Luckily for Alwyn, there was already a Sally Rooney Male Lead Starter Pack waiting for him when he landed the role (short shorts, gold chain, inability to communicate feelings, check, check, check). He had seen and loved Normal People in lockdown and admired how tonally different it felt to everything else on TV at the time. “[Rooney and Abrahamson] are so good at just spending time with people in a room talking or not talking. It’s not hugely narrative-driven. I like the messiness of it, and the complexity of it.” Soon after he was cast, a mutual friend created a WhatsApp group with him and Paul Mescal called The Tortured Man Club, “which is I guess a reflection on [Mescal’s character in Normal People] Connell and Nick.”
They exchanged texts and eventually met in Abrahamson’s house in Dublin while the show was filming. “He’s a lovely, lovely guy,” Alwyn says. He still hasn’t met Rooney, though she was involved in the casting (she stepped back after the early planning stage). He has exchanged a few emails with her, including one discussing a playlist she made for the character of Nick (she does this for all of her characters, Alwyn says), which features songs from The National, Pavement and Kanye West. “I remember Sally saying about The National, Nick has that kind of downbeat, tired, but still vaguely charismatic quality to him as they do in their music.”
Arguably the biggest challenge he faced along the way was nailing down Nick’s very specific south Dublin accent. Abrahamson gave him the option of keeping his own, but they eventually agreed to stick to the original text (Sasha Lane’s Bobbi was already retrofitted as American). “I listened to people like Andrew Scott and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and that kind of middle-class south Dublin accent. [Nick’s] is quite anglicized, there was the idea that he would have been to drama school in London, and he has a British wife and so maybe some of those sounds have been softened as well.” (Like fellow Brit Daisy Edgar-Jones before him, he ended up more or less spot-on).
He’s not currently worried about how the show, if it’s received even half as voraciously as Normal People, will impact his super-normal life. “I know it sounds slightly lame, but my only thought about it is that I hope people really like it.”
Alwyn’s pandemic wasn’t quite so normal. Somewhere in the stagnation of lockdown, he wrote a few songs with Swift on a whim, which went on to win some Grammys. Mucking about on the piano and trying his hand at composition for the first time since being in a band at school (they were called Anger Management and performed Marilyn Manson and Korn covers), he wound up creating the melody and first verse of “Exile”, arguably the standout track on Swift’s eighth studio album Folklore.
“It was really the most accidental thing to happen in lockdown. It wasn’t like, ‘It’s three o’clock, it’s time to write a song!’ It was just messing around on a piano and singing badly and being overheard and then thinking, you know, what if we tried to get to the end of it together?” It was surreal when his musings that quickly became sketches and then an actual track would go on to be produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner with vocals by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “Sending it to Justin with the idea of doing a duet and getting voice notes back of him singing over the top and stuff was surreal. It was a perk of lockdown.” On the album’s credits, he goes by the pseudonym William Bowery (a mash-up of his great-grandfather’s first name and an area he likes in New York), but Swift eventually gave the game away. They kept his participation in Folklore and its follow-up Evermore (two co-writing credits on the former, three on the latter) a secret because they knew it was all people would talk about. “The idea was that people would just listen to the music rather than focus on the fact that we wrote it together.” While he has no plans to write more music, he cherished the experience. “It was fun to do it together, and I was proud of it. It was nice getting such a positive reception.” Is there a version of “Exile” out there with him singing on it? “Jesus, there’s probably a voice note somewhere that should be burned.”