My, how a year can change someone’s life. In such a short span of time, Paul Mescal has become one of the most in demand, exciting actors of his generation. His vulnerability and flexibility as a performer is matched with a down to earth sensibility as a person that draws you into the complex characters he is portraying, and thus he is able to wow you as he delivers profound work time and time again. Known for his breakout, BAFTA-winning and Emmy-nominated performance in the limited series Normal People, Mescal earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his powerful work in Charlotte Wells’s film Aftersun, garnering praise from dozens of critics groups and awards bodies as one of the best performances of 2022. He’s since won a Laurence Olivier Award for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in a revival of the play A Streetcar Named Desire, released three more films (God’s Creatures, Carmen, and Foe), and been announced as the lead in major projects to be helmed by Ridley Scott, Chloé Zhao, and Oliver Hermanus. But before he steps into those new roles, he has delivered another grounded, spectacular performance in Andrew Haigh’s romantic fantasy drama, All of Us Strangers.
Mescal stars as Harry, a mysterious neighbor living in the same building as Adam (Andrew Scott). One night, while Adam is standing outside, he looks up from the street and sees Harry, prompting Harry to find Adam in their building and thus set off on a personal relationship they both desperately need. In our review out of Telluride, our own Erik Anderson called Mescal’s performance “absolutely incredible” and the decision to cast him in the role of Harry as “quite perfect,” which I wholeheartedly agree with. In my conversation with Mescal, we talked about his connection to Harry that drew him into signing up for the role, his on-screen connection with his co-star Andrew Scott, how he will select future projects, and if the parts he selects cause personal reflections in his own life.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve spoken to Mescal, as I met him at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival when he was promoting the film Aftersun, it was an interaction I’ve yet to forget. When he talks to you, his attention is always present, friendly, down to earth, and relatable. He is a movie star who isn’t afraid to show a side of himself that hurts, that’s conflicted with something under the surface. In this, he invites us to take emotional journeys we never thought we needed to explore and examine our past as well as our present and future. Not many actors have this ability to transport us and move us anymore, but Paul Mescal is that kind of rare talent and one we will continue to talk about for many years to come if he keeps delivering raw, honest performances like the one he has given us in All of Us Strangers.
Ryan McQuade: How are you doing today, Paul?
Paul Mescal: Good, how are you?
RM: Good. It’s good to see you again. How were you approached to play Harry, and what were your first thoughts on reading the script and speaking with Andrew (Haigh) about the role?
PM: Yeah, so I know this retrospectively that obviously went out to Andrew (Scott) first and then Claire (Foy) and Jamie (Bell), and it was pretty traditional. My agents got their hands on the script and then sent it my way and I was like, this is one of the greatest screenplays I’ve read, so if he’ll have me, I would love to do it. And then quite quickly we just got into discussions around character with Andrew Haigh. So in terms of how it came to me was pretty traditional in that sense.
RM: What were your first thoughts about Harry himself and what about him really connected with you?
PM: Yeah, I think there’s something in Harry that probably tracks with characters that I’ve enjoyed playing in the past, like Calum (in Aftersun) or Connell (in Normal People). There’s a lot of ‘show don’t tell’ that goes with Harry. There’s a kind of privilege with not being at the center of the story where you get to build a deep internal landscape, but it’s written so well that the audience only gets a few opportunities to really know what’s going on behind the curtain. For Harry, it’s in lines like “I know what it’s like to stop caring about yourself” or “there’s vampires at my door.”
Even just his general energy when you first encounter him at the door, there’s something I think quite uneasy, but he’s also very sexually present and so I just think that it’s such a joy to get to play somebody like that because you’re not having to over explain to an audience, you’re asking them to lean in and figure out what’s wrong with Harry? There’s something very clearly wrong with Harry to me when you see him, but it’s not obvious. And that’s both something that I have a curiosity with performance, but also it was just innately there in the screenplay. Did I answer your question?
RM: Absolutely, Paul.
PM: Okay, great.
RM: There’s the line that really struck me from the film when Harry’s talking to Adam about “feeling like a stranger” to his own family. I know from listening to Andrew Haigh talk over the last couple of months, how he gave you freedom to explore conversation and get to know each other within those moments. Was that in the script or did you bring that to the scene, and how can you relate to those feelings, the sense of being a stranger in this moment of his life?
PM: Well, that scene was one of the scenes in the film that I distinctly remember reading in the first pass that I was really moved by and it was one of those that I had a clear idea of that if I was to play it, I knew how I wanted to play it. I think there’s a version of that scene that’s very kind of saccharin and sentimental, but I think when you’re talking about pain like that in your life, you’re trying to skirt over it. And it’s like Harry, when he is like, I’ve drifted to the edge. He’s trying to make light of it, and what he encounters in Adam is somebody who’s not letting him off the hook.
He’s like, why is that okay? He’s asking very simple questions back to Harry and it makes him uneasy in a way that it shows actually the love that Adam has for Harry, is that he wants him to explain his experience and he wants to understand why he thinks that it’s okay that his family has marginalized him because of his sexuality. And I find that’s one of the scenes that I’m proudest of in terms of my own performance in it because it’s exactly how I wanted it to come across. I wanted to see somebody innately struggling with the subject of what he was trying to say, but trying to use his charm to navigate the difficulties of that conversation, which is upsetting.
RM: But within that scene and throughout your time in the film, you’re building this relationship with Andrew and it feels so organic, but I know that you didn’t have a lot of time to prep for that. So how was the process of building that relationship? It seems like you guys are really close now and have created this real friendship-
PM: It’s all an act. (laughs)
RM: It’s all an act. All the photos, all the friendship. Once the film’s out, it’s gone. (laughs)
PM: I’m doing this by myself. (laughs) I adore Andrew Scott. I mean, he’s a very easy person to love and spend time with and he’s just so, talent is just… He is just a talent. He is extraordinary to watch and he is very protective of the people that he loves and has an innate kindness that you just back him. I back all the choices that he made in the film. He led us from the front. And in terms of building, look, I don’t believe in building a chemistry. I think if you’re having to build chemistry, you’re probably struggling. I’m sure that there might come a time in my career where you have to really work at it, but it felt natural and organic. We’d known each other a little bit beforehand and yeah, I’m going to get sick of saying all the nicest things in the world about him over the next few weeks, but it is very easy to be in his company and watch him work as an immense privilege.
RM: You can balance it out. You could say something that maybe annoys you about him. (laughs)
PM: Yeah, but the truth is I don’t have anything bad that I could say right now. (laughs)
RM: The movie also has very authentic, intimate, romantic moments between the two of you. They’re both physical, but very emotional at the same time for both the characters. What was it like crafting those with Andrew (Haigh) to make sure that they were authentic but weren’t pushing over the line or anything, or being too gazy.
PM: I think those scenes are rooted in Adam’s perspective, and you have this man who is struggling to re-engage with his own relationship with his sexuality, and you have Harry who is this very sex positive sex forward man who is also looking for a landing place where to put his feelings, where to meet somebody who we can help cure each other’s loneliness. But then on top of that, you want to create something that is truly very, really sexy. And I think I’m really proud of it in terms of when you watch it, I feel like it’s, as you said, I don’t think it’s remotely gazy, but there is something about watching two men want to tear the clothes off each other. There’s something that, again, I said this to Andrew (Scott) the other day when we watched it for the first time. It’s like I think the most illicit moments in the film are not the acts of sex, but there’re moments where we’re looking at each other in the middle of those scenes where I’m like, I have no memory of looking at you like that.
And they’re the kind of frightening moments of intimacy that I am really proud of, not something that has nothing to do with the blocking that is only to do with connection and that’s not something that you can learn. And also it comes down to Andrew Haigh putting us in a position through his screenplay where those scenes felt and they do feel very vital. And as you said, I think it’s quite moving to see how kind and generous Harry is with Adam, but also watching somebody rediscover their sexuality is… I remember seeing it for the first time and being moved by the fact that you’re really rooting for Adam and you’re kind of willing him through those sex scenes. And when he forgets how to breathe during the kissing… yeah, I love it.
RM: I was going to say the breathing. It’s spot on, spot on.
PM: And also the fact that the camera’s not on them for that moment. It is down on their thighs and then it finds them up above and you can see how he’s like, yeah, he’s struggling to breathe.
RM: It’s perfect. When I saw the film at Telluride, I was struck by how the film is a vessel for looking back at the past to help someone move on in the present and maybe find a new relationship. And also then it also brought me back to Telluride last year when I saw Aftersun and I saw Charlotte’s film and how that’s a film that is about also using the past to find yourself or move on in the future. Are you drawn to that idea of the emotional exploration of the past, and have those two films also made you look back and reflect on the good and the bad and everything in between of what’s gone on in your life?
PM: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think I’m probably a little bit too close to that to have a proper answer in terms of, I think the past is basically what informs our behavior be that parental relationships or romantic relationships. But there’s something there. I feel like it would be a very devastating double bill about explorations of the past. But there is something that I feel like as human beings, we are just an accumulation of our past experiences. And I think the commonality with both of those films is how great a privilege it is to love somebody, but also how frequently our own anxieties and our own past experiences can get in the way of that being an easy thing to do. Because on the surface, to love somebody be that a parent, a daughter, or a partner seems easy, but we carry all of our baggage into it. It’s incredibly upsetting. And I think Harry, ultimately, without getting into what happens in the film, he serves as a warning of how people can get lost if they’re lonely. And I think that’s something that scares me.
RM: By the end of the film, and it’s just the beautiful ending of Adam holding Harry, I was moved by the idea of him being sort of his protection and comforting him by saying a lyric of a song, and it can mean so much to him. I was curious, for you, is there a song or a film or a piece of art that provides you a sense of comfort or a moment of peace during the madness of life where you can just lean on that? Or maybe it’s a person or someone in your life?
PM: Yeah, I mean, people like my family and friends, they’re the go-to, but I feel like art, films, music, poetry can be very… I think it is what’s ultimately healing about what we get to do as artists. And sometimes we miss the mark, but there’s a poem that I had written down in a notebook when I was shooting Aftersun, and it’s called A Little Tooth by Thomas Lux, and it was more so to do with that film, but it’s something that I find weirdly moving and comforting and it’s both nihilistic and very hopeful at the same time. And I think that’s kind of probably where I’m at at the moment.
RM: Going forward, you’ll be doing a lot of various projects. How important is it for you to find a balance in selecting projects for yourself? Do you like to have a good variety? Is it about the director? Is it about working with an incredible cast like in this one? Is it the subject matter? What draws you forward with new projects?
PM: It’s definitely an amalgamation of all of those things. I feel like there’s a rule of three things. It’s like director, screenplay, and cast, and if you can hit two out of those three, it’s probably a good bet. And I feel like I’ve been very lucky with being able to tick all three of those boxes in my own mind in the past. I think there is certainly a probably sea change in my mind about films like this and films like Aftersun and things like that. There’s only so many times you can go back to the well of those things emotionally because they require a lot. And also, I do want to expand my range in terms of genre, and scale of film. I have this perpetual fear that if I keep making films like this, people will get bored of me and they’ll think I’m just perpetually sad. (laughs)
RM: I was going to say, we don’t want you to seem sad all the time, Paul. A comedy in there wouldn’t be a bad idea though, right? (laughs)
PM: (laughs) Comedy scares me deeply because I think I saw Bottoms recently and I was in awe of how they do that. That’s one of those I leave the cinema and I’m incredibly jealous and brightened of everybody’s talents involved with that film. But I think in the next five years I’m going to set myself a challenge to do maybe like a rom-com with Ayo (Edebiri) or something like that would be cool.
RM: I would see that. I’d see you in anything. Paul, thank you so much for your time.
PM: Great, thanks. Great to talk to you again.
All of Us Strangers will be released in theaters from Searchlight Pictures on December 22.
This interview has been edited and condensed for content and clarity.