Paul Mescal talks new film 'Aftersun,' life after 'Normal People' and bond with Daisy Edgar-Jones
Paul Mescal knows how to score a free vacation.
Since breaking out in 2020 on Hulu miniseries "Normal People," the Irish actor has collected passport stamps from some of the most idyllic places on Earth, shooting movies in Australia ("Carmen"), Greece ("The Lost Daughter") and Turkey ("Aftersun").
"That's part of the grand plan: just to put myself in films that are in parts of the world I've never been before," Mescal jokes in an interview. "And hopefully they turn out to be good!"
His globetrotting scheme paid off with "Aftersun" (in theaters nationwide), one of the year's most critically acclaimed films with 97% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Mescal, 26, has already earned acting nominations from the Gotham, British Independent Film and European Film awards, and some Oscar pundits call him a dark horse contender for best actor for his gut-wrenching work in the father-daughter drama.
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In "Aftersun," Mescal plays a young dad named Calum who takes a seaside holiday with his 11-year-old girl, Sophie (Frankie Corio). The film evocatively captures the almost mundane moments of a family vacation as Calum and Sophie sunbathe, play pool, get dinner, and dance to David Bowie and Queen. But as the story unfolds, the audience gleans that Calum is masking considerable pain, breaking down privately and confiding in strangers that he's amazed he made it to 30.
"The film asks you to reevaluate your relationship with your parents, or your memories of your parents as a child," Mescal says. "We demand so much of our parents when we're very young because we don't really know any different, and you forget that they're dealing with their own trials and tribulations."
The movie was written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Charlotte Wells, and it was loosely inspired by her memories of her own father. Watching Mescal in "Normal People," she was drawn not only to his tenderness but also his resemblance to her dad.
"He feels very solid in a way I remember my dad feeling (when I was) a kid. There's a safety to that person's arm resting on top of you," Wells says. "There was a physicality to Paul that I suppose reminded me of my dad, but he's also very warm and thoughtful and dedicated to what he does."
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Despite his character's real-life inspiration, Mescal largely avoided talking to Wells about her father. Instead, he created his own backstory for Calum, who mostly succeeds in looking after Sophie but struggles to care for himself.
"What has led him to this moment of what appears to be a crisis in mental health?" Mescal says. "Charlotte gives the audience a little bit of information and then moves on to the next moment of the holiday, which is true to life. When you're with your friends or family, you don't really spend time talking about things that are difficult."
Subconsciously, Mescal also channeled his own parents while playing Calum: his mother, a police officer, and his father, a teacher. He remembers them being "incredibly supportive" when, at age 16, he landed the title role in a school production of "The Phantom of the Opera." It was then that acting "became a real addiction to me."
"I had this mask that we had to tape (to my face), because it kept flying up and revealing the makeup," Mescal recalls with a laugh. "That whole experience is a feeling that I'm probably still chasing: just the adrenaline rush and the stakes feeling so big. What I find sad about growing up is that first experiences are harder to come by."
After performing in plays in Dublin and London, Mescal made his screen debut in the steamy TV romance "Normal People," which blew up online at the height of quarantine. It earned him an Emmy nomination and BAFTA TV Award win for best actor.
Many up-and-comers might have worried about being stuck indoors, unable to capitalize on their newfound fame during the pandemic. But Mescal appreciated that he wasn't immediately subjected to the chaos of paparazzi and red carpets.
"There was such a drastic shift in life pre- versus post-'Normal People' for me. I was grateful, if I'm being honest, about the sort of slow introduction to the public side of being in a film or TV show that is popular."
He remains close with his "Normal People" castmate Daisy Edgar-Jones, who went on to star in "Where the Crawdads Sing" and Hulu's "Under the Banner of Heaven" earlier this year. ("It's wonderful to have somebody who's not only going through something similar, but a friend that you can talk to candidly about the ridiculousness and wonderful parts of this career," Mescal says.)
Mescal also continues to navigate how much he is willing to share about his relationship with musician Phoebe Bridgers. The couple started dating in 2020 and are reportedly engaged; although Mescal no longer has a public Instagram, Bridgers has shared photos of them together on her social media.
"I feel like I have a lot more control than I thought I would have. Ultimately, I get to choose what I say and what I talk about," Mescal says. "My private life will always remain, to a certain degree, as private as I choose to keep it."
After starring in "Aftersun" and sexual assault drama "God's Creatures," also released this fall, Mescal is returning to his theatrical roots next month in a West End production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." He plays the role of Stanley Kowalski, made famous by Marlon Brando on Broadway and in the 1951 film.
"The anxiety is definitely attached to it being done so famously well, but I'm thinking that will go away. I can't spend every minute of the rehearsal process thinking about how well he's done it before," Mescal says. "If I wanted to steal his performance, I'd have to go and watch the movie again. And I'm definitely not going to do that."