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Paul Mescal on ‘Aftersun,’ disaster movies and that ‘Normal People’ ending

Two years after his breakout role in “Normal People,” actor Paul Mescal, seen here in August, returns to lead status with the independent film “Aftersun.” (Euan Cherry/Getty Images)
10 min

Paul Mescal can’t always find the words to describe his acting process, given how internal that sort of thing tends to be, but he is glad to be asked about it. He dreads the day he stars in a project he isn’t necessarily proud of, and whose dullness prompts inane questions from people interviewing him.

“I’m so glad you didn’t ask me what my favorite color was growing up,” he said earlier this week.

The 26-year-old Irish actor needn’t worry, the way things have been going for him. Since rising to fame two years ago with his Emmy-nominated, BAFTA-winning lead performance in the miniseries “Normal People,” Mescal has exhibited a keen sense for projects that challenge not only him, but audiences as well. He went on to star in the slow-burn thrillers “The Lost Daughter” and “God’s Creatures,” and he spoke to The Washington Post from London soon after starting rehearsals for an Almeida Theatre production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which he was cast as the brutish Stanley Kowalski.

In his latest film, “Aftersun,” Mescal plays Calum, a young father vacationing in the late 1990s with his daughter, 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio), who lives with her mother full-time. The film, which draws from the experiences of Scottish director Charlotte Wells, unfolds as a series of memories adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) recalls from the trip.

As the story progresses, both the audience and Sophie come to realize that she is never going to know her father fully. While sweet and caring toward Sophie, Calum struggles to tend to his own mental health. The role required Mescal to dig deep into those emotions and to empathize with a character who, at least on paper, has experienced life quite differently than he has.

“It’s one of those jobs where I will always be very proud of the product,” Mescal said. “If I could make every set feel that intimate … it’s something that I think I’ll be chasing for a long time.”

(The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Q: Tell me about this character. What was it about him you were drawn to as an actor?

A: It might sound odd, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as connected to a character. He’s just turned 30 and he’s a dad — all of those kinds of things aside. It’s really hard to articulate. It’s just a feeling. I care about this man. I feel like I can represent him truthfully. I feel a great deal of sympathy and sadness for him and want him to keep fighting — for many things, but just fighting in general.

This style of film caters to audiences who want to lean in. I don’t think it explains anything. That, mixed with my initial feelings for the character and talking to Charlotte about how she wanted to direct it, I was like, “This could be special.”

Q: What did that lack of explanation mean for you, as someone involved in the film’s creation?

A: I feel like that’s the fun part about acting. I’m in rehearsals at the moment, and the most satisfying bit is trying to figure out why people behave the way they do. Why does a character pick up that bottle of whiskey like that? Why does that character have a fear of his daughter being caught in a violent situation? What are all the little building blocks that lead to a character’s action — or inaction?

Sometimes in films you do that interesting work, but then you spend the whole time on screen explaining why the character does that. That’s less interesting to me. This film is a real exercise in all of those things being deep rooted. You still have to do the same amount of work as an actor … and even more so, because you’re never going to tell an audience why Calum is behaving that way. You get little clues, but I don’t think that’s the same as telling.

Q: How would you describe his approach to parenting? You can feel his love for Sophie even in the scenes where she isn’t present. You discover that he is trying to shield her from his pain.

A: It’s slightly depressing to say, but I think he funnels all of the love he has into her. And I don’t think he leaves a lot of it for himself. In fact, I don’t think he leaves any of it for himself, and fighting for himself.

Certain decisions he makes are informed by his private interactions with the world. He’s also a man who can’t remember how he broke his wrist, or if he can, he’s not telling his daughter how it happened. And that doesn’t seem to tie up with the man who used to do karaoke with his daughter every single year. Those are the things to do with the character that I find very interesting, those contradictions.

Review: ‘Aftersun’ follows a father-daughter bond, seen through a haze of memory

Q: This is the second film you’ve been in this year that was distributed by A24, and the other one, “God’s Creatures,” wasn’t necessarily the sort of role I anticipated seeing you in. What do you look for in choosing projects? Do you believe there is any sort of connective tie between your characters?

A: The general approach is being reliant on the writing moving me, and that can be in any direction. It can be something like “God’s Creatures,” which is innately dark. There is probably a common theme of love being a theme that I’m interested in, and all of its facets. Even for someone like Brian, who is dark and troubled and dangerous, he has a very loving relationship with his mother. The same is true of Calum’s relationship with Sophie, or Connell’s with Marianne [in “Normal People”]. That can look very different, but I find that feeling more relatable than, like, buildings blowing up. That’s the main drama in everybody’s life, is love … It’s relatable not only to the actors doing it, but to an audience. And sometimes you don’t want a film that you see or a play that you see to be relatable, but those projects I find less interesting.

Q: So you prefer work that pushes you emotionally? There are some actors who are drawn to those disaster films, of course, but it doesn’t seem to be the most emotionally driven work.

A: I think so. I also don’t know how I would do something like that. I don’t know where I would start. It’s knowing what you’re drawn to, what you feel like you’re good at, and also knowing where your limitations lie. I feel like if I were in a disaster movie, it would be a f---ing disaster. I mean, that’s not true, but I don’t know how I would start, whereas I feel like something that’s rooted into a relationship I can hook onto, I know how to start those things. I know how they interest me.

Q: What do you think you learned from this project, given how much you connected to it?

A: I think it always takes me a bit of time. Normally I’ll formulate an opinion on how a job changed me the minute people stop talking about it — not in a bad way, but the minute I’m not asked to talk about it anymore, something will drop in. “Oh, I learned that about myself and it’s too late to talk about it.”

I think the relationships you make on jobs change you. Meeting Charlotte and Frankie changed me. In what way? I don’t know, but I definitely know that it was for the better.

Q: Do you remember the thoughts that later popped into your head about other projects?

A: “Normal People” is one that’s interesting because I remember at the end of that show being like, “Oh, Connell and Marianne definitely have to get back together.” And the further that I get away from the show, the less sure I am of that being what I think would or should happen. I’ve learned that them being together or not isn’t the point. The point to me now is that through each other, their life has changed. And they have helped each other. And if they get back together or not in this imagined universe is a byproduct, but not the point.

Q: What about “The Lost Daughter?” That must have been incredible to work on.

A: It was one of those jobs where you’re like, “What [is] going on?” You’re on a cast list with Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota [Johnson], Peter Sarsgaard, all these titans. And you’re suddenly expected to try to hold your own. I’m really grateful to that job because I would do any job with Olivia Colman. To get to be in a scene one-on-one with her, it’s definitely one of the proudest moments of my career.

Q: Did she give you any advice on the craft?

A: Olivia’s just a true professional, but also socially, as a friend, she’s just a wonderful person to spend time with. And that’s one of the learnings from watching her — Olivia is just so unjaded about the whole thing. She loves her job and her life, her family and friends. I don’t think Olivia is tortured in any way, or doesn’t torture herself to deliver these gut-wrenching performances. I feel like there’s an onus sometimes to put on these torturous processes that deliver these performances where, yeah, they’re good, but I don’t really care about why and how actors get there. And I don’t think an audience should be expected to care. It’s their job to watch it and discuss it, and I think it’s our job to do it. I feel like sometimes actors can be masturbatory in terms of how they talk about their process. Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now, but I don’t want it to feel like that, and Olivia is a prime example of that to me.

Q: I would say you have a very pragmatic approach to acting.

A: There’s just stuff I don’t like talking about — not in like a “I don’t like talking about it” way, but there’s definitely an emotional part of the process [that] I can never articulate. I don’t know how to explain that feeling. It’s not consciously vague. Sometimes I can talk around a point to a certain extent, but I also think pragmatism is a massively important part of it as well. You have to be practical and pragmatic as an actor, because it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling if you only have 20 minutes to shoot it. You’ve got to find a way.