Paul Mescal on movie stardom, being friendly with Colin Farrell and suffering from ‘mild depression’

Paul Mescal is nominated for Best Actor at this weekend's Oscars ceremony. Pic: Jordan Strauss/AP© Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Paul HylandIndependent.ie

Having been nominated for a best actor Oscar at the tender age of 26, Paul Mescal said he can “die happy”, the Irish Times has reported.

The Kildare native has enjoyed a meteoric rise since his breakthrough performance as Connell in 2020 lockdown hit Normal People.

Since then Mescal has worked on three feature films, including Aftersun where he played a single father (Calum) who is struggling with depression. The role earned Mescal his Oscar nomination.

The actor turned 27 at the start of February but when the nominations came out he was still 26, meaning he became just the fifth 26-year-old to receive a best actor nod.

The other names on that list are some of the most recognisable in movie history: James Dean, Ryan Gosling, Orson Welles and Heath Ledger.

“Yeah. I can die happy,” Mescal said.

“Look at that club. I mean, like... my dad showed me that. And what can I say about that, only that it is crazy. It’s f*****g mad. It is so cool.”

Mescal studied acting the Trinity College Dublin’s Lir Academy, and while in first year he read a film treatment of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Now the actor has starred in a sell-out stage production of the play in London. Mescal played the lead character Stanley Kowalski, the part famously played by Hollywood legend Marlon Brando.

Mescal described Brando’s performance as “masterful piece of acting” and insisted that people drawing comparisons between him and The Godfather star is unavoidable.

“He is like a planet,” he said of Brando.

“The fear of comparison in something like that is just ... true. I was always scared that people would think I am copying him – because I would never have the confidence to copy something that was that.

“I am deeply in love with his performance in Streetcar, but it is not the way I wanted to play that part. And I’m glad that, to my mind, people haven’t made the comparison. I do think it’s important as an actor to steal bits from other actors. And there are definitely bits I stole. I remember someone told me that [Brando] said in an interview that his main plan with Blanche was to push her to the periphery of the space as the play continues. To push her out. But that’s not a choice he is making ... he was responding to the play. And I remember being in the play and thinking, Oh yeah, that makes total sense. Blanche and Stanley are in this room together and he is literally trying to remove her from his space. It’s a simple conceit but it can be so rich and can look and feel like different to you every night.”

Over the past three years Mescal’s life has changed immeasurably, but now shrouded in Oscar buzz he admits his career has entered a new phase, the “movie stardom” phase.

Mescal said “movie stardom is different to fame”, and established actors who have reached that level have worked incredibly hard to get there.

“Oh yeah, I absolutely think it [movie stardom] does exist,” he said.

“It is completely relevant to the work. I have become quite friendly with Brendan [Gleeson] and Colin [Farrell] and Billy Nighy. And then there are people... like, I cannot wait to just see Michelle Williams. You know, like film stars. Of course, they are famous. But they are film stars. I just think that is so impressive and it takes so much work to achieve that status. And then you meet them, and they are just beautiful energies to be around. So, yeah, I am excited.”

Before fully committing to acting, Mescal was a highly-rated Gaelic footballer and rugby player. He played a starring role for the Kildare minor and under-21 teams, and there is a famous picture of him standing in for a captain’s photo with future Dublin all-star Con O’Callaghan.

In Normal People his character was also an underage GAA star, but Connell also suffered from depression. In one heart-breaking scene, Connell broke down while speaking to a therapist and Mescal admitted that while working on Normal People he recognised: “I’ve got to start looking after myself because I don’t feel that far away from what Connell was expressing sometimes.”

“Yeah, I suffer and have suffered from... mild depression,” he said.

“And I think it’s important to not gate-keep it to the sense of, like, being medicated or all of those things. But it is something that I’m proud people associate with my work – not so much the discussion of maleness, but a commonality you could draw from Connell to Brian to Calum is in what can happen to separate individuals if they are not looking after their mental health. And there are a myriad of possibilities, none of them really good.

“I remember playing Connell and it acted like a warning shot to me. Because I remember thinking: I’ve got to start looking after myself because I don’t feel that far away from what Connell was expressing sometimes. And what a privilege to get to figure that out and work and be like, oh, cop on to yourself here and start talking to someone.

"With Calum it is a private anguish that is inexpressible to him because he doesn’t understand it. And it is territory I like playing in. If people get bored of that ... of course, I care about that, but it is the kind of work I respond to in myself.”

Mescal grew during the economic crash and said he is “strangely grateful for the recession” as it gave him the freedom to follow a less conventional path.

One of three children, Mescal’s parents both had State jobs but he said even they were not shielded from the harsh realities of the economic downturn.

“I was a teenager as the crash hit, and I saw the damage that did just to ... everybody. Like my family – a guard and a teacher, supposedly steady jobs. And suddenly going, Wow, it doesn’t really f***ing matter whether you are set up with a certain degree of comfort. It can all just go away. Because steady ... isn’t actually steady. It can just go like that,” he said.

“I belong to a generation of people who grew up with that. Suddenly I was like: why don’t I just grow up and try and become an actor or study graphic design or become an artist or become a dancer? Because it doesn’t matter anyway – it can all just get whipped out from under your feet. I am strangely grateful for the recession, in a way. Had I grown up in the middle of the boom, that would have been the target in some capacity. You know: let’s go and try and make some money or whatever.”

The whole family have flown to LA for tomorrow’s Oscar ceremony, and Mescal confirmed that he will be wearing Gucci, but “deciding what that is going to be is still in process”.

In his modest way, the actor said he chances of winning the gong are “highly unlikely” but he was adamant that “anyone who says they do not want to win “is a liar”.

“I was talking to somebody about this the other day at the Baftas and it’s kind of like an unavoidable cocktail of emotions. You know you are not going to win. What is wonderful about it is that I firmly believe there is no loser in it. You are dealing with the best films, performances and cinematographers and you can argue a good case for everybody. But when it goes quiet just before they name the names, something happens inside of you where you are like, Oh God, this would be great. And anybody who says contrary to that is a liar,” he said.

“If you have any bit of competitive energy in you. It is not delusional... it’s just like, it would be lovely for the name to ... because it is... insane.”

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