industry works,’ she says, and she reassures me that he was fine with the number of nude scenes in the script. ‘He read the book too and I think he was a bit like, “Oop, OK…” But he was really excited for me.’
Daisy’s Instagram account looks like any other 21-year-old’s: peppered with pictures of her hanging out with her boyfriend and friends (most of whom are fellow actors), going to art galleries, house parties and eating a lot of brunch. ‘I’m quite private. I’m not very good at social media. I find it a bit stressful – trying to project who you are into some pictures. I feel too much pressure to be cool and quirky [with my posts] and I’m just not.’
There was a definite turn in more recent (pre-lockdown) weeks, though – pictures of her on the red carpet and sitting front row at Roland Mouret’s London Fashion Week show. The fashion offers are likely to keep coming in. ‘I do love fashion,’ she confirms. ‘My style icon would be Annie Hall – the suits and the loose cuts. But I mainly shop at & Other Stories. I didn’t really know anything about brands before; now I really like Miu Miu, and Gucci is really cool.’
Her publicity team has hired a stylist, Nicky Yates, who also works with Eva Green and Felicity Jones, to style her for press appearances. At the Baftas in February, she wore a Mother of Pearl dress and Jimmy Choo heels, positioning herself as a viable new style muse going forward.
‘I’m not at all used to red carpets,’ she laughs. ‘It’s great people-watching, but a bit surreal. I need to be better at not staring and gawking.’
The attention is ramping up. Daisy and Paul have been featured in American Vogue, and Normal People is being aired by Hulu in the US, meaning it could achieve the same global popularity as another BBC Three series, Killing Eve. For fellow Brit Jodie Comer, who was treading the audition circuit not so long ago, that same path has taken her to Hollywood – she was nominated for her first Golden Globe in January.
‘It’s hard not to, but it’s good to not let your imagination run too wild,’ says Daisy, bringing the conversation back down to earth. ‘Whenever you do a [TV adaptation of a popular book], you can’t please everyone. Reading is so personal and you imagine a world that only exists in your head.’
Of her hopes for what’s next, she’s pragmatic. ‘I’d just like to work again, to be honest, and not be anxious about whether I’ll get another role… but you just don’t know.’
With this role in the bag, for Daisy, getting the part should be the new normal.
Normal People will be on BBC Three via iPlayer on April 26 and will be broadcast weekly on BBC One from April 27