One week before Thanksgiving, Paul Mescal was in the eye of the storm: He flew into Los Angeles for one day to attend the Governors Awards in the midst of rehearsing a new production of “A Street Car Named Desire” in London; the next day, he was flying back. Sitting down for an interview in the lobby of the Fairmont Century Plaza one hour before the gala event, the “Aftersun” star took a second to reflect on the overwhelmingly glamorous event that was to come.
“I have no idea what to expect,” Mescal told IndieWire. “I only know that Brendan Fraser and ‘The Whale’ gang are at the table that I’m sitting at.”
This has been a whirlwind year for the actor, who took some time to cool down after his Emmy-nominated breakout in the Hulu miniseries “Normal People,” then made a big comeback at Cannes this year with two smaller A24 dramas: “God’s Creatures” and “Aftersun.” The latter film, writer/director Charlotte Wells’ debut feature about a woman reflecting on the vacation she took to Turkey with her young dad, put Mescal on the fall film festival circuit and netted him a string of accolades including nominations for Best Lead Performance at the Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, plus a Best European Actor nomination at the European Film Awards.
But going to the Governors Awards, with a sea of other award season favorites in attendance — plus real, live Oscar voters — confronted him with the legitimate possibility that the Academy loved his performance.
“Of course your friends are always normally generous about your work,” he said. “Hopefully people don’t come and be like, ‘The film’s overhyped, dude.’”
Though “Aftersun” is a humble, ruminative film, it currently boasts a 95 on Metacritic, making it the highest scored film of the year so far—a stat that astounded Mescal when his brother made him aware of it. “I remember being in drama school looking, figuring out what I was gonna see based on the Metacritic list,” he said. “It has been a ride the last couple of months.” In terms of the awards attention that follows, he added: “I do think about it, especially within the context with a small film that might mean that more people see us, and that’s useful.”
Beguiled by Wells’ intimate and enigmatic script, 26-year-old Mescal did not have any misgivings about playing father to a preteen in “Aftersun.” “I don’t feel like it’s a father-daughter relationship that we’re used to seeing,” he said. “For the most part, he’s a really good dad. And oftentimes [in films] you see the conflict in the fatherhood side, and I don’t think the conflict in ‘Aftersun’ lies in that.”
Some of his best scenes in the film are solo, with the character inexplicably sobbing to himself, or freeing his mind via dance and movement. “It’s my favorite kind of acting — acting that requires some sort of psychological or physical change,” he said. “I don’t want people to get comfortable with the choices that I make. And that doesn’t have to be necessarily broad, sweeping surprising things. It’s just about going ‘If an audience likes [“Normal People”’s] Connell and Calum for their softer edge, I want to attempt to show something on the other side of the scale.’”
Mescal also found satisfaction from “Aftersun” being truly independent work. “We got to make it and nobody knew of it,” he said, recalling how the project was kept secret until a month before its Cannes premiere. “I don’t think that happens a lot anymore.” The experience has made him think more about the filmmaking industry itself, and how the scales are tipped toward big budget productions. “I love a blockbuster as much as the next person, but my only point is that we have to be careful about just leaving a bit more space for films like ‘Aftersun’ to break out, films like ‘Close’ to break out,” said Mescal. “I really don’t think I’m snobby about it. It’s actually to do with just being worried that that space [for independent film] is being encroached upon. And if we don’t keep the ecosystem balanced, we’re just gonna have one kind of film.”
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Mescal appreciated the intimacy of a production process like the one he had with Wells. “When you come to work and you feel like you’re making something in private,” he said, “regardless of how it turns out and what people think, you had a good creative experience making it.” That mode of filmmaking has generally been additive to his performance. “I rely on the actors that I’m working with and the directors that I work for,” he said. “I’ve been lucky with how the directors and the actors that I’ve worked with have done that for me. And then I hope that I can do something in return that surprises them.”
At 26, Mescal’s career could go a lot of different directions, but “Aftersun” has signaled the types of projects he’s interested in pursuing going forward. “It’s a step in the right direction with filmmakers, and a film that I’m really proud of that is resonating with people,” he said. “That does count for something, when you move on to the next project and people are like, ‘I saw you in that film and I thought it was really good.’ But I don’t think I’ve gotten far enough past it to really know what that shift looks like.” He was already certain that he would work with Wells again, though she has yet to announce a new project. “That’s my grand plan,” said Mescal. “It’s like getting on the ground floor with Charlotte and seeing if you can be the Greta Gerwig to her Saoirse Ronan. But I’m sure she’ll have hundreds of people queuing up to work with her.”
“Aftersun” is now playing in theaters nationwide.