‘Normal People’ actor says three students took their own lives at school
"My innocence was ripped away very quickly," says Paul Mescal, remembering the suicide of his classmate at secondary school.
"You think you're a big boy at 14, but you're not. You're still a child."
The 24-year-old actor, who grew up in Co Kildare, is discussing how his experiences echoed his role in 'Normal People', the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's coming-of-age novel.
Mescal's character, Connell, spirals into a severe depression after a childhood friend takes his own life.
"Three people killed themselves at my school," says Mescal. "So it's not fictional to me, it's real, and I was really nervous portraying it."
After the first death, Mescal's mother took him out of lessons for a week because he "wasn't equipped to cope with that level of devastation".
"I wasn't particularly close to the person, but that kind of sadness permeates through an entire year group.
"The distinct feeling I remember having at the time is that I didn't know how to perform sadness in the way I saw other people around me being sad.
"I was nervous people didn't think I was sad enough. I found the whole thing incredibly confusing and, in hindsight, formative."
Rooney was just 26 when she wrote 'Normal People', which has seen her hailed as the 'first great millennial novelist'.
It follows Connell and Marianne, two teenagers from either side of the class divide, who fall in love.
At their school in Sligo, Connell is a popular but sensitive GAA star, while Marianne is a bright and enigmatic loner.
Despite their surface-level differences, they have a profound intellectual and sexual connection.
Mescal is promoting the biggest role of his life from his home in east London, where he is spending lockdown alone.
He describes isolation as a "breeding ground for anxiety", but clearly has a sense of humour about 'Normal People' having a captive audience.
"You can't get away from it, unfortunately," he says over Zoom. "It's very strange, I'm getting excited for a show that's coming out and I'll be watching it by myself at home," he laughs.
"Sometimes I go to the mirror so it feels like I'm talking to somebody."
While Mescal was raised by both his mother and father - a garda and a teacher - and Connell was brought up by a single parent, the pair nevertheless have a lot in common. Like Connell, Mescal spent his schooldays playing GAA. He was a polite child - "not bold" - and came from a "loving home".
'Normal People' struck a chord with so many readers because it encapsulated how intoxicating first love is, and this resonated with Mescal.
"I had a very intense relationship at the end of secondary school," he says.
"Connell wants to absorb Marianne. He knows where she is sitting in a room without even having to look.
"I remember that feeling in my body when I was sitting in class and my brain was constantly in tune with this other person. And although I wasn't hiding the relationship like Connell does, I remember worrying, 'What would my friends think if we held hands in the corridor?'"
After leaving school, Marianne and Connell cross paths again at Trinity College, where their roles have reversed. She is the assured beauty everyone wants to talk to at parties, while he is the uncertain misfit.
Mescal himself studied drama there. "At Trinity, everyone is performing," he says. "It's a college for people who are excellent in their fields of study, so everyone was trying to one-up each other, to appear to be better read or on the cutting edge of fashion.
"I found it very difficult to siphon through what was the real version of someone versus what they were projecting."
For all their similarities, Mescal notes an important distinction between himself and Connell.
"Being an actor and coming from a house where I was permitted to talk about my feelings, I'm able to discuss them quite quickly," he says.
"Connell thinks about his feelings a lot but doesn't express them and that cripples him. I found him really claustrophobic to play."
Claustrophobia hangs heavy over both the novel and its TV adaptation. The sex scenes, especially, are filmed with crushing intimacy. Mescal believes Hollywood has "played a massive role" in making sex so taboo in our society.
"It portrays sex in a way that isn't true to life," he says. "They have to hold their hands up and say they haven't helped with that."
'Normal People' has repeatedly been dubbed a "millennial love story", but Mescal says: "To be brutally honest, most people I know are meeting over apps.
"That's not the case with Connell and Marianne. There's something extraordinary about them and I don't think they can be labelled as 'millennial'."
He smiles, knowingly. "They're way more interesting than a title like that."