Paul Mescal | Let's Pull the Rug Out, Shall We?

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Paul Mescal is taking things in stride as he speaks to Flaunt over an early morning video call from LA, despite a hectic schedule that’s seen him traveling thousands of miles over just a few days. He’s running his fingers through his messy hair and dressed simply in a dark t-shirt and jeans. He’s just got back from the Telluride Film Festival, but there’s little time for rest: in just a few hours, he’s flying to Toronto for the film festival there in support of his two new movies, Carmen and Aftersun

Ever since starring as Connell in the BBC’s dreamy adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel, Normal People, Mescal has been in high demand. The lockdown smash saw him thrust into the spotlight, and almost overnight, the County Kildare native became one of the most recognizable faces on the planet thanks to the global success of the show. “It was the most singular time of my life,” Mescal says softly when reflecting on his time on the show and the attention that followed. “There’s nothing that I can reference before that would’ve taught me anything in terms of how to deal with it, and there’s nothing that really has happened since that feels the same.” 

It was, he says, an overwhelming time—so much so that he ditched social media in an attempt to claw back some privacy. “Having social media became a hugely public thing and it was just not for me anymore,” he admits. He says it became a “depressing” place for him, but he’s trying to work on new ways to engage with it—including, he suggests, via a private account. “I think social media can be harnessed in a way that is really positive, and I feel like I’m re-negotiating my relationship with that. How you can just have one and decide it’s not for the world, it’s just for photography or something. I just feel like the minute you can see it [publicly], it’s for photoshoots, or it’s for promoting a film. I was just like ‘this is going to be endless,’” he says, smiling and shaking his head in disapproval. “There’s a requirement to do stuff with [social media], but I just honestly hadn’t bothered with it: it’s just boring!”

While the attention Normal People brought may have been a challenge for the famously shy Mescal, he says he’s still endlessly grateful for the role and what it has resulted in for him career-wise. He has nothing but fondness for what the part brought him. “Some days were hard with the attention, some were amazing, and I think it was weirdly helped by COVID in a strange way, as there was a kind of stabilizing period where the world wasn’t public [when it came to prominence] so we couldn’t really be such. It was overwhelming in both directions, both positive and negative. Gladly now, everything has kind of settled and I’m still, touch wood, getting to act, and people want to work with me,” he laughs.  

His situation now is a far cry from that which he was in just a few years ago, when the actor was close to dropping out of drama school during his first year. He studied drama at Trinity College, Dublin, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in acting from its Lir Academy. “I nearly dropped out in the first year because I was just like, ‘What’s the point?’” he laughs. “I had a kind of blind terror when I was at drama school…I was constantly battling with myself to be like, ‘You’re an actor, you’re an actor, you’re an actor…’”

Mescal says the reason he felt such self-disbelief was because people from backgrounds like his rarely made it in acting. “I think I’m kind of practical about things. I was looking about my class and I saw there were 16 of us. I thought realistically, five or six of us will be working after this, and I didn’t think I was in that bracket. That’s what’s fucked up about the whole thing—that bracket is so subjective and oftentimes wrong. It’s not necessarily about luck, but it also kind of is too. You can only serve whatever talent you have with hard work but a thing like Normal People was casting at the perfect time for me.”

Mescal is from a working-class family—his mother was a police officer, his dad a teacher and part time actor—and part of his worry about acting initially was how much he might financially struggle. “Putting this sensitively, we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and we probably should have, with two people in steady public sector jobs. But I also saw how really that doesn’t count for anything, growing up in a recession, and how the government decimated that sector.” Mescal said that while he thought about giving up drama for a “steady job,” he realized that didn’t exist either in a post 2008-recession world. “The recession was hugely formative for me,” he explains. “It started with this really frightening thing of not being able to own property as a young person in the world—all of these things we took for granted pre-2008 just ceased to exist… it just ended up giving me this freedom to be like, ‘Well, fuck it,’ because… what’s the point of looking for security? I’m just going to try and do this, because more than likely, I’m going to be poor anyway. I may as well be poor and happy.”

Mescal landed his role in Normal People almost straight out of drama school, having performed on the stage in plays including The Great Gatsby and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After this, he played Will in The Lost Daughter alongside Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, and Jessie Buckley, before filming began on his two latest films and the upcoming Carmen—a film based on the musical of the same name. In between, he’s also appeared in two music videos—one with The Rolling Stones and another with musician Phoebe Bridgers, who is also his girlfriend. 

Mescal says while he was initially offered roles of a similar ilk to Connell from Normal People, he feels he’s managed to avoid typecasting in the roles that have been offered since. This feels especially true of his latest two outings where he plays Calum, a young man negotiating fatherhood in Aftersun and Brian, a troubled young man with a dark secret in God’s Creatures. “I was keen, as much as possible, especially with God’s Creatures and Aftersun, to separate myself from Connell, to do something totally different,” he says. “God’s Creatures is quite dark and to play a dad in Aftersun is not part of the typical rule-book per say… I think I got really lucky with the scripts put in front of me.”

While the parts are distinctive, Mescal thinks there is a common denominator between the characters he plays in that all open up an important conversation on male mental health—something that has historically been sparse on screen. “I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to play young male leads where they’re not jumping out of exploding buildings—there’s an actual kind of internal life there. Young male characters that screenwriters are writing now are far more complex than what I’ve seen before, and that’s really exciting. I think if you draw a line between Connell, Brian, and Calum, there’s a clear discussion about mental health of young men in the world there.”

He talks fondly here about the character of Calum in the new film Aftersun, and how three-dimensional a character he is to play. “There were two sides to him: there’s the public and the private. You’ve got the public facing father and a lesser script would have made him come across as an absent father or, like, he’s a bad father, but what I love about Calum is that [fatherhood] is the thing that he’s best at in the world. There’s this other side of him which is really broken, like he’s really struggling and doesn’t have the capacity or the tools to share his emotions well at all. As a film, it shows rather than tells and I’m really drawn to that as a filmmaking technique, too. Charlie [Charlotte Wells, director] is a master of that—presenting you with a feeling. I was really keen on the film’s message about depression and Calum’s mental health, but also the way that was presented.”

Mescal says while his own dad was “very different” to Calum, he was able to draw some parallels between the two in his preparation for the role. “They have a broad relationship with each other in that they grew up around the same time, and they have the same tools of maybe…” he pauses and thinks carefully, “I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but getting to talk out loud about your feelings, I think, is something that maybe my dad didn’t have and Calum definitely doesn’t have. In reality, that makes me sad, but in kind of the world of fiction and films, I think it’s interesting when you have characters who are inarticulate, or who have a very rich internal life, but struggle with that space between the internal and the external.”

Mescal’s dad was also a part-time actor and he remembers being inspired by him when seeing him on stage for the first time as a child. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful actor,” Mescal beams with pride. “I was like eight or nine and I was going along to this play to eat chocolate and drink Coke, and it was a one man play, and I never really understood the concept of what it was to be on stage at this point—I hadn’t seen anything before. I thought it was just going to be Dad on stage as Dad. But he’s on stage in full makeup and playing loads of different characters. I was really disappointed for the first half hour that he didn’t show up—until I realized he was on stage the whole time. Then I realized he was a great actor.”

Mescal says he thinks his dad must have inspired his performance as Calum in some way. “I’m not a father myself, so in Aftersun as Calum, I’m probably referencing, both consciously and subconsciously, my own relationship with my dad. I think it’s hilarious that the film is being released in Ireland and the UK on my dad’s birthday. Either it’s a curse or a good omen,” he laughs. “I’m not sure yet!”

While Calum is a likable character and easy to empathize with, the character of Brian, who he plays in God’s Creatures, is the opposite. The character is accused of rape in his hometown of a remote Irish coastal village—a place he returns to after spending time in Australia. Mescal says getting into the head of a character like Brian was a difficult new challenge. “When I read the script, I was like ‘Woah, this is fucking dark,’” he says. “This was really rich territory and a huge difference to what I’d done before. It was an exercise in trying to figure out ‘How do I sympathize with this man?’ That’s easy for a character like Connell or Calum, but this was really challenging. It’s a scary place for your brain to be in, where you’re generally feeling some sort of sympathy for this character—but never for a moment excusing his behavior for a second. It’s not your responsibility as an actor to judge that person, that’s going to happen innately. The audience will judge the character. It was a hard shoot, we dealt with tough material, but it’s an important film to see.” 

Does Mescal think people will be surprised by just how much of an about-face this character is for him? He thinks so, he admits, but says he doesn’t ever want audiences who are drawn to his work to expect him to play certain roles. “It was important for me to pull the rug out from audiences sooner rather than later—if they came to this from having seen me in Normal People—so I’d rather disappoint them early rather than later,” he laughs. “Like if they’re going to be disappointed that I’m taking roles like this, it’s best to get off the bus at this point, because this is the direction I will be going in. I don’t want to establish a rhythm for people—I don’t want them to expect the same thing.”

God’s Creatures will be released in the US on September 30th. Mescal appreciates that the A24 decision to distribute the film equates to a certain “bravery” needed by the powers that be in today’s media marketplace.  “I know it’s a harder one for people to go out and see on a Saturday evening,” he says of its challenging subject material, “to watch a film with the type of material this one has is tough. But, I think we’ve got to start trusting audiences. The powers that be need to know that audiences are smart, they can take material that’s challenging. Marvel films will still exist and people will always go and see them. But I think you need to give a different option on the menu sometimes, too. Blockbusters are fantastic,” he continues. “I saw Top Gun: Maverick recently and I thought it was fucking great. It’s not just about shitting on blockbusters or franchise films or anything like that, it’s just about creating more space for original, challenging and complex films too.”

He’s also about to take on another challenging role—this time not on screen, but in the theatre, playing the volatile Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Mescal’s last stint in theatre was pre-pandemic, just before Normal People hit screens. He says thinking about the weight of the play’s illustrious history—and especially the film featuring Marlon Brando in the part he will now play—brings a pressure. “I can’t forget the fact I’ve seen the film. I saw it [years ago] and it was a huge reference or touchstone for me in my training as an actor: it was all about Marlon Brando and his performance,” he says. “I’m trying not to think about it now because I think that’s actually important. Not every actor gets that opportunity, so it’s to carry it with the weight it deserves, but to also just treat it like a character, treat it like a new piece of writing as much as I can. I’m definitely trying not to overthink it.”

While Brando was one of his heroes, so too were the likes of Anthony Hopkins (“I think he’s one of the greatest living actors”) and Saoirse Ronan—someone who he worked with last year on upcoming sci-fi thriller Foe. “Having worked with her, I was just like ‘Woah, you’re on a different level in terms of being just so prepared.’ There was nothing tired about how she approached the work, which was so invigorating and really inspiring.” He also cites his Normal People co-star, Daisy Edgar-Jones, as another inspiration, saying he was “so lucky” to work with her too. 

Before Streetcar, he says there will be a brief period of rest, but that’s something he also struggles with, admittedly. “That’s probably still the ongoing battle of distracting myself,” he laughs. “I’ve gotten into using my camera a little bit more,” he explains, saying he’s a keen photographer away from acting. “I’m running around, hanging out with friends as much as I get to, but it’s a battle to find time for other things at the moment. But that’s okay,” he quickly qualifies, lest it sound like he’s complaining. “Because I’m young and I don’t have any kids. I can just run around and work and grab whatever time I can see in front of me.” 

What’s next? Does he have a dream role he’d like to play in the future? “I mean Streetcar would have been on that list,” he smiles. “I’ll just see what happens after that. I want to kind of stick to the direction I’m heading—and that’s not necessarily just with the indies, but maybe there’s a role in a blockbuster with a character that I really like, which would be amazing. But from my viewpoint, I’ll always be driven by character and whether I think I can do a good job of it or not,” he says sincerely. “I want to do that above anything else.”

God’s Creatures is in cinemas and on demand and Aftersun is in cinemas on October 21st.

Photographed by Isaac Anthony
Styled by Mui-Hai Chu
Written by Liz Aubrey
Groomer: Nadia Altinbas at A-frame Agency
Flaunt Film: Ethan Cabral
Stylist Assistant: Meg Leila Summers
Groomer Assistant: Ryan Mcgovern
Location: Neighbourhood Studios