Normal People had just become a hit when Paul Mescal got the script for God's Creatures. After breaking out as the sensitive jock Connell on that series, the rural Gothic drama offered him a chance to establish his range. "I was like, 'This feels like the right thing to do next.' Yes, please," he says.
In it, he plays Brian, another Irish lad who returns to his small fishing village as something of a prodigal son, only to commit a monstrous crime. "Brian is a good example of something that I wanted to do as a challenge to myself, but also to challenge an audience in terms of their perception of me as an actor," Mescal explains. "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 began acting at age 16, and only because his primary school mandated that every student audition for the theater productions. He was cast in Phantom of the Opera as the Phantom. "It was a baptism by fire," he remembers. "I fell in love with the process of rehearsing something and building an inner life of another person. And... I don't know. It's like, how do you describe what it's like to fall in love with something? It just was that."
Earlier this year, Mescal attended the Cannes Film Festival with God's Creatures and a second film, Charlotte Wells' Aftersun, both of which hail from A24. When they screened again at the Toronto International Film Festival, he brought along yet another: Benjamin Millepied's modern-day reimagining of Carmen.
"Without sounding cliché, it is like a dream situation," Mescal says. Now, it's time to switch things up again. "I get nervous the minute there's any assumptions made; so, I will immediately, whether it's right or wrong, try to subvert that," he admits. "Just to keep everything a little bit hard to gauge from an audience perspective."
Below, Mescal shares with A.frame the five films that have most inspired his own approach to acting.
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance | Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne
That was one of the films that I saw in the early days in drama school. I didn't have a big film upbringing. I kind of got into it when I was in drama school — I was asking friends what I should watch, and Blue Valentine just happened to be one of the first ones that my friend recommended. I saw it and I was so deeply, profoundly upset by that film. I think it was the first time that I remember, like, truly wanting to switch off from the world for 10, 15, 20 minutes after the film. The performances and also the study of naturalism as a form of acting was so apparent to me in that film that it's stuck with me ever since.
Directed by: James Ivory | Written by: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Anthony Hopkins in anything, ever, always is my answer to that. I think it's a study in a particular repression that is reserved for men. There's just something so deeply sad and frustrating about watching Anthony Hopkins' character trying to navigate expressing his feelings. It's such a masterful performance, and one that my dad will watch and quote frequently. "I read books, Miss Kenton, to further my grasp on the English language," and he's holding his hand up to his face — it's so sad!
Written and Directed by: Noah Baumbach
That was my favorite film of that year. I like when films allow actors to act, and that's the centerpiece of Marriage Story, is these two towering performances. And the screenplay is so strong, and the ending is so moving. There's a theme of sadness here. And I think I was sad because it was hopeful. It was like a warm, sad cry.
Directed by: Elia Kazan | Written by: Tennessee Williams
I saw it in that formative drama school period, watching Marlon Brando kind of reinvent the wheel and do something that I don't think had been truly done before. I feel like James Dean started a conversation around naturalism and then Brando ran with it. It's just such a wonderful expression of toxicity in a way that is alluring and exciting to watch.
[In the upcoming West End revival of 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' Mescal will star as Stanley Kowalski, the role Brando played in the original 1947 Broadway production and the 1951 film.]
I feel honored to play a part that is so brilliantly written. Obviously, I feel frightened. I'm really trying to unremember and remember the parts of Brando's performance, as to not copy or even attempt to emulate it, but to remember what about his performance aligned with what I feel when I read the script. It's always fun to work on your favorite play, and it's a classic for a reason.
Directed by: László Nemes | Written by: László Nemes and Clara Royer
László Nemes is a wonderful director. It's my favorite film of the last 10 years. It's just a masterpiece. I recently got to work with the DP [Mátyás Erdély] who shot Son of Saul, and the first 10 minutes of that are where I feel like a super talented actor meets director meets DP — which only can happen in film. A different kind of alchemy happens on stage. But that first 10 minutes, I remember my jaw being on the ground and being like, 'This is a masterpiece.' And, really, trigger warning. It's really upsetting. It's a Holocaust film that is pretty brutal.