“Normal People” isn’t about sex. It’s a quiet relationship drama that follows two Irish teenagers, Marianne and Connell, as they fall in and out of love over the course of their high school and collegiate years. But their intimacy is an integral part of the romance, and the way it’s depicted on screen is far more vulnerable and unhurried than in most Hollywood productions. Yes, there’s full-frontal nudity, but more impactful are the prolonged stares, breathy kisses and subtle skin grazes loaded with meaning.
So how do you make sex scenes between two total strangers — who swear, just like post-”A Star Is Born” Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, that they’ve never dated — look so real?
Hiring an intimacy coordinator, for starters. Lenny Abrahamson, who executive produced the series and also directed its first six episodes, admits he was initially hesitant when the idea was floated. He didn’t want Ita O’Brien — who has also coached actors on Netflix’s “Sex Education” and HBO’s “Gentleman Jack” — to come between him and the cast.
“You’ve got a very clear vision in your head, and my fear was that an intimacy coordinator would come in, it would all flow away from me and by the end they’d be swinging from the chandeliers,” acknowledges Abrahamson, best known for directing the 2015 film “Room.” “But having her there did loads of important things, even down to the really practical, like: How is it possible to make something look real, and at the same time give the actors the comfort that it isn’t?”
Of course, when Edgar-Jones and Mescal tried out for the show, both were made aware of what it would entail. The 21-year-old actress had “extensive conversations” with her mother before signing on to the project, ultimately deciding she was comfortable with the nudity because it was “incidental.”
“When Connell comes in from the shower, he just happens to be putting his shorts on,” she explains via video chat from her home in north London, where she was quarantined with her boyfriend and two flatmates. “Whether the camera captures [his nudity] or not, there is an honesty there of what a real relationship’s like.”
Mescal felt more at ease after an early discussion with the director in which he was reassured that Abrahamson wouldn’t be “didactic or forcing me into doing anything.”
“I think I told them,” recalls Abrahamson, “that, yes, there’s a contractual dimension so people know where they stand, but whatever it says in those, it’s not, like, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to show you guys full-frontal nude, so I’m just gonna do that randomly.’” He showed the potential cast nude photographs taken by Nan Goldin to give them an example the of “un-exploitative, beautiful” approach he wanted to emulate.
O’Brien weighed in during the casting process too, and felt confident that Mescal and Edgar-Jones could sell a connection despite the fact that she hadn’t watched them lock lips. “What you’re looking for is the electricity when they’re apart,” she says. “When you gradually bring those two magnets together, that’s what we can choreograph. That’s what chemistry is. It’s not about can two people actually kiss.”
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