Meet the woman who cast Normal People's Marianne and Connell

Cork-born Louise Kiely has been nominated for an Emmy for her work on 'Normal People'
Meet the woman who cast Normal People's Marianne and Connell
Louise Kiely, casting agent. Photograph Moya Nolan

It is the Irish love story that became a worldwide sensation, the tale of two young lovers that became our comfort viewing during the height of the pandemic lockdown.

Now Normal People’s casting agent Louise Kiely has told how she and the show’s team knew they had found their Connell and Marianne from the first day that actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones auditioned together.

Cork-born Kiely said the chemistry between the talented young actors that captivated viewers the world over was apparent from the outset. 

“Absolutely. One hundred per cent unanimously,” she says. 

When Paul and Daisy read together and they read a number of scenes together, it was so exciting to see them. It was like: Ok, this is it.

 As casting agent, Kiely — along with the directors and key members of the production team  — had a central role in the discovery of one of TV’s most talked-about couples. “We found our Connell very early on. When Paul came into the room, he had the practical stuff — he has the talent, he was incredibly prepared. His knowledge of the book and the material was very impressive. He was interesting and interested. It was a very special audition but he also had this vibe, or this quality, which just really matched with the character.

“We had a shortlist of ladies and we started recalling him with actresses. We saw unbelievably talented people, and we continued until we found the combination which we felt was correct and right and perfect. Then we saw Daisy Edgar Jones and it was very quick, it turned around then.” 

Great casting is an almost invisible magic when it comes to movie making. When it’s perfect, you can hardly see it. But when an actor is miscast in a role, it can impact on a story’s entire believability. Little wonder, then, that Kiely has become one of Ireland’s most in-demand casting agents, with skills that have led to a nomination for TVs highest accolade, The Emmys. As well as her nomination for outstanding casting, the show got nods for actor Paul Mescal, director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Sally Rooney and Alice Birch.

No doubt there will be a sizeable Cork contingent rooting for her when the virtual awards take place in September. Kiely has close ties to the city where she was born and where many of her family and friends still live.

“I was born in Cork and both my parents are from Cork. My mum, Maureen, is from the Pouladuff Road and my dad, Pat, is from Passage West. We lived in Cork when I was very small, and then my dad’s job brought us up to Maynooth. Most of my family lives down in Cork, so I have very strong Cork connections.” 

Louise Kiely, casting agent. Photograph Moya Nolan
Louise Kiely, casting agent. Photograph Moya Nolan

Work brought the young family to Johannesburg in South Africa for a number of years, before returning to Ireland in 1996 when she started university in UCC. She studied law, which she says has informed her casting career.

“It’s not that I ever referenced an act, but there’s a thinking or a sort of thoroughness. You have to be really very careful about what goes down in a short-form contract when you’re negotiating an actor's deal because it’s their deal and it’s their life and it’s a very large part of my job. There are different agreements coming from different parts of the world. It’s about knowing all those agreements and I’m very interested in that stuff.” 

 Still, even as a student, acting was always at the forefront and Kiely says she benefited from a thriving drama society-scene in UCC at that time. Des Bishop, Young Offenders star Orla Fitzgerald (who remains a friend to this day) and broadcaster Cathal Murray were among her peers. Cillian Murphy would drop by to do some work. On completion of her degree, Kiely moved to Dublin to take up a place at the Gaiety School of Acting. It was during this time that she began to take an interest in the casting process.

“What I did know was that acting is very hard,” she says. “It’s a hard life because there are so few jobs. I was waitressing and clowning and doing whatever I needed to do in order to pay my bills. And auditioning obviously.” She was also part of Castaways actors’ agency, a co-operative where every member has an integral part in the running of the agency.

“What that did was it taught me the business side. I would be doing auditions on behalf of the actors, scheduling their auditions and confirming them. I enjoyed that very much.” 

She and her friend decided to give casting a try, and cast their first short film in 2005. “They were very small jobs and it took a long time. But at the time, it didn’t matter because each job was like a bonus.” 

Louise Kiely, casting agent. Photograph Moya Nolan
Louise Kiely, casting agent. Photograph Moya Nolan

 Kiely got to cast her first feature, Marian Quinn’s charming coming-of-age drama 32A, and went on to establish her own business. She’s cast movies including Sing Street and A Date For Mad Mary, while TV projects have included Red Rock and Blood.

She first met top Irish filmmaker and Normal People co-director Lenny Abrahamson to discuss his then-fledgling project What Richard Did

“I was absolutely delighted and proud to be a part of that. And then Lenny went off and made some wonderful movies.” 

The filmmaker behind films including Frank, Garage and the Oscar-winning Room turned to TV to tell Connell and Marianne’s deep but complicated love story, and contacted Kiely again. Screen storytelling is a very collaborative process and she says the show’s phenomenal success is to the credit of all involved in the project. This includes the two young leads, who brought a remarkable chemistry to their performances.

In my casting experience, it can exist in varying amounts, or in different ways. For example, there’s a chemistry on the first day of a read-through and it’s a wonderful chemistry that I love, which is a first-day-at-school feeling, and it always happens. 

"With two actors, they could click off each other, they could riff off each other, they could find the right level, be at the right frequency of sound together and then the scene just comes alive.

“When it is amazing of its own origin or volition, then it's just really very exciting. The chemistry exists but it can’t be there unless the actor is absolutely present, incredibly talented and very prepared. There is no chemistry which involves you winging it. Daisy is a very fine actor and so is Paul.” 

She feels there are many qualities—  both practical and creative  —required to be successful at casting. “I think you have to have a very large interest in people. You have to be a really good listener, to be able to get a sense of a person through a feeling. You have to have an incredible interest in film, television, theatre.

“In order to keep my skills up to date I am vastly interested in what is available to me to watch and know who people are on a continual basis. It’s not like you can learn it one year and that's you done. It’s a continuous learning skill and to love it is a massive bonus because there’s a lot to do within it. You have to be very organised, because productions are big machines and you have to be accountable for people's availability and their deals and some very practical stuff.” 

Connell and Marianne, played by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones
Connell and Marianne, played by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones

Kiely was thrilled when she learned of the Emmy nominations for her and the Normal People team and is excited for the night, although they are being held virtually because of Covid-19. She recalls a producer on the show telling her they were making something special, and was excited for when it would come out, but says she could have never anticipated how it was received, giving comfort to viewers in the toughest weeks of lockdown.

“What I love is that it is such a simple, and complicated, and universal story of love. I was very surprised by how many people watched it and were so deeply affected by it. I think it’s the universality of that first-love story that we all know and it just resonated. What I really loved, to be honest, is that it was an Irish story.”

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