‘Masculinity can be expressed in many ways’: actor Paul Mescal on luck, sex scenes and risk taking

Just two dizzying years after bringing the nation to a standstill in lockdown lodestone Normal People, Paul Mescal has become an indie film star everyone wants to work with. How did it happen? He talks to Aaron Hicklin

The actor Paul Mescal is a lucky man – his words, not mine. In the course of our conversation – mid-morning in London for him, pre-dawn in New York for me – he uses the word “lucky” at least eight times to describe his life and career. He was very lucky to go to school in Maynooth, Ireland, where it was compulsory to audition for the school musical. Lucky, also, to graduate from drama school at the precise moment that BBC Three was casting for Normal People, the first bona fide hit of the pandemic and the show that turbo-charged Mescal’s career. And he was “very, very lucky” that playing Connell Waldron in that lockdown lodestone would bring him to the notice of three young directors: Charlotte Wells, who cast him in this year’s indie darling, Aftersun, and Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, the duo behind God’s Creatures, in which Mescal inhabits the movie’s heart of darkness as Brian O’Hara, a returning son wreaking havoc on the dynamics of a remote Irish fishing village.

“I’m very much not a religious person,” Mescal says, over Zoom. “But that role did feel like it was delivered by some higher power in terms of what it represented.” What it represented was the antithesis of Connell, a character that transformed him into a heart-throb and tabloid catnip. Brian O’Hara, in contrast, is definitely not the kind of character to inspire Instagram tributes. No fangirls or fanboys would wish to be the silver chain around his neck.

For Mescal, the transition from unknown to household name was lightning fast – and not always welcome. Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s novel about precocious Proust-reading teen lovers, won him a TV Bafta for best actor and became the BBC’s most-streamed series of 2020. But it also generated insane interest in Mescal’s body at a moment when the sight of two young people falling in and out of love and bed was a much-needed escape from the dystopian uncertainties of lockdown.

Normal People was very sexualised, there was lots of sex in it,” Mescal concedes. “But I think when it becomes personal, it’s just uncomfortable. What I’ve learned, though, is that I can deal with that. I don’t need to throw my toys out of the pram. It’s something I can just choose to not give a shit about.”

Although Mescal had anticipated the show’s success – “It was like the perfect storm for a young actor to get a shot at reaching a global audience” – he wasn’t prepared for the level of scrutiny that came with it. Last year, he made the decision to quit social media. “I just don’t think it’s particularly useful for people to see, like, literally you,” he says, making a box shape of his hands and framing his face. “I thought it’s either get off the bus now or stay on it, and I wanted to get off. In 10 years I might rue the day I threw out my social media, but look, it just is what it is.” (Mescal did, however, stay on long enough to exchange charged messages on Twitter and Instagram with the musician Phoebe Bridgers; the pair are now engaged).

Mescal is not done playing complex, problematic men. In December, he makes his debut at the Almeida Theatre in London as the violent Stanley Kowalski, who rapes Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire – a totemic role made famous by Marlon Brando. Wisely, Mescal is studiously avoiding rewatching the 1951 film lest Brando’s performance pollutes his own. “It comes with a heap of pressure,” Mescal admits. “Ultimately, it was a new play at one point, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on, to go in there and tear into it.”

Critics are always anointing some young star as a generational Brando, but in Mescal’s case the comparison feels apt. Mescal, like Brando, is a disciple of the Method-school of acting and gravitates to roles driven by character more than plot. To prepare for Kowalski, Brando spent three weeks living in a veterans’ hospital among paraplegics. For God’s Creatures, Mescal apprenticed himself to oyster farmers in Ireland. For his upcoming movie, Carmen, in which he plays an Afghan war vet in a liberal adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, Mescal took up boxing.

“The fun part of acting for me is doing the detective work, and putting the stepping stones in place that make it possible to get into the heavier parts of a person’s psychology,” he says.

One other point of comparison: Mescal looks the part. See, for example, the 2020 video for the Rolling Stones song Scarlet, in which he cavorts adorably, drunkenly, around Claridge’s hotel in a white cotton vest. And while Mescal’s matinée idol looks are irrelevant in the broader scheme of his talent, it would be disingenuous to pretend they’re not a factor. Like Brando in Streetcar, the secret sauce of a movie like God’s Creatures is Brian O’Hara’s uncomfortable beauty: that generous mouth, the aquiline nose, those soulful eyes.

We want to be repulsed by men who do terrible things, but attraction scrambles our moral compass. “We were looking for someone who had that capacity to bring you into his world and disarm you,” says Saela Davis, co- director of God’s Creatures. “Brian was somebody that required an actor capable of that irresistible charm and charisma, because that’s the danger of Brian.”

Although luck is pointless without skill, the reverse is also true. To hear Mescal talking about his career is to find yourself pondering the role of happenstance in shaping the contours of a life, that alchemy of being in the right place at the right time. For Mescal, the first right place was Maynooth Post Primary School in 2013. That was his “transition year,” part of an Irish schools programme designed to foster creativity, including a requirement for all students to audition for the school musical. In any other school, peer pressure might have dissuaded him from answering the call of greasepaint and footlights. “I was a 16-year-old boy and wanted to be perceived as cool by my friends,” he says. “I know for a fact I probably wouldn’t have auditioned because of the masculinity that I’d been prescribed by being on a sports team. But since we all had to audition, I was, like, ‘Well, I may as well put my best foot forward.’”

His best foot turned out to have the same unerring instinct on stage as it had on the pitch, where he was a star Gaelic football player. He scored the lead role in Phantom of the Opera and quickly found the camaraderie and collaboration he enjoyed in sports had its echo in theatre, only with more consistent results. Not every match ends in triumph; on stage he felt like a champ every night. “I’ve never felt an adrenaline rush like it,” he says. In May 2020, shortly after Normal People had become a hit, his former school uploaded a video of the 2013 production of Phantom, a big showy affair with a huge cast, a 15-piece orchestra, overwrought sets and dubious facial hair. By the time Mescal comes on stage to his bow the audience is on its feet.

Mescal’s attraction to theatre wasn’t entirely leftfield. His father, a primary school teacher, had worked on stage in what Mescal calls a “semi-professional capacity and also amateur dramatics”, and he remembers watching him in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. “He always loved doing it and I’d love to see him doing it more, to be honest,” he says. Since both his parents are about to retire – his mother is a police officer – that opportunity may be drawing near.

It was a few years after Phantom that Mescal realised acting could be more than a hobby. At one point he almost dropped out of school to join the army, but a guidance counsellor asked if he might consider going to drama school. “I think had I lived in London or LA or New York, there would have been a clearer kind of understanding that you can go down this road for your job,” he says. “And it took me a second to come to that conclusion living in Maynooth.”

But Maynooth is just down the road from Trinity College Dublin, where Mescal studied drama at the Lir Academy, established in 2011 as Ireland’s answer to Rada. His acting teacher, Hilary Wood, recalls Mescal as “ostentatiously talented” from the beginning. “He’s not afraid of failing. He’ll stick his neck out constantly, and I think that’s why when you watch him, you can see he takes something right to the edge.” Wood tells a charming story of watching Mescal one afternoon during his first term. He had thrown himself into a “completely absurd improvisation,” and was playing a huge insect from outer space struggling to escape the room. “It was both hilarious and then suddenly desperately sad,” Wood says. “He put so much investment into such a lovely, silly game.”

Even before he’d graduated from the Lir, Mescal was scooped up by Dublin’s storied Gate Theatre and cast in the title role of a hugely kinetic production of The Great Gatsby. It was a hit, and so was Mescal; he returned for other plays in 2018, and landed a popular commercial for Denny & Sons sausages that you can find on YouTube. Mescal has said that he’s as likely to be recognised on the street for playing the “sausage man” as for playing Normal People’s Connell.

But Normal People endeared him to fans who were patently less interested in his craft than in his body. Mescal never got comfortable with seeing naked pictures of himself across the internet, though he says he’s proud of the sex scenes because of their authenticity. He and his co-star, Daisy Edgar-Jones, worked closely with an intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, who compares her job to teaching people to waltz.

But Mescal’s real issue is that while he most wants to talk about the work he often finds himself, instead, having to talk about the short shorts Connell wears. The prurience hasn’t entirely dissipated with time. “I did an interview [for Aftersun] yesterday where somebody was talking about entering, like, a daddy era,” he scoffs. “I was, like, ‘It’s fucking wild to me that the inference would be sexual.

In Aftersun, Mescal plays Calum, a father on the cusp of 31 (he’s now 26), wrestling with depression while mostly disguising it from his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, as the two vacation in a Turkish holiday resort, circa-1990s. As Sophie stares expectantly into the near distance of adolescence, Calum seems to be surveying the failed promise of his life. “My main memory of that filming process was just how intimate it felt,” says Mescal. “There were still tons of people on the set, but it felt like it was made with myself and Charlie [Wells, the director] and Frankie [Corio, his young co-star] and, like, a little huddle with a camera, sometimes capturing things in a beautiful part of the world I’d never been to before.”

Whatever nerves he felt about working with a child actor quickly dissipated on set. He singles out a gut punch of a scene late in the film when Sophie rejects Calum’s offer to pay for singing lessons (“Stop asking to pay for things when I know you don’t have the money,” she says). “I find that moment particularly moving because you see how children can really, really get to the centre of a parent’s insecurities,” he says. The scene also took him back to anxieties that unsettled his own childhood in Maynooth. “I remember growing up being incredibly anxious about the financial state of my family because it’s the thing that causes the most stress for young parents,” he says. “I always used to wonder, ‘Do other families have arguments like this?’”

Mescal thinks those fights, routine squabbles really, were just par for the course in all families at a time when the so-called Celtic Tiger had fallen off a cliff and Ireland was in a deep recession. “I just didn’t have the capacity to zoom out,” he explains. In 2009, the Ryan Report – a devastating indictment of child abuse in the Catholic church – reinforced the sense that Ireland was adrift, old certainties exposed as a sham. As Mescal puts it: “The whole country kind of went fucking mad; it lost a touchstone of its identity for good.”

All that external turbulence served to compound the anxieties of adolescence, or what Mescal calls his “nightmare years” in school from about 14 to 16. Pushed to elaborate, he blushes.

“Just peaks and troughs,” he says. “You’re going through puberty, spotty. I felt my hands were too big for my body.” He waves his hands in the air. “Normal stuff, but I found those years particularly difficult.” That would change the day Mescal stepped on stage. “I just felt very in my body,” he recalls of Phantom. “I felt comfortable with my masculinity on stage, and have done all those moments when performing. And I think that’s maybe what’s informed my choice with roles like Brian and Calum, and how masculinity can be expressed in many, many, many ways, and will probably be a territory I will constantly be drawn back to throughout my career.”

If Mescal has gravitated to small, independent movies it’s largely because they tend to elevate character over plot. He remembers reading the script for Aftersun in 2020 and feeling blindsided by its emotional punch – “bereft, or deeply upset in a kind of very full way,” he says. “It’s not about characters saying things to further the plot. They are saying the things they need to say, and not saying the things they don’t need to say.” He says he wouldn’t object to quotas to protect the space for independent films which are being squeezed by streaming platforms and the decline of cinema-attendance. “There has always been an appetite for action films, and always will be, but I don’t think you can have the huge blockbuster without independent films, and I just don’t think we’re getting enough of those films at the moment.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t expect to see him taking up residence in the Marvelverse any time soon? Not quite. He was a fan of this year’s summer blockbuster Top Gun Maverick (“It knows the target and hits it really well”), and recalls a childhood spent with his brother (he also has a sister), re-enacting death scenes from the John Sturges western, The Magnificent Seven. “We’d sit on the side of the sofa that most resembled a horse,” he recalls. “Films like that draw you in and force you to be involved because you’re invested in the kind of speed of the film, in everything that generates momentum.”

Although he must be aware of his talent, you sense that Mescal is allergic to compliments. Humility courses through his conversation. One reason he has found celebrity difficult to navigate is that it disrupts the fragile group dynamic that ensemble acting thrives on. For the same reason Mescal says he can’t imagine doing a one-person play. His approach to acting is too rooted in collaboration. He thrives on the pleasure that comes from creating something as part of a team that then finds its mark. “You can turn to the people that you make it with and be proud,” he says. “I don’t know how I would act if I wasn’t doing it with people.”

Men’s fashion editor Helen Seamons; grooming by Liz Taw at the Wall Group using Upcircle; fashion assistant Roz Donoghue; lighting by Michael Furlonger; digital by Robert Self; set design and props by Josh Stovell, assisted by Benthe de Vries

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