Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones on Overnight Fame: “They Were Pointing and Laughing at Me!”

Published May 11, 2020

Photo courtesy of Hulu.

Last month, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were supposed to be in New York City for their victory lap. The actors were set to promote their new show, Normal People, at the Tribeca Film Festival. But what would have been a whirlwind of screenings, panels, and parties morphed into Tribeca Talks: At Home, an interview with the two newcomers from their separate London apartments that streamed live on Facebook. For Edgar-Jones and Mescal, it was the latest in a cycle of appearances that have gone virtual as a global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Edgar-Jones, 21, and Mescal, 24, were largely unknown to the public when they were cast as the soulful yet tormented leads in the BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s intensely popular novel of the same name. The story of Marianne and Connell, two Irish teenagers who set sail on an all-consuming relationship that takes them from high school, to college, and into young adulthood, was a literary sensation when Rooney’s book was published in 2018. Like its source material, the show, which unfolds over twelve breathless episodes, has grabbed hold of the zeitgeist in a way that’s unique to the age of streaming. In the weeks since the premiere of Normal People, the internet has been flooded with articles about the show’s naturalistic sex scenes and the flammable chemistry between its two leads. An Instagram account devoted to the chain Mescal wears in the show has more than 70,000 followers. For Edgar-Jones and Mescal, achieving overnight stardom while in quarantine has been dizzying and surreal, experienced almost entirely through their phones as an endless flood of Twitter mentions and Instagram followers. They recently connected to try to make sense of it all.

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PAUL MESCAL: Hi, Daisy.

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: Hello, Paul. How are you doing today?

MESCAL: Right, I’m good.

EDGAR-JONES: I’ve got a few questions. Shall I go ahead?

MESCAL: Shoot.

EDGAR-JONES: What has it been like to have a television show premiere in this unprecedented time?

MESCAL: The truthful answer is that I don’t know what it’s like to premiere a show during a normal time. I imagine it’s a hell of a lot easier for all parties involved. I don’t feel like we’ve missed out on any opportunities to promote the show. I think it’s been a bit weird after the fact, not being able to celebrate with you or anyone else from the show, and being stuck inside by myself. That’s the weird part. What’s your opinion on it?

EDGAR-JONES: I think you’re exactly right. It’s very hard to register because it’s all on the phone. It feels like a video game. I see all these articles and I read these things, and it doesn’t really register that it’s me they’re talking about.

MESCAL: I find it really interesting that when we do a chat—the Instagram Live I did the other night, for example—articles get written. I imagine it’s the same for you.

EDGAR-JONES: I put up that post of us on set and suddenly I saw these articles about it. It’s like, “Blimey.” You just drop a post and you don’t think about it then being seen by people and talked about and written about. Connell’s chain getting thousands of followers on Instagram? It’s just bonkers. And I guess it’s just hard to register it because, as you said before, you just turn your phone off and you’re in your bedroom and nothing is different.

MESCAL: Yeah. Nothing is different, exactly.

EDGAR-JONES: It will be strange when we leave the house.

MESCAL: Totally. Once you leave the house, then who knows?

EDGAR-JONES: I just feel unbelievably relieved because it could be so different. Everyone’s been so lovely about the show which we worked so hard on. It’s nice that my friends seem to be proper fans of it, which I have never experienced. Usually people are like, “I watched it, you were good.” They’re just saying that to be nice. But now people are actually like, “I love it, let’s chat about it.” Which is just mad, really.

MESCAL: I think it’s fair to say that the reaction to Normal People exceeded what we thought it was going to be. The fact that we’re experiencing this through our phones has been a daunting thing in terms of spending more time in the comments section. How are you coping with that?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s funny because the week just before the Sunday that it aired on BBC, the press embargo was lifted on Wednesday, I think, and I woke up and there were all these articles. I felt incredibly nervous reading them because I’d see something and it would make me go, “Oh, god” and overthink everything. Even though it’s been really well-received on the whole, for my mental health, not looking has been quite a good thing.

MESCAL: Has that changed as we’ve gotten further along?

EDGAR-JONES: Yeah, because when it first came out, I was like, I’m not going to look on Twitter. I’m only going to look at the messages my mates send me—and Instagram, because it’s a friendlier place. I was worried about Twitter, because people absolutely have a right to their opinion but I’m so sensitive that I’d be like, “I’m terrible!” So I was just not going to look. The more I’m sent from my family—and we have a big group chat where people send articles or tweets—I realized that the reaction has just been lovely. So I’m not as scared to look anymore. I don’t search—I’ve not searched Normal People, I’ve not searched Marianne. I’m just happy with the job I’ve done and I’m happy the show is well-received. Have you been looking at your phone lots?

MESCAL: I’m definitely spending more time on my phone. The first few days, I struggled with it. Not like it was a serious thing to struggle with, but when you’re not used to getting that volume of messages, you feel like you want to respond to everybody. And then it becomes an order of people who you feel are the priority, in terms of responding to. I can’t respond to everybody, because I don’t know 95 percent of people messaging me. It’s a very simple principle, actually. Respond to people who you know care about you, and who cared about you before the show came out.

EDGAR-JONES: I’ve found it strange not being able to promote the show together in the same room. The fact that we can’t have a little giggle or a chat about it. How do you find that?

MESCAL: Yeah. It just would be way more fun, both of us running around New York doing interviews and having a crack. But I suppose in the same sense we still got to do the same interviews, and it brings it around to the bigger question: I miss seeing my friends, and that’s what it would have been. Have you been to New York before?

EDGAR-JONES: When I was wee, but no, not for a long time.

MESCAL: Imagine us getting around and doing that.

EDGAR-JONES: We’ll have to do it after all of this madness. What has the reaction been like from your friends and family?

MESCAL: I think it’s the same for both of us. You know how when you do something, and your mum and dad love it, they’re like, “Yeah, it was really good”? I think I’m a good barometer in terms of telling when someone’s lying to me or not, and I get the sense that the people closest to me really like it. What about you?

EDGAR-JONES: I’ve never had friends be like, “Can I discuss the shot that they used in this scene?” They’re actually really interested in the process of making it. And for those friends who love the book, it’s really lovely that they are chuffed with it. I’m so relieved about that.

MESCAL: I suppose something that we would have been asked a lot prior to the show coming out would have been, “Are you ready to be recognized?” And we both genuinely had no idea: “Are a lot of people going to see the show? Are people going to like it?” I knew I liked it, but we were kind of joking that we genuinely didn’t think that was going to be the case for a lot of people. Has your thought process changed? I know you kind of had a bit of a thing when you were out walking the other day. How are you going to go about navigating that change?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s definitely strange, because we did have a few interviews about the show before it came out, and there were a lot of people asking, “How do you feel about the fact that you’ll probably not be anonymous anymore?” And I remember being like, “That’s not going to happen.” Because you don’t think it will, really. But I was out for a walk the other day and two girls stopped on the street across from me and made a hysterical giggle sound and I was like, “Hm.” Then they pointed, and then I carried on walking. And when I looked back, they were still looking. So I thought maybe they recognized me. But then you’re like, “Am I just a massive narcissist?” But it was properly obvious.

MESCAL: [Laughs] “They were properly pointing directly at me.”

EDGAR-JONES: They were pointing and laughing at me! It might feel different if I go into central London after all this. My friends were like, “You’ve got to be careful now. You can’t do things on a night out like have a wee behind a tree.” I’m like, what a loss.

MESCAL: [Laughs] “Oh dammit, I can’t wee in public anymore!”

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs] My favorite!

MESCAL: The other day I was out running and there were two girls behind me and I could hear them talking about Normal People. That was crazy.

EDGAR-JONES: Oh my god, did they not know that you were there?

MESCAL: No, because I was running in front of them so they were only seeing the back of my head.

EDGAR-JONES: That’s bonkers. Has anyone you’ve admired reached out to tell you that they loved the show?

MESCAL: Yeah, actors that I love like Josh O’Connor, Eliza Scanlen.

EDGAR-JONES: Jodie Comer.

MESCAL: Yeah. Jack Lowden reached out and I nearly lost my mind. Then you’re kind of freaking out, because obviously I really respect those actors’ work and you want to play it kind of cool, because you want to feel like you’re not a loser when you’re talking to them.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs] “I love you!”

MESCAL: “Let’s be friends!”

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs] We’re really not cool enough, are we? You know, when we were traveling to set we’d joke about this happening, but we never expected it to be this big, to a level where Mia Farrow is tweeting about it.

MESCAL: And Richard E. Grant! Like, crazy, crazy people. But it is really fun. Can you imagine when we do our next thing and it doesn’t have the same response and nobody is reaching out to us and we think we’ve done a terrible job? This job has totally spoiled us.

EDGAR-JONES: It really has. We’ve got to remember that this is a rare and special thing, that we made something that we’re really blinking proud of so early on in our careers. I’ll always treasure that I got the chance to do that.

MESCAL: Did you say really “blinking proud”? [Laughs]

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs] Shut up.

MESCAL: I’m really blinking proud of it, too. What are you most looking forward to on a personal level?

EDGAR-JONES: On a personal level, seeing you, having a bev, seeing all of our Normal People family and having a scream and a leap around at how absolutely blinking mad this whole thing has been. What about you?

MESCAL: Literally the same thing. I’m looking forward to finally discovering the city I’ve just recently moved to. I’m looking forward to seeing my pals, especially from the show, so we can actually celebrate it in person. And, yeah, just having a load of blinking fun.

EDGAR-JONES: See my mum and dad, have a barbecue, maybe wear my new summer outfits that I’ve got. And I’ll take you out on the town, show you Hyde Park, maybe head down to the South Bank. We’ll do a little London tour and then have a big party with everyone. That’s the plan. Pencil it in your diary.

MESCAL: Pencil it in for July of next year when all this blows over.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs] Pencil it in for 2042. I’ll see you then.