Biscuits and gravy. Hush puppies and shrimp. Grits!” Daisy Edgar-Jones is naming the gloopy Deep South delicacies she was most excited to try while filming Where the Crawdads Sing. Based on Delia Owens’s bestseller – and not a Dolly Parton lyric despite that folksy, mystical title – the film was shot in the swampy bayous of Houma, Louisiana, with the Normal People star sharing personal space with muskrats and alligators. “I’m from London,” she says. “The most exciting animals we have are… pigeons.”
Edgar-Jones’s smoky, lilting accent in the film – for a character raised in the damp marshes of Fifties and Sixties American South – is immaculate. Just as it was when she played the clever, anxious and very Irish Marianne in Normal People. Or the would-be Happy Meal in Disney’s cannibal romcom Fresh earlier this year. Like her hero Tilda Swinton, the 24-year-old has a chameleonic quality. “I want to play characters who are really meaty and funny and weird,” she says over Zoom from Los Angeles. “I’d love to be a character actor, playing parts that are different from anything I’ve played before. I want to dye my hair wild colours, and work with filmmakers I admire.”
She is in a starry-eyed mood today, despite in some ways being the veteran in the room. To her right is Taylor John Smith, older at 27 but less accustomed to the rigamarole of press tours and big Hollywood filmmaking. And this is a big one. Owens’ novel has been near the top of The New York Times bestseller list for 168 weeks. That’s probably because it crosses so many blockbuster genres at once: think of it as John Grisham and Gillian Flynn by way of Nicholas Sparks and Tennessee Williams, a legal potboiler wrapped in a romantic mystery. Appropriately, the adaptation has attracted heavyweight names, from producer Reese Witherspoon to Taylor Swift on theme song duties. The whole thing gleams with cash.
Simmering under the big-budget grandeur, though, is a sticky, oddball darkness. Young orphan Kya (Edgar-Jones) longs to spend her days in the wild, sketching her animal friends and occasionally making love to dapper city boy Tate (Smith). But the unnatural world keeps intruding on her, be it via Tate’s ambition to pursue an education, the cruelty of the nearby town, or wealthy cad Chase (Harris Dickinson), who draws her into an uneasy fling. Told in flashback, the film kicks off with Kya as the prime suspect in an unexplained death that could have been deliberate.
It’s one of the film’s many parallels to Owens’ personal history, in which her ex-husband and stepson were implicated by some witnesses in the unsolved murder of a poacher in Zambia in 1995, when she and her family worked in wildlife conservation. Both men have denied any involvement, as has Owens herself. “I was not involved,” Owens told The New York Times in 2019. “There was never a case, there was nothing.” Regardless, Crawdads is dominated by themes of reputation, local suspicion and the violence of nature.
For Edgar-Jones, at least, Crawdads is primarily a story about acceptance. “Kya is a real outcast, and people are fearful of her and don’t understand her, so they create this rumour about her that’s larger than she is,” she says. “The film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind. But also [showing] her resilience, and how she picks herself up despite every knock-back. She ultimately survives and thrives in a hostile environment.”
Lest it sound a bit bleak, Crawdads is also basically The Notebook. Dressed in earnest plaid and preppy duds, Smith plays the dreamily virtuous high-school love interest your grandmother would love. He gives the kind of breakout performance that should have happened to him a few years ago, if only his TV version of a certain cult teen movie hadn’t stayed sitting on a shelf.
“Reese was like, ‘You look familiar’,” Smith recalls, of a conversation they had a few days earlier. “I was like, ‘Well, I played your love child in the Cruel Intentions pilot’.” Back in 2016, Smith led a proposed TV sequel to the infamously horny 1999 film that starred Witherspoon and her then-boyfriend – and future ex-husband – Ryan Phillippe. In the mooted series, Smith played their characters’ spectacularly named son Bash Casey, who would be fresh meat ripe for corruption by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Kathryn Merteuil. In the end, only Gellar reprised her film role, and the pilot never saw the light of day. “But [Crawdads] was a cool full-circle thing,” Smith says. “Reese had a bit of an ‘a-ha’ moment, because I don’t think she even knew I was in that.”
If Smith follows in the footsteps of Edgar-Jones’s previous leading men, his face will be imminently decorating phone backgrounds and teenagers’ bedroom walls. See, Edgar-Jones has been a bit of a good luck charm when it comes to actors, working – exclusively, it seems – with men who go on to become meme magnets and online obsessions. There’s Sebastian Stan, aka the world’s most attractive people-eater in Fresh, and resurgent heartthrob Andrew Garfield in Edgar-Jones’s recent mystery series Under the Banner of Heaven. Then, of course, there’s Normal People’s Paul Mescal, who unleashed all kinds of societal sex chaos by wearing a silver chain around his neck throughout the show.
“I only work with future internet boyfriends,” Edgar-Jones jokes to her increasingly panicked co-star. “It just comes with the territory.” Smith is unconvinced, though. “I don’t know if I’m gonna be the ‘It-guy’ after this, but I’m open to new experiences. Though I did just start sweating.”
When I ask if Edgar-Jones had any advice for her co-star about the perils and plusses of overnight fame, she balks. “Fame as a concept is a funny thing for me,” she says, “because I don’t feel like that’s the case [for me] at all.” She calls the attention she got in the midst of peak Normal People mania “purely theoretical”, as the show debuted in the earliest part of the 2020 lockdown. “In my physical world, nothing changed. I was just in my bedroom. Then I went from job to job in these Covid bubbles last year, so I didn’t really experience it in real life. Only this year have I definitely noticed that something is different. So advice? I don’t know… I don’t really know for myself.” She goes quiet.
“That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever got,” Smith deadpans. He decides to invent some for himself. “It’s all downhill from here? What about that?”
“Yeah,” his co-star snorts. “So buckle up!”
‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is in cinemas from 22 July
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies