By Alissa Schulman
“You'll have noticed that neither Lenny nor I are millennial women,” Ed Guiney, executive producer of Hulu’s Normal People says of himself and director Lenny Abrahamson on a recent Zoom call with MTV News. “But we do have millennial women working with us.”
This is the kind of statement that can feel questionable, as if tokenism is a blanket excuse for privilege to rule. Here, it comes off as earnest. Their proven ability to back female-centered stories helps — Guiney was a producer on 2018’s The Favourite, which earned Olivia Colman a Best Actress Oscar in 2018, and Abrahamson directed Room, which earned Brie Larson the same statuette three years prior — as does the fact that there really were a number of women working behind the scenes at high levels. Most notably, Sally Rooney, author of the 2018 novel upon which the show was based, executive produced the adaptation, allowing her to have a hand in all aspects of the process. She also co-wrote (primarily alongside Succession story editor Alice Birch) the series’s 12 episodes.
It also helped that Abrahamson and Guiney saw in the protagonists the same thing that led scores of fans to devour the book in a single sitting: a quiet acceptance of modern first loves. Normal People tracks Marianne and Connell — in the show, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal — from high school through college as they explore the bond they deeply feel, though don’t always understand. Their relationship feels symbiotic, crucial to their growth. Regardless of the titles between them, both Marianne and Connell know the other will lovingly give them the space they need to work out their own versions of right and wrong.
“[Young] characters can often be treated in an either condescending way, played just around the awkwardness and uncertainties of being a young adult, or otherwise made into a problem or a way for older people to go, ‘God, look at the crazy nihilistic lives these young people are living,’” Abrahamson says. “In fact, [Rooney] just takes them as they are, and turns her considerable intelligence and capacity to analyze them in a way which feels so dignified and real.”
Even though the filmmakers are not of that generation (they use the phrase “old people”), the duo found a radicalness in the honesty, immediately knowing that this was a project they wanted to be a part of and quickly working to make that happen. In conversation with MTV News, Guiney and Abrahamson walk us through that process.
MTV News: Knowing this is a beloved property, what was the strategy in how true to the book you wanted to remain?
Ed Guiney: Very early on I think we really wanted to lean into Sally's book, both in terms of its spirit, but also rendering the scenes and the evolution of the relationship. We've been involved in various adaptations over the years, and I don't think that we've ever made anything that's been as close to the source material as this series has. And, of course, Sally was very much part of all those discussions, part of the decision to tell it in 12 half hours, as she wrote, as you know, six episodes with Alice Birch. She was very involved in the casting of it, all of the kind of key decisions. So it just felt like a very organic thing.
The other parameter that was present is that when we were commissioned by BBC, they wanted us to make the whole book in one go — in other words, not to split it up into seasons. They didn't have strong views as to how we should do that, but just that was part of their thinking, so we were embarking on a process of adapting the entire book, but at all points, I think when we came to story niggles and all that kind of stuff, we went back to the book. There's very little that's invented. I don't think there are any characters that don't appear in the book; there aren't any storylines that don't appear in the book. Some things are changed in terms of the adaptation, but quite minutely, and in quite a small way. So more than with most adaptations, the book really was the kind of Bible for us.
MTV News: What was the casting process like, and what made Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal the perfect Marianne and Connell?
Guiney: A show that's so character driven and really all about their relationship, it stands or falls on the chemistry between those two actors. We worked with a great casting director called Louise Kiely. She, very early on, brought Paul to our attention. Paul hadn't done any screen work before, but had been developing a reputation in theater, and in Dublin had announced himself immediately as an incredibly strong actor, and really as our Connell. That was a kind of day one thing almost.
But finding Daisy was more challenging. We ended up hiring casting directors in the [United] States, Canada, Australia, the [United Kingdom] to find our Marianne, and Daisy actually I think, weirdly, had friends who'd auditioned for the part and she'd read in for them, but hadn't actually auditioned herself until quite late on. And when we saw her, we were incredibly excited. And then when we brought Paul and Daisy together, it just felt like there was a kind of undeniable chemistry between them, and we felt that we were in a very safe place to make the show.
The truth is, we were worried actually. There was a time when we were quite concerned as we moved towards production and hadn't found our Marianne, and also knew that if we didn't find the right Marianne that we would be in trouble. And I think whether the show is something that appeals to you or not, ultimately, it's kind of undeniable that they have something going on between them and that they're very, very special actors.
MTV News: Marianne and Connell’s relationship is very intimate and physical. How did you approach filming sex scenes?
Lenny Abrahamson: I worked very closely with Suzie Lavelle, who was a cinematographer, and she was a key part of our approach to this in terms of how we shot. And then a very good decision was made to bring in a woman called Ita O'Brien, who's an intimacy coordinator, and she's brilliant at creating an environment within which everybody feels safe; the actors feel heard and the crew as well have a safe space in which to do creative work, where it feels like everybody's instincts are listened to, anybody's concerns or anxieties are listened to.
And then from my point of view as the director, because you still have to assume that responsibility, it's about, I suppose not just within the intimate scenes but across the entire thing, feeling that I am listening to and paying equal attention to both the characters. One of the decisions we made early on was that there shouldn't be a gendered approach to nudity. If you look at the ways in which people are depicted in intimate scenes, it's often the woman who is looked at more, and that is I think a function of the male gaze. And so in this case, there's a real balance in the nudity between the two actors.
It's just checking yourself and understanding where your own unconscious biases might be and challenging those. I found the whole thing deeply positive, ultimately, that the novel is so great, and it evokes a sense of how transforming this real honesty in a relationship, both emotionally and sexually, is. And bringing that to screen and giving that same sense of the kind of transforming and positive power of intimate connections, and of love and of deep sexual attraction. That was, for me, a challenge which I found kind of personally very positive.
MTV News: As the series progresses Connell learns how to feel his feelings, and Marianne recedes into her feelings a little bit. Can you talk about building those opposite tracks alongside one another?
Abrahamson: I think with Marianne, her challenge is to allow herself to be a part of the world, to accept the life around her; Connell's is to step into it, so they're both sort of caught at the beginning of the story in their own constrictions. And I think it's the skill of the writing and it's, again, following the book, but Connell has to confront the anxiety that prevents him from really grabbing hold of life. Marianne has to confront her sense of being somehow unworthy of life. And the way that it works with her is that she slips into a very dark place about two-thirds of the way through the story.
But by the time we come out into episode 12, she really has found a kind of peace and a sense of her own agency, and at the same time an ability to live in the world. And feel happy about that. And, I feel like both their journeys — his into depression, hers into a kind of withdrawal and self-disapproval — resolve around the same point in episode 12, and that was a very delicate balance to strike. And I hope we managed to do it in a way which is satisfying.
This interview has been edited and condensed.