Paul Mescal is showing me his short shorts. From his hotel room in Morocco, where he’s currently filming Gladiator 2, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated sequel to his 2000 Oscar-winning film, the 27-year-old Irish actor indulges me when I ask if he’s got a favourite pair.
“This is thrilling to me,” he says. “I love it. Where’s my favourite pair?” he asks, nearly knocking over his chair to find them. “I don’t know how I would go about my summer if I didn’t have these. I don’t do well in the heat,” he says, holding up a black pair with three white stripes down each side. They’re O’Neills, an Irish brand of Gaelic football shorts, he tells me. During his recent West End run in A Streetcar Named Desire, fans lined up regularly at the stage door to catch a glimpse of the actor heading out for a post-matinee run in thigh-grazing ’80s-style shorts. He grins and says, “[O’Neills] are going to get great airtime out of this.”
Paul is mostly accepting of the attention that followed his breakout role in Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People three years ago and his subsequent ascent to stardom. The series – hailed for its tender depiction of a young relationship – streamed into homes during the spring of 2020, reaching an audience that was, after weeks of Covid lockdowns, pent up. Paul received an Emmy nomination for his soulful portrayal of Connell, and he (as well as that thin silver chain his character wore) became the subject of the internet’s unhinged lust.
“If I’m going to make TV shows like Normal People, there’s going to be an appetite from the world,” he says of the public’s interest in his personal life. “Eighty percent of that is palatable. And then twenty percent of it is devastating.”
The devastating part may be in reference to his relationship (and break-up) with musician Phoebe Bridgers, which has been tabloid and TikTok fodder for the better part of the past three years. “The stuff that hurts is the personal stuff. It’s nobody else’s business and should never be commented on because it’s indecent. And it’s unkind,” he says. “Honest answer, it makes me angry… It’s the entitlement to the information that people expect that just drives me mad.”
Paul has been enmeshed in the Hollywood machine for a few short years. He seems wary of its artifice. He hasn’t tweeted since 2020 and has no other public-facing social media accounts, no “brand” he’s intent on building. After attending drama school at the Lir Academy in Dublin, he worked in theatre for two years, partly because he found auditioning for on-screen roles to be “mortifying.”
“I didn’t buy into what I was having to say,” he offers. “I remember auditioning for some TV show. It was like a two-line self-audition. I was going in for some ridiculous dialogue.”
“There’s only so much acting a person can do,” says Fleabag’s Andrew Scott, and Paul’s co-star in the upcoming film Strangers, Andrew Haigh’s loose adaptation of the 1987 Taichi Yamada novel of the same name. “I believe who you are always comes through in some way, your attitude toward something. And that’s what I think he has: just this incredible, gentle, intelligent Irish soul.” He continues, “It sounds like an unusual thing to say, that somebody who’s at [his] stage of life is just interested in creating a body of work, but he really, genuinely is.”
Paul, who received his first Oscar nod earlier this year for his portrayal of a young father in Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, gravitates toward cerebral, character-driven projects without so much as a whiff of “ridiculous dialogue.” This fall, he’ll star in director Garth Davis’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s book Foe, opposite Saoirse Ronan. Set in 2065 in the rural Midwest, the film is a science-fiction mind bender, though genre is secondary to its rumination on long-term relationships. Paul plays Junior, a farmer who is offered a chance to live in space while his wife, Hen (played by Ronan), stays at home with an AI version of him.
“The feeling of being in a relationship and being in love, to me, sometimes can feel quite like a horse with blinders on. That’s such a wonderful feeling,” Paul says. “The work in this film was finding out what it’s like to be in a tired relationship. That’s not a sensation I’m familiar with.”
Paul has several projects currently in the works, including Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. With these and the release of Gladiator 2 next year, Paul is on the precipice of catapulting into another stratum of fame and cementing his status among the next generation’s great film talents.
The dedication, Saoirse says, has always been there. “The first time I saw Paul act was in a commercial for Denny’s sausages in Ireland,” Saoirse recalls. “He’ll kill me for mentioning it, but – I’m not actually joking – that was the first time I went, ‘Oh, who’s that guy?’ He’s really good.”
The internet virality, the gossip, the red carpets, even the hot streak of roles – Paul knows that so much of it is fleeting. “I feel like the game that I’m playing now is a young person’s game,” he says. “And I’m young, but I want to be able to do this all the time.”
The stuff that lasts is what keeps him hooked. “I have a feeling that when I’m 50, if I’m still lucky to be acting, I will look back on the personal relationships that I’ve built and be like, ‘That was the thing.’ ”