Paul Mescal has had a banner few years since becoming the internet’s collective crush with his breakout role in Normal People. Since his hit Hulu series ended in 2020, the Irish actor (and short-shorts influencer) has added to his resume with a handful of equally compelling roles in psychological dramas like The Lost Daughter and God’s Creatures. Mescal’s latest project, Aftersun, is his first leading-man turn, and the best of the bunch—expect a lot of awards-season buzz. Released Oct. 21, the film (director Charlotte Wells’ masterful debut) centers around a mysterious, but warm, father, dealing with some issues that are never truly specified (played by Mescal) taking his curious, adolescent daughter (Frankie Corio) to Turkey for a summer vacation. As the film jumps timelines, what blossoms is an intimate portrait of memory, told through grainy video footage, vintage Polaroids, and dream sequences.
Over Zoom from a hotel in London where he is preparing for his theatre return as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, Mescal spoke with GQ about why he was so drawn to Aftersun, his interest in emotionally tortured roles, and who he dreams of working with in the future.
Aftersun is such a stunning portrait of memory. What initially drew you to the script?
The screenplay itself is a work of art that I was blown away by. I also just loved the character. I felt a deep desire to play him. I know I’m not a dad or anything like that, but I just felt a kind of connection, a real desire to at least have a shot at putting my case forward to Charlotte [Wells]. Thankfully, I did. We had a great Zoom and spoke about what I think Calum means to me, what he’s going through and how he’s such, I think, an amazing father for 95% of the film.
What’s the 5% of the film you think he wasn’t a good father?
There’s specific moments. There’s a night that [Sophie] encounters him after he’s essentially passed out in her bed, and he lets her down around a karaoke scene. What I mean by the 95% is I don’t think that they are choices that he makes related to his own parenting. I think they’re actually related to his feeling of self-disgust or shame. They’re reflective of his ongoing battle with his own mental health.
The one scene that is going to be cemented into my mind and likely the minds of others for years to come is Calum and Frankie’s third act dance scene to a rendition of “Under Pressure.” It’s the end of the trip, so there’s a sense of catharsis but it’s also wonderfully intercut with adult Frankie’s memories and interpreations as well. What makes that sequence so affecting?
I think that’s poignant because you get an opportunity as an audience to encounter older Sophie attempting to protect her dad. It’s a kind of expressionistic moment, and you see this happen. It’s brutal. There’s a moment where Sophie’s screaming, “Stop,” but her dad is in a trance and moving away. It’s particularly moving, I don’t know how to describe it other than that. When I watch anything for the first time, I’m just hoping that it all stands up and that the performance is something that I’m proud of. That scene really hurt.
That karaoke scene where Sophie sings R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” is another memorable moment set to a classic song. But Calum refuses to sing along with her. Why is it such an uncomfortable scene?
You can see that somewhere deep within [Calum] he wants to be the person who can get up in front of a crowd and be confident. For a lot of the film you see him as a confident guy. He’s the same character who gets up and dances in front of a crowd with [Sophie]. But, at that moment, there’s a lot going on for him that prohibits that from happening; his insides are screaming at him to sit down and stay still, and he doesn’t want to be perceived or seen by people in that moment. That’s obviously painful to watch your daughter want something from you that you don’t feel like you can give. Then she sits down and he asks her if she wants singing lessons. She says, “Stop asking to pay for things I know you can’t afford.” That’s a real area of shame for him, that he is incapable of giving her the things that she wants or needs because he can’t afford it. That, to me, is probably something that I related to. I think children are acutely aware of the financial position of their parents and often more times are honest with their parents and feel guilt about asking for stuff. I definitely remember as a kid being concerned or expressing concern for my parents. Sophie gets right to the point in a sentence that just shatters Calum’s heart.
Have you ever sang at karaoke?
No. I feel like I mirror Calum in that sense. I would avoid karaoke. It’s a strong “no” for me. All karaoke is in the bin. I don’t know if I’m the right guy for the job. I would pretend to be sick if I know my friends are doing karaoke.
You filmed the thriller God’s Creatures, where your character is the total opposite of Calum. How did your preparation differ for Aftersun?
Tonally, I wanted something that was lighter. There was something in Aftersun that I felt had a really strong heart to it. The relationship between Calum and Sophie was one that I was like, “I think that this is the perfect thing to follow Brian,” who is troubled, menacing and is a scary person to inhabit; whereas Calum is somebody that feels a little bit closer to me. But the actual hard prep of it was dialect work. I stayed in the accent for the duration of the shoot, trying to make myself look and feel older [and] not exercising as much as I would like to. But a lot of it was building a relationship with [actress] Frankie Corio (Sophie), spending two weeks with each other before filming and then the private work that goes on building a back story for the reason [for] the mental health crisis that we see Calum navigating during the film.
A handful of the characters you have played have been somewhat emotionally tortured or repressing emotion. What has drawn you to those kinds of roles?
I don’t know. I suppose that’s for the directors to decide. I don’t think I’m that sad as a person in real life, but clearly there’s something. What I think is maybe clearer to me is that there’s a very rich inner life to these [characters], both positively and negatively. I feel very privileged that directors trust me to actualize that, that they think that I’m able to do it, because sometimes I don’t know if I am able to do it. But I also think that it’s an important topic to me. Our perspective on masculinity is changing, thankfully, and that doesn’t mean that I necessarily want to play virtuous characters at all. In fact, I don’t really have an interest in playing good people. But I think that I am definitely interested in playing characters that have a rich inner emotional life, and up until now a lot of that has been a sad inner emotional life.
In the movie, Calum obviously has this cast on his arm, and there’s a couple times where he mentions that he doesn’t know how he got the injury. Do you think that sentiment is true?
The important thing to me when I was playing [Calum] is that Sophie has to believe that I don’t remember because I don’t want to have a conversation with her, if I do, about how I broke my wrist. So I think there’s an argument to be made about how he broke his wrist. I have my own back story, but I think fair assumptions are: Did he get in a drunken fight and break his wrist? Was he drunk and fell over? Was he so drunk that he actually can’t remember how it happened? But all lead me to the conclusion that he’s not proud of how it happened and doesn’t want to share that information with his daughter.
You aren’t on social media and you became famous when we really couldn’t leave our homes because of the pandemic. How did that affect your relationship with the idea of being a celebrity?
Being trapped at home, I think, put stabilizers on the whole thing. It just bought me a bit more time, to be honest, of figuring out what it was like to have a little bit more of a public life. Then the best feeling is, once you go back to work, you stop thinking about it anyway. You’re only reminded of it when you’re not working. So I think that as awful as COVID was, it slowed everything down a little bit and gave me a second to breathe and figure out how I wanted to navigate it moving forward.
At this point in your career, who do you dream of collaborating with?
I’d love to work with Joaquin Phoenix on something. I could die happy if that ever came true. Anthony Hopkins or Michelle Williams. I’d love to be involved in Charlotte Wells’ second film if she’ll have me back. I’ve been so lucky. I’ve got to work with Emily Watson and Olivia Coleman, it’s kind of absurd that I can say that. Olivia and Emily are people that I have dreamed of working with and it’s been very validating to work with them, and they’re extraordinary human beings on top of it.
Let’s talk fashion. Your short shorts have become a bit of a personality trait. Do you have a favorite pair?
It’s my main personality trait. I do [have one], but it changes. There’s a little black pair that…I’m always happy when they’re the ones that are clean and not in the wash. We’re entering winter now, so they’ll probably be retired for a couple of months.
Have you ever thought about designing your own short shorts line?
I haven’t, I probably should. I maybe should try and collaborate with O’Neill’s. The short shorts that I wear, they’re actually not short shorts. They’re just football shorts that I’ve worn for my entire life.
Has there been any conversation about making a second season of Normal People?
There’s been no conversation other than the fact that I would like to lead from the front and make it happen somehow. I’m very pro-season two, but honestly, there’s no plans in place for that to happen.
Based on your response to that karaoke question, I feel like I know the answer, but have you and your partner Phoebe (Bridgers) talked about ever making music together?
No, I feel like I’m too much of a fan to broach the idea of attempting that. I’ll leave her to writing amazing songs and I’ll just stick to the acting for the time being.
(Spoilers for the end of Aftersun follow)
One last question: The ending of Aftersun is very much up to interpretation, though viewers can infer what happens. From your perspective, what do you think happens after they say goodbye at the airport?
The ending, to me, is a feeling and not an event. There’s a feeling of [Calum’s] absence, and I think that 360-pan is so effective with Oliver Coates’ score and [Calum] walking into the nightclub. It gives you the perfect amount of information but also just the bare minimum. I think a lot of people feel a common feeling of nostalgic sadness or melancholy when he walks through the doors, and you see the strobes flashing in the background. It’s fair to say that there’s a feeling that he’s absent. He’s not with older Sophie anymore. I think what’s so smart about the rave sequences to me is it’s an imagined opportunity or a kind of expressionistic directorial choice to place [Calum and older Sophie] in the same space. But I don’t even know if that rave scene is an actual memory that she has or if it’s an imagined memory of where he was. That just comes back to the overall idea of what is memory, what is real and the whole concept of the movie, which is, so striking.