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27th Apr 2020

‘Suddenly, all the behaviours that you’re watching feel amazing’: Lenny Abrahamson on watching the Normal People TV series through the lens of the Covid-19 crisis

Keeley Ryan

“We looked far and wide for Marianne.”

Lenny Abrahamson says that they found ‘best possible’ Marianne and Connell for Normal People. The eagerly awaited BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel begins on BBC tonight, with a double bill also screening RTÉ One tomorrow.

The director, who was Oscar nominated for Room, recently spoke to Her about the casting process for the show, as well as why he felt TV was the “natural” fit for the adaptation.

“We just wanted to find the best possible Marianne and Connell. There was never any pressure to cast famous people, nor was there pressure not to. It was just about finding the people who were right,” he explained.

“It was a massive process for casting. We had Louise Kiely in Dublin, and people all over the place – all over the English-speaking world – particularly for Marianne.”

Casting Kildare actor Paul Mescal as Connell happened “quite quickly”, with the director noting that Emma Norton – one of the executive producers – told him there was someone in the first set of self-tapes that he needed to see. Although she didn’t quite tell him who, in case he didn’t end up liking him.

“Paul is amazingly magnetic and a brilliant actor; he really gets that character so intelligently. But once you’ve got one [person cast], it almost becomes harder to get the other – you need to find the right person, they have to work as part of that pair.

“We looked far and wide for Marianne, and saw some brilliant actresses. It was a few months after we cast Paul and we were getting near shooting; the pressure was on. But Daisy Edgar-Jones came up and she was brilliant. We got her over to read with Paul, and as soon as they were in a room together, there were tears – and a large amount of excitement.”

Although better known for his work on the big screen, Abrahamson said that television felt like “the natural medium” for  Normal People almost from the get-go.

“It felt very much suited for television because it is episodic and it does progress in these distinct phases, over a period of time. I think, also, television gives you the advantage of having a lot more screen time to go into real detail and look at the really the small shifts that occur between the two main characters and really spend time with them in each of the phases of their relationship.

“You’re not under the sort of narrative pressure of the feature [film] to move swiftly through the arc of the relationship – you can really sit in these different phases.”

Abrahamson admitted that it was a “strange” situation to have the series coming out in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s a show about intimacy and connection; about physical intimacy. It’s completely the opposite to the experience that that we’re having right now,” he continued, in reference to our video call interview.

“I think people are spending a lot of time watching screens because they have a lot of time. This show is quite a rich kind of experience and I hope it provides some relief from that state for a period of time. That’s kind of the best it can do.

“But it is kind of odd: watching everything now, it’s all made pre-Covid. There’s not one piece of drama that reflects it, because it can’t be made – even if you had the quickest turnaround. Suddenly, all the behaviours that you’re watching feel amazing. Things you wouldn’t have questioned before – people hugging each other when they meet, shaking hands, sitting closely or being in queues – everything seems so…

“I’d be really interested to know what people feel watching this whether they feel that kind of contrast, particularly because of how much intimacy is in the show.”

Normal People is one of the most highly-anticipated series’ of the year – and Abrahamson shared his feelings about fans’ expectations for the series.

“People have very strong feelings about books and things. I’m sure there’ll be people who feel the emphasis should have been different or whatever,” he said.

“But actually, generally speaking, I think something you discover is that if you’re true to the essence of the book, all the details starts to come right. And people will say, ‘Oh, you know, that’s just how I imagined it’ in a really nice way. People sort of converge; all the readers with all their various internal landscapes for the novel end up converging on the adaptation as a representation of it. You hope. We’ll see soon, though.”

  • Normal People debuts on RTÉ One on April 28.