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‘Normal People’ plucked the Irish actor from anonymity, sparking a new global infatuation. Now, Nicole Kidman’s barging into his dressing room, Ridley Scott’s gift-wrapping ‘Gladiator 2’ for him and ‘Aftersun’ has earned him a surprise Oscar nomination: “It’s been a f***ing wild year.”
By Seth Abramovitch
On the day he turned 16, Paul Mescal was on a stage, being presented with a cake by the cast and crew of his high school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. “That’s the first thing I ever did, so I actually take great pride in it,” says Mescal of his public acting debut, playing the Phantom. (The entire production has been uploaded by the school to YouTube. Mescal is a gifted high baritone.) “That was the moment when I was like, ‘Oh fuck — this adrenaline is incredible,’ ” he says. “I’ve never felt a high like that.”
Imagine the high, then, that Mescal is feeling today, his 27th birthday. He’ll spend it on a stage once more, as the marquee draw of the hottest theater ticket in London, possibly even the English-speaking world. It’s a radical reworking of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire starring Mescal as Stanley Kowalski, the part that famously launched Marlon Brando, first on Broadway then in film. The reviews have been stellar, with THR praising his menacing Stanley as a “ticking time bomb” whose “destruction of Blanche” — Dubois, the play’s faded debutante, played by Spanish-British actress Patsy Ferran — “is deliberate, cruel and shocking.”
Adding to the adrenaline is the fact that this birthday comes nine days after Mescal learned he’d been nominated for an Oscar for his work in A24’s Aftersun, a festival darling from first-time director Charlotte Wells of Scotland. With that, Mescal gains entry into one of Hollywood’s most exclusive and illustrious clubs: 26-year-old best actor nominees. It consists of Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, James Dean for Giant, Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain and Ryan Gosling for Half-Nelson. If he wins — and it’s anyone’s race with five first-time nominees, including his fellow Irishman Colin Farrell — he will be the youngest best actor winner ever, beating Adrien Brody by three years.
It’s a bit much to take in for a guy who just three years ago was an anonymous young theater actor in Dublin. “It’s a world that I may be starting to understand slightly,” he says of his success. “And I love work. If I could work every day, every hour, I would. I get itchy when I’m not working. I know at some point I’ll get tired and probably burn out for a little bit, but I don’t feel that now.”
For our rendezvous, Mescal suggests a health food spot — though he’ll only drink a coffee, then later politely ask to smoke a cigarette — a few blocks from the Almeida Theatre, a 325-seat venue in North London where Streetcar has been playing to packed houses since Dec. 20. Mescal saunters up having come directly from the gym, wearing a long overcoat (a label on the cuff reads Gucci) over a navy fleece and worn denim jeans. A cap bearing the name of his health club is tucked over his famous gray blue eyes.
The Saturday prior, Nicole Kidman was in attendance at Streetcar and led that evening’s standing ovation. (“She came to the [men’s] dressing room. We were in our pants,” says Mescal, referring to underwear.) The Almeida has been an incubator for many successful West End transfers. Sure enough, this Streetcar, directed by Rebecca Frecknall — who won an Olivier Award directing Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in a 2021 Cabaret revival — will relocate to London’s Phoenix Theatre in March. Every ticket for the six-week West End run sold out in a single day.
I ask him about the Oscar nomination, his emotional reaction to which was documented in a family Zoom, shared on social media by his younger sister Nell. His mother, recently diagnosed with cancer, had gotten her hair cut short that day in preparation for chemotherapy. The family is in tears. Shocked faces. Joyful disbelief.
Did it come as a total surprise to him? “It’s very hard to avoid the forecasting,” Mescal says. “So I was kind of aware that I was maybe on the bubble — like on the outside of potentially getting a nomination. I was aware that films like Aftersun aren’t the go-to Oscar pick a lot of the time. So it was a big surprise. The surprise was real. Yeah.”
Born in 1996, Mescal grew up in Maynooth, a town in County Kildare, near Dublin, the first of three children born to mom Dearbhla, a police constable, and Paul Sr., a grade school teacher. “It’s very hard not to gush,” he says of his parents, “but they’re just incredible. They drove me to every single Gaelic football training session.” Mescal excelled at the sport, a combination of rugby and soccer, captaining his team in 2014 before leveling up to the under-21s league, where he was a rising star. “It’s physical,” he says. “You represent your town. And then, if you get asked to represent your county — there are 32 counties — you compete in an all-Ireland championship. I loved it. That was, to be honest, the thing that was in direct competition with me becoming an actor.”
He ultimately chose acting but found Gaelic football hard to give up. On the Saturday before the start of his third year at The Lir Academy, Ireland’s premier drama school, Mescal — who was secretly still playing, against school rules — broke his jaw on the pitch. “I was reaching out for the ball and I just got smacked across the face,” he recalls. “I was lucky in that it was a clean break. It just snapped. I didn’t have to get it wired shut, thankfully.” That put an end to Gaelic football once and for all.
Mescal graduated in 2017 and immediately found consistent work in Dublin’s theater scene, eventually landing the lead in a revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Mescal was rendered starstruck when the play’s celebrated writer, Martin McDonagh, “came in for a day to watch rehearsals.” Little could Mescal have known that just three years later, he would be vying for an Oscar alongside McDonagh, whose The Banshees of Inisherin was nominated for nine awards, including original screenplay and directing for McDonagh, as well as acting honors for stars Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan.
Gleeson sent Mescal “a lovely message” of congratulations. “I’m hoping that the Oscars afterparties are going to be fun — because I think the Irish can show up in that setting,” he says with a smile. I ask what it is about the Irish condition that produces so many of Hollywood’s most celebrated artists. “I don’t know,” he says. “I feel like we’ve always overrepresented ourselves. Just in terms of population, we’re punching above our weight.”
I note that Ireland has produced some of the theater’s greatest writers — not just McDonagh (who, it should be said, was born and raised in London to Irish parents), but Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Seán O’Casey, to name a few. Mescal nods emphatically.
“It all comes back to writing,” he says. “There’s a culture of writing in Ireland that I think somewhere along the way makes its way into the acting stuff. Because if you’re working with good writing, it forces you to step up. A lot of the writing onscreen is shit. And that then requires your body to find the path of least resistance. If the writing isn’t good, it doesn’t require a kind of engagement. Whereas I think working in the theater has helped me with that.”
Mescal’s big break — to put it mildly — was thanks to another Irish writer; not a playwright but a novelist. Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, was released in 2018 and quickly became a publishing sensation. A richly drawn tale of romance and friendship between an unlikely pair of Irish teens — the handsome athlete Connell and the intellectual oddball Marianne — it sold more than 3 million copies.
In 2019, a TV miniseries based on the book — a co-production of BBC Three and Hulu — was announced. Dublin-based casting director Louise Kiely (who also cast Banshees) was familiar with Mescal through the local theater scene. “I’d been in to read for her for a couple of things that she was casting, but they didn’t go my way,” says Mescal, who at that point had only once acted in front of a camera, in a TV spot for Denny, an Irish sausage brand. (Unaware that he was supposed to spit out the product between takes, he ended up consuming about 15 sausage links by the shoot’s end.)
There were four rounds of auditions for Normal People. First, Mescal taped a scene at Kiely’s office — the one in which Connell and Marianne sit in an Italian piazza, eat ice cream and confront their class differences. The series’ director, Lenny Abrahamson, liked what he saw and brought Mescal in for a solo audition. Then the actor was called in for two rounds of chemistry reads. At the second, he met and read with Daisy Edgar-Jones. She brought an electricity to the pairing that other actresses did not. Mescal heard nothing for several long days. “Then I remember I was over here [in London] doing a workshop for a musical or something, and I just got a call and was like, ‘It’s gone your way.’ And I just stepped out of the rehearsal room and just fucking screamed,” he recalls. Edgar-Jones, we now know, was cast as Marianne.
It’s impossible to oversell just what a seismic effect Normal People — and Mescal’s depiction of Connell Waldron — had on the pop-cultural landscape. Premiering at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020, the series, with its unflinching depictions of sex (Mescal reclines fully nude in one postcoital scene) and intimacy gave the flesh-starved, pandemic-gripped masses something to cling to. Mescal, meanwhile — with his square jaw, Roman nose and, particularly, his Gaelic football-developed thighs — quite suddenly found himself the target of global infatuation. For a good part of 2020, virtually no physical detail escaped online fetishization. An Instagram account, “Connell Waldron’s Chain,” posted nothing but photos of his character in a signature silver necklace; it amassed 143,000 followers.
Strangest of all was that all of this transpired during lockdown, so Mescal could only experience his overnight stardom virtually, just like the rest of us. Then restrictions began to ease, and he began moving around London, only to find himself swarmed wherever he went. “That felt like the most life-altering moment,” he recalls. “Everything since has felt like little mini-explosions of madness.”
Weirder yet, everyone seemed to think he was the sensitive jock he played on TV. But that simply wasn’t the case. “I’m far from that person,” he says. “There are similarities, of course, because we culturally come from the same place, we both play Gaelic football and we both suffer a little bit with depression — he more so than I do.
“But there are no complaints with that because the writing and direction of that show was beautiful. It was a portrayal of what it is to be a young person in today’s world. And of course a lot of things are easier, but it’s just fucking hard sometimes,” he says.
Aftersun came to Mescal exactly two years ago, while he was filming God’s Creatures — one of several film roles he took on in the wake of Normal People‘s success (the other being Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, in which he played a beach attendant at a Grecian resort patronized by Olivia Colman). Both films screened at Cannes in 2022, but while God’s Creatures was well received, Aftersun became the talk of the festival, earning Wells the French Touch Jury Prize, awarded for “the audacity and creativity of a filmmaker for one of their first cinematographic works.” Mescal, meanwhile, making his Cannes debut in Gucci suits adorned by Cartier, for which he was named an ambassador, was a red carpet sensation.
Inspired by director Wells’ childhood memories of her father, Aftersun follows a vacation in Turkey taken by a 11-year-old girl (played by Frankie Corio) and her young dad, Calum, who — like Normal People‘s Connell and, by his own admission, Mescal himself — suffers from depression. Mescal loved the script and Wells’ short films. They met over Zoom. “I felt very artistically aligned with her and what she wanted to make,” he recalls. “And it was what I wanted to make.” Says Wells, “He was just so thoughtful in the way he spoke about the script, so attentive to the script, so empathetic for the character already, had such interesting questions and was just clearly very committed to his craft and this project.”
While casting Mescal “was certainly attractive to my producers,” having an internationally famous heartthrob playing her father’s proxy “wasn’t the path that we had been going down with regard to casting,” Wells says. “I see now the attention that came to the film as a result of having cast Paul. But that wasn’t on my mind personally when I cast him. I cast him because he felt like the best fit for the role and he felt like the best partner for the project.”
The film contains few major plot developments, offering instead a breadcrumb trail of brief exchanges, seared images, sidelong glances. In that fragmentary way, it works much as human memory does. The audience is left to surmise Calum’s fate for themselves. Mescal loves the ambiguity, “how little exposition there is. The actual concrete circumstances don’t matter. I think that’s why people engage with it and have such strong opinions about it,” he says. Ultimately, Mescal says, Calum’s journey “is rooted in a confusion.”
“I came away thinking that maybe he suffered from some sexual confusion,” I offer, tossing out a pet theory about Calum’s orientation.
Mescal promptly douses it with cold water. “That wasn’t in my head at all,” he says. “And that’s not to say that that’s not correct or right. It’s more so to do with the fact that I think he’s doing the maths of this holiday, and he’s with the person that he loves most in the world. And he’s had a great day with her and something’s not adding up.”
“He should be happy,” I say.
“And he’s not,” he replies.
“His brain doesn’t let it happen.”
“His brain doesn’t let it happen,” Mescal repeats in solidarity. “He doesn’t know what it is in his brain that’s not making that happen. And that’s scary and that’s confusing. Yeah.”
It’s a brisk Tuesday evening in London. Sipping on a plastic cup of chardonnay, I scan the lobby of the Almeida Theatre for any Kidman-level stars in attendance. I am disappointed to spot none — not even a Great British Bake-Off-level star. Killing time, I strike up a conversation with a woman next to me. She tells me in an American accent that she and her two daughters had spent the past 12 hours in a line hoping to score a handful of rush tickets to Streetcar. She introduces me to new friends made in line, about a dozen of them, all of them women in their 20s, all of them buzzing at their good fortune. I get the sense they didn’t wait 12 hours in the cold because they are huge Tennessee Williams stans.
Playing Stanley is no calculated effort on Mescal’s part to differentiate himself from the sensitive, melancholy characters that made him famous. The role has been a dream of his since drama school — ever since an acting teacher told him he didn’t have the commitment to do it and suggested he perhaps would be better off playing the milquetoast Mitch, Stanley’s poker buddy. “I was like, ‘Why?’ ” Mescal says, still wounded. “He was like, ‘I think you just need to take bigger swings. You need to be bolder in your choices.’ ”
It was, of course, a provocation; his teacher knew a ferocious Stanley was inside Mescal somewhere. Mescal took it as a personal challenge. “And he was right,” he says of the teacher’s assessment. “I was OK. I was committed. But I was never on the edge of being bad. If you’re ready to go to a point where it could break apart and be shit, and you can see the seams of everything, that’s when it starts getting good.”
And his Stanley is indeed good — great, even. It’s far more menacing than Brando’s, more focused, more athletic. At one point, Mescal, sporting a hipster mullet, strips to his underwear — yes, the audience gets the Kidman view — and slides into a pair of red silk pajamas, as specified by Williams in the text. Then Mescal veers from the script by dropping to all fours and tracking Blanche like prey. “Paul discovered that during a physical rehearsal,” says director Frecknall. “We called it The Dog. He became this weird, feral dog. It really scared me.”
After the run, Mescal will have a few months off before heading into production this summer on Gladiator 2, which will shoot in Europe. Mescal was hand-picked to star in the sequel by Ridley Scott, who is back at the reins from where his 2000 best picture winner left off. Contrary to rumors of gladiatorial sparring among Hollywood’s leading men, Mescal says he did not have to audition for the lead role of adult Lucius, depicted in the original as the young nephew of Commodus, the Roman Emperor played by Joaquin Phoenix. He simply took a meeting with the 85-year-old directing legend in which Scott “discussed the parameters of the story. Then, after the fact, I was given a script,” Mescal says. “And I’m so proud I get to make it. It’s an intimidating feat. It’s something I’m nervous about but something I feel like I can do.”
I ask what kind of transformation his body — just a bit thicker than a competitive swimmer’s build — might have to undergo to play a gladiator.
“With films like this and superhero films, there is sometimes a focus on that,” he says, “which I don’t find that interesting. Of course there’s a physical robustness required for the character, but past that, I’m not interested. This guy’s got to fight and got to be a beast. And whatever that looks and feels like is right for me, is what it’s going to be. Sometimes I see films and I’m like, ‘That person doesn’t look real.’ “
Further down the line — like much, much further — Mescal will put those Phantom pipes to good use in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which will shoot Boyhood-style over the next two decades, allowing the cast to age in real time. “The musical-theater boy in me is very satiated by it all,” he says. (Linklater declined a request for comment, saying to ask him again “in about 18 years.”) But it won’t take two decades to hear him sing. In April, audiences can catch Mescal in Carmen, a movie reimagining of the Georges Bizet opera directed by Benjamin Millepied. Set in the present day along the Mexico-U.S. border, Mescal plays a Marine with PTSD.
Right now, sitting outside a smoothie and health bowl shop in North London, puffing on a cigarette and pondering life, Mescal seems pretty OK. He’s well aware of the fascination that swirls around his personal life — more specifically his rumored breakup with singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who lives in East L.A. At the moment, he’d prefer to keep his thoughts on that topic to himself. “Maybe at some point,” he says. “But just not now. It’s just difficult territory. Yeah.”
In a few days, Mescal will fly to Hollywood for the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, where he’ll set camera shutters and hearts aflutter in a double-breasted suit and undershirt combo that could single-handedly bring back the Miami Vice look. “I love L.A.,” Mescal says. “I feel like I was introduced to it in the right way through people outside of the acting community. I have a love for it that I wasn’t expecting to ever have. I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time there in the next couple of weeks.”
“So, is this your best birthday ever?” I ask.
He takes a moment to mull it over.
“Yeah,” Mescal says with a grin. “It’s been a fucking wild year. Many ups and downs. It’s been kind of spectacular in that sense. Yeah.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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