Normal People Class of 2020: The nine college friends in the series
Meet the ‘Lirheads’: the nine college friends who ended up cast together in Normal People
Domhnall Herdman, Clinton Liberty, Megan McDonnell, Ross Gaynor and Kwaku Fortune, who all studied at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in Trinity College, Dublin, and appeared in TV series Normal People. photograph: Dara Macdónaill/The Irish Times
Just what is it about Normal People that resonated with so many people? Is it the so-wrong-they’re-right love affair between Marianne and Connell, whose chemistry, the New York Times warned, is so intense “you may need lab goggles”? Is it that it is a beautifully produced, painfully relatable story of growing up? Or is the reason it captured public imaginations that it appeared at a time when we desperately needed an escape?
It may be a combination of all of the above. But there’s another, less well recognised factor that may have contributed to the magic of the series on RTÉ, BBC and the American service Hulu. Nine of the cast were all friends who trained together at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in Trinity College Dublin.
Some of them had gone through the coming-of-age experiences depicted in the series together; buddying up together in college, going to auditions together, and occasionally crashing on one another’s couches. As Frank Blake, who plays Marianne’s brother, says of working with his friend Paul Mescal, “you don’t have to do that dance of politeness when you’re trying to work out a scene.”
Meet the “Lirheads”: the nine college friends – and their tutor -- who ended up cast together in Normal People.
Class of 2017
When the lockdown started, Paul Mescal had only ever been on TV in a Denny sausage ad. A few weeks later, without even leaving his house, he has become as a recent magazine cover put it, “the most desired man in Britain”. It’s been a strange few weeks, but he seems to be taking it in his stride.
Someone who played Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby at the Gate Theatre straight out of college probably always had a hunch he was going to make it. His experience at the Lir Academy “changed my life without question. It was definitely an incredibly challenging three years, but ultimately the time there working with the most amazing teachers gave me the confidence to trust myself as an actor.”
While the series was in production, he took the experience of working with so many close friends for granted, but now he has had more time to reflect on it. “Looking back on the project, it was totally bizarre to have that many of us working together,” he says from his home in London.
“It made the job so much easier when you are acting with, not only great actors – and Sue (Mythen, head of movement) who is one of the great practitioners working in our industry today – but we are also great friends. It’s probably something I took for granted at the time but something I will definitely cherish for a long time.”
Why does he think Normal People resonated with so many people at this time when our lives are anything but normal? “I think the show places everything that we don’t have at the moment at its centre,” he says. He describes the series as “incredibly intimate. It documents an incredibly formative time in our lives, a time that people generally have very visceral memories of.”
Role: Marianne’s brother, Alan
Class of 2016
Frank Blake is on his way into Aldi near the equestrian centre run by his family in Tuamgraney, East Clare when I catch him on the phone. Is he getting mobbed in the supermarket these days? No, he says, because he’s rocking a quarantine beard.
The global reaction has been “mad. We knew and hoped the series would be good, but because there were so many of our friends in it, it was like something we were just making with our friends.” This makes the global reaction all the more surreal, he says.
“It’s been a really odd experience. None more than so for Paul and Daisy. The show would have been so successful anyway, but in some way we have this period to thank for its stratospheric success. I think everyone was ready for something like Normal People.”
Blake credits the one-on-one tuition at the Lir Academy and focus on the basics, like voice, movement and acting, with helping him to hone his craft. He relished the chance to play Alan, Marianne’s oppressive and violent brother. “It was a challenge – to not just play the tone of a bad guy, but to try and fill it out with something more.”
Despite the darkness of his role, “I’ve never had so much fun on set.” He admits to occasional stabs of jealousy during production, when the WhatsApp group that had been set up for the entire cast filled with photos of pool parties in Italy. “I saw pics of pool parties and parties and college parties, while I was just going around the house bullying my sister.”
One of the great advantages to working with other “Lirheads” was that the shared history gave them a shorthand, in particular during one intense scene with Mescal. “We weren’t in the same year, but he is a great friend and we had a shorthand.”
Role: Connell’s friend, Rob
Class of 2018
Éanna Hardwicke, who plays Connell’s schoolfriend Rob, has been one of Paul Mescal’s closest friends since their time together at the Lir Academy. “We had a buddy system at the Lir, and he was my buddy,” so they got to know one another well, despite being in different years. At one stage, Hardwicke crashed for a couple of weeks on Mescal’s couch.
Filming one of the episodes set in Sligo, they were sitting in a pub and “there was this sense that this is what we’d be doing anyway, only you’re paying us to do it,” he laughs.
Has he been surprised by the extent of the international reaction? Making Normal People there was a sense that “everybody on the team was so stellar, they’re going to make something really good here. But it resonating outside of Ireland has been lovely and a surprise. We haven’t had many [films] of that coming-of-age genre, so you wonder if the Irish experience is going to translate. It’s a story set in Ireland but it doesn’t feel bound by that. It’s great that people in America can watch a GAA match on TV.”
“There will be a long overdue catch up” with Mescal and his other college mates when the pandemic ends, he predicts. Still, he’s at home with his family in Cork, and happy to be watching the circus “a little from afar. I’m grateful in a way; there’s definitely a bit of being recognised that’s a bit of fun, but by the same token, it’s not the thing I’m drawn to.”
Role: Rob’s girlfriend, Lisa
Class of 2018
Meadhbh Maxwell is waiting the pandemic out back home in Sligo where she grew up, not far from where Sally Rooney wrote Normal People. She was able to mine personal experience for the part of Marianne and Connell’s classmate, Lisa. “When I met Lenny [Abrahamson, the director] at my first audition and he heard I was from Sligo, we just ended up talking about the world,” she says.
She relates to some of what Marianne and her character, Lisa, experience in the production. “I was a timid teenager, and the boys would pull our chairs out when we sat down, or pretend to set fire to our hair. It wasn’t the kind of verbal abuse Marianne suffers, but there was that fear that if you step outside the line, you will be picked on.”
Maxwell was 17 doing her Leaving Cert, so she did the foundation course at the Lir Academy before getting into the Bachelor in Acting, which admits just 16 students each year. “You’re learning so much about yourself initially. You have to learn about yourself to be able to come back and do a big transformation into a character.”
She is home in a rural area, so hasn’t been recognised on the street, but her phone has been hopping. And a neighbouring farmer shouted his congratulations across the yard.
Role: Connell’s schoolfriend, Kiernan
Class of 2018
Twenty-one-year old Clinton Liberty has been self-isolating alone in Dublin as the series has gone out over the past few weeks. He has been getting “calls and texts from family who are in London, in America, in other parts of Ireland. My sister in New York is watching it on Hulu, and she said, despite the fact that you’re in it too, it’s actually good.”
Liberty, who grew up in Laytown, Co. Meath, started his career as a performer taking part in African cultural dances at festivals as a child. Later, he became a professional hip hop dancer and teacher, and decided to apply to train as an actor at the Lir Academy on the advice of actor Andrew Scott, whom he met after he was cast as a dancer in John Butler’s Handsome Devil.
Of Normal People, he says he’s really proud of how diverse the Ireland it portrays is. “It really reflects Ireland today.”
He hasn’t been particularly surprised by the success of the series. “I have a confession to make. I have been the biggest Paul Mescal fan, long before anybody had the #Connellschain hashtag on Instagram. I saw him in a college production of Mojo, and I said straight away this guy is going to be a star.”
Role: Niall’s girlfriend, Elaine
Class of 2018
Megan McDonnell read Normal People in a single day when it was published. “Everybody can relate to the story, but I felt like I knew those people personally” having grown up in Mayo. “To actually get the call to say, oh hey, we want you, was unreal.”
She was cast as Connell’s flatmate’s girlfriend, Elaine. By the time filming started, she had begun rehearsals for production of Playboy of the Western World in Belfast, so travelling between the two made for “a mad busy time, but everybody was so nice and so much craic, it didn’t feel like work.”
This year has been quieter than she had planned – “I’ve had two gigs cancelled because of the pandemic. But in the last couple of weeks there has been a tiny glimmer of things getting back on track.”
The Lir Academy “is a little piece of magic. Going there is literally the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s a place where you’re encouraged to fail miserably just to keep finding your feet.”
Role: Philip, Marianne’s college friend
Class of 2017
Kwaku Fortune’s character of Philip doesn’t actually appear in the novel, but “they wrote a part for me. I’d auditioned for a few other parts, and I thought after my last tape for one of the smaller roles, that was it, I wasn’t going to be in it.” His classmate Mescal always stood out because “he’s so bloody on it. But he works his ass off too. He’s the most confident person I met, but he’s so generous when you’re working with him.”
Fortune, who grew up in Roundwood, Co Wicklow, was more interested in sport growing up, but ended up in acting after a serendipitous conversation with someone from the drama soc during fresher’s week at Tallaght Institute of Technology. “I walked by and I was tempted to stop, but I’d already signed up for too many things. And this guy stopped me and he said, come back, I’ve seen that you’re interested. So I signed up and went to a workshop, and that was it.” He got into the Lir Academy on his second audition. “The training is very tough, but it’s a place that’s so full of love.”
Role: Connell’s friend, Matt
Class of 2018
“It was really lovely, getting on set and seeing everybody” from college, says Domhnall Herdman. With only 16 students in each year, “everybody [at the Lir] knows each other; it’s like a family.”
Despite having what he calls a small part, “I felt like a superstar on set. I was made to feel very welcome and included.”
He knew from early on it would be “something special. The book resonated with me, as an exploration of communications and relationships between young. It was a universal experience of young love, and young heartbreak.”
Role: Marianne’s teacher in episode 4
Class of 2016
Ross Gaynor was only on set for one day of filming, and has been kept busy with other theatre projects since, so he’d almost forgotten about Normal People when the series came out. He puts its huge success down to the fact that “universality comes more from specificity than generality”.
Since graduated, he has stayed close to many of his classmates from the Lir, and often ends up working with them. “One of the things I’m proudest about is that I’ve worked with the same people a lot. When I’m having a crisis, I tell myself I mustn’t be that shit if the same people want to keep working with me.”
When the lockdown happened, “I was finally feeling like I was in a really solid place, and then my year’s worth of work vanished. I’m lecturing in a university too, so everything dried up in one go.”
Rather than wallow in it, he got together with others to set up a weekly live production of Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie, online at thelockinn.io. It is showing every Wednesday from now until June 10th.
Role: Deputy intimacy co-ordinator
Sue Mythen joined the Lir Academy in 2011, the year after it opened, and is its director of movement. She was brought in by intimacy coach, Ita O’Brien, to work on some of the later scenes in the series.
“My biggest pride is that we had nine Lir Academy graduates in it, and to be able to move from being their teacher into being their colleague was a lovely progression,” she says.
The challenge for everyone working on the series was “how to tell an entire physical story through the movement work, and intimacy work has always been part of that.”
The importance of movement in acting can be seen, she says, in everything Paul Mescal does, “in every scene where we see him not being able to articulate, he has had to convey the inner life of the character through very subtle breathing patterns, or movement of the eyes. His face is always alive with who he is on the inside.”
What distinguishes a Lir actor? “When I look at Lir actors whom I know very well, I completely believe the character. I love that I can displace my personal knowledge and connection to them, so that I’m not seeing the actor, I’m seeing the character.”