I’m waiting for Paul Mescal at what looks like the mouth of hell. It’s some kind of nightmarish, subterranean space down a backstreet in London’s Soho and, rather than entering it through, say, I don’t know, a door, there is just an open ramp leading down into pitch-black darkness. It’s hard not to imagine that, when you get to the bottom of the slope, you will be greeted by a pit of writhing, agonised souls; and, from some of the pictures I’ve seen ahead of time on TripAdvisor — for it is, indeed, one of those new-fangled, volume-up, lights-off gyms — that seems a reasonable guess.
It makes sense that the 27-year-old Irish actor — breakthrough star of Normal People and already an Oscar nominee — would suggest meeting somewhere like this. He’s less than a week away from flying to Morocco to start filming the long-awaited (23 years and counting!) sequel to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which he plays the lead. If you’ve seen the original, and of course you have, you’ll know that as much as he’ll want to make sure that his character, Lucius — the now-grown-up son of Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), herself the former lover of Maximus (Russell Crowe) and sister of pervy Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), both now deceased — has all the complexities of psychology and motivation in which his confusing upbringing would, no doubt, have resulted, he’ll also want to be… completely ripped.
I’m peering down the ramp a little nervously, wondering if he’s going to emerge from the gloom with his top off, brandishing a trident, or maybe flanked by snarling tigers, when he appears from around the corner, just walking down the street like a regular person, and intro-duces himself in a low-key, friendly way. He’s already done his workout for the day with his trainer, Tim, he says. He apologises for being a few minutes late, but he just bumped into Andrew Haigh — the director of a movie called All of Us Strangers he’s starring in that will be out soon, which, he says, is “a very kind film, but also sad and sexy; like, the perfect trifecta” — and the two of them got to chatting.
Of course this is the Paul Mescal that was going to show up: the happy-go-lucky, life-is-good, handsome young guy of a thousand pap shots, bumbling around central London with shades, maybe headphones, or a cig, or, if the internet is really lucky, some short-shorts, who’s just going about his business being the hottest young male actor working right now and also — to his great credit, given the crazy trajectory of his life of late — doing an entirely convincing impression of being a totally reasonable and well-adjusted human being.
Today he’s wearing sunglasses that come on and off at various points and a little gold hoop in his right ear. His hair is in the hint-of-a-mullet style he’s had for a bit now, and which is yet another aspect of his body that has been analysed and lusted after by online hordes in an appreciative-but-also-creepy way (see also: his eyes; his legs; his hands). Like basically all actors except for Cousin Greg and Alexander Skarsgård, he isn’t particularly tall, and is successfully hiding the monster bod that he’s got brewing — a video of which, seemingly shot by trainer Tim during a workout, will emerge on the internet a month later — beneath a Harrington jacket and jeans.
For Mescal, this morning in mid-May falls in a funny in-between kind of period. Just over a week ago, he finished an extended run of a sizzling production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, first at the Almeida Theatre, then in the West End, picking up a best-actor Olivier Award along the way for his portrayal of a bruising, smouldering Stanley. (Nicole Kidman stopped by his dressing room after one performance and he had a post-show coffee with Angelina Jolie.) He and his castmates celebrated the last night at the Groucho Club in Soho and then went on to Koko in north London, a convenient crawling distance from the flat in which he was living at the time.
The following weekend he went home to Maynooth, in County Kildare, Ireland, where his mother Dearbhla, a police officer in the Garda, and his father, a teacher, also called Paul (“you know very clearly from the tone which Paul is being called”) still live in the house in which they raised Mescal and his two younger siblings, brother Donnacha, who now works in recruitment, and sister Nell, a successful singer-songwriter. He was there just long enough to have a nice dinner in Dublin with friends and family, and to sit around at home watching a rugby match on telly — Leinster vs Munster — during which he admits to regressing to Kevin the Teenager mode while listening to Dearbhla’s running commentary: “My mum is a very, like, active watcher of sport… And sometimes doesn’t really know what she’s talking about.”
Yesterday he was doing stunt training and hair tests for Gladiator, a job that requires him to eat four prescribed ready-made meals a day and take horse-riding lessons (“in Milton Keynes, for my sins”), while also fitting in bits of press for two films he has coming out in the autumn — Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, for which he’s got some ADR (automated dialogue replacement) to record before Morocco, and also Foe, a thoughtful and topical sci-fi co-starring Saoirse Ronan — which is the ostensible reason we’re meeting today. Although, if you were to see him over the next hour or two — in a café buying us both a coffee (ta!), or sitting on a park bench in Soho Square, or nipping into a newsagent to get more cigarettes (“I set the tone early with Tim,” he says. “I smoke and drink and that’s not going to change”) — you’d be forgiven for thinking he really didn’t have much on at all, and it was just another sunny Paul-Mescal-bumbling-around-central-London kind of day.
Back to that crazy trajectory. To say Mescal became an overnight sensation after he was cast as Connell — the smart, sensitive jock whose relationship with the equally gifted loner Marianne, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, forms the plot of Normal People, the BBC/Hulu mini-series adaptation of the Sally Rooney novel of the same name — is a bit of an exaggeration. “It kind of went bananas on social media within, like, 48 hours,” he says of the reaction when the episodes were released all together in April 2020. “It was all on the BBC, and three days later it was on Hulu. So it all kind of just clattered together.”
We’re sitting on a bench in Soho Square, which is full of people lounging on the grass, while a group of primary-school kids in high-vis jackets chatter noisily nearby. Nobody seems to be paying him much attention, which I’m a little surprised by, given how often his movements seem to be surveilled by unseen lenses, and which he says he’s keen to keep that way. “If you were, like, I don’t know, Harry Styles, it might be a bit different,” he says, which is also a good example of the slightly hesitant, unassuming way that he talks.
Two years before he got the part in Normal People, Mescal had completed a bachelor’s degree in acting at The Lir Academy in Dublin, a course he’d squeaked onto with a late application. He’d done some theatre work — his professional stage debut while still in college was Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby at Dublin’s Gate Theatre — and an advert for Denny’s sausages (tagline: “Seize the Denny!”), but no TV or film to speak of. Like his drama-school peers, many of whom also auditioned for the Connell role, he saw how big an opportunity the show would be for “a young, unknown Irish actor. It doesn’t really happen.”
Normal People’s release coincided with the early months of the Covid pandemic and a time when we were all, if you recall, a bit insane. Television audiences, who were captive in a very real sense, invested in the love lives of these two fictional young adults, with their heart-breaking miscommunications and tastefully shot sex scenes (and plenty of ’em!), with an intensity bordering on the rabid. Of Mescal in particular, they (by which I largely but by no means exclusively mean women) could not get enough.
“It was amazing. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’” he remembers. “When you’re new in the [acting] world, nobody really gives a fuck about who you are. You do the bare minimum beforehand because nobody wants to talk to you. Then the show comes and it was the first time I’ve experienced a job where there was more press to do after it came out. I’ll never do as much press again in my entire life.” (There are many novelty video interviews of him and Edgar-Jones floating around from that time, which Mescal says he’s keen to do less of these days: “It’s just, who cares what I fucking have on my sandwich?”)
Mescal had no childhood dreams of being an actor. When he was younger, it was all about sport — primarily Gaelic football, about which he was very serious (in 2017, Kildare minor coach Brian Lacey described him in The Times as “a lad who I felt would go on to play for his county for years”). His first idol, he says, was not a movie star — though he did have a period of being fixated on Colin Farrell in the 2003 action film SWAT — but Brian Murphy, an all-Ireland finalist and his first coach at Kildare minor football. As a player, Mescal relished his role in defence: “I wasn’t, like, elegant, but there’s a simplicity of a purpose when you’re a defender. It’s like: stop them. That’s the gig.”
He wouldn’t describe himself back then as “hyper-masculine; I was always kind of one foot in”, though he admits he was “highly competitive — still am”. When he was 16, he got his nose broken in a “fight-slash-sports-injury”, which left it “way off-centre, they had to pull it back in”. A few years later, while at drama school, he broke his jaw during another match “and I was like, hey, this isn’t going to fly anymore.” His nose is still slightly wonky and his jaw still clicks. (As for how that competitiveness reveals itself these days, he says it bubbled up recently backstage at Streetcar — and much to his cast-mates’ amusement — in a game of hacky sack.)
Maynooth he describes as “a perfect place to grow up: it wasn’t a major city, so when you became a teenager it was safe for your parents to let you go down the town and hang out and try to kiss girls and run around the place”. Mescal says there was “a lot of music on in the house” thanks to his father, who played the piano, the guitar and the tin whistle, and also acted in semi-professional productions, as did Mescal’s grandfather, a farmer in West Clare. His mother, who retired this year, he calls a “force of nature” who “has the most amazing brain… there’s a kind of childlike quality in how she positively engages with the world that I’m quite jealous of.”
As their first-born, he says he was “the canary down the coalmine” for child-rearing strategies, and had the “textbook parenting manual applied”, while Donnacha, four years younger, and Nell, four years younger again, got a slightly easier ride. He remembers being 17 and a half and losing a big match, and telling his mother, solemnly, that he was thinking of having his very first alcoholic drink. “And the look of disappointment on her face! She was like, ‘I would really rather if you didn’t.’ She did it brilliantly.” He did have that first drink though (at 17 and a half!): a bottle of Miller, which he hated and swapped for a double vodka and blackcurrant MiWadi, an Irish squash brand which is “very sweet. Like Ribena. And yeah, loved that. Still love it. I think Mum saw that I’d survived it and didn’t become an evil person afterwards.”
It wasn’t injury — or the discovery of vodka and MiWadi — that curtailed his playing career, but acting, which took over to his own surprise as much as anyone’s. After auditioning for the school musical, which was compulsory at Maynooth Post Primary — “I was delighted that we had to audition because if that policy hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been brave enough to have done it” — he was cast as Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. He got to wear a cape and a half-mask and pretend to steer a gondola and, because of the age he is, the whole thing is available to watch on YouTube, which I tell him must be nuts. “Oh, god. It’s nuts, full stop! But I’m still chasing that feeling, I think.”
We’re just getting onto Mescal’s abortive plan to study musical theatre — which he abandoned, he says drily, partly through being disorganised and also because he “lacks the hip flexibility” — when a man approaches. He is maybe in his thirties, and has a beard and long hair parted in the middle and, though I know it definitely wasn’t him, now I can conjure up only British 2022 Eurovision runner-up Sam “Space Man” Ryder.
“Oh!” the man says, in an arch, maybe-also-slightly-Irish voice. “Are you an actor?”
“Uh-huh,” Mescal replies.
“Oh!” says the man again. “Did you nearly win an Oscar?”
“You didn’t win it?” says Not-Sam-Ryder.
“I didn’t,” says Mescal.
“But you are so beautiful,” says the man.
“Thank you,” says Mescal.
“Is your name Mescal, Paul…” says Not-Sam-Ryder. “Oh! Paul Mescal. Put it there, brother, you gorgeous thing. You have a great day.”
“You too,” says Mescal. Then as the man walks away: “I paid him.” Then, another second later, impressed: “He pronounced my name right…” (Just so you do, too, it’s “MESS-kull”, not “Mess-KAL”.)
Seeing as Not-Sam-Ryder brought it up, it’s as good a time as any to get onto the Oscar business, which is another definite marker in the whole crazy-trajectory thing. He was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of Calum, a young father on what might be a final holiday with his 11-year-old daughter, played by Frankie Corio, in Charlotte Wells’ semi-autobiographical indie movie Aftersun. The (excellent) film never spells it out, but Calum is going through… something. Depression. Unhappiness. A numbing fog. Mescal’s performance as Calum is nuanced and subtle but also, like his defending, full-bodied, as though he is acting with every nerve ending.
This was still only his fourth film part — he had shot Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, a bleak Irish drama called God’s Creatures, and a modern take on the Bizet opera Carmen — and getting shortlisted for an Academy Award was, he says, “bananas. Totally surreal.” His whole family flew to Los Angeles to be around for the ceremony in March this year, and his mum got the nod to be his date. He says he spent about half of it in the bar, “because I was like, I’m gonna get the full experience! I’m going to go and see who was at the bar!” Though Dearbhla did not. “Mum didn’t leave. She thought it was rude to go to the bar. She stayed.” (He reckons he would have been fine to do a speech — “I feel like if I’d won that would have been very sobering very quickly” — but it wasn’t required, in the end, as the award went to Brendan Fraser for The Whale, though Mescal did at least get to commiserate with SWAT star Colin Farrell, who had been nominated for The Banshees of Inisherin.)
Having his family with him at that moment help him “root” a lot of the craziness going on around him, although it came with the stress of being the host, he says, and having to think of things for them to do in Los Angeles while he was off being shepherded about. In his work, too, he seems to like being part of an ensemble and to bounce off other people, just as he did (sometimes literally) in his footballing years, and it doesn’t seem too much of a leap to think that this might be an attempt to recreate something of a family or team dynamic when he’s at large in the world. “Yeah, I think that’s the thing I crave,” he says, “because there’s a loneliness to the job.”
The family trip to the Oscars had another significance. In July last year, Dearbhla, who is 54, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone-marrow cancer. Mescal was halfway through shooting All of Us Strangers when he received the news, and had to get back to filming quickly afterwards. “I think I kind of pushed it under the carpet for a bit when we found out. Then there was a bad old day when we were setting up to do a shot and I had a panic attack, and I haven’t had one of those in fucking years. That was probably the biggest one I’ve had, to be honest. It’s embarrassing — not that I think they are embarrassing — but there was just something very public about it.”
Had he realised he was suppressing his feelings about his mother’s illness to that extent? “I think I was like, ‘I just don’t have the space to feel anything now, and I’m probably feeling it in the work itself’, but then there’s only so much of that that’s healthy. I think my body was like, ‘No. You’ve got to feel something here that’s your own.’”
He’s still getting used to the way his profession operates: intense periods of working with a tight-knit group of people; then moving on, leaving them behind; then doing it all over again. “I’ve been really lucky, the past couple of years, to have been really busy. But I think it’s probably the loneliest I’ve been, just by proxy of the fact that it’s like stepping-stones of one job to the next to the next,” he says. “I can get very comfortable on my own and I kind of forget to come up for air sometimes.”
Dearbhla is now in remission, but he says overall it has been an “intense period, personally”. In September he got appendicitis and was hospitalised, and at some point his much-discussed relationship with the musician Phoebe Bridgers appears to have come to an end. He declines to talk about his personal life (“No, no, no!”) but he intimates certain things, such as when he says that Andrew Scott, his co-star in All of Us Strangers, told him that “the only thing you’re left with after love is grief. Which is, like, a bleak thing, but I think it’s just a fact.”
It must be a bit odd, because there are still pictures and footage of them together all over the internet. You can read the tweet Bridgers wrote after watching Normal People, before she knew him, saying she was feeling “sad and horny”, and Mescal’s response (“I’m officially dead”), and even rewatch their very first meeting, which took place over Instagram Live and is both very sweet and also, in light of how it seems to have turned out, somewhat excruciating. A month before we meet, Bridgers’ band boygenius release a song called “Revolution 0” (original title “Paul is Dead”, a reference to the Beatles conspiracy, because as we know things are only allowed one meaning), which, she told Rolling Stone, was about “falling in love online”.
It does seem that Mescal’s life has been particularly exposed and picked over in the ways that are possible in the digital age. Sometimes it has been things he has chosen to share himself, through interviews or social media; sometimes it has been things taken from him. He tells a story about how his parents used to take in student lodgers for the rent money, which was helpful, but had to stop after Normal People came out and some snapshots of him as a kid, which are on the bathroom wall of their home in Maynooth, surfaced online: “Some fucking bastard went into the bathroom and took photos.” They don’t take lodgers anymore.
Uh-oh. Here comes Not-Sam-Ryder again.
“Oh no, this guy’s coming over,” says Mescal under his breath. “I’m just gonna say no. What should I do?”
What do you normally do?
“I normally say… yes?”
But it’s already too late and Not-Sam-Ryder is here and asking me to take a photo of the two of them, and then despairing of my handiwork — “Oh no! It’s not good enough” — and Mescal is politely insisting that they only do one more as he’s “got to do this interview”, thereby sending Not-Sam-Ryder happily on his way, who calls back, “Well, bless your hearts! I hope you get the Oscar!” to which Mescal replies, with a laugh, “So do I.”
You can see in that moment — and I feel it when he talks to me, too — how he’s caught between two conflicting urges: the first, to preserve something of himself, having learned through experience (his only social-media presence now is a private Instagram account, albeit one with 134k followers); the second, to be a decent and obliging human being, which he clearly is. And even when I ask him how he feels about the internet, expecting him to say it’s the bane of his life, he answers very rationally: “Depends on my mood and depends what’s happening in my personal life. It oscillates. The nature of the internet is that it feels personal, but it’s incredibly impersonal, you know?”
That’s not to say all this hasn’t changed him. “I don’t think I’m a true extrovert,” he says. “I just amn’t. I feel like I’m becoming more introverted; I find introductions to new groups of people difficult, though if I’m close to people I transition out of that very quickly.” In less than a week, he’s going to find himself tested on that front, then, when he’s down at the Gladiator breakfast buffet. “It’s the worst feeling!” he says, not as gloomily as that might read. “You fly to a new country and figure out who’s there, and then you panic in your bedroom about being social, and then you kind of let that go. I tend to hang out by myself for a bit until I get my feet on the ground with the work itself. I think that’s the best way to do it, rather than force intimacy that doesn’t exist yet.” (On the plus side, he does say that when filming officially starts, he’s going to make free and easy with the dining options: “I will be hitting craft services! Just out of view of Tim. I’ll go into the bathroom with a pack of biscuits.”)
When we speak, he hasn’t met the rest of the cast, although he did meet The Last of Us actor Pedro Pascal at LAX airport just before his involvement was announced (in an as-yet-unspecified role). “I was too afraid to go up to him,” Mescal admits. “He came up and just seemed so genuine; I’m really looking forward to hanging out with him.” Nor has he spoken to Gladiator’s spiritual overlord, Russell Crowe: “I don’t know what we would talk about. Like, I’d love to hear his stories from filming, but the character is, like, totally separate.”
Is it, though, Paul? (One rumour has it that Lucius is Maximus’s illegitimate son.)
“Nawp!” says Mescal, which is as close to an unusable utterance as it’s possible to emit, while also not refusing to answer the question.
But Lucius is… a gladiator? He surely wouldn’t be subsisting on boiled chicken breasts for months to play a milksop nobleman.
“I can’t get into that!” he says, brightly. “I can’t tell you how stressed I am talking about that film in particular, because it’s definitely the biggest one I’ve done. I feel really excited, but, like, it’s difficult to get away from the legacy of the film a bit. I think it’s really well written and it pays homage to the first one, but it’s very much something that I think I can step into and make comfortably my own.”
It’s getting on now, and Mescal has to head back to the Soho doom-gym to collect his things before a photoshoot this afternoon for an American women’s magazine, so we cover off a couple of the other things he’s got coming up: the adaptation of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s novel about the death of William Shakespeare’s son, in which Mescal is rumoured to be playing — naturally! — William Shakespeare; World War II love story The History of Sound with Josh O’Connor; and Richard Linklater’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, in which he’ll get to satisfy the “theatre nerd in me” in the lead role of Broadway producer Franklin Shepherd.
Linklater’s filming the whole thing over 20 years, Boyhood-style, and in reverse, and Mescal has already done his first filming stint. Is it weird for him to be committed to something so far ahead?
“I think I’m going to spend the next 20 years regretting choices that I made in some sequences, and then forgetting about others and being like, ‘Oh, fuck! We shot that in 2035!’ That’s crazy.”
But does it freak him out to project that far ahead into his future? To imagine where he’ll be?
“No, I think I’m comfortable with it. I have no idea where I’m going to be. Hopefully still fucking alive,” he grins. “I don’t know.”
This, for an actor who could do more or less whatever he wants right now, on any scale, in any medium, with any director — at least, once he’s done a photoshoot, finished his ADR, chugged some whey protein and learned to ride a horse — seems like a reasonable, well-adjusted aim.
“Yeah!” Mescal says, as we retrace our way through Soho, so I can leave him back outside that yawning hell-mouth. “If I can do that I’ll be a happy camper.”