When Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel “Normal People” was released in May, it broke the internet, as the saying goes. The chemistry between the Irish romance’s two leads, Connell and Marianne, whose magnetic connection takes viewers through their on-again, off-again relationship, drew in fans of the book and created new ones around the world. Casting the right actors was essential; enter Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones—and the casting director who found them, Louise Kiely. Kiely knew the importance of her task and embarked on a search that spanned countries and lasted nearly an entire year. Here, she shares with Backstage how she did it.
What was the casting process like for “Normal People?”
It all hinges on the two of them. The fact the book was so beloved and readers are so connected to the characters internationally, that comes with a big expectation. If the reader doesn’t fall in love with Marianne and Connell, there’s going to be something that feels uncomfortable and wrong with that. We felt it was important to get going as soon as possible, because we weren’t sure how long it was going to take.
“We all work hard and if somebody is working hard and doing a good job, that’s the best they can ask for. Nowadays, we can cast from anywhere and we do.”
How does the passage of time in the story affect the casting process?
You have to believe that they can be 17 and you have to believe that they’re in college as well. Thinking about actors who are 17 is probably not right, because the nature of it is that they have to be adults and, obviously we don’t want to generalize, but 18 still feels a little young. Equally, someone who is 27 might feel a little bit old. It was something we thought about a lot. They have to be believable onscreen to cover this time, but they also have to be old enough as humans and artists and actors to play that arc and deal with adult themes and go on a huge journey. Each job has different requirements, and that was a really big one.
What were some of the challenges that came with this process?
We had to be really careful around nudity, which everybody was. That was something I hadn’t dealt with to that extent before. Also, I had never reached out to casting directors in North America. I’ve met them before, so we know each other and that was nice, and there was one in Copenhagen who helped us out over there. That for me was a really interesting process, to be the casting director who was leading it.
What advice would you give an Irish actor who wants to work in a larger market?
I would say the same thing to them as when they were starting out before the smaller roles, which is to keep your head clear and work hard. You can only do your best. Keep yourself in physical shape. Keep learning, watch those movies, go to the theater, keep digesting as much culture as you can. The world is the same. We all work hard, and if somebody is working hard and doing a good job, that’s the best they can ask for. Nowadays, we can cast from anywhere—and we do.
What’s the casting and acting scene like in a smaller market like Ireland?
We work on Irish films and stuff that’s made in Ireland about Ireland. We also collaborate; we have a lot of big international projects come to Ireland, so we will do the Irish casting of that. We have collaborated with a lot of casting directors from around the world, which I find really cool.
“The work has to happen outside. If you come in for a director and you haven’t seen their work when it’s available, that’s kind of crazy.”
Where do you look for talent outside of agent submissions?
We worked on a film called “Sing Street” a few years ago. Going into that, we had big open castings for people who played music; they queued up for six hours and they came in and had their guitar, flute, or whatever. We did a soap for a few years called “Red Rock,” and for that, because it was 82 episodes in the first season, we had big open castings. It was great, because we actually found quite a few interesting faces for guest parts along the way. There are a certain amount of actors and a certain amount of agents in Ireland, and if we’d just used them, we’d use them all in the first 10 episodes, so it’s really important to me to keep that stuff fresh. We use social media a lot and we put out the details and we tend to have a really good response from that, especially when it comes to things like a young person who does ballet or sings, skills like that. We will use whatever we can as a resource.
Describe the search process for Marianne and Connell.
We saw tons and tons of people. Everyone who wanted to give it a go was able to. My colleague Karen [Scully] was working with me and the team. We thought, if we’re going to go for it, let’s give everyone a fair shot. Paul [Mescal] had gone to drama school in Dublin, and we kind of knew the grads and had done a few plays, but he was on the list very early on because he is terrific. He was brilliant and he came in at the first audition and he did a beautiful job, as did many other actors. We recalled him fairly early on with some ladies, and it was clear to all of us that he was our Connell. For Marianne, we saw tons of Irish ladies and English ladies, and then we went to America. It was a lot of ladies and so much talent. Once we got to that recall stage, which was getting close, we had this recall and brought ladies from various parts of the world. Two weeks before that, Daisy [Edgar-Jones] had taped, and when I watched hers, I thought, I think we have something. It felt like suddenly all of the things about Marianne that we needed exist in this one actor. We got them in the room and when they left we did a big hooray! It was an exciting time. That’s how it started, and because we had seen so many people, we were able to resee those [other] actors for various roles in the series.
How did maintaining the main couple’s chemistry affect finding the ensemble?
Once we had Daisy and Paul and we knew it really worked, I worried less about how it affected everybody else and more about who everybody else is. Lukas or Helen are really important characters—who are they? What are they about? What are their needs and desires and wants? That’s how we found our way in, even the smaller roles. Also thinking about the types of people we need in school versus the type of people we need in university and how the school can be a little place and then university can be really big and intimidating. If you’re popular in school, how do you feel in university? It was more about breaking down the world and looking at each individual character and who they were to find the right person.
What advice do you like to give actors?
Preparation is absolutely paramount, whether that’s for a self-tape or coming in to meet a director. If you are coming in to meet a director, read anything you can. Read the book, read what’s on Wikipedia, watch the director’s work, and obviously prepare your sides as much as you can. The work has to happen outside. If you come in for a director and you haven’t seen their work when it’s available, that’s kind of crazy. Know your genre, know the thing, and be able to say to them, “I enjoyed this film.” Because you’re there, we already think you’re terrific; we’re going to expect the sides to be read really well anyway, so make it even better by actually just preparing. I tell them I’d never go to a meeting without preparation, [and] I expect the same from them. I think that really helps with nerves, as well.
This story originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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