Paul Mescal was in a tiny fishing village in Northern Ireland when he got the script for Aftersun. It was the spring of 2021 and the actor was shooting the Gothic thriller God's Creatures, one of the first film roles he took on after breaking out in Hulu's Normal People the previous year. The success of that series — for which he was nominated for an Emmy — left the actor wanting to make movies that he saw "as a challenge to myself, but also to challenge an audience in terms of their perception of me as an actor."
"To say, 'Hey, I definitely want to subvert any preconceived ideas about what you assume you may or may not get from me as an actor,'" Mescal says from the offices of A24, the studio behind both Aftersun and God's Creatures.
In the latter, he starred opposite two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson, who sagely told the young actor, "You know, Paul, it's okay to take up creative space." "It's, like, protect the kernel of creativity, or whatever it is. That kind of thing that's hard to articulate," Mescal reflects now. "I think I was looking for permission to do that." With Aftersun, Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells' film debut, the actor found plenty of space to foster creativity with the filmmaker, spending hours upon hours on the phone in conversation well before they arrived in Turkey to film.
"I don't know if I like change or to be surprised by how people are. I like to be surprised by the process and by the job itself," Mescal laughs, bashfully. "I think the surprising thing for me was how considered Charlotte was in her approach, and how sensitive she was to how actors work."
Loosely inspired by Wells' own memories of her father, Aftersun features the Irish actor as Calum, a Scottish single father about to turn 31, on a summer vacation with his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio), at a Turkish resort. Twenty years later, Sophie (played as an adult by Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects on her time with her loving but unknowable dad, and how much he shielded her from his mental health struggles.
Mescal, who only recently turned 27, arrived in Istanbul two weeks early to have his own faux "holiday" with Corio, during which they spent their days at the beach and played pool, just as Calum and Sophie do in the movie. "Paul was just very open to the process," Wells says. "It really was a collaboration in the best possible way." The bond they formed in that time gave the actors a sense of freedom when it came time to shoot the movie. Mescal points to one scene in particular, in which Sophie sings R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" during a karaoke contest. Calum, watching from the crowd, turns in on himself as the lyrics sink in.
"The fact that I was aware that I was in a film that was ambitious in its trusting of performance," Mescal thinks back. "The scene kind of rakes across Frankie and myself when he talks about getting her singing lessons if she wants to learn to sing. Then she responds with the line, 'Why are you asking to pay for things when I know you don't have the money?' And just watching Frankie, I was like, 'Oh, I don't have to worry about anything here. I can just worry about my own performance in this moment. Frankie's got it. Charlotte's got it.' We're all doing work that I think we'll be really proud of. I think that's true of the film, but in moments like that, you're watching everybody carrying their own weight."
When Aftersun wrapped filming, Mescal found he wasn't quite ready to let go. "That's the hardest part," he sighs. It was all the more difficult because of how intimate this experience had been. He remembers, "I stayed in accent for the shoot. I would speak to Charlotte sometimes in my own accent, but with Frankie, it was always the Edinburgh accent. And it took me an hour or two to be able to look at Frankie and speak in my own accent, because I was just programed to it. I think you're letting go of this thing, and that's just a testament that the body sometimes takes a second after the mind is ready to let something go."
A festival darling — Aftersun premiered at Cannes in 2022, before screening at film festivals in London, New York, Telluride, Toronto, and more — the film's journey culminated with an Oscar nomination for Mescal. ("This is truly a special moment for everyone involved in Aftersun," he said in response. "I want to dedicate this nomination to my two friends, Charlotte and Frankie, who I love dearly!")
Aftersun is perhaps not the sort of movie that traditionally demands a sequel, but it's also not unheard of. (Consider Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II.) When asked if her filmic memoirs could continue in a follow-up, Wells shared, "When I was writing, I had a folder that was called 'Meta Feature' that were ideas that were too weird for the film. I think maybe in, like, 30 years' time, I could make a film about—"
Her Zoom connection suddenly becomes choppy.
"You're breaking up, Charlotte," Mescal cuts in, leaning forward in his seat to laugh: "I want to hear this!"
All the same, the actor is spoken for for the foreseeable future, next starring in a modern-day reimagining of Carmen that will arrive in theaters this spring, followed by the queer World War I romance The History of Sound opposite Josh O'Connor, Richard Linklater's 20-year adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along, and Ridley Scott's Gladiator sequel. For Mescal, his only grand plan is to reveal new sides of himself, one film at a time.
"I'm aware now that I need to be careful not to just pigeonhole myself," he considers. "I think I get nervous the minute there's any assumptions made. So, whether it's right or wrong, I will immediately try to subvert that, just to keep everything a little bit hard to gauge from an audience perspective."
By John Boone
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 95th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category for an interview.