Normal People's Daisy Edgar-Jones: ‘Is this how our 20s are supposed to be?’

The actor on modern dating, her Irish connections and dealing with sudden fame

“I’ve been told,” says Daisy Edgar-Jones, “that the trick for posing at film premieres is to put one foot forward, lift your chin, and basically try to emanate with your face that you’re a top-class lawyer who’s won a big case.”

We're standing together in a London park, not far from where the 23-year-old actor grew up, on a cold but sunlit morning in February. Soon, Edgar-Jones will fly to Los Angeles for the premiere of a gory and provocative new thriller she has made called Fresh. Although her career exploded in spring 2020, when she starred with Paul Mescal in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People, the years since then have been Covid-straitened and quite weird ("smudged" is how Edgar-Jones puts it), and she has not yet had any red carpet practice. This will be her first premiere.

Have a practise now, I suggest?

“Here?” She glances over her shoulder. We’re by a boating pond, on the gloopy waters of which there are chained-up pedalos in the shapes of unicorns and swans; a disconsolate sight, we agree. A few dog-walkers are making circuits of the park, but nobody’s watching. “All right,” she says, and she puts one white-trainered foot in front of the other. She lifts her chin. She adopts a fierce, lawyerly scowl …

We were supposed to be meeting for a coffee in the park’s cafe, only it’s out of season and the doors are firmly shut. Edgar-Jones, who knows the local terrain well, ponders our options. Brisk walk, to keep off the cold? Brave it out on a bench? Climb aboard an anchored pedalo? On closer inspection, she notes, all of the pedalos are covered with bird droppings. Walk it is!

She wraps herself tighter inside a camel-coloured coat and leads the way. We zigzag around the muddy paths of the park, completing a few circuits, eventually passing within sight of her family home. She waves an arm: “Over there.”

When Normal People appeared on BBC iPlayer, becoming a sensation in the middle of that strange and scary first lockdown, Edgar-Jones was living in a London flatshare. As soon as the world opened up, she went off to work, capitalising on elevated acting stock to make Fresh (filmed in Canada) then an adaptation of the bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing (shot in Louisiana), then a mini-series called Under the Banner of Heaven (Canada again). She spent a year abroad, much of it masked, on Covid-wary sets, living in solitary rentals. She has just got back to London and has been staying with her parents, rehumanising with Sunday roasts and free lifts.

Has she come back with a bump, I ask? Or a sigh of relief?

A bit of both, Edgar-Jones says. “As much as I loved and am grateful for a year of consistent work, there were times when I was lonely. Really missed my friends. I just haven’t seen them. I was away for something like 10 and a half months out of the 12. And that little bit of time I was home, I was jet-lagged. Bad company.”

Happily for me, she is good company today, a rapid talker and rapid walker, one of those people who prefers to look at you as they speak and so pounds along without seeing where they’re going. Of the astonishing success of Normal People, she says: “I think I’m still processing it, to be honest. I haven’t worked out what it all means – if it means anything at all.” But enough time has passed that she will get stabs of nostalgia, she says, whenever she thinks about it. She still swaps texts with the friends she made on set, including Mescal. “But I haven’t seen anyone I made it with for two years now.”

I suggest it must feel a bit like having made very close friends on holiday before everyone disperses to their separate homes.

There was one big part that Edgar-Jones was up for, which she came very close to landing, but missed. She won't say what, but rejection stung as badly as being dumped

“That’s right, a holiday feeling. Filming was so intense. So full-on and all-consuming. Only you and that specific group of people know what it was like. A very insular experience that I now have this massive nostalgia for.”

Like Mescal, Edgar-Jones has been following the news from a distance while the creative team from Normal People adapt another Sally Rooney novel, Conversations With Friends. On the day I meet Edgar-Jones, a trailer for that series has just been released online: "It looks so-o-o beautiful," she says. She was in Calgary last autumn when Rooney's third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, came out. "I cycled to a bookshop that first day. I sat in a park in the sun and read it in one go." Edgar-Jones had got to know Rooney well enough, during pre-production meetings for Normal People, to pop her a quick email of congratulations after she read the new book. "And can you imagine how well she writes an email in reply? I wanted to frame it."

As she read that day, Edgar-Jones says, she couldn’t help but imagine how she would perform one or other of Rooney’s new characters. “I think as soon as you’ve seen the man-behind-the-curtain, you can’t go back,” is how Edgar-Jones explains this impulse. “You want to read the new novel and lose yourself. But it’s hard to disconnect. Your work brain is picturing 20 people behind a camera, and a boom mic hovering over them. You find yourself wondering whether it would make a better film or miniseries … ”

Actually, the main result of her reading that day, she says, was to make her communicate more richly with her friends from home. Beautiful World, Where Are You is centred on a series of long, confessional emails between two friends in their late 20s and, while she read, Edgar-Jones suddenly realised that her own conversations with friends had reduced to a series of hellos, I-miss-yous, be-good-to-catch-ups, over text.

So she went back to her rental and wrote a long email to her best friend back home, expressing what I imagine a lot of young people have felt over two stunted, isolation-heavy years: that important aspects of their youth have been spirited away from them. Edgar-Jones summarises what she wrote: “I’m here in my apartment. I’ve just watched another season of Below Deck. I’ve had another meal of order-in food. I bought a candle and I felt … joy? But is this enough? Should I be living it up more? Is this how our 20s are supposed to be?”

Distraction comes in the form of a wooden hut. A man is selling hot drinks from a hatch. Appalled by my order – I ask for something frothy with half the advertised amount of caffeine – Edgar-Jones leans in to confer with the man, agreeing that her own cup will contain the usual amount of coffee, maximum coffee, all the coffee. She turns to me and says: “Sorry. But.”

Edgar-Jones's mother, Wendy, grew up in Northern Ireland. Her father, Philip, a media executive who runs entertainment at Sky TV and the Sky Arts channel, is Scottish. Her family are based in the same part of London that I grew up in, right where the northern suburbs begin. I thought I knew the accents of this part of the city as well as anyone, but Edgar-Jones's way of speaking confounds me. There are Irish vowel sounds, Scottish vowel sounds. If she wants to, she can sprinkle her conversation with enough variations of the word mate ("Mate! … Maaaaaate … Mate?") to pass muster as a Londoner, but at the same time she says "wee" not "little", "gosh" more often than "God", "ach!" instead of "oh!".

While we wait for our coffee, she tries to explain this patchwork accent. She is an only child and her parents, two of her closest friends, have always had a strong influence on her. “My grandad moved in with us when I was about 11 as well. He died when I was 16. He had a very strong Northern Irish accent. Another big influence.” She has started to wonder, as well, if it’s a defensive thing. “I’ve played a lot of characters with accents, and I feel like I’ve sort of kept bits of them in my subconscious. Whenever I get shy, whenever I find it hard to speak as myself, little pieces of these accents sort of creep out.”

Within days, the puffy fringe that Edgar-Jones wore on screen as Marianne was being discussed in national newspaper thinkpieces

Coffees in hand, we carry on with our walk, talking over the beginnings of Edgar-Jones’s career. Her first acclaim came aged about seven, when she won a local ice-dancing competition. “I was dressed as Macavity from Cats. I did a sort of cartwheel on the ice. I think that’s what swung it.” She was educated at a private school and a state sixth-form college where she got decent grades at A-level. She decided not to go to university in order to have a stab at acting. After some earlier training with the National Youth Theatre, she signed with an agent while still a schoolgirl, working on ITV’s reboot of Cold Feet at 17. Before Normal People, she made an independent film, Pond Life, and filmed two series of a UK/French co-production of War of the Worlds.

By the spring of 2019, when she turned 21, work was going … all right? Regular auditions. Intermittent yesses, lots of nos. There was one big part that Edgar-Jones was up for, which she came very close to landing, but missed. She won’t say what, but rejection stung as badly as being dumped, and she immediately went away in a funk and got the actors’ equivalent of a break-up haircut. It was only a new fringe, but what a bizarrely consequential new fringe. To this day she is convinced that this angry new haircut helped her land the part as Marianne, the high-minded nonconformist of Normal People.

Her knack for switching between accents must have helped, too. Edgar-Jones was one of the last actors to be cast in Normal People, and an unusual choice in that she was not based in Ireland. After a series of solo auditions, she secured the gig after a "chemistry read" with Mescal, already cast as the other lead, Connell. Normal People became a defining show of an era, in part because of its cool, even-handed script by Rooney and Alice Birch, in part because of directors Hettie Macdonald and Lenny Abrahamson's unhurried pacing and technical dazzle. But this particular story ("First love, first heartbreak, stripped down to just that, in all its rawness," as Edgar-Jones summarises it) was always going to live or die on the co-stars' chemistry.

How bad were the nerves, that first week of filming, I ask? Edgar-Jones blinks and says she was like the duck in that oft-used analogy: "Above the water you have to appear absolutely chilled. But underneath your legs are flapping like billyo." They shot from May to October 2019, in Dublin and Sligo mostly, but also in Italy and Sweden. "Real highs," Edgar-Jones recalls, "some lows. I was very green as an actor. There were definitely times I thought, my God, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm too wee. There was this thought that if I had one bad day at work I'd have to live with the results for the rest of my life." She grew in confidence, helped on by the close friendships she was forming on set. "It was like a cosy romance, just with lots and lots of people. We almost forgot we were making something that was going to be seen."

When she returned in autumn 2019 to her London flatshare, her friends put up a handmade sign, welcoming her home. She had lined up a part in a revival at the Almeida theatre of Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold's play, Albion. She spent the winter in rehearsal before opening night in February 2020. Her main fear was that the audience wouldn't laugh in response to her occasional jokes. "Hard to come back from that silence, or, even worse, that polite little 'Hrm-hrm' that people do out of their noses when they don't find a joke funny." But by the end of the run she was listening out for different noises altogether. "Any time we heard a cough, we thought, 'Uh oh.'"

Despite the subsequent national lockdown, Normal People appeared as scheduled in April 2020. Before its release her flatmates made another banner, congratulating Edgar-Jones for being a part of this cool-sounding show, however successful it might be. “I think it went online at 6.30am on a Sunday. I woke up to a couple of texts, people saying they’d just watched it, they loved it. That positive response, it was pretty immediate.” One of her flatmates made pancakes. They sat in the lounge and binge-watched the whole thing in six hours.

Within days, the puffy fringe that Edgar-Jones wore on screen as Marianne was being discussed in national newspaper thinkpieces. Her co-star, Mescal, was briskly established as one of the most fancied men on the planet. There were novelty social media accounts devoted to obscure aspects of the show, including the chain necklace that Mescal wore. “I think I found it funny?” she says, of this obsessional aspect. “I learned in a hurry that I had to part with my idea of Normal People the moment it landed. That people were going to have their own relationship with, I dunno, a piece of jewellery I hadn’t thought about during the whole of filming. Because the show was theirs now.”

'You go on the date and you probably know within the first 30 seconds whether it's right. But you can't get out for at least two hours'

She does remember an early FaceTime with her parents, as the noisy enthusiasm for the show began to take the form of a sort of national mania. Before her father worked at Sky, he had been a producer behind the original Big Brother run in the early 00s. Edgar-Jones was a toddler then, blissfully unaware of her father’s role in a UK media obsession. Belatedly, though, she was able to call on him for advice. “He told me to remember that it’s all a little bit silly. He said, ‘Take it seriously, but wear it lightly.’ I’m still trying to do that now.”

Certain faces, films, books impressed themselves very deeply on the cultural hive-mind during 2020. “The stuff we read, the TV and films we watched,” Edgar-Jones says, “they all held a little more weight during those months, right? For a lot of people, that was the only escape we had.” She lost herself in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, she remembers, and books including Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, one of the great literary successes of the year. She wound up auditioning for the lead in an adaptation of Crawdads towards the end of 2020, shooting the movie the following summer. It meant another beloved literary character to try to peel off the page and do justice to on screen – or, as Edgar-Jones puts it: “Pressure! You’re coming to scenes that people have already formed a deep relationship with, and you’ve got a couple of hours in front of a camera to get it right for them.”

She tried to take encouragement and energy from Owens's source text, treating it as she had once treated a well-thumbed copy of Rooney's novel, as a beautifully written crib sheet. One of the appeals of Fresh, her new thriller was that it had an original (read: not-yet-obsessed-over) screenplay. "If I didn't nail exactly what was there on the page? Fine. Because hardly anybody had read what was there on the page." Co-starring Sebastian Stan, Fresh is quite bloody, quite funny, quite shocking – and almost impossible to describe without ruining an early plot twist. Let's just say that it deals with the trials, indignities and potential dangers of modern dating.

Edgar-Jones, who drew on friends’ online experiences for the part, says she has never been on a dating app herself. This is about as far as she’s willing to go in discussion of her romantic life, at least with a notebook-wielding interviewer; instead, she offers a more general perspective on what the current dating scene looks like to people her age. “We shop for each other. We scroll. ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want that.’ You go on the date and you probably know within the first 30 seconds whether it’s right. But you can’t get out for at least two hours.”

It sounds pretty awful when you put it like that, I say.

And yet, she shrugs, this is the reality. “All my friends’ partners are people they’ve met by app. It does seem to be the only way people do it.”

In Fresh, there is one bad dating choice imagined forward to violent and sexual extremes. Edgar-Jones has spoken before about how the sexual content of Normal People was arranged and filmed with such tact and sensitivity that she and Mescal came to think of it as the “gold standard”: a way that all actors, particularly young and inexperienced actors, could and should be treated when filming sensitive scenes in future. “Even while we were shooting, I knew deep down I was being spoiled. That it can’t always be like that. I’ve continued to be lucky in that I’m yet to work with a group that aren’t nice … But I’m not naive. I know that’s probably going to happen. I’m better prepared for it, I think.”

How so?

“I would feel safe to tell someone: ‘No,’” she says. “And for that to be a full sentence.”

By now we’ve completed many loops and figure eights around the park. It’s almost time to say goodbye, but before we do I ask Edgar-Jones about those long, Rooney-ish emails she wrote to a friend. Did she ever get an answer to that question: is this how a person’s 20s are supposed to be?

Edgar-Jones shakes her head. “Nope. Not yet.” She wonders, though, if one of the things that people her age feel as though they’ve missed out on is a sense of closure for their youth. “So many of my friends finished uni from their bedrooms, y’know? I’ve been thinking a lot about being in plays, for some reason. How, at the end of a play, there’s applause from the audience. The actors bow. There’s something about that, a conclusion like that, saying and hearing, ‘Thank you for this experience’ – it full-stops things. And I feel like for us, maybe we’ve all been left in the lurch. I don’t feel we’ve been able to full-stop things.”

She leaves the thought there. We’ve arrived back at the boating pond and Edgar-Jones has a train to catch, to visit friends and family out of London. Then she’ll fly to LA for that nervy red-carpet debut. There’s just enough time for her to practise her hotshot-lawyer pose by the water’s edge once again. Actually, she admits, raising her chin, it was her mum and dad who suggested this whole pretend-you’ve-just-won-a-case thing. “They were teasing me, trying to get me to be less nervous. They don’t have any more of a clue about stuff like this than I do.”

She wonders about abandoning the poised, one-foot-forward thing – instead taking to the red carpet purely as herself when the time comes. Next to the pond, she practises that pose, dropping her shoulders, grinning like a slightly shellshocked and baffled twentysomething who has spent the better part of two years in isolation, goofily throwing up both thumbs for good measure, finally collapsing into self-conscious laughter. Which of the poses to use? Edgar-Jones wanders off home to her folks, thinking it through. – Guardian

Fresh is available on Disney+ from March 18th

Read More

Recommended