Normal People’s Mr Paul Mescal Is Redefining The Sex Symbol

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Normal People’s Mr Paul Mescal Is Redefining The Sex Symbol

Words by Ms Lili Göksenin | Photography by Ms India Mullen | Styling by Ms Otter Jezamin Hatchett

5 May 2020

“If you want to stop, or anything, we can stop.” To some viewers, it may have been a throwaway line said by Connell to Marianne in episode two of the BBC and Hulu’s new series Normal People. But for many (perhaps those with XX chromosomes), it was a revelation.

We’re only about seven minutes into the half hour and already the teenage love affair at the centre of this compelling new drama, has reached a pivotal moment when (spoilers!) their intensely charged, largely laconic relationship moves from clothes-on to clothes-off to a loss of virginity with heartbeat speed. In this scene – the first of many sex scenes – Connell, played by Mr Paul Mescal, takes a beat to check in with Marianne (played by Ms Daisy Edgar-Jones) and it’s a moment that will doubtlessly resonate with thousands of women across the globe who, in similarly tender teenage turning points, received no such assurance.

“I think that moment is incredibly sexy,” says Mr Mescal when we Zoom call in the week before the show debuts. “It could have appeared really sanitised, like: look at this character doing the right thing. But, of course, he is doing the right thing.”

The way Mr Mescal plays it, though, is honest and sweet – not the “sign on the dotted line” bogeyman of consent that now plagues the misguided fallout of the #MeToo movement. This moment in the show proves that being considerate is actually the easiest thing in the world, and – done right – can enhance the mood rather than detract from it.

“The closer I’m getting to people seeing me fully nude on screen – it does make me slightly nervous”

But we have skipped ahead to the steamier bits, which will undoubtedly be the most talked-about aspect of the series, without paying tribute to the source material, Ms Sally Rooney’s engrossing 2018 novel about two teenagers who fall in love in secondary school. We first meet the pair in their hometown of Sligo, in northwest Ireland, where Connell is cool and Marianne is the school outcast, then follow them to Trinity College in Dublin where their roles are somewhat reversed.

As they go through the motions of becoming adults, Connell and Marianne remain addicted to each other, caught up in an ever-evolving relationship that variously destroys and sustains them. The novel was a runaway success, becoming a bestseller in the UK and the US and receiving the Waterstone’s Book of the Year Award as well as a spot on the longlist for the Booker Prize. The adaptation, which is co-written by Ms Rooney, was snapped up by the BBC and is already receiving praise for being one of the best book-to-screen revisions in existence.

And it’s all down to Connell and Marianne, the central figures around whom the entire novel flows, who are being played to perfection by Mr Mescal and Ms Edgar-Jones. In particular, Mr Mescal’s portrayal of Connell has struck a global chord (thinkpieces and social-media profiles dedicated to the chain he wears are illustrative of this new obsession). Setting aside for a moment the thirst he’s awakening, Mr Mescal’s Connell is successful for his relatability. In the book and the show, Connell is an archetypical young man with a twist. He’s almost infuriatingly quiet, and chronically stunted in the communication department. Mr Mescal’s face is often a mask of troubled bewilderment. Throughout, Connell repeatedly shoots himself – and the relationship – in the foot by refusing to take advantage of opportunities when they are given because he seems simply, somehow, unable to do so. But he’s also at times meltingly sweet and attentive. The aforementioned conversation around consent is just one example of the many little ways that Connell proves he’s been raised well (by his mother, played by Ms Sarah Greene who steals every scene she’s in) even if he makes mistakes along the way.

It doesn’t hurt the show that he and Ms Edgar-Jones have the kind of chemistry that makes you want to look at and never look away (more on this later). Their attraction to each other is heady, and its portrayal is raw and real and often in the buff.

For Mr Mescal, who at the age of 24 is making his onscreen debut, this could be a rather anxiety-laden moment. He is currently isolating by himself (his former flatmate, Ms India Mullen, also a fellow castmate in the show, photographed him for MR PORTER before relocating) at his new apartment in London, having moved from Ireland right before the UK closed for business.

“I got a trip to Ikea in just before the lockdown, which I am grateful for. I still have little things left to build – things to get frustrated with.” (Normal person, indeed.) And while he’s using this downtime to run and do press for the show, he still has ample time to ponder his big reveal. “I’m proud about the work, so I think that kind of eases the tension,” he says. “There’s going to be people who don’t like it, but you just have to remind yourself – would you change anything? I don’t think I would.”

But is he nervous that everyone he knows in the world – and everyone he doesn’t – will have seen him in his birthday suit? “I’m not concerned about it because I made a choice that this project is something that I’m proud of,” he says, before adding, “well, on paper, that makes sense.” In reality, his confident resolve is slipping just a bit. “The closer I’m getting to people seeing me fully nude on screen – it does make me slightly nervous.”

While it might seem like we’re paying undue attention to the, shall we say, more intimate moments of the series, the magnetic attraction between two people is the crux of Normal People. The producers took the challenge in hand, hiring an intimacy coordinator, Ms Ita O’Brien, to help choreograph the sex scenes and make the whole process more professional.

“We would discuss the scene and then Ita would block what we had discussed, so it wasn’t mine or Daisy’s responsibility to decide what was appropriate… You’re told what to do. It’s freeing!” That said, most professional workspaces don’t involve removing one’s clothes. “On the first Friday of the first week, we had a full day of sex scenes,” recalls Mr Mescal. “It’s fair to say we were both incredibly nervous. That Thursday, I didn’t sleep.

“On the first Friday of the first week, we had a full day of sex scenes. It’s fair to say we were both incredibly nervous. That Thursday, I didn’t sleep”

“You see loads of TV shows and films that have been really quite good, but you don’t buy the chemistry at the centre of the relationship.” In this show, you buy it, so much so that I can’t stop myself from asking if he and Ms Edgar-Jones are together in real life (they’re not). Mr Mescal puts it down to their shared understanding of the characters and the story, and a general respect and admiration for each other.

“Even if we had rehearsed for five or six months, it’s not something that we could have cultivated,” he says. “It’s an innate thing, you can’t read a book and suddenly have chemistry between two people.” 

Perhaps another reason that this series resonates so strongly with viewers and reviewers (other headlines, for example, proclaim: “Normal People: When Book Adaptations Go Right” and “The Irresistible Intimacy Of Normal People”) is that the world, the real world, is in a particularly unsexy timeline. The global pandemic, the resulting economic unease, and the isolation orders mean that couples and singles alike are finding themselves in tough times. If you’re coupled up, you might not be feeling so romantic as your partner’s every idiosyncrasy starts to feel like an assault on your senses. If you’re single, well, looks like you might have to stay that way for the foreseeable future. We’re all in the dark together.

Normal People, with serendipitous timing, is offering us 12 episodes of raw intimacy and heart-wrenching emotion. And, luckily (finally!), it’s doing so in a way that feels modern, equitable and good. Connell and Marianne’s relationship, though dysfunctional at times, and lacking in some very basic communication skills (see if you can resist throwing a shoe at your screen during various moments throughout the series), is one for the ages. We can all get something out of it, whether it’s a healthier understanding of consent, or a how-not-to-communicate with your soulmate, or even a simple vicarious thrill.

But does Mr Mescal feel the same? Has the process of playing one half of two people so inextricably linked to each other has changed him in any way? He thinks. “I want to find something similar to Connell and Marianne, but only in the last chapter in the book when they have such a deep connection emotionally and physically. That might be a dragon that I might be chasing for a long time,” he says. A noble chase, though: “No better pair to learn from than Connell and Marianne.”

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