Normal People director talks sex scenes and doing justice to Sally Rooney's novel

Marjorie Brennan speaks to Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson about working on the highly-anticipated TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.

Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar Jones), in 'Normal People' Photo: Enda Bowe
Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar Jones), in 'Normal People' Photo: Enda Bowe

As the television industry faces into a prolonged period of uncertainty, viewers will need to make the most of any new content that surfaces in the coming months, especially prestige dramas. 

In this field, few shows have been more anticipated than the upcoming television adaptation of Normal People, the acclaimed book by Irish author Sally Rooney.

And who better to take the helm than one of Ireland’s best-known directors, Lenny Abrahamson, whose previous foray into literary adaptation, the Emma Donoghue novel Room, resulted in four Oscar nominations, and a win for lead actor Brie Larson.

When I speak to Abrahamson, who is in lockdown in his home in Dublin with his family, the relief is still palpable as he talks about how they got the production just across the finishing line before the coronavirus crisis hit.

“We were unbelievably lucky, we finished the last bit that involved having to be in the same room literally days before the lockdown and the rest we were able to do remotely.”

The impact of the crisis on the arts community is a discussion for another day but Abrahamson describes it as a ‘massive’ blow. “I feel for a lot of people, it’s catastrophic and I hope they come out the other side.”

Normal People, produced by BBC Three and Element Pictures in conjunction with US streaming platform Hulu, follows the story of Marianne and Connell, from the awkward beginnings of their relationship as leaving cert students in a small town in the west of Ireland through to their college years in Trinity. 

The book, and Rooney’s captivating prose, struck a chord with millions of readers around the world, capitalising on the success of her previous novel, Conversations with Friends. 

Translating such a beloved book to the screen is obviously freighted with expectation but Abrahamson is confident that fans of the book won’t be disappointed.

“A lot of people love it, obviously, so that puts the pressure on in one way but it also means people are inclined to want to watch it, which is brilliant. 

Sarah Greene as Lorraine in 'Normal People  Photo: Enda Bowe
Sarah Greene as Lorraine in 'Normal People Photo: Enda Bowe

"What you’re hoping is that the essential quality of what makes the book so special is captured, but it’s done in a different language and in a different way.”

It helped that Rooney herself was on board with the project from the start, writing the screenplay, in collaboration with Alice Birch, who has worked on the huge hit Succession, and the Irish screenwriter Mark O’Rowe. Abrahamson had been eyeing up a television adaptation even before Normal People was published.

“It doesn’t always happen like this,” he says. “Ed Guiney [of Element Pictures] had got hold of a pre-publication copy.

I read it and was, like him, totally enamoured with it. We went to the BBC….and they said we’ll green-light this if you have the rights to the book — which is kind of unheard of.

"There was no endless development, or writing loads of treatments. Once Sally said yes, we were straight into the adaptation with a view to making it several months later.”

Getting the casting right is a central element to the success of any production, but in this case, given the book’s focus on the relationship between Marianne and Connell, the chemistry between the leads was an even greater imperative.

“It’s so about their relationship, it completely stands or falls on whether you believe that they really have those intense feelings for each other.”

The role of Connell went to Paul Mescal, who previously starred in the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It.

“Paul came very early in the casting process, and as soon as I saw him I thought I couldn’t imagine anyone being more like Connell,” says Abrahamson.

“He had the uncertainty, the magnetism and the masculinity, and at the same time he’s very beautiful — he just really nails it.”

Daisy Edgar-Jones, the English actor who had previously acted in various TV roles, had a more circuitous route to the role of Marianne.

“Daisy came quite late — it turned out she had read with other actors for their auditions, so I had probably heard her voice on camera reading in the lines for other people. But when I saw her she brought that delicacy — she is a great actor, very intuitive and truthful. And she nailed that spikiness and, at the same time, tenderness Marianne is capable of, and the intelligence. 

"When we got Paul and Daisy together for the first time, there was an immediate dynamic and understanding, and playfulness, between them. That’s the stuff you cannot engineer in as a director, it has to be there. And they really like each other, they got on so well and you can feel that.”

Lenny Abrahamson on the set of 'Normal People'. Abrahamson directs the first six episodes of the series. Photo: Enda Bowe
Lenny Abrahamson on the set of 'Normal People'. Abrahamson directs the first six episodes of the series. Photo: Enda Bowe

Also taking a starring role in the production is Trinity College, alma mater of Rooney, as well as Abrahamson, who attended in the 1980s.

“Trinity has been filmed a lot, but almost always doubling for other places, so to film it as itself and present it on screen for an international audience felt like a privilege.”

Of course, Trinity is in many ways emblematic of privilege, and the theme of class is ever-present in Rooney’s book, with Connell, whose mother is a single parent who works as a cleaner, initially struggling to adapt to university life, while middle-class Marianne thrives. 

The difference between their positions in the social hierarchy at school and in college is adeptly captured by Abrahamson in one particular scene, set at a party in one of the college’s residential ‘rooms’.

“I was definitely conscious of that [the class aspect], and Sally is really interesting on that — she says she identifies with both characters, Connell and Marianne, and I do too. I grew up in a middle-class Dublin family which happened to have a strong connection to Trinity. 

"My grandfather was a Russian immigrant, and he came from a very poor family but managed to get to Trinity on a scholarship. My father was there as well, and my siblings, so I feel that privilege. But to other people that was a world that was not available to them. I

"In an Irish context, some of that was based on the Church not wanting people to go to Trinity because it was Protestant, but it also wasn’t available economically. And that remains the case.

"I think the college is very aware of that and is trying very hard to build access programmes… But I believe fundamentally that college and education should be available to anyone, but that’s not where we are at the moment.”

Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne  in 'Normal People'  Photo: Enda Bowe
Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne in 'Normal People' Photo: Enda Bowe

Abrahamson directed six of the twelve episodes in Normal People, before passing the directorial baton to Hettie MacDonald [who, among many things, helmed the legendary Blink episode of Doctor Who] for the other six, which he says brought an “exciting” dimension to the production. For now, the director is keeping busy in lockdown working on the adaptation of Rooney’s first novel, Conversation with Friends. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, he says.

“I enjoyed working on Normal People so much that when the possibility of adapting Conversations came up, even though I have lots of things that I’m deeply passionate about and want to do — and I also want to do things that are not literary adaptations — I just couldn’t say no.”

As for the circumstances in which the show is being screened, Abrahamson is keenly aware of the surreal nature of literally having a captive audience.

“Not being allowed to leave your house is not something I ever imagined. We’re in such unprecedented times.

"I hope this will bring some joy to people and I hope it’s an escape as well as being something stimulating to watch. I think people need ways to mentally leave confined spaces if they can’t leave those places physically.”

Normal People starts on RTÉ 1 on April 28.

Keeping everyone happy with the show’s sex scenes

The sex scenes between Connell and Marianne, which are such an integral part of the book Normal People are particularly striking in their authenticity in the screen version. 

The presence of intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien — whose work has been increasingly in demand since the advent of #MeToo — on set helped greatly with the filming of the scenes, despite Abrahamson’s initial reservations.

“That role is new to me, and initially I was probably sceptical, thinking ‘I don’t want someone to get between me and the cast’. I wanted to be able to move from dialogue into intimacy really seamlessly, because the intimacy continues the conversation, it’s not something separate — that’s what’s great about the novel. 

"And Ita really helped there because she creates an environment in which everyone feels very safe and listened to. I don’t want to be in a situation where the actors wouldn’t feel able to say no to something I wanted…. And Ita is not out to get in the way of my relationship with them and what we’re trying to do dramatically or artistically, she’s there to make that happen in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy. 

"So the reason those scenes feel truthful and real is a lot to do with the environment Ita creates. She’s brilliant and I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.”

This article was original published on 23 April, 2020.

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