In the space of just a few weeks, 22-year-old Daisy Edgar-Jones was catapulted from relative anonymity into the global spotlight via her role in one of lockdown’s major cultural moments: the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel, Normal People. As we meet over Zoom – she from her bedroom in the London house she shares with three friends – the actor insists that she had no idea how the series would land when it was being filmed.
“I’m such a cynic that I thought no one would see it!” she exclaims. Despite the cast and crew on location in Ireland being convinced they were creating something special, Edgar-Jones says they “never expected the show to be quite so well received and far-reaching”.
“Everyone was at the top of their game. It felt like a brilliant team behind it, but Lenny [Abrahamson, one of the directors] was saying before, ‘Even if you have the best people and you really make something brilliant, you can give it to the world and no one really cares.’ So I guess I hoped that my friends and family would like it, but I never really thought beyond that.”
In fact, the 12-part drama, co-produced by the BBC and Hulu – which follows the star-crossed, on-off relationship between teenagers Connell and Marianne against the backdrop of County Sligo and Trinity College Dublin – garnered rave reviews and is reported to have given BBC3 its biggest-ever week on iPlayer. From a binge-watch-worthy plot and realistic portrayal of first love, to moving one-liners and sizzling, standout performances from relative newcomers Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, it lived up to the hype that had preceded its release.
To star in such an instantaneous hit would be surreal in the most normal of times. In the middle of a pandemic, however, the reality has far from sunk in for the actors. “It’s all on the phone [so] it sort of doesn’t feel real,” Edgar-Jones considers. “I turn my phone off and then I’m just inside, and my life isn’t very different, so it’s hard to comprehend that it really is that big… We just can’t believe the reaction.
“I feel very lucky to have met Paul through this process. He’s a wonderful, wonderful person and a very giving actor,” she says of her co-star. “He’ll be a friend for life.”
It was a daunting experience for them both (his first project and her first lead), but their on-set dynamic made it easier. “[We would] get sort of hysterical, usually around 5 o’clock,” she remembers. “Whenever we were doing anything too deep or emotional, we could always have a giggle afterwards.”
“It would have been FUN to do all the SCREENINGS, but what I really am desperate for is the CELEBRATION with my mum and dad”
The outpouring of love for the show might all be online for now, but it has come from far and wide, attracting a number of famous fans. “I think Kourtney Kardashian said something about it today!” she laughs, incredulous. But rather than the high-profile press tour that would have been, the actor has been conducting interviews from a corner of her bedroom – including an Instagram Live with Kaia Gerber and James Corden’s Late Late Show.
“It’s been really fun and great to have things to structure my week, but at the same time it’s been such a stress trying to find the right angle, light the room and dress up my really very grey wardrobes,” she says, gesturing to her backdrop. “I just want to get everything perfect.”
This includes her style choices, which are currently limited to finding the right top to wear for Zoom interviews – “I’m always a fan of a big collar and an interesting sleeve – quite quirky.”
“I love how much you can express yourself through what you’re wearing,” she continues. “Like, ‘This is who I’m going to be today.’” In February, Edgar-Jones attended her first London Fashion Week, where she enjoyed sitting front row at Roland Mouret (for the clothes, and for the people-watching).
Exuding the fresh enthusiasm of someone early on in her career, she also has a sage understanding of, and thoughtfulness about, the industry and career path she’s chosen. Although she has appeared in a number of dramas – including Cold Feet, Silent Witness, Gentleman Jack and War of the Worlds – Marianne is undoubtedly her breakthrough role. She has dipped her toe into theater, in the Almeida Theatre’s revival of Albion, which finished weeks before lockdown.
But the sudden, stratospheric rise in her profile has happened at a distance from the support network she would otherwise have been surrounded by, which she seems to be taking in her stride.
“I really believe in the ‘fake it till you make it’ mentality. You know, you’re on Zoom and you’re trying to act really cool, but in your head you’re like [does an exaggerated grimace]. I have such a self-sabotagey thing, where a little bit of my brain is thinking, ‘What if I just suddenly… [mimes slamming her laptop shut]?” she laughs.
Something she has missed out on, though, is celebrating the show’s success with the rest of the cast and her family. “We’ve done the odd cocktail Zoom party,” she says. “It would have been fun to do all the screenings and things, but what I really am desperate for is the celebration with my mum and dad and my friends… I’m best friends with all the cast, so I just want to be able to have a little scream and a dance [with them], because it is bonkers.”
Her parents have been a constant source of support, allowing her to “pursue things I love and not pushing hard for university”, she says. Their own careers in the entertainment industry (her father is the director of Sky Arts and was a creator of Big Brother; her mother is a film editor) have given her valuable lessons in the trials and tribulations of it.
“My dad had a really good insight into handling some form of spotlight. When I was doing Normal People, he was like, ‘This book is quite popular, Daisy; it might have a few views,’ and I was like, ‘Nah,’” she laughs. “He gave me the ‘talk of doom’, he called it, which was something they used to do to Big Brother contestants, where they’d give you a talk on what fame was like. He was good at [saying], ‘Keep your head screwed on, keep your feet on the floor, don’t get too swept up in something; you’re still you, you haven’t changed, even if people around you might.’”
It was the strength of Marianne as an interesting and complex female lead that initially drew Edgar-Jones to Normal People. “I just loved Marianne from the moment I read her,” she recalls. “It’s really fun to play a woman who is incredibly flawed and complicated and isn’t just there to giggle along to whatever the man says. [She] has a strong mind and puts on lots of different masks as the show goes on.”
“I’ve never felt MORE connected to my neighbors, because everyone’s been doing something IMPORTANT: staying at HOME and protecting the National Health Service”
She also notes the equality between the on-screen couple, even as the power dynamics shifted throughout the plot. “There’s the idea that Marianne knows her mind and floors him a lot in conversation, therefore arguably she has the power in conversation. But when it comes to intimacy, she feels empowered by the way she feels so open and vulnerable to Connell. That was a really interesting thing to explore.”
Their on-screen chemistry and realistic sex scenes are part of what has drawn such praise for the series, with Ita O’Brien responsible for the intimacy direction. As part of the generation whose experience of the film and TV industry has been mainly in the wake of movements shedding light on the treatment of women, Edgar-Jones is amazed that it wasn’t always the norm.
“You need more protection because it is a stunt, with physical maneuvers that you need to make look realistic – just like in a fight scene,” she explains. “Mentally, it’s a really vulnerable place to put yourself in. You need to feel like you have the control and agency in those moments, so that you can feel relaxed and give a better performance. If we didn’t have Ita, those scenes wouldn’t be nearly as passionate… Paul and I could always speak up if we wanted to.”
Looking to the future, the actor has noticed a welcome shift in the scripts coming her way. “There seem to be more characters who are young [being] treated with the maturity that most young people have,” she reflects. “In the past, you watched young love or teen romance and it sort of felt quite light. [Now] the more it seems like characters are deep and mature, and it’s not taken lightly when you feel heartbreak for the first time.”
Following a whirlwind year of working in 2019 (“I love being so busy that I have nothing else to think about – I’m a bit of a workaholic that way”), her plans for 2020 have obviously taken a detour. But as someone who says she tries to see the best in everything, Edgar-Jones has found some silver linings in lockdown life. These include living more in the moment, making time to read and switch off, and feeling closer to her community than before.
“In London, you always feel quite anonymous in the streets; everyone’s just rushing past you on their own journey,” she says. “I’ve never felt more connected to my neighbors and the people around me, because everyone’s been doing something important: staying at home and protecting the National Health Service.”
Rather than thinking about how the past few months might have been outside of lockdown, Edgar-Jones is staying true to her word and making the most of the present situation. “It’s my first ever press campaign [and] it’s a different thing when you can do it from the comfort of your bedroom, and then can go and have a cup of tea,” she smiles. “It’s probably a nice way to ease into it, so if I have another one, I’ll know how to light myself at least!” With her star on the rise, it’s safe to assume there won’t be any ifs about it.