Paul Mescal Knows What He Wants

Paul Mescal remembers recently feeling so sick it was as if he got hit by a car, and in the way he tells it, his smile is so big you feel like you must be mishearing him. But no—the Irish actor ended his critically acclaimed London stage run of A Streetcar Named Desire with quite literally nothing left to give, and that felt just right to him. “There is something so joyous about that,” he says. “About finishing something and your body actually being wiped.

This is a guy who loves what he does, and peers are taking notice. On this mid-February morning, Mescal is back in LA because he is, against what many prognosticators predicted, an Oscar nominee. His tiny film Aftersun, which premiered to raves at Cannes before A24 scooped up distribution rights, steadily built buzz on the circuit and amassed an army of passionate champions, who backed Charlotte Wells’s wrenching memoiristic drama to major showings at the Independent Spirit Awards, National Society of Film Critics awards, and more. Mescal’s subtle and affecting turn as a troubled father on vacation with his daughter (Frankie Corio) emerged as the face of that campaign. Now he’s the youngest best-actor Oscar contender in five years, since Timothée Chalamet and Daniel Kaluuya were recognized for their own breakout performances.

It’s the latest development in what’s felt like a serendipitous professional run for 27-year-old Mescal. His first leading TV role, Hulu’s Normal People, won him the BAFTA and scored him an Emmy nomination; he’s following up Aftersun with key roles in upcoming movies helmed by the likes of Ridley Scott and Richard Linklater (though the latter is, let’s say, aways away). Being so busy has helped, he says, drown out some of the noise that inevitably follows an actor of his rise and profile, particularly regarding the status of his relationship with musician Phoebe Bridgers. But as we discuss over a long coffee in West Hollywood, entering such tricky terrain marks the arrival of an exciting new star. Even if he’s still figuring out how to navigate it.

Vanity Fair: What’s your relationship to the Oscars? Do you remember the first time you watched it?
Paul Mescal: I don’t because it would always be on super late. My mom used to read Hello Magazine, these magazines, and I would always see the photographs of what people wore. But I really took a love for it when I started going to drama school. I remember staying up and watching it. There’s just something so alluring, so seismic about that night. I can’t describe what will be going through my head driving to it. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, because I’ve had enough time to process the fact that it’s happening. But the picturing of myself within it is…something. It’s not like I’m just happy to be here at all. I feel immensely proud of the work that I’ve done. But there is just something really zoomed out about the Oscars as a concept.

Like a mythical place.
Yeah, it’s a mythical place. I imagine I’ll have a different relationship to it on the 12th of March. [Laughs] But if you’re interested in the world of film, it’s unavoidable.

Your category is really interesting because it’s often where a Will Smith or a Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins. But you and your fellow nominees are all first-timers, at very different levels in this industry.
I think, also, if there was ever an ambition to be an Oscar nominee, it was never something that I imagined would happen in my mid-twenties. Without putting focus on them as a body that determines somebody’s career, there is something about the acknowledgement of that…. The play let me out of rehearsals for one day. I flew out to L.A. and did Actors on Actors and the Governors’ Awards. Classic combo. I arrived in the night, slept, and then I was awake in L.A. for 12 hours, and then flew back. I felt fucking crazy. But I bumped into Colin [Farrell] at that. And I’ve just bumped into Bill [Nighy] at the The London Critics Circle, who is just the nicest man.

You’ve said your family is coming out for the show.  How do you handle a family Oscar weekend?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I feel a weird kind of host energy. The analogy in my head is I’m the host of a party where I don’t really know how the party works, and I don’t know whose house I’m in. But I have to host it. They’re the easiest company, anyway, so they’ll be fine. It’ll determine itself.


You just finished your first Streetcar run in London and are going back for a West End bow after the Oscars. What was it like doing a play amid your first awards campaign?
It was amazing. Look, Aftersun was never going to be a film that was ingrained in the campaigning world. We did our promotions on the festival circuits, and then there was just nothing you could read; I did lots of Zooms and stuff while I was doing the play, but I don’t know. There’s something that I would describe as very elegant about how Aftersun has just hung around.

I remember spotting you at the Women Talking premiere in Telluride. And I was like, “Why is he here?” Aftersun was a secret screening there, surrounded by these huge premieres, which felt like a good metaphor for the movie.
For sure. You see them every year. You try and measure it all versus say, well, how The Worst Person in the World did the year before, or something like that. To be part of one of the films this year that operated in the space—the films that I’m most excited to see every year—was really satisfying. Weirdly those are the things that I’ve always dreamt about. To A, have something that gets into these things, but B, to get in across the board and for it to be with somebody like Charlotte [for her] first film, it’s just like—yeah.

You had two movies at Cannes, and from there, have experienced the full rollout machine. Did this first go-round make you think about not just the kinds of movies you want to make, but how you want to experience being a part of them? Promotion can be intensive.
I need to have some distance, but honestly I couldn’t be prouder of films that I’ve made to date—and I feel nervous because I want these lives for the films. So I enter the next steps with anxiety. I know I’ve got a taste of what it is to go off and work with an auteur, make it, and feel pride for the shooting process. But then you kind of want to nurse it through its commercial life.

Aftersun is one movie where, for me at least, there’s so much discovery in the editing and how innovatively the whole thing is put together. Which leads me to ask: Do you watch yourself?
I would love to get to the point where I don’t watch myself. I actually don’t have a strong dislike or hatred for watching myself, but I also think it’s important early on in my career to figure out what’s working and what’s not from a craft point of view. I wouldn’t know how to do that if I wasn’t watching it back.

As you’re doing the play and gaining Oscar buzz, news of you getting these huge roles started coming in—the Linklater, then the Gladiator sequel. I’d guess it wasn’t quite as much of a one-two punch from your perspective, right?
Yeah, it was a wild week with those two things being announced. The Linklater thing, I’m so excited by, but I felt like I’ve literally had that job. I started shooting last year. But Gladiator is such a beloved film and it was just a big old announcement. It’s all firsts, but I feel relatively okay with it all. If this had happened two years ago, it might be a different thing. But I feel like I’ve been on six or seven movie sets in the last year. I’m starting to learn my way through it all and whatever love I have for acting hasn’t gone anywhere. If in any capacity, it’s gone in the other direction. I love this job.

What kinds of things have you picked up on sets?
Just confidence that I can survive it. [Laughs] And in the choices that I’ve made, those decisions haven’t let me down yet. That’s where the confidence on set arises for me, fully believing in the project the minute you step on. Well, before you step on is half the battle. [Laughs]


So how did Gladiator come to you? Was there a sense, for you, of feeling ready to do a bigger movie?
I was looking for something—it wasn’t actually to do with scale, but I wanted to pin my shoulders back and step into something a little bit more physical. Literally as I was formulating these thoughts, this came in. And I was like,”Oh fuck. This is meant to be or something.” I met Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher in L.A. last year for a coffee. It was a very preliminary conversation—no script—about what would happen. And I was giddy about the story, the little bits of information that I got about the story. I was like, “Fuck, this sounds amazing.” Then met Ridley, read the script, and it just kind of fell into place.

How did Ridley strike you when you met him?
Kind, incredibly intelligent, thorough. All of the things that I imagined Ridley would be, I gathered in however brief that was, like a 25 minute conversation. Here’s somebody who’s a leader and somebody who I can’t wait to get in behind and make this with.

Do you have a favorite Ridley movie?
To be honest, Gladiator was one of my favorite films growing up. It’s beyond strange. This all feels more dumbfounding than the Oscar nomination to be honest. Sometimes when I’m like, “That’s going to happen this summer?” Because I’m going to have to go and make that.

You’ve got to do another run of Streetcar first. I know you came up in drama school, but doing that marathon with so much attention on you, how did you find it?
Well, I was really keen to be able to do the second [run]. I can certainly draw parallels between the template of Stanley in Streetcar and the character that I’m playing in Gladiator. And the theater is just something that makes you match fit. It gives you parameters in which to play and it’s always better when you’re tired. There’s something hermetic about it. You don’t have to think about anything, you just get to the theater at the same time, do the same things every day. But fuck, it’s brutal. I lost my voice entirely on the last weekend. I got sick on the Thursday and it’s just—any sickness that gets into your body when you’re having to do that, I was wrecked. So I had to take a steroid shot in my ass on Saturday to get through the two shows. I got through by the skin of my teeth.

What did it feel like when you were done?
They were like, you’re going to feel so bad for the next couple days because of the steroid. It’s a proper drug. It’s not to be messed with. On the Monday, I felt like I’d been hit by a car. But there is something so joyous about that, about finishing something and your body actually being wiped and going like, “Oh the thing that I did cost something.” Not as a punishment, but actually—I find it difficult to say, because at the end of the day we’re literally playing pretend. So it sounds like self-aggrandizing to be like, “It costs something.” But that’s why I like it. I get insecure about the concept that we put so much importance on something that is pretend. So then anytime that it actually does cost on me physically, I don’t feel like a fraud.

It must be different though when you’re doing film or TV to achieve that kind of feeling. If I think of your two most notable screen projects, which would be Aftersun and Normal People, in Normal People you have the therapy scene—
Yeah, that was one of those. I remember that day. It was a roller coaster of just feeling like something was happening and then it just being elusive and disappearing for a couple of hours. Then it comes back and you try to capture it, or hold onto it for as long as you can. But also it’s the kind of thing that at some point you’ve got to let go of, for it to be what it is now. But that’s a lot of holding. I remember getting home and being ecstatic when we finished that day. Relief to the highest degree. I just felt like, “Oh, if nothing else happens, I’ve done the thing that I wasn’t sure I could do.” Then that euphoria quickly turned to—I remember getting home and being devastated. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so sad.” Then you go to sleep. I remember waking up and my shoulders were so sore the next day. Because whatever it was being held onto was a lot.


The other scene I’m thinking of, in Aftersun, is you’re facing away from the camera, just sobbing, and Charlotte’s camera holds on you.
Similar thing. That one was maybe more physical; there’s just more body in that. It’s full catharsis from the start. You only have your back to project anything to an audience with, and sound and the actual feelings that there’s lots of things at work there. And they were long takes.

You can cry, though.
Yeah. It’s always the thing that I’m so nervous about. It’s not something I do a lot of in life. I feel like I’m crying more in life, getting better at it in my own life.

Emotional availability?
Yeah, I think so. Ever so slightly.

So I’m going to ask you about celebrity now.
My favorite. [Laughs]

Looking at something like Gladiator, a lot of profile comes with that. How do you think about navigating that as you get to do bigger things?
Maybe this is naive of me to say, but I think it is what you make of it. You can choose for it to be something that impacts your life in a negative way, or you can find a way to address it being what it is so that you can still live your life pretty much the same way, if that’s what you want to do. And that’s what I want to do. If that becomes impossible, I would reframe it, because it is just part and parcel of the fact that this job is public-facing. As much as I love acting, it’s a service in entertainment to entertain other people. I’ve got to make peace with that.

There was some prodding of your personal life though. Do you learn how to drown it out?
Sometimes I can drown it out and then other times it makes me really mad and upset. People are going to write and say things because there’s a certain interest with any person who’s in the public eye in how that person lives their life, and who they’re living up with, and what they’re doing and how they’re going about doing it. And look, a lot of the time people are really kind about their support for me. That’s my predominant experience.

So to be direct, people are speculating about the status of your relationship. Right now, do you feel a desire to let that chatter live? Or do you feel the temptation to just say, “This is what it is”?
I definitely feel the temptation to say the status of my whatever—that will always be there. But I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do. When Normal People came out, I was very forthright in interviews, and it didn’t actually serve me. But the temptation still exists to be like, “Shut the fuck up. This is my life. This is what’s going on. Or this is what’s not going on.” But moving forward as much as I can, that’s going to be my life that is private. That’s a difficult thing to achieve. But giving strangers an answer about my life doesn’t actually help me. It’s like a quick boost of serotonin, being like, “I’ve said what I need to say.” And then it’s just Twitter fodder.

You mentioned getting spotted. Do you think about how you have to be in the world?
Definitely initially, when Normal People came out. It was also pandemic times. I remember talking to Daisy [Edgar-Jones] about it, like, “God, if we go out for a walk and we’re standing less than two meters apart.” And the fucking tabloids in the U.K. are like—they would literally try and catch you out.

You experienced that?
Yeah. For fucking sure. We were entering a public world from a baseline of massive anxiety being like, “They’re out to get us.” Even though they don’t really fucking care. But that’s where I entered the problem…. But I just turned 27. And I feel like I can talk to myself in a way that I’m proud of. I definitely don’t feel the obligation to impress people with a false version of myself. I’m going to live my life and if people want to judge me for anything at any point I’m pretty secure with what I do. Because who cares? Who actually cares who’s doing what and who they’re doing it with? Who fucking cares? I’m jealous of musicians with that. I feel like musicians can be a little bit more like rock stars. They get away with more.


You have a lot of movies coming out again this year. Foe with Saoirse Ronan, and the Andrew Haigh movie. Are you looking forward to another round of getting these movies out there?
I’m so excited. So I’m actually going to see Foe with Saoirse this week. She saw it and seemed to be really happy with it, so I’m really excited to see that. The Andrew Haigh film, I play opposite Andrew Scott. I probably can’t say a lot about it other than the fact that I think Andrew Scott is going to be—touch wood, from my watching on my end, that was beautiful.His performance was so good, just being beside him. I’m just looking forward to seeing it cut together. It’s that thing of hearing people who are working on the film being really excited about is a good place to be now.

That’s probably somewhat similar to Aftersun, right?
Yes. I want to stay in this feeling of looking forward. I don’t think, post-Normal People, that I have never not been looking forward to the next thing that I’m doing. That is remaining true. I feel like I’m starting to be a little bit tired, which is a good feeling, because it means I’m just going to push for another year and a half. Maybe famous last words. [Laughs] I feel the anxiety of taking a break.

I read that you considered appendicitis a break. Like, a needed break.
Oh yeah. It was a break, like a big old break. [Laughs] Couldn’t do anything for 10 days. It was a nightmare.

You should get to a place where you don’t need to get appendicitis to take 10 days off.
Well, that will never happen again. I’ll have to find something else. Another nonessential organ will have to go.

Original article written by David Canfield on 14 February '23