I’m waiting in the corridors of the Soho Hotel, and Paul Mescal is already 25 minutes late. I wonder, has the actor—the 27-year-old Irish heartthrob who’s gone from Normal People’s quietly thoughtful and sensitive Connell Waldron to the Oscar-nominated, Olivier Award-winning, Gucci and Cartier-clad star of Aftersun and A Streetcar Named Desire in just four short years (and is now poised to enter his blockbuster era as the lead of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator 2)—gone full Hollywood? Not at all, as it turns out. When he finally arrives, dressed casually in blue jeans, a white T-shirt and Adidas trainers, he looks positively bereft, lowering his piercing blue eyes and apologising profusely for the delay. We sit down and start our interview, but he keeps apologising—and continues to do so even after our chat, as I take the lift back down to the lobby with him. I’m thoroughly charmed—and convinced, not that I needed much convincing, that he’s a Connell through and through.
Mescal’s magnetism is as pronounced on screen as it is off it—and undeniable in his latest role: Harry, the mysterious and flirtatious neighbour of Andrew Scott’s brooding screenwriter Adam in Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, which is now in cinemas. A profoundly personal project for its director, who himself came of age as a gay man in the late ’80s, the surreal romance follows Adam as he looks back on his youth and, upon visiting his childhood home, finds his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy)—who died in a car accident when he was 12—somehow living there, as if it’s still 1987. It offers him an opportunity he never had—to come out to them and, hopefully, be accepted. Meanwhile, back in the steely tower block in which he now lives, Adam begins a relationship with Harry, an effusive presence who, nevertheless, has demons of his own, too. Soon, these two worlds collide to head-spinning effect.
His part recently earned Mescal a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but it isn’t the only performance that’ll keep him firmly in the awards conversation in the weeks, months and years to come: there’s Ridley Scott’s forthcoming swords-and-sandals epic, of course (which I cannot under any circumstances, I’ve been repeatedly told by publicists, ask Mescal about), but also Oscar winner Chloé Zhao’s take on Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in which he’ll play a roguish young Shakespeare, and industry stalwart Richard Linklater’s new musical, Merrily We Roll Along, which will be—wait for it—filmed over the course of 20 years.
Below, the actor talks us through all of these current and upcoming projects, and opens up about his sex scenes with Andrew Scott, tearing up on the press tour, and why he hopes to be happier in 2024.
I know that All of Us Strangers is a really personal project for Andrew Haigh. What did he share with you before you started working on it?
I loved the script and I pursued it intensely. It is very personal—like the home that he shot the first section of the film in with Jamie [Bell] and Claire [Foy], that was his actual family home, which is amazing. But, he has a way of wearing all of that that isn’t a burden to the actor. Sometimes that can be, because how can you step into something that personal and not feel like… weighed down by that, to some extent? Because it can never really live up to someone’s personal experience. But, the first conversations I had with him were focused on Harry. He mostly just asked me what I thought about the story and how I engaged with the writing. I just loved Harry. I felt a great deal of sympathy for him, but also I liked that he’s so front-footed. I think it’s a departure for me. He’s got this immense well of sadness underneath, but he’s kind of vivacious in a way that I haven’t gotten to play before. I was keen to lean into that. Just innate in Harry’s chemical make-up is that he’s using this kind of forward pressure to hide what’s going on beneath the surface, which is always a sad balance for somebody to be dealing with.
And your screen partner Andrew Scott is just extraordinary. Did you know him well before you worked together?
We knew each other a little bit for sure—I’d say we were friends, and we share lots of friends. But on this, we became very close because of the nature of this project—not just because of the sex scenes, but because of the emotional intimacy that these two characters share. That was just the perfect climate to fall in love with Andrew as a human being. It’s a very easy thing to do.
I can see that. What were those sex scenes like to film as well?
We had an intimacy coordinator and I think they’re so vital—I’ve been lucky that in the time that I’ve been working in the industry I haven’t done a film without an intimacy coordinator. But the thing I’m learning about intimacy coordination is that there can’t be a steadfast rule with it because it’s actually quite subjective in terms of how two actors are physically communicating and engaging with each other. I’ve been very lucky that with every scene partner I’ve had to do these types of intimate scenes with, there has been chemistry but also a physical understanding and trust. Sometimes, the process of making those things has been better than others, but this is definitely one of my favourite instances of doing them. It’s obviously very different from something like Normal People because the dynamic between these characters is totally different, but there’s also something that I’m grateful for now, which is that I now know what it’s like to be on set on a day like that. That blind panic has dissipated slightly, which is good. It never goes, because you’re always around a lot of people when you’re shooting those scenes. In the end, it’s about the person opposite you and you have to deliver the writing, and in these instances, that’s not something you can fake with a line delivery. This is totally dependent on human connection, which I think exists quite strongly in the film.
The film is also incredibly emotional. Has it been emotional for you to see how audiences have been reacting to it?
Absolutely, and also because I know Andrew Haigh and Andrew Scott so well now and—they’ve said this themselves—there’s a lot of them in this film. So, when you see your friends share something so personal, and you adore them, and you see it being received like this, it has an impact. That’s what I’m discovering now, watching the film. I’m immensely proud of my work but, I think it’s true of all of the characters that I’ve played, I probably haven’t felt as close personally to any of them as I’ve watched Andrew and Andrew be to this.
Have you gotten teary at any point during the press tour?
We did a Q&A in LA and we were kind of waiting by the side and watched the end of the film, when Harry sees Adam in his flat. He says, “How come no one found me?” I just think, for a human being to get to that point and have to articulate something as basic as that? It’s such an awful state of affairs. And for the person that says it to be somebody that you associate with joy in the film – Harry is a positive force. He’s definitely fighting his own demons, but to see him that vulnerable always gets me. I think he’s such a beautiful boy, and has been deserted by people that he loves on the basis of them not being able to navigate his sexuality, which is such an insane thing to comprehend now. That bit gets me pretty consistently.
I also want to ask you about your other recent film, Garth Davis’s Foe with Saoirse Ronan, where you play a very different character to Harry. What was that like to work on?
I adore that film. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had. It’s definitely not a naturalistic drama. It’s almost Greek in its scale—what it asks of actors is not an easy feat. It requires a certain kind of performance that’s a high wire act. And to work with Garth and Saoirse…
She goes all in in every scene.
That’s just the only frequency she understands, and if you’re not going all in opposite her, she’ll just chew you up and spit you out in terms of her performance. If you can’t match her, you may as well not be there. The stuff we had to do in that film was really emotionally taxing and, regardless of the film’s reception, to me, when the dust settles on my career, there are some scenes in there for both of us [that we’ll remember]. I’m a massive fan of Saoirse’s work having watched her for years and years, and I know what I find difficult about acting, and there’s stuff in there that I didn’t know I could do and stuff that I didn’t expect Saoirse to do. Though she can do anything—it’s annoying [laughs]. I learned so much watching her.
Speaking of Saoirse, but also Andrew Scott, is it just a coincidence that you’ve worked with every incredible Irish actor who’s working at the moment?
Long may it continue! Whatever it is, there’s something happening at the moment that I’m really enjoying. We’re kind of in a golden era, and the actors aren’t necessarily from one generation—you’ve got me, Saoirse, Jessie [Buckley], Andrew, Colin [Farrell], Brendan [Gleeson]. And they’re some of my favourite artists. I’d work with any of them again and again and again.
And we’ll see you opposite Jessie Buckley soon in Chloé Zhao’s Hamnet.
That book—it’s just devastating. I can’t wait. If I told a younger version of myself that this would be [shooting] this year, I wouldn’t believe it. I’ve obviously been in a film with Jessie before [Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter] but we’ve never shared the screen or a working process together. I think she’s one of our present-day greats. And Chloé is somebody I can’t wait to get in the weeds with, and get into the heads of those characters.
You also have Richard Linklater’s Merrily We Roll Along coming up, which will be filmed over 20 years. What’s it like to work on a project like that?
It’s great. The thing that’s different about this is that it’s obviously a pre-existing Sondheim musical. I love musicals. I’m singing—the whole shebang [laughs]. We’ll be sporadically shooting that over the next 20 years, which is like… it sounds so bizarre even coming out of my own mouth. We’re still in the infancy of it to be totally honest.
I also loved seeing you in A Streetcar Named Desire. Do you have plans to go back on stage?
Big time! Before that was probably the longest I’d been away from the stage, and it was too long. I just love it. It’s so gratifying—it’s a very difficult thing to commit to because the schedule is so gruelling but, ultimately, it feels like an elixir. I think it’s so important, and I’d be a lesser actor if I didn’t give myself the time to do it. I think it’s rare to come across a film script that is as good as Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. So, if someone’s giving you an opportunity to do that, or do Shakespeare, I think you’d be crazy not to do it. So, there are plans to go back in the not-too-distant future.
And Stanley Kowalski is such an iconic character. What are the other big parts you’d love to play some day?
I’d love to play Biff in Death of a Salesman. That’s the big thing on my list that I need to do. Like that… that will kill me. But the stressful thing about theatre is that there are some actors who will just never get the opportunity to play a character because it depends on when a revival is done. You could be right for the part but like… I know they did a production of Death of a Salesman recently, so I’m hoping that the next time it comes around, the director likes me for it. I know there’ll be something left undone if I don’t get to play that part.
I also want to ask you a bit about your red-carpet style. We’re now in the midst of awards season, and you’re nominated for a BAFTA. How do you approach dressing for events like that?
Dressing for the red carpet is something I feel very glad to say that I’m enjoying much more than I have, and I think that comes down to the people that I’m working with now and also my relationship with myself. Gucci have been massive supporters of me over the last couple of years. And even outside of that campaign, it’s a very difficult thing sometimes to go into a fitting room with a brand. I’ve done it with other brands, and they’ve all been really nice, but I haven’t felt as comfortable. And I think when you get to know the people behind the curtain at these amazing fashion houses, that’s when you truly start to feel comfortable—you realise that they’re not trying to dress you in something they need you to wear; they want to cater to your personality. My stylist, Felicity [Kay], is also a huge part of that for me, and has altered my life. Dressing for things can be stressful, so you have to populate your life with people who make it less so—and they’re also incredibly talented.
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Where do you shop?
Dunno Curated in Soho. And No Maintenance in LA—they have great stuff and they’re very kind. They know what I like so they kind of go like, “Do you want this?” There’s now an extra wardrobe that I’ve just accumulated over the last couple of months.
Finally, I don’t know if you do resolutions, but what are some of the things you’ve taken into 2024 or left in 2023? What would you like to do more of this year?
I want to try and have a bit more stability and be a bit more, like, generally content and happy. Which sounds like a simple thing, but can be tricky. The [SAG-AFTRA] strike helped with that; it kind of reframed some things. I know this year is going to be busy, because that’s the nature of what the strike has done—it’s compressed everything—but I need to start taking my own advice, because over the last couple of years, I’ve been talking about aiming to strike a better work-life balance. And it’s not about taking holidays or anything like that. It’s just about… parts of the time when I was on strike were probably when I was at my happiest and that was because of the ability to be around friends and family. So, more of that.
This story was originally published on British Vogue.