India Mullen rocketed to stardom overnight with her role in one of the biggest TV shows of recent years – but was unprepared for the mania that ensued, as she tells Julia Llewellyn Smith
When India Mullen filmed a TV drama called Normal People in 2019, she knew she was making something classy. Yet she had no idea that the show would become the smash hit of lockdown, the BBC’s most streamed series of 2020. One that’s been watched an astonishing 62 million times globally by a passionate fanbase that included the Kardashians, James Corden and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Nor could she have guessed that a sudden frenzy would develop around her then housemate, fellow Irish actor Paul Mescal, who starred as working-class Connell who falls in love with his classmate Marianne, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones. So bonkers was the clamour surrounding 25-year-old Paul that an Instagram account dedicated to the cheap silver chain his character wore around his neck attracted 164,000 followers.
‘We all expected the show to be good – it had brilliant directors – but none of us expected that kind of crazy reaction, none of us had experienced such attention before,’ says India, who played Connell and Marianne’s sophisticated friend Peggy. ‘I feel really lucky to have been part of it all, especially because I was a smaller part of the show so I got to enjoy it without the insanity some people had. I have such respect for people who attract that kind of mania – it must be so overwhelming. I’m quite shy and it’s definitely part of the job that I wouldn’t like.’
India, 27, is speaking from the heart, having been in the eye of the storm briefly last summer when paparazzi shots were published of Paul and her walking along the street clasping coffee cups. Speculation they might be a couple was fuelled when Paul posted shots on Instagram of them and their buddy Oisin Boyd. Lovestruck fans were heartbroken at the idea she and Paul might be a couple but India insists the pair (along with Oisin, who’s a stylist) were merely sharing a house in Northeast London, something they arranged while shooting Normal People. ‘We had all met on the show, we are in our 20s, a lot of us were moving to London. Daisy was living just down the road,’ says India. ‘It was very strange having that level of interest in us. Because it was lockdown, you were only allowed to go outside for an hour a day, so to think in that hour people were watching you wasn’t nice.’
Modestly, India says a lot of the show’s success came down to its release in April 2020: ‘There was a bit of luck because so many people were at home watching television. They say Lockdown One was all about Tiger King and Normal People.’
Lockdown or not, the show struck a huge chord with all ages and backgrounds, owing to its theme of first love. ‘Everyone can relate to the feelings you have in those formative years, exploring intimate relationships for the first time,’ India agrees.
While restrictions meant the mainly young cast and crew couldn’t toast the show’s success, she says, ‘We had a WhatsApp group so every day we’d speak on that. Even though we couldn’t get together to celebrate, we did our best over Zoom and distanced walks.’
India’s next foray on to the small screen will see her in season three of Sky’s popular comedy drama Brassic, about a gang of Northerners living off their wits. She plays barmaid Samantha, who very quickly – as she puts it – ‘becomes part of the chaos’.
Filmed earlier this year, India had the daunting challenge of joining a tight-knit cast (including former Coronation Street star Michelle Keegan) who had been working together for two years. ‘As the new kid I was definitely nervous, but they were all so welcoming. It was a really bleak time in the world, so I felt so lucky I could be distracted from all that by another form of madness. The cast were so funny – I felt I was getting free comedy shows every day.’
In Normal People and Brassic, India’s a brassy, bleached blonde. Yet in real life her hair’s chin-length and dark, so when she arrives at the London hotel for our meeting, I don’t spot her until I hear her Irish tones. ‘The hair’s made me less recognisable, and I’ve been wearing a mask,’ she says, delighted by her anonymity.
India’s not from a showbiz background: her dad’s an architect, her mum is a nurse, she has a brother who is an architect, another is a graphic designer, and her sister is a social worker. ‘So I definitely am the odd one out.’ Her parents didn’t push her into acting but didn’t discourage her either. ‘I never feel they pay me any more attention than my other siblings. I could do a Star Wars film and they’d be like, “Sweet, good for you.”’
At her all-girls school she was ‘a train-wreck, so disorganised. My sister was head girl but I never had my homework done, I didn’t wear the right shoes. I didn’t like being in a school setting, I was eager to get out and start working. I wanted to be an adult.’
Although her only acting experience had been playing the Angel Gabriel in the nativity, she secretly auditioned for drama school. ‘I didn’t feel confident enough to say openly that I wanted to act. My school was a very academic place and on top of all my mischief and chaos, adding acting into the mix seemed a bit too scary.’ But she won a place at Dublin’s Gaiety School of Acting and, two years later, within weeks of graduating, had a regular part in the hit Irish crime drama Red Rock.
‘It was a baptism of fire. It had a lot of Irish actors who I really respect and we were shooting very quickly. I felt out of my depth at times. I was playing catch-up with all these
really experienced people.’
You’d assume that such a start would have led to plenty of work offers, but as with most actors, there were ups and downs. She did some plays in Dublin and had some small parts in US TV series, many of which are filmed in Ireland, but in between there was waiting tables and working in shops and – ‘my favourite’ – behind reception in a gym.
‘I was really grateful for that time because acting means constantly moving around. It’s part of the joy, but it means sometimes it’s hard to create good friendships. While doing these jobs I made many who I would consider to be my best friends. I also picked up some amazing skills – I know about bra sizing from when I was working for an underwear brand and how to pair wine with food from when I was waitressing.’
Four years ago, India decided to move to London ‘to get out of my bubble’, and it was there she landed roles in BBC’s Little Women and the US TV series Krypton, before the smash that was Normal People. After that ended, she took a part in a play called Meat in London that started in early 2020. The entire Mullen clan flew over to see her, staying at her brother’s London home… and all contracted Covid, even though at that time they thought they just had a winter bug.
‘I was still going to work. I remember being in the dressing room, shaking, thinking, “I hope I don’t give anybody this,” because we were in a really small space. Then a week later it came out that the virus was in the UK. Thankfully, no one else got sick. We were very lucky – the show was finishing the weekend before lockdown started – but every night that week we were wondering, “Should we be doing this?” The play was sold out, but there were loads of cancellations – every night the theatre was emptier.’
Although lockdown was a terrible time for many involved in stage and film, with no idea when they’d work again, India admits, ‘I found it strangely liberating. Normally there’s so much looking over your shoulder and worrying that you’re not working enough but suddenly no one was. We put so much into our jobs but all at once we had to come up with hobbies like baking or learning a language – not that I did any of that. I think I made banana bread once.’
Now everything’s full throttle again with India busy on a secret project, which is great news from a career point of view but more disappointing when it comes to staying in touch with the Normal People gang.
‘Everyone’s done so well, they’re working all over the place, so it’s been increasingly hard to hang out as group. That’s the downside of success – they’re all away and I’m like, “Don’t go!”’
She sounds humorously distraught, but – judging by her track record – I don’t think India’s going to be moping alone at home for long.
Brassic continues on Wednesdays at 10pm on Sky Max. Catch up on all episodes via Sky on demand and on streaming service Now.