“If I’m being totally honest, Connell is the problem,” says Paul Mescal of his Normal People character Connell Waldron, a breakout lead role for the 24-year-old Irish actor who got his start in theater and has risen to  fame in the middle of the global pandemic as house-bound viewers immersed themselves into the 12-part saga.

Based on the best-selling novel by Sally Rooney, Normal People follows Connell (Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), two star-crossed friends and lovers who meet in high school in the Irish town of Sligo and continue to orbit each other through college in Dublin, despite their own separate romantic relationships and personal struggles.

“The book is so perfect,” Mescal says. “And it is so perfect from an actor’s perspective, because it’s basically just a detailed description of growing up inside the brain of these two very complicated people.”

A romantic drama, Normal People hinges on the classic “will they or won’t they” tension that has fueled so many iconic coming-of-age series: Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls and Felicity, to name a few. Mescal’s Connell, however, sets a new standard for the type of on-screen crush this genre relies on. He’s cute and shy, and that might have been enough in an earlier era. But it is the on-screen portrayals of Connell’s vulnerability and struggles with mental health that make him such a welcome new male lead.

“It treats the genre very seriously,” he explains. “We’ve seen romantic dramas before but I think, especially in regards to love and young relationships, it can be trivialized quite a lot.”

The series manages to avoid the heavy-handedness of a safer-sex PSA while also depicting young people asking for consent of one another, be it contraception or what their desires are –– even when, in Marianne’s case, what she wants may counter her best interests. Young love is shown in all its pure and painful realities, as Connell and Marianne move through multiple stages of their relationships with each other and others. An observant viewer can piece together how trauma in early childhood and first love can lead to later self-harm, as seen with Marianne, whose early encounters in a cold, abusive household affect what she seeks later as an adult.

With Rooney’s words as a guide, and a consultation with a student mental health counselor to confirm the accuracy of his physical acting choices, Mescal portrays a rare and refreshing male lead whose personality is not limited to his good looks and tantalizing unavailability. Connell is sensitive and at times, immobilized by crippling depression and anxiety. He is brought to his knees by the grief of a friend lost to suicide and his interior world is perhaps the most rich and complex dissection of masculinity to be brought to television. (Tony Soprano went to therapy, too, but he wasn’t exactly swoon-worthy by conventional standards.)

Born in the town of Maynooth in County Kildare, Ireland, Mescal studied acting at The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin, just like his character Connell, who studied English at the same institution. Mescal went on to starring roles in theatre productions including The Great Gatsby and The Red Shoes, before booking his first TV role as the male lead on Hulu’s Normal People. It has been a steep rise to sudden fame –– and fandom.

On Instagram, more than 180,000 fans follow @connellschain, an account devoted to the silver chain necklace that hangs from his character’s neck –– most prominent in the steamy and scantily clad scenes –– which popped up almost immediately after the show’s premiere (Marianne has a corresponding account, @mariannesbangs, devoted to Edgar-Jones’s haircut). And while the actor is not particularly interested in discussing this –– there are more substantial points to discuss when it comes to his role, artful as the wardrobe may be –– it is one of the odd new trappings of fame that Mescal is learning to laugh at, and to appreciate as proof that his role has resonance with his fans.

Connell cries openly, messily. He has panic attacks. For a long time he avoids true emotional intimacy with Marianne, the person he loves and longs for most in the world, and fails repeatedly to articulate to her just how much he cares. At first pass, his mid-season meltdown may seem like something of a surprise, but a careful viewer who rewatches the show from the top will notice that Mescal makes a series of subtle acting choices from the start, laying the foundation for Connell’s fraught inner world, so that by the time we see him breakdown into a clinical depression, it actually is not all that surprising.

There is the way he avoids eye contact, or stays quiet when his friends goad him. There are the “mmms” and silences that fill the space where Connell might otherwise articulate his thoughts and feelings. All of these subtle and specific acting choices create a portrait of a young man struggling to express and accept his own emotional landscape, an on-screen space rarely granted to explore the mental health of young male characters.

“This is a theory that I have: I don’t think it’s any more difficult for a man to process their emotions than it is a woman––I don’t think that’s the thing––I think it’s the context in which society has taught us to express ourselves,” Mescal explains. “Even if you look at the games that people played as young boys and young girls in isolation, emotion doesn’t come into the games that boys, young boys played. It has everything to do with the rules that we’re taught and the formative years of our life, and Connell is definitely a victim of that.”

It’s why, Mescal adds, he feels the need to defend Connell when people say the character is frustrating. “Of course he is! But that’s not the thing we’re focusing on. It’s like, what are we doing when we’re castigating somebody for feeling emotion?”

While no one could have predicted the show would premiere amid a global pandemic that has plunged the population into an immensely emotional and trying period, seeing a character like Connell – a young, handsome and popular male who also struggles with isolation and his mental health – can be inspiring to many that face similar issues.

“I think it’s important to show the resilience of young people, how they can tolerate a huge amount,”  Mescal says. “But also how difficult and rewarding it is when you find somebody who you fundamentally respect and love.”