Paul Mescal is calling from London. You can see his shit-eating grin, even through the phone. And you can see it on recent Zoom interviews (Graham Norton, IMDb, James Corden) for Hulu’s “Normal People,” which shot the 24-year-old actor out of a cannon and landed him an Emmy nomination for his first television series. During Mescal’s promo interview with Mick Jagger for the recent Rolling Stones video “Scarlet,” you can see the aging rock star’s dawning recognition of just how magnetic this young actor is. “I understand this is your first music video?” Jagger asks.
This does not happen every day.
It seems obvious now that Dublin-trained theater actor Mescal was perfect casting for “Normal People,” Lenny Abrahamson’s Element Pictures/BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s sexy 2018 bestseller. He plays Sligo working-class jock Connell, who keeps secret his liaison with Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a posh loner over-achiever. Their relationship ebbs and flows over four years. His mother, who works as a maid for Marianne’s household, is the only one who figures out what’s going on. Connell and Marianne are besotted as they experience the most intimate and intense first-love sex ever committed to video. Marianne gets how smart Connell is and recommends he study English at Trinity College in Dublin. But impediments keep getting in their way, even when they reconnect at Trinity on more equal footing.
Mescal knew it was a high-profile project. And he was hungry. “I had availability,” he said. “Essentially I wasn’t working. I had enough saved from the theater work, [but] it was dwindling to say the least. I happened to be doing a workshop in London. During the audition process, when it got to the chemistry read point, I was the only one called back. I had never been in a chemistry read environment. It’s a fancy word for two actors reading the two lead roles together. I was doing another reading, with Daisy. I wasn’t competing with anybody that I was aware of. I had a huge sense of relief. It was the final hurdle.”
That they showed chemistry is an understatement. Mescal remembers rehearsing with Edgar-Jones for two weeks up to the shoot. “This is exciting,” he said, “working with this great actor. We were going to have lots of fun playing these characters, day in and day out for five months. It happened quickly, we did not have much time for foresight, we were not thinking past the call sheet. We were looking at what we were doing today and tomorrow. I will remember that experience for the rest of my life. It was a challenging and yet rewarding time.”
Crucially, Oscar nominee Abrahamson (“Room”) and director Hettie Macdonald (“Howards End”) left room for the book to play out in a 12-episode arc “that fit it best for the screen,” Mescal said. “They didn’t rush. The book isn’t narratively driven. Nothing seismic happens. It’s a character-driven book, which everyone tried to preserve. Obviously it is a romance, a genre that does well, and it’s a story that’s been told. We’ve seen that story on screen a lot.”
So why did “Normal People” break through as such a huge pandemic hit? “It comes out of the standard of the writing,” Mescal said. “If you’re going to play into that genre, the writing has to be relating the story in a different way. It gives the audience a huge amount time with a relationship with two young complex people growing up. It doesn’t rely totally on romance or sex, yet those things are portrayed in a frank and honest and open way.”
Mescal displays an endearing confidence in his own skills, but at the same time he recognizes that he was supported at a level that may be tough to repeat. Abrahamson, Macdonald and intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien (Netflix’s “Sex Education” and HBO’s “Gentleman Jack”) provided “the core relationship throughout, a pillar of support,” Mescal said. “You have to trust everybody around you. Having an intimacy coordinator on set gives you the opportunity to be free and creative in a situation where you feel naked and exposed and way too insecure. We’d talk about a scene and function as you would any other scene.”
When he first read the sex scenes in the script, Mescal was surprised, not by their frankness but how well they served the story. “You’re having sex for the first time,” he said. “It was refreshing. Oftentimes you see sex placed in the narrative to serve a salacious beat or it generates bit of heat. These sex scenes are really integral to the character’s development. You’re getting huge bits of information about how two people care about each other on the physical level and the cerebral level. The moments of a young person’s life, like the first time they have sex, the script navigates those beats really well. The scenes excited me. I slid into the opportunity to shift perspective on how these scenes were presented to the audience in a fresh and authentic way.”
By staying inside what the characters were feeling at any given moment, even when they’re vulnerable, and at the same time tracking complicated choreography, “you can’t get lost in the moment,” said Mescal. “There’s too much going on. We never felt restricted by it; the perameters were put in place to allow us to feel as free as we could. It’s an unnatural position to be in, simulating normal. This was a stilted thing, the structures put in place around us were necessary to protect the actors and the director. Historically actors and people on set have been abused in those settings. We addressed that balance. We operated in a safe creative environment.”
The big question about Connell: Why does he behave so oddly? Why not publicly embrace the girl he loves? Why keep her hidden? “We hold characters in fiction to a higher standard than peers we know,” Mescal said. “Connell is a deeply frustrating character on page and on screen. For that reason, he’s a brilliant character to play. He’s complex. Neither the book nor the series explain why he struggles with emotional intimacy. He’s predisposed to a position of social power; he’s academically bright; he’s sporty. How does this jive with the feelings he felt toward Marianne? As a result of that he can’t comprehend or compute the feelings he’s having. It causes him to be indecisive, or cowardly from some perspectives.”
For Mescal, it all comes down to Connell’s position in the world. “Wherever he is, he seems to be uncomfortable,” he said. “He’s not comfortable in school, given all the tools. He’s not comfortable in college, when he’s at the top of his class. He struggles to fit in. He finds it hard to be comfortable with his relationship with Marianne. But he loves her dearly.”
Next up: Mescal had already signed with London agency Curtis Brown before he graduated from drama school, as well as Hollywood’s powerful CAA, just before “Normal People” came out. His reps had already formulated a game plan. But nobody foresaw Mescal busting out during a lockdown. “A lot of eyes were on [“Normal People”] in a concentrated period of time,” he said. “As a result, the fan response on social media, which was vast and immediate, was not something I’ve encountered before. It was exciting and terrifying, how far-reaching the show was so quickly.”
It’s hurry up and wait for Mescal. The meetings he would ordinarily have flown to Hollywood to put in motion were conducted on Zoom. And the projects he has nonetheless lined up (which he’s not detailing) are on hold until production restarts. “It’s a little frustrating,” he said. “I want to capitalize on this work. In an ideal world I’d be back on set at this point. In the next few months that will be a reality. It’s a matter of constant juggling dates of productions. The picture will be clearer come the latter half of this year.”
He will say that his menu of projects is varied: “What’s important is I don’t think my taste has changed, post the show coming out. We’re looking at more focused scripts, following filmmakers I want to work with rather than say, to capitalize monetarily on the success of ‘Normal People.'”
Mescal has enough on his plate not to rush to get on with “Normal People” Season 2. “It’s all hypothetical,” he said. “Nothing has come myself or Daisy’s way in terms of a version of Season 2. I am not aware of a script. As a fan of the book, if it was my choice I would let these characters grow up a little bit. They will have a more interesting life in five years’ time after Connell goes to New York. You’ll have more dexterity and choice than to pick up straight away from where we left off. That feels too linear.”
The last few weeks in particular were “crazy and surreal,” he said. “We shot the Rolling Stones video in the depths of lockdown [at Claridge’s]. It’s the first COVID restricted set I was on. It was strange; I was delighted to do it.” His direction might have had something to do with it: “Have lots of fun and run around. There was no wrong answer: having the energy as high as possible for as long as possible. That was something!”