“Madness.” That’s how Paul Mescal dubs his unexpected lead actor Oscar nomination for playing Calum, the unfathomable young father at the heart of writer-director Charlotte Wells’ beautifully haunting “Aftersun.”
“A lot of the nominees know they’re gonna be nominated on the day,” says the Irishman — born in the small town of Maynooth, County Kildare,15 miles west of Dublin — over Zoom from London three days before his 27th birthday in early February, and barely an hour after stepping offstage at the Almeida Theatre, where he’s earned glowing notices portraying Stanley Kowalski in Rebecca Frecknall’s sold-out revival of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “But we had no idea… It was genuinely thrilling.”
“Madness” and “genuinely thrilling” define Mescal’s impressive ascent since catapulting onto the scene in Hulu’s 2020 limited series “Normal People,” playing sensitive jock Connell, a performance that netted him an Emmy nomination and a BAFTA TV Award win.
Since then, he’s appeared in the films “The Lost Daughter,” “God’s Creatures” and “Carmen” with cast mates including Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Emily Watson and Rossy de Palma. He’ll soon co-star in a slate of fresh movies alongside the likes of Beanie Feldstein, Ben Platt, Andrew Scott, Saoirse Ronan, Claire Foy and Josh O’Connor.
Actor Paul Mescal and director Charlotte Wells create emotional power even within the vagueness of reality in the film inspired by Wells’ life.
So charged has been Mescal’s schedule over the last three years that he’s had only a couple months off here and there, which is just how the man likes it.
“Enough for a break, but not enough to get itchy again,” he says, revealing his insatiable appetite for work, and his opinion that actors are “phenomenal people.” While he’ll forever be grateful to Wells — whom he “loves deeply” — for helping him earn his first Oscar nomination in her first feature, what is particularly gratifying is that the honor was bestowed upon him by the academy’s acting branch. “For that to come from my peers is one of the coolest things ever,” he continues. “The thing I feel most is a great sense of pride in the work I’ve made to date, and pride in the people I have worked for… I work hard for just the opportunities to make films, and I work hard on the films that I get.”
Interestingly, Mescal’s not sure he was “a fan” of theater growing up. While he was exposed to music, the arts and culture in a home headed by a semi-pro actor father, his first love was Gaelic football, at which he excelled as a teen. Had it not been for Maynooth Post Primary School’s proviso compelling all fourth-year students to try out for its annual high school musical, the world may never have discovered Mescal’s dramatic gifts.
“I definitely wanted to be in it,” he stresses. “I didn’t go into the audition reluctantly. But I think, had it been an optional thing, it probably would’ve passed me by because I don’t know if I would’ve had the confidence, at 16, to turn to my friends and be like, by the way, I’m gonna audition for ‘Phantom of the Opera.’”
But he did audition — and won the title role. He “immediately” fell in love with being onstage and went on to earn a degree in acting from the Lir Academy at Trinity College Dublin at 21. “I had the most profoundly wonderful time in drama school. I loved every second of it. It was difficult… I needed the time to figure out what I liked about acting, what I felt I was good at, what I felt I was bad at.”
Today, Mescal is interested in every genre, even comedy, which he surmises he would find difficult. “I don’t know what that territory looks like for me psychologically. I think it would be really fun,” he supposes, later acknowledging, “I don’t have a template or a plan of what I want to achieve or do.”
When asked whom he’s most keen to work with next, the luminaries on his wish list include actors Adam Driver and Michelle Williams, and directors Claire Denis, Martin Scorsese and Lenny Abrahamson, who directed him in “Normal People.”
But first, he must wrap the run of “Streetcar,” which transfers to London’s West End (and eventually, perhaps Broadway?) in late March. In between there’s his wild Oscar ride, which he’ll share with his parents, who’ve never visited Los Angeles. His mum will be his date on the big night. He’s already excitedly planning his after-party strategy. “I’m like, ‘I love you all very much, but there’s gonna be a cutoff point where I’m gonna go party without my family,’” he says with a mischievous grin.
The ‘Normal People’ heartthrob, co-star Frankie Corio and director Charlotte Wells on the relationship between their film ‘Aftersun’ and real life.
This summer, Mescal shoots “Gladiator 2.” “Blockbusters had never really interested me massively until something like [this] came along,” he says. “And it’s Ridley Scott, so that was just an absolute no-brainer.”
As for next fall and winter, Mescal says his dance card is void, and that he’s unsure what currency the academy’s nod will afford him. “I imagine there’s the prestige of saying you got nominated for an Oscar, but maybe that’ll only go so far,” he muses. “Maybe it’s like, ‘How box-office bankable are you?’ And I’m not, you know. I haven’t done any big box-office films. So, who knows? That’s for other people to decide. All I can really do is control the controllables — read scripts and make decisions that are motivated by a gut feeling.”
Given the good fortune to be selective, Mescal declares he’d like to juggle films like “Gladiator 2” and “Aftersun,” with a little more theater thrown in. “Like, doing a world tour of ‘Streetcar,’” he says with a chuckle.
Does he ever fear becoming over-exposed or peaking too soon? “It definitely has flicked into my mind,” he says, reflecting on the conundrum. “I love acting. I would find it difficult if the right thing to do was just to go hide for a little bit… I’ll cross that bridge if I get to it.”
For now, Mescal simply wants to bask in the sweetness of his nomination — without delusion. “Because, like, I highly doubt that I’m gonna win it.”
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