Paul Mescal: ‘Movie stardom is different to fame ... It takes so much work to achieve’


Ahead of his Oscars close-up, Mescal reflects on stardom, depression and the strange tension of the envelope-opening moment

There have been nights while on stage of London’s Almeida, playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, that Paul Mescal has felt the hot breath of Marlon Brando as he spoke the lines. It is both unfair and inevitable that the names of Mescal, still a newcomer, and Brando, who resides now as a distant planet, should be linked at this time.

Because it is a dangerous comparison; many young men slated as “the next Brando” have sparkled, extinguished and been forgotten over the decades. Seventy-one years have passed since Brando won his first Oscar nomination for his vital and charged depiction of Stanley in the film treatment of those now-fabled stage performances.

But Mescal is in the midst of an extraordinary moment, and his presence at tomorrow’s evening’s Oscars ceremony, nominated for best actor for his haunting turn in Aftersun, places him in rare company.

He turned 27 on February 2nd, so was still 26 when the Oscar nominations were announced. Previous 26-year-old nominees in the category are a distinguished gang: James Dean, Ryan Gosling, Orson Welles and the late Heath Ledger. And now Paul Mescal. That’s it.


“Yeah. I can die happy,” he says. “Look at that club. I mean, like... my dad showed me that. And what can I say about that, only that it is crazy. It’s f***ing mad. It is so cool.”

Mescal has just three released films to his name. He has generated a vast fan base mesmerised by, well, all of him, since his breakout role as Connell in Lenny Abrahamson’s rapturously received adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. He’s everywhere on the news-stands just now – the cover of the Hollywood Reporter, of GQ, of an old-style splash in Vanity Fair. He is deeply serious about the craft of acting without being precious about it. When he mentioned in one of those interviews of his “fury” after a fan “put her hand on my ass” while he posed for a photograph with her outside the Almeida, his remarks instantly found their way on to news sites across the world. Speculation about his relationship with songwriter and performer Phoebe Bridgers was the stuff of social media frenzy. He has maintained a polite silence on the various questions about their apparent break-up since returning to the promotion and awards jamboree.

Movie stardom is different to fame. It is completely relevant to the work. I cannot wait to just see Michelle Williams. I just think that is so impressive and it takes so much work to achieve that status

We meet while he is back home to attend the Dublin premiere of God’s Creatures and submit himself to the interview circuit. Courteousness and friendliness are his calling cards, and on a crisp Friday lunchtime, I find him sitting alone in a drawingroom deep in the Merrion Hotel, smiling a welcome and offering a meaty handshake. He is wearing a fitted black sweater, black wide crop pants and black trainers, and he’s a bit jaded after a good night out in the Workman’s Club. This might be as quiet as it gets for him for the next fortnight. As he thinks about the series of happy lightning strikes on his young career, he knows he is in an exalted place where he can at once delight in the pre-Oscars experience and remain sanguine at the trippy fact that he is one of its most sought-after personas. The thought of just being there – the carpet, the flashbulbs, the Los Angeles mood – is thrilling to him and he doesn’t try to hide that. He’s an old-fashioned believer in the conceit of movie stardom.

“Oh yeah, I absolutely think it does exist,” he says, with bright sincerity.

“I think that is inarguable. Movie stardom is different to fame. It is completely relevant to the work. I have become quite friendly with Brendan [Gleeson] and Colin [Farrell] and Billy Nighy. And then there are people... like, I cannot wait to just see Michelle Williams. You know, like film stars. Of course, they are famous. But they are film stars! I just think that is so impressive and it takes so much work to achieve that status. And then you meet them, and they are just beautiful energies to be around. So, yeah, I am excited.”

When Mescal was in his first year as a drama student at the Lir Academy, the film treatment of A Streetcar Named Desire formed part of his studies. It made an instant and indelible impression on him.

“I watched it through twice,” he remembers. “I just think it’s a masterful piece of acting.”

He could not have imagined then, as a novice who considered dropping out after a crisis of confidence, that the play would feature so prominently in what have been a truly fabulous few weeks for him. Since opening on December 17th, the play has been a sell-out. Mescal’s presence has meant the sexual tension has not been limited to the stage. The New York Times review described Mescal as a “heart-throb”. And by all accounts, throbbing hearts have been the least of it. Once the reviews of Streetcar came out – glowing and in some cases pulsing – he could rest secure in the knowledge that he had not been gobbled up by the Brando mythos – he had done something original with the role.

“He is like a planet,” he agrees of Brando, sipping a glass of water as tourists wander by the window behind him heading towards the National Gallery.

“The fear of comparison in something like that is just ... true. I was always scared that people would think I am copying him – because I would never have the confidence to copy something that was that,” he says carefully.

“I am deeply in love with his performance in Streetcar, but it is not the way I wanted to play that part. And I’m glad that, to my mind, people haven’t made the comparison. I do think it’s important as an actor to steal bits from other actors. And there are definitely bits I stole. I remember someone told me that [Brando] said in an interview that his main plan with Blanche was to push her to the periphery of the space as the play continues. To push her out. But that’s not a choice he is making ... he was responding to the play. And I remember being in the play and thinking, Oh yeah, that makes total sense. Blanche and Stanley are in this room together and he is literally trying to remove her from his space. It’s a simple conceit but it can be so rich and can look and feel like different to you every night.”

After Normal People, Mescal signed on for three distinctly different and offbeat film projects: Carmen, God’s Creatures and Aftersun. On January 9th of this year, it was announced that he would play the lead in Ridley Scott’s sequel to Gladiator. The original, in 2000, stands as a behemoth of Hollywood’s roaring years: a $460 million box office, 12 Academy Award nominations and five wins. Two weeks later came the announcement that Mescal had received an Oscar nomination of his own for his haunting turn as Calum, a young Scots father on holiday with his daughter, in Aftersun, set in some dreamtime in the late 1990s.

God’s Creatures and Aftersun are both portraits of struggling young men, and therefore natural companion pieces to his first big role. Mescal has had an intense public fascination to deal with since Normal People aired, originally on RTÉ and BBC before streaming introduced it to an audience that turned out to be ravenous. The shorthand version of that show has been well documented: it hit the screens when most of the world was bored and fretful during the lockdown months of the pandemic. And it turned out that a lovelorn, introspective, athletic young Irish man was the perfect canvas for viewers worldwide to project their fantasies and lusts upon. The storyline was simple, sensitively handled and slow-moving during a strange time when society had nothing but time. The rapport between Mescal and co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones was alchemic, the sex scenes were frank, solemnly treated and subject to indignant debates on Joe Duffy’s Liveline.

The lines between Mescal and Connell were easily blurred as he was catapulted into the front line of the celebrity machine, constantly papped while having a coffee or a smoke during London’s indolent summer, turning GAA shorts into a fashionable item – to the surprise and delight of young Irish men across the country who went from scruff to haute overnight. The neck chain his character wore acquired a fascination of its own, as did Mescal’s private life. And in between all that, he found himself starring in a one-man video for an unreleased Rolling Stones song from 1974, in which he hits the bourbon and tears through an empty Claridge’s hotel to cope with an electrical storm of the soul – caused by love and regret, of course.

So he moves – with grace – between the distant places of international object of desire and upcoming Irish actor delighted to get home for a few days. He visited Maynooth, met family and gave a talk at his old school before attending the premiere of God’s Creatures. After his daytime interview duties, he would make his way out to Montrose for his maiden in-studio appearance on the Late Late Show. On the show’s social media account, he seems chuffed as he takes a backstage tour, enjoying Ryan Tubridy’s jittery bonhomie and posing for family photographs with the host in front of the famous set. On Saturday, he would fly out to Los Angeles and into the belly of the beast. By Sunday, he would be in the midst of the beautiful people, presenting with Zendaya at the Screen Actors Guild awards.

It can all just go away. Because steady ... isn’t actually steady. It can just go like that. I belong to a generation of people who grew up with that

All stars come from somewhere. Mescal’s upbringing in Maynooth was happy and conventional. For much of his adolescence, his trajectory looked to be fixed on the Gaelic fields: he played minor football for Kildare for two years and represented the county at under-21 level. A role in the school production of Phantom of the Opera blew his mind: the rush of adrenaline prompted him to chase acting for life. Auditioning was compulsory: had it not been, a reluctance to part from the lads would probably have prevented him from trying out. But he was hooked. He was born in 1996. It was a fault-line year: he passed childhood Christmases during the daft boom years and became a teenager just as the recession made a dust bowl of that national vanity. So he belongs to a generation of Irish people who have had a very particular experience of what it is to be Irish.

“I was a teenager as the crash hit, and I saw the damage that did just to ... everybody. Like my family – a guard and a teacher, supposedly steady jobs. And suddenly going, Wow, it doesn’t really f***ing matter whether you are set up with a certain degree of comfort. It can all just go away. Because steady ... isn’t actually steady. It can just go like that. I belong to a generation of people who grew up with that. Suddenly I was like: why don’t I just grow up and try and become an actor or study graphic design or become an artist or become a dancer? Because it doesn’t matter anyway – it can all just get whipped out from under your feet. I am strangely grateful for the recession, in a way. Had I grown up in the middle of the boom, that would have been the target in some capacity. You know: let’s go and try and make some money or whatever.”

Instead, he chose the precarious world of acting, briefly contemplating joining the Army before applying for the Lir Academy. His former teacher Hilary Wood described him up as “ostentatiously talented”, a prescient summary.

It is generally agreed that Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’s snapshot of an irretrievable few weeks of escapism for a father and his daughter, belongs in the ranks of masterpiece. It’s a captivating film experience and a timeless piece of art. No scene or exchange is wasted and the ending, featuring an ingenious use of the Queen and David Bowie song Under Pressure, is, in the purest sense, breathtaking. On the surface, the film is a lovely series of exchanges between a father and daughter, foreshadowed by an inferred sense that Mescal’s Calum will succumb to the private despair he battles and that we are witnessing the afterglow of familial love. Wells describes it as a “study in grief”. There is one magnetic scene when the pair sit at a table in the melancholy evening light watching the resort entertainment – an ageing male cabaret singer in sequins is singing the Righteous Brothers. Neither actor is doing anything but the moment is heart-rending and mysteriously powerful. Mescal nods at the mention of the scene, a fan now as much as participant.

“Awh yeah it’s so ... ” he trails off. “The distance between the two characters at that moment is terrible. Because she reaches. He is at a distance and she has this line – ‘Are you excited about your birthday tomorrow’ – and it softens him immediately. I find it so ... that is just the power of a confident director. To shoot that in one set-up and wait for the light. Charlotte just thinks innately cinematically.”

The film acquires its emotional heft from a few terse scenes where Mescal conveys Calum’s private anguish through purely physical acting. His attempts to disguise this from Sophie are uncomfortably real. Aftersun is set at the turn of the millennium, when the issue of mental health was seldom discussed openly. In God’s Creatures, he plays Brian O’Hara, a returning emigrant to a west of Ireland fishing town in the late 1980s, battling demons, failing to communicate and as they say, loved not wisely but too well by his mother, played by Emily Watson. She and the wider community circle after he sexually assaults a family friend, powerfully played by Aisling Franciosi. The attack is all the more disturbing in that it is left to the viewer’s imagination.

I remember playing Connell and it acted like a warning shot to me. Because I remember thinking: I’ve got to start looking after myself because I don’t feel that far away from what Connell was expressing sometimes

It’s a dark film with vivid performances and a deeply moral message. And it’s the first time Mescal has depicted a dislikable character: a ruined doe-eyed man-child. God’s Creatures was the first script he remembers reading after completing Normal People. Immediately after finishing Carmen in Australia, he took himself to Donegal for five weeks, learned a little about oyster fishing, lived alone in a house during lockdown, ran the roads and slowly immersed himself in a character belonging to Ireland as it was just before he was born.

“And when the film was set: I think I was on the cusp of knowing both of those places,” he says. “We have moved a long way from the idea of collusion and codes of silence, but you look at the news cycles of the high-profile cases that have happened to do with sexual assaults, it is not that long ago. That idea of banding together to protect the prodigal son, the good boy ... there are versions of people I know, like young men, that if something similar happened, they would be protected. And that’s what I love about the film. It’s not fictitious. When you watch it, it feels surreal. But it is not. What the community does – banding around this young man and punishing this young woman who has done nothing – I found that so upsetting.”

Mescal himself, though, came of age when young people and, more specifically young men, began to engage in difficult conversations. His formative years playing Gaelic games coincided with a series of high-profile players daring to remove the warrior mask to discuss verboten issues like addictions and specifically mental health, a subject that Mescal can draw upon from personal experience.

“Yeah, I suffer and have suffered from... mild depression,” he says evenly when the subject comes up.

“And I think it’s important to not gate-keep it to the sense of, like, being medicated or all of those things. But it is something that I’m proud people associate with my work – not so much the discussion of maleness, but a commonality you could draw from Connell to Brian to Calum is in what can happen to separate individuals if they are not looking after their mental health. And there are a myriad of possibilities, none of them really good.

“I remember playing Connell and it acted like a warning shot to me. Because I remember thinking: I’ve got to start looking after myself because I don’t feel that far away from what Connell was expressing sometimes. And what a privilege to get to figure that out and work and be like, oh, cop on to yourself here and start talking to someone. Brian is a different kettle of fish, in a different era. And I think there is a form of abuse in terms of what happened with his dad and while he was in Australia. Ultimately he goes internal instead of external with it, and causes absolute devastation to someone else. With Calum it is a private anguish that is inexpressible to him because he doesn’t understand it. And it is territory I like playing in. If people get bored of that ... of course, I care about that, but it is the kind of work I respond to in myself.”

It is clear that he is still overjoyed with the way the acting world has opened to him and the promise of glittering roles. He’s been blessed, he knows, in getting to act with an extraordinary series of female actors, from Edgar-Jones to Frankie Corio, the 11-year-old newcomer who is dazzling as the bright, spirited daughter Sophie in Aftersun. Patsy Ferran stepped into the role of Blanche just a week before previews of Streetcar – Lydia Wilson was forced to withdraw with an injury – and deepened her reputation as an extraordinary performer. “A little wizard,” is how Mescal’s sister, Nell, described Ferran to him: he candidly admits to stealing and repeating the phrase.

A slow smile spreads across his face as we yap again for a few minutes about Streetcar, and he listens to the story of the famous telegram from Tennessee Williams to Brando after the opening night in New Haven in November 1947: “From the greasy Polack you will someday arrive at the Great Dane.”

“Wow,” Mescal responds, beaming. “Wow.”

As it turned out, Brando never did play Hamlet, turning down the invitation because he lacked the confidence to carry it through, even as his star continued to ascend and he struggled to distinguish the person from the persona. But given Mescal’s series of riveting turns of magnetic young men with melancholy streaks, a turn at the biggest stage role of them all seems like an obvious future move. So far he has done an admirable job of remaining grounded and dignified through the faff. Back on the football fields, he was all about the collective: a defender in a culture where modesty about personal performance, as he puts it, “is paramount”. He has carried some of that with him to stage and screen.

Modesty can be negative if it is just for the sake of modesty, but I think it can be quite beautiful when it’s in support of something that you feel pride about

“The thing about acting is that obviously there are moments when a film or play is totally reliant on self-expression. Whereas when you are playing football, it is perpetually about the collective. Moments of self-expression are so fleeting – unless you are the corner forward who is the star. And I was never that! So, it was all about supporting the collective. Whereas in a film it is a close-up. Modesty can be negative if it is just for the sake of modesty, but I think it can be quite beautiful when it’s in support of something that you feel pride about. So maybe it does inform how I work.

All of his performances suggest he has the substance and rare talent to thrive long after this hot moment has passed. For all of the visual charisma, it’s his voice that makes the strongest impression when you meet him in person. Just as George Clooney offsets the matinee looks by wielding perhaps the most lonesome voice in movie acting, there’s a rich, forlorn musicality to Mescal’s speaking voice.

There could very easily be another Paul Mescal out there this weekend: the one who didn’t make the brave, strange leap from elite Gaelic games to acting; who might now be fretting about the relegation worries of the Kildare senior team for which he plays centre back; a young careerist, occasionally out for drinks in the Roost and watching, like many other fans of film, the highlights of the Oscars.

But he stepped through the veil and never looked back. There’s a sort of fearlessness to him. Where will it take him?

For now, to the front tables of the Dolby Theatre. He will, he says, be wearing Gucci – “But deciding what that is going to be is still in process.”

His parents will be there. He has vowed to have a good time at the after-parties. Since he arrived in Los Angeles, he learned of another significant award nomination; both he and Ferran are in the lead categories in the Olivier theatre awards. On it goes. And for those few hours this Sunday evening: it’s flying on the magic carpet stuff. What a moment for the Irish acting tradition, to have both Farrell and Mescal in the lead role category in a show with 14 Irish nominations. If Mescal’s name is called out, he will become the youngest winner in that category in Academy history.

“I would be,” he says quietly. “I do think that is highly unlikely.”

When it goes quiet just before they name the names, something happens inside of you. And anybody who says contrary to that is a liar

But still, he has just given one of the most authentic big-screen performances anyone could wish to see. And he can’t help but forecast what the feeling will be like on Sunday night, when he’s sitting there in that fantastic and purely theatrical moment, after the presenting star has opened the golden envelope and pauses just-so before announcing the name.

“I was talking to somebody about this the other day at the Baftas and it’s kind of like an unavoidable cocktail of emotions. You know you are not going to win. What is wonderful about it is that I firmly believe there is no loser in it. You are dealing with the best films, performances and cinematographers and you can argue a good case for everybody. But when it goes quiet just before they name the names, something happens inside of you where you are like, Oh God, this would be great. And anybody who says contrary to that is a liar,” he says, laughing a bit now as he surges on.

“If you have any bit of competitive energy in you. It is not delusional... it’s just like, it would be lovely for the name to ... because it is... insane.”

It is a bit. But as Paul Mescal knows better than most, this is a mad world where mad things can happen.

Gods Creatures is in cinemas from March 24th. The Academy Awards ceremony takes place in Hollywood on Sunday night

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times