Paul Mescal was in London’s Natural History Museum when he became an Emmy nominee. He was in the middle of rehearsal for a concert with Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy. He didn’t think he’d be able to watch the nominations be announced live, but he happened to get a half-hour break while the broadcast was still on.
“I just saw the messages coming into my phone," he tells BAZAAR.com over Zoom. "Then [I was] trying to frantically call family and friends, being overly emotional. It was super cathartic. It was an amazing 25 minutes.”
It’s really been an amazing few months for 24-year-old Mescal, who went from TV newbie to Emmy contender for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, competing against greats like Jeremy Irons, Hugh Jackman, and Mark Ruffalo. The nomination is for his performance in Normal People, the Hulu and BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s stellar same-name novel, which traces the years-long, on-and-off love affair between Irish students Connell Waldron (Mescal) and Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as they come of age.
Like Rooney’s 2018 book, the series is a complex, yet relatable revelation on modern relationships: late-night texts, misconstrued messages, going back to the same person over and over. Directed by Oscar winner Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who, Howards End), it’s a tender portrait of young love with longing cinematography, a soft indie soundtrack, vivid—but delicate—sex scenes, and dynamic chemistry between Mescal and Edgar-Jones. The show's debut in late April came at the right time—people were just settling into isolation and social distancing, with hookups and intimate connections seemingly out of reach. But once Normal People premiered, it had viewers crying, thinking about their exes, mentally revisiting past relationships almost instantly. In the United Kingdom alone, it got more than 16 million views in its first week.
Since then, Mescal’s star has only continued to soar. A 2017 graduate of Trinity College’s Lir Academy with a string of stage performances under his belt, Mescal scored his first major TV role with Normal People. Now, he’s covered magazines, earned wholehearted praise from critics and fellow entertainers, and, as the breakout heartthrob of 2020, became the subject of online obsession. An infamous thirsty Instagram account dedicated to his chain on the show has more than 187,000 followers. So how does Mescal handle adjusting to the paparazzi photos, dating rumors, and all-around heightened interest in his life?
“I’m navigating it by trying to listen to advice,” he says, sporting a white tee on a charcoal-gray couch in his London flat. “But ultimately, anybody who has gone through something like this, you have to go through it as patiently as possible. There’s no rule book. It’s a massive culture shift in anybody’s life to go from not being in the public eye to being in the public eye. It’s a difficult adjustment to make. The only positive in it is that it has no impact on the work that I want to do. It’s just a by-product of the work, and that’s the way that I want to keep it.”
He also understands fans’ inclination to conflate him with his on-screen persona. “It’s a totally natural thing to do, I suppose. It’s not something I have any control over if that makes sense. I can’t dictate to it, unless I want it to be super present in social media and want to be presenting myself as I am all the time to everyone, which I’m not interested in.
“I think there has to be a degree of privacy to how you conduct yourself, so that an audience doesn’t know you all the time when you’re playing a new character or something like that. I think it’s just a combination between Connell and myself, is just a by-product of people watching the show and enjoying it and wanting me to be him maybe, but that’s not the case.”
Luckily, Edgar-Jones, now one of Mescal’s closest friends, is on this journey of sudden change with him. “I don’t know how either of us would do it in isolation. It’s just so nice because there has been a huge change in a short period of time, and that short period of time happens to be in one of probably the most historic moments that we will ever live through,” he says, referring to the ongoing pandemic. “We’re in constant contact about how this crazy thing has happened to one or both of us, because it’s been pretty nuts if I’m being totally honest.”
Mescal also forged genuine friendships with other costars, like his now-flatmate India Mullen (Peggy) and Fionn O’Shea (Jamie). "That's definitely one of the best takeaways from the job is the relationships that we've managed to cultivate as a result."
Mescal has no idea what episode of Normal People was submitted for his Emmys consideration, but it would be no surprise if it was Episode 10, a devastating moment in his performance when Connell, a man of few words, slowly breaks down while seeing a counselor for the first time. “Shooting that scene that day was very difficult, but it’s part and parcel of the job,” he recalls. “Weirdly, I think it seems like what really excites me about being an actor: You get to jump into both the positive and negative versions of people’s lives that you don’t get to live other than the time that exists between action and cut.”
Still, Mescal felt “a huge amount of pressure” performing the scene, knowing the importance and gravity of portraying mental health issues with realism on-screen. After the final cut, he felt the biggest relief. “The main relief was that it was done. That I didn’t have to exist within this deep upset.” The other was knowing he “left it all out there” and “had no regrets leaving the set that day.”
After filming, Mescal continued to advocate for mental wellness by auctioning versions of Connell’s chain to raise money for the charity Pieta, which provides support for people experiencing suicidal distress or engaging in self-harm. It’s “hugely important” for him to expand on the relevant themes in his work in real life. “It’s not that I necessarily believe that actors have to be overly politicized or anything like that, but when there are human difficulties that a vast amount of people experience and a show is reflecting that, how can we then bring that into the real world?”
A majority of the dialogue surrounding Normal People is the treatment of sex scenes: on-screen, they’re naturalistic, sensual, and intimate. On set, they’re crafted respectfully with an intimacy coordinator. The actors have spoken highly about how Ita O’Brien helped craft a safe space for them to bring Connell and Marianne’s love story to life, from their high school hookups and beyond. Mescal hopes the show sets a “gold standard” for sex scenes across the industry. “That this is my only experience of doing those scenes and it’s the only experience that I’ll ever deem a fit working process as a result, because I think that those scenes are challenging enough as it is,” he says. “The intimacy coordinator is a necessity rather than a luxury.”
But even with all the preparation, nerves were still a factor. “They’re probably a little bit higher than I’d like them typically to be on something like this, but, yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever not be nervous [performing].”
Looking back, Mescal considers himself “incredibly lucky” to have worked with Abrahamson, Macdonald, and Edgar-Jones, especially when embodying a character like Connell, who struggles with opening up. “I’ve probably learnt a lot about how valuable communication is within relationships, be them romantic or platonic in your own life.”
Like his character, Mescal went to Trinity College but studied acting at The Lir Academy. His college experience was somewhat like Connell's: "I had no real idea what I was doing. I wasn’t particularly well read or hadn’t done a huge amount of acting before going in, and that kind of displacement of self I definitely felt in terms of, ‘Do I fit in here?’ I definitely wouldn’t have been as socially anxious as Connell is, thankfully.”
After watching Connell and Marianne go on again, off again over the course of 12 episodes, the ending hits like a punch in the chest. Now happily a couple, they unfortunately must part ways as Connell moves to New York to pursue writing post-graduation, leaving Marianne behind. Sitting on the floor of an empty apartment, they say their tear-filled goodbyes, still obviously in love.
There were “multiple iterations” of the end, Mescal remembers. “You want to leave those characters in a place that you feel that they have actively changed each other. Albeit, I find that ending is incredibly painful as well, because it’s still some form of a breakup, but it’s full of love and it’s just, like, so horrible and hard.”
There was another emotional layer to the scene considering this was the last one he and Edgar-Jones filmed together. “That’s really hard, because we both love Connell and Marianne. It’s like we spent a huge part of last year trying to be inside their brains, and then you’re suddenly going like, ‘Okay, this is the end for you guys.’”
Fans are eager for another season, but it seems unlikely at the moment. Hulu and Abrahamson are moving on to adapt Rooney’s exceptional debut novel, Conversations with Friends. But Mescal has a few ideas of where Connell and Marianne may end up. “My versions of their lives change like the wind,” he reveals. “With Connell and Marianne, you can’t really tell who they’re going to be first off in five years’ time, where they’re going to be, or what kind of relationship they’ll have together. Will they be in each other’s lives, or won’t they? I don’t know. That’s not a cop-out answer, but ideally, I’d love to see Connell be a successful writer. I’d love to see him with Marianne in some capacity. Whether that’s possible or not, I don’t know.”
Mescal has been in “gloomy, gray London” for most of quarantine, but he's been able to travel home to see his family in Ireland. With travel restrictions, though, he’s unable to visit as often as he’d like. “The ease of travel and getting to see loved ones is difficult, but it’s difficult for everybody, and so I miss that.”
But as lockdown measures ease up in the U.K., he's been able to break the monotony of Zoom calls by seeing some friends and exercising a bit. “Nothing too exciting,” he says. But we beg to differ. (Hello, that windbreaker sighting?) The opportunities haven’t lulled after Normal People. He’s performed with Dermot Kennedy at the aforementioned set. He’s starred in a Comic Relief sketch with Edgar-Jones and Fleabag’s Hot Priest, Andrew Scott. “Me and Daisy had a ball working with him. He was just so, so nice.” He’s even starred in a Rolling Stones music video. “I got to run around a hotel for two days. It was really fun.”
He’s also been keeping his one million Instagram followers entertained with videos of himself singing or playing the piano, which he enjoys as a creative outlet. Music was always played in the house (his sister, Nell Mescal, is a musician), and he calls his Spotify Discover Weekly “an absolute godsend.” Right now, he’s listening to The Gloaming, an Irish traditional music band. So no “WAP?” He tilts his head. “What is WAP?” When he realizes I’m referring to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s X-rated number-one hit, he laughs. “I sound like a granddad. ‘What’s WAP?’ No, I don’t think that would be a genre that I would listen to a huge amount.” Considering his top artists last year were Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, and Lorde, we let it slide.
Mescal can’t tease what he has in the works (he simply answers, “Nope”), but we can expect to see him again at the Emmys on September 20, which will be filmed virtually in accordance with health guidelines. The dress code, reportedly, is “come as you are, but make an effort,” which means pj’s are an option.
Although, not for Mescal. “I definitely won’t pajama it out,” he chuckles. “I want to try and celebrate it as much as I can.”
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