Travis Smith tuned in to Hulu’s 12-part limited series Normal People because he read and loved Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel on which it’s based. Actually, “love” might not be the best word.
“I tore through both books like I was possessed,” Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that his time spent studying abroad in Dublin made Rooney’s story “all the richer for me.” The show, proving to be a cultural hit during the coronavirus pandemic, centers on the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), two young lovers from different backgrounds but the same small town in Ireland who navigate in and out of each other’s lives for years.
Perhaps because Smith was so enraptured with the relationship, when Connell’s email address appeared onscreen during one scene, he decided to act on it. “I was instantly intrigued when I saw that email address on the screen. That particular episode is a frustrating one, because Connell and Marianne are finally openly together, but he’s still having trouble expressing affection for her publicly, and he can’t bring himself to ask her if he can move in with her for the summer. It made me think of past relationships of mine where more communication and vulnerability would have gone a long way. I know that you can regret the things you didn’t say, even years later,” he tells THR.
Though, at first, “half-joking” when he decided to write an email to the character, Smith realized that writing an email acted as an opportunity to “give advice to my past self.” “It was genuine identification with Connell,” he explained. Also, given the novel coronavirus pandemic has resulted in self-isolation, Smith said he missed interacting with people: “It was 8 p.m. on a Friday night after I’ve been self-isolating for seven weeks, and I was bored and genuinely wanted to see what would happen. We’re all trying to find new ways to connect with people during COVID-19, right? Even fictional characters?”
Aware that the email address shown onscreen could be a mock account, Smith still sent an message anyhow in which he encouraged the character to “forthrightly communicate” his feelings to Marianne. “Can’t keep all that bottled up inside, bro. Find a way to love her as fully as possible, be authentic and don’t let your head get messed up by what other people might think,” he wrote.
Smith sent the email expecting a bounce back but, to his surprise, it went through and he later received a response — from Connell himself. It read: “Thanks for your email mate. You’re right, I’ve been a right idiot with Marianne. I feel like I keep making the same mistake over and over, but I don’t trust myself to not hurt her again and I don’t feel in control of my feelings.”
“After the initial freakout, I felt total awe at whoever responded, for how perfectly they captured Connell … Whoever wrote it has a really good understanding of the character and how Connell might be feeling,” Smith said.
Smith then shared the surprise exchange to his friend Michaela Dwyer, who he then encouraged to also send an email to the account. To also partake in the mystery, Dwyer sent an missive complimenting Connell on the chain necklace he’s always wearing. Dwyer also received a response, (“I screamed”) in which the mysterious Connell explained that he was gifted the necklace from his mother when he was 10.
“I’m a millennial, and, like Rooney’s characters, digital communication like this is second-nature,” Dwyer said of deciding to send the email. “Also, I was bored, and thought it would be fun. I wanted to play up the apparent cultural obsession with Connell’s silver chain and to, like Travis, reaffirm my hope that Connell and Marianne figure it out.”
Neither Smith nor Dwyer know who truly wrote them a response, but whoever it is, they embraced the storyline and characteristics of Connell from the show. “Props to whoever’s answering that email account; they nailed Connell’s affect,” said Dwyer.
“Either there’s some poor fellow whose name really is Connell Waldron that it [the email address] belongs to, or someone related to the show had made the account. To be honest, I still don’t know who’s behind it,” Smith said.
Though the responses could seem like a fun marketing stunt, a source tells THR that neither Hulu nor BBC have anything to do with the email account.
Smith has written more emails but has yet to hear any response, perhaps leaving it forever a mystery as to who is truly behind the Connell Waldron Hotmail account. Because of the response times of both emails, Smith predicts it could be someone in the U.K. or Ireland.
“I never heard back, which is cool,” Smith said. “He’s busy with his MFA program. I apologized for maybe being a little harsh with him, and then shared some more things about my personal history and where I’m at now. But I won’t go into any more detail — some things should stay between Connell and me.”
THR has reached out to the email address, but has not received a response.
A story for #NormalPeople fans– like the much of internet, I was feeling a little frustrated with Connell and his communication style, so when his email appeared on screen in Ep. 6, I shot him a quick note . . . AND HE WROTE BACK pic.twitter.com/yba3IuRFI9
— Travis Smith (@travis_oliver) May 3, 2020
emailing with Connell Waldron — if you missed me in Normal People, I’m the Totally Dublin dance & theater intern, work-studying in the Douglas Hyde Gallery to pay my way through Trinity, & I would’ve voted for Bernie pic.twitter.com/9YG95HZ9IK
— Michaela Dwyer (@michaeladwy) May 3, 2020