Paul Mescal just scored his first Emmy nomination for his performance in the Hulu limited series “Normal People,” which also happens to be his first leading role onscreen. In the series, he plays Connell, a popular student who enters a complex relationship with Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a fellow student.
Mescal spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow before the Emmy nominations about playing a character who doesn’t speak much, working with director Lenny Abrahamson and why he was blown away by Timothee Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Now, I would say that it’s the 10th episode when people really lost their minds about you. So I want to jump right in and start by breaking down what you pulled off in that episode. Now, I didn’t read the book, so I did not pay the character of Rob any mind in those early episodes, but you obviously knew what was coming. So how much did you try to set it up over the five episodes that you shared scenes with Eanna Hardwicke?
Paul Mescal: Yeah, I think it’s important to reference that Eanna is one of my great friends from outside of shooting. Eanna was the year below me in drama school and there’s this buddy system that the college implements where if you’re the year above, you are attached to an actor the year below if they have any questions and Eanna happened to be mine. I think in terms of the relationship on set, Eanna is an incredibly warm person and an incredibly generous actor, and there were beats that we tried to maybe lean into a little bit more. Because that moment in Ep. 2, I think it is, or Ep. 3 where they played the match and they come in and they kind of bump foreheads, there’s something that wasn’t used in the edit after the match, after they win the match, that was kind of a motif. I think it was just about highlighting the fact that regardless of kind of their political affiliations or their social politics and things like that, he was a friend and he was an integral part of his community at home. And also, I think what Eanna represents, or what Rob represents, is how comfortable Connell’s life was at home, even though it wasn’t particularly him. Rob represents a kind of comfort and that doesn’t exist once he commits suicide.
GD: And more generally, in that whole 10th episode, Connell is verbalizing so much of what he’s been internalizing over the past nine episodes. So can you talk about threading things so that you get that payoff in those therapy scenes?
PM: Yeah, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head. He’s somebody who isn’t particularly articulate. He is somebody who feels things on a very deep, deep level. When he tries to verbalize them or articulate them, his words generally fail him but I think the process of seeing a counselor is that it’s a relatively impersonal event. You’re talking to somebody who has no preconceptions of who you are and you’re able to talk about your deep, dark fears. The other thing with Connell in particular at that moment, he’s got a lot of things coming to the surface at one particular time. He’s got the death of his friend, the suicide of his friend, which is a traumatic event, a totally awful event for anyone to kind of experience, he’s also not got Marianne in his life, the person who understands him on the deepest level possible and then he’s also wrestling with where he is in the world. He doesn’t feel like he fits in and he thought all of those things were going to happen. And that all comes to a head within the space of a few months and his mental health isn’t strong enough to withstand that kind of environment and when forced to articulate those things, he breaks down.
GD: I have to say that even as an awards pundit, the awards buzz for the show really surprised me. Now, if you are nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, what clip would you like them to show during the ceremony when your name comes up?
PM: Jesus (laughs). First of all, I’ll probably be bawling, crying so I wouldn’t even see it, but I don’t know, probably a scene with myself and Daisy, because I think the responsibility of the show is totally shared with the director, but also between those two characters and I feel like any of the kind of big dialogues between myself and her would be, I think, probably the right thing to do.
GD: Now, your producing director Lenny Abrahamson, he is best known for “Room.” He got an Oscar nomination. He got an Oscar-winning performance out of Brie Larson, an Oscar-worthy performance out of Jacob Tremblay and now he’s gotten this outside of you. So Brie Larson, she had never been nominated before, Jacob Tremblay, he’s obviously a child, you had never done TV before. So he certainly has a way with not only actors, but greener actors, so I’m wondering if you could speak to what kind of care he is taking that is making him this performance-whispering director.
PM: The man, to put it bluntly, I think is a genius. I think both himself and Hettie [Macdonald], who directed the second half of the series are, as you said, they put actors at the center of anything that they’re making. They have the global picture of what they want, the TV show or film to look like and feel like. But I think they have a great understanding that regardless of how authentic the world feels, if they don’t believe the actors at the center of it, the film or the TV show doesn’t stand up. I think just in terms of their processes, I never felt disempowered by the conversations we would have. It was always a collaboration in the sense that all ideas were good ideas until the best idea emerged and I think that’s a really healthy and great way to work.
GD: I’m wondering about your process, like when you receive scripts for this show. What are you doing next?
PM: What I did is that I acknowledged that we were blessed that we had the novel as this amazing piece of source material that would support the choices that I wanted to make, and I remember talking to Sally about Connell in particular, that Connell is a character that doesn’t speak a huge amount. And that’s why in the novel, you’re able to read pages and pages and pages about what he’s thinking but he might externally just maybe grimace or make a nonverbal sound or say one word. So I remember talking to Sally, she was like, “Yeah, Connell’s tricky to write in a TV show because he doesn’t talk a huge amount.” So for me, it was about attaching those kinds of, say, short scenes or short responses to the inner monologues that we see in the novel and trying to patch them through so that they felt quite present to my brain even though he wasn’t really talking a huge amount. So I definitely feel like the novel was my best friend throughout all of that.
GD: There is that one monologue that you give going back to the therapy episode again, where you do say so much, but I’m wondering how much you really focused on the words in that scene as opposed to everything else that you have to perform?
PM: I focus on the words massively and in that context, simply because what he’s saying is so triggering both to me, but more importantly to the character, because at that point, I knew him so well that for him to say things like, “Back home, people liked me. Here, I don’t think people like me that much,” for him, that is a statement that is so big, it’s almost incomprehensible and things like when he talks about Marianne and how smart she is, focusing on the words was really useful. I think it was about kind of taking my time to bridge the impact of the words. When he hears the words back from himself, I think he kind of realizes that he’s in emotionally very deep, very quickly and Noma [Dumezweni], who plays the character so brilliantly just allows him to speak and he of slowly, slowly unravels. And then the thing that really cracks him is like, “I thought if I came here, I can have a different life, but I hate it here.” And by him acknowledging that he hates it here, and also knowing that he can’t go back to that same life because it’s been destroyed, he’s left in this horrendous, dark, dangerous place.
GD: So you’ve done a TV show now. You’re really thrown into the deep end. What do you wish you knew going into it?
PM: What do I wish I’d known going into it? That it’s tiring (laughs). What I actually wish I’d known is how taxing it is on the far side when you finish it, because you work so closely with people that you develop such a tight bond not only to your fellow actors, but to the rest of the cast and the crew and then you finish filming and you get in the plane and then you don’t have that tangible connection anymore or in the same context. Both things are quite difficult to adjust to, I think.
GD: Now, since the show came out, you’ve done so many interviews and so many of these interviews are these really long-form panel discussions on Zoom with Daisy Edgar-Jones invariably, Ed Guiney, Lenny Abrahamson and Sally Rooney. What’s something that people who are watching all these hour-long chats don’t realize about what it’s like on your side?
PM: For me personally, I get great joy out of doing those panel discussions because you basically get free time to listen to people like Daisy and Ed and Lenny and Suzie [Lavelle] and Sally about their individual creative processes. Because when you’re on set, the process is just happening. You’re not discussing the process or how people make things. But when a panel starts happening, you start hearing Suzie, who was the DP in the first six episodes, and Lenny talk about how they shot it, their lens choices, why certain angles work, why they always maintain the kind of closer proximity with the camera than, say, a traditional closeup, and just listening to those amazing creative beasts talk about how they make things was very educational and just great to listen to.
GD: Now, something that you get asked a lot about is the future of Cornell and Marianne. I think you’ve said that you see them always being involved in some fashion in each other’s lives. But do you think it’s possible that they put so much time into each other that maybe they’ve gotten all that they can and they don’t need to have a relationship?
PM: Yeah, totally. It’s definitely a possibility and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. I think it’s probably just the romantic in me rejecting that as a possibility. But yeah, I think what’s great about them is I can think about what their future looks like and then the next day, it could be totally different. And I think that’s just a sign of really well-drawn, really well-written characters that I can predict to a certain extent how they will respond to circumstances but I never know what their relationship together will look like on a consistent basis. I think that’s just so exciting.
GD: And relationships aside, what do you see Connell’s future in terms of his career?
PM: I think he has the capacity to be an extraordinary writer. I think he’s got all those kind of hallmarks. He’s slightly aloof. He’s private. I could see him locking himself off in a room for months and producing these things. He’s incredibly self-critical. Yeah, I think if he gets over the kind of trauma that I imagine New York is for somebody like him, if he can get over that, I think he’ll really start to spread his wings. I like to hope that he has the capacity to be really brilliant.
GD: And finally, the reactions to your performance obviously have been overwhelming. I’m wondering, what was the last performance that you saw for which you reacted the way that people are reacting to yours?
PM: I think one that I saw that I remember I was in my final year of drama school, my first year out of it, I remember seeing Timothee Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name” and being like, “Oh, holy mother of God, what he’s doing is terrifying,” because it’s so present. It’s so brilliant. I think my favorite performances are performances from people who are in my age group and who are young and they’re producing these terrifyingly brilliant pieces of art that make you leave from the cinema from an actor’s perspective, being like, “Oh, I don’t know if I can do that.” There’s a lot of people, I think, in the 20s to 30s bracket at the moment really producing a really high, consistent level of work.