Paul Mescal (‘Aftersun’): I’m ‘grateful’ Charlotte Wells encouraged so much ‘creative freedom’ on set [Complete Interview Transcript]

Best Actor Oscar nominee Paul Mescal recently chatted with Gold Derby’s Christopher Rosen about his role in the A24 film “Aftersun,” in which he plays Calum, a vacationing father who tries to hide his depression from his young daughter Sophie (played by Frankie Corio). Mescal candidly discusses working with director Charlotte Wells and how he’s “grateful” she encouraged so much “creative freedom” on set. Wells recently won the DGA Award for Best First-Time Director.

Whenever he was filming scenes with Corio, there was a special “rhythm” on set, Mescal tells us. “I wasn’t expecting to go to Turkey and become friends with an 11-year-old,” the Irish actor laughs about his on-screen daughter. “I think the reason that the chemistry translates is because it exists.” In addition to his Oscar bid, Mescal also earned notices at the BAFTA Awards and Gold Derby Awards.

Watch the full video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Christopher Rosen: Welcome back to Gold Derby. I’m Christopher Rosen. I’m so pleased to be joined by Paul Mescal, a Gotham Award nominee, an Independent Spirit Award nominee, for his performance in the new drama “Aftersun,” which is in theaters now and it’s a great, great film, Paul. I read an interview with you. You said you enjoyed doing the detective work of creating a character and here, obviously, you’re starting with a character that’s based, at least in part, on Charlotte Wells’ father and, so I guess, when you’re creating a character, where do you start then in your conversations with Charlotte and how your own view of the character versus like her view of the character, I guess? (laughs)

Paul Mescal: Yeah, I mean, it’s like the… Regardless of how personal it is to a director in terms of where it’s being drawn from, I think the, the process of kind of sniffing around the, the background and the kind of motivations or the kind of interrogating the behavior is pretty much the same, or so far, it’s been, um, the same. And I think with “Aftersun” the challenge is, I perceive the challenge to be that it’s … You gotta really trust the kind of, um, the fact that there’s not a lot of clues. There’s enough and they’re substantial, but there’s not, there’s… You’re never gonna be satiated by having enough information, which I think is actually the power of the film.

But, yeah, so it was a matter of kind of going off a set of hunches early days in prep and then Charlotte was just so good at kind of letting me… Like I would say that this is kind of what I’m thinking in this ballpark and for the most part she was always like, “Yep, that’s, that’s where I think that should be landing in.” So there, there was a lot of, um, creative freedom sent my way from Charlotte which I’m very grateful for, you know?

CR: Yeah. Was there one… Uh, a lot of things there I wanna go back to (laughs) but was there one thing I guess when you’re reading the script that stood out to you as something that you would latch onto to play, to play Calum and stuff?

PM: Uh, one of the moments that sticks out to me like straight off the bat is when he spits in the mirror ’cause I think that’s one of the first kind of, um, moments when he’s, I think, pretty emotionally brutal with himself and I was like, “Whoa, that re-” like I remember reading it and kind of being like… And it, the character that I thought he was changed totally in that moment. ‘Cause like I was trying to imagine what it would take to hear your daughter talk about a form of depression and to feel like you were giving that to her and for that to then generate a response where you look at yourself in the mirror and you spit at yourself.

CR: (laughs)

PM: I just, I was like, “Whoa. The, the wheels have turned further than I thought.” And this was on a first read, so I was like, “This is all, um…” I, I just found it really meaty and interesting and kind of, uh, unexplained.

CR: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s one of the great… Like you said, it’s one of the great things about the movie is it’s very much a show don’t tell, right? So it’s like your… And that puts so much pressure, I think, on you and, and, uh, Frankie as well because you guys are just so… Like you’re not saying a lot but you have to convey so many, uh, emotions and different feelings and I guess for you as an a-… Like, how do you do that, but I guess like (laughs) how much of that… It’s just like it’s so compelling and you really do convey so many things. Are you like… I mean, did you guys… Do you do a lot of rehearsals? Like how do you do this? But like especially in these scenes where like there is so much silence or things not being said? Like I don’t… How do you prepare for those kind of scenes?

PM: Like the, uh, there were, I, I feel like there was two distinct rhythms on set. There was the rhythm that was present when Cha- when, um, Frankie was filming and then there was the rhythm when Frankie wasn’t filming, just because of the kind of, the boring part of like working with a child is that the hours are really restrictive so you’re moving at a quick pace. We’re not really rehearsing a lot but we’re, we’re obviously rehearsing ’cause of the, the script wasn’t shared with Frankie off the bat so it was like we — There was a discussion around the story. So we would rehearse quite quickly and then shoot pretty quickly. Um, but then there was a a very distinct shift when, say, Calum’s by himself. We actually had a lot of time to film those things. And I loved that. I loved being able to kind of, um, juggle between those two rhythms which I think is, like feeds into what Calum was having to do on that holiday as well. Uh, uh, like w- when the filming process matches up with what the character’s internal rhythm is, it’s like a, a little gift.

CR: Yeah. You have a great… You mentioned like, you mentioned how it’s like so much of like you going through (laughs) like the things he, he, that Calum is, I guess, or you know, in that… One of the, a, a scene I really loved, too, that I found like really compelling is like we don’t see him actually conversing with a lot of adults. It’s like service workers or whatever but there’s the one scene where you’re talking to, I guess it’s the scuba instructor, and it, it’s so like, man, that scene really just crushes. I found it so compelling ’cause that guy has got like a life that it feels like Calum knows he’s never gonna have, and then also like has the realization he’s never gonna have that life and I found it so sad, (laughs) really, watching and then just like your performance here is so beautiful. Can you talk about that scene? Because I was, I was just like, yeah, that’s like the one time where you get to see him as an adult with another adult and I found that really interesting.

PM: Well I feel like the thing with Calum is like it’s when he comes up a-… You’re, you’re so right. You hit the nail on the head. It’s like when he comes up against another adult who he feels, who he perceives to be stable, he doesn’t recognize himself. He’s like, “I don’t, I can’t see myself. I’m surprised I got to 30.” And he means that genuinely. He’s like, “I don’t…” U and it kinda ties into the point that I was making in the start. It’s like I think one of the discoveries around scenes like that with him in general was that like there’s an, there’s a temptation to like diagnose Calum. Or there was a temptation for me to diagnose him at the start and then I was like, “Actually, diagnosis isn’t important because he isn’t diagnosed. He doesn’t know what the feeling is.” All, like he doesn’t know what the, what the, what the end point is but what he does know is that the feeling is putting him in a position of discomfort and insecurity.

So when he’s around these, this, the scuba instructor, he’s talking about his family and all of these things. Calum was aware that the performance is to be happy and, wow, you’re d-… But he doesn’t, he can’t relate. He can’t get inside conversations sometimes and I think that’s pretty… I find that pretty upsetting.

CR: Yeah, I mean and like that kinda carries through the whole movie. Again, I don’t wanna like (laughs), keep hammering like, “Oh, man. Every one of these scenes is so great,” but and I know you talked about it, but like towards the end, obviously, when Sophie goes up to do karaoke, that scene I was like, w- was really heartbreaking because she is so expecting him a- as her father to come up, right, and like be there for her and he doesn’t. So you watch her heart break and the way I think Charlotte films this whole movie is incredible, but you’re watching her like heart break in like real time and then we cut back to y- Calum and you and it’s like you’re so upset because you know you can’t give her what she needs, I guess, right, or what she wants, and I just found that, again, like really, (laughs) uh, really powerful and stuff and I guess, can you talk, like I guess can you talk about doing that (laughs) sequence as well, for a lack of a better question? (laughs) But I just found that really just an incredible scene and it just is like so, again, like so powerful in like the way you guys are underplaying it but getting so much across, I guess.

PM: Yeah, I think that’s one of the scenes like performance-wise as a collective like between me and Frankie that I’m probably most proud of because it’s one of the, it’s one of the moments of actual tension in the relationship. Like we had to perform is… Like we were within a scene where I’m expressing one thing and it’s, it elicits some form of conflict and I, just find, the pull for Calum in that scene is like, “God I want to be able to stand up and sing this with my daughter but my body will not let me. I cannot do it.” So when Frankie, or when Sophie comes to sit down, he goes into dad mode and he’s like, “Well, we can fix this. I can give you singing lessons,” and she knows him and she sees him and she knows that that’s…

But, uh, she also knows how to hurt him in that moment. She knows how to go, “I know the thing that you’re insecure about is money so I’m gonna highlight that.” And that it like… I don’t know. Like I, I find that pain… It reminds me of my own family. It’s like m- money stress is that thing that like you can really cut people down if you, if you go down that avenue and so yeah, it was pretty… A- and again, the scene was so fun to film because the scene is so rich but it’s like… It, hits a… It’s just one of those days you, you, you go home from work and you’re like, “That was a good day’s work, I think.”

CR: Yeah. You, you mentioned like doing like dad mode and stuff. Obviously you’re, you’re not, (laughs) you’re not a dad and you’re playing a young father. I know you’re younger than Calum is here and I was like… I’m, I was surprised – I guess I don’t know if I was surprised but I was like, “Oh man. You really nailed (laughs) the relationship of a father and daughter,” uh, really well, I thought. And I think it comes across, like and I mean this as a huge compliment, like – like almost not acting at times, right? It just feels like very natural that you are like very fatherly (laughs) to her and the performance is so good. Can you talk about how did you guys, how did you approach that? How do you approach, Frankie as like, as an acting partner and then also like knowing the scenes you kinda had to do and getting the feeling across of being a father while obviously, obviously not being her father? (laughs)

PM: Well, I think it’s like anything. It’s a… Or not like anything but it’s like any relationship, be it platonic, familial, romantic, the healthy ones are rooted in the same thing. It’s like love. It’s like, w- like it doesn’t really matter to me whether… Well, yeah. I don’t know what it is to be that but I know what it’s like to love somebody. I know what it’s like to like feel like a territorial animal and want to give, deliver joy to another human being and be the provider of that. So that was kind of the way that I went down and then also it just r-… (laughs) I lucked out with Frankie, man. It was just like I found a friend. I lit- like I, I, it sounds so cheesy but I was like, “That was the thing that I wasn’t expecting.” I wasn’t expecting to go to Turkey and become friends with an 11-year-old. I was expecting to go to Turkey and I was hoping that this 11-year-old would be able to hold her, her, up her side of the bargain and act and not only did she do that, she just did… pulled that off with flying colors but the, but the, the, I think the reason that the chemistry translates is because it exists. There’s like- There was a chemistry there that gave me an access point that I maybe wasn’t expecting and, and it kind of opened up my eyes to the fact like, “Oh, all relationships are kind of the same. You’re looking for love from them.”

CR: Mm-hmm.

PM: And that can be a father daughter relationship. It can be a couple. It can be a friendship. But they’re all, I think, that’s my theory, is that they’re all rooted in the same thing.

CR: Yeah. I mean I also think like as the… I am not… As, as a father of daughter, not to do that like cliché thing (laughs) but as, as an actual dad I was like, “Oh.” You, what you said there is really true because it’s like you are friends with your kid, in a way, right? Like you a- you actually like hanging out with your (laughs) kid and it’s like you, they don’t, that’s something you don’t really realize, (laughs) I don’t think, until you have one so it’s like great. I think that also helps… Like you could tell watching the movie that you are enjoying just being like with, uh, Frankie and Soph-… You know what I mean? Like Calum enjoys being with Sophie.

PM: Yeah.

CR: And it’s like that comes across and that’s like, I think, what helps it feel more realistic as well, in the end. I think that’s really cool.

PM: Yeah, I think so.

CR: Yeah. So, um, I, I was, I wanna ask you a little about, more about working with Charlotte and stuff. Obviously like coming from such a, a personal place, I guess, when you’re like… I guess, how did you f- like how was that collaboration and then like how do you feel like the finished film like stands up to like what it was like filming it, I guess?

PM: I think it’s really hard to be articulate in a way that is like not just superlatives when I talk about Charlotte. Like she is… I think it’s fair to say that like I think we’re looking at a filmmaker that’s gonna be here for, for the longest time. Like for this to be her first feature is just kind of astounding. But I feel like I, I had the privilege of knowing that before the rest of the world did. I kind of, I was reminded of that when the film came out because there was no part of working with Charlotte on set that I was like, “Oh, is this gonna be…” I felt like if it was gonna fall down it was gonna be on my shoulders or it was gonna be on Frankie’s shoulders or it was gonna be a, “I hate you.” Like but I never for a second had any doubt that Charlotte didn’t know the film better than anybody else and didn’t know how to achieve it better than anybody else. And, um, she’s just a, she’s an incredibly gentle and kind presence on set and I think that that’s… Or to me that’s a key for me to produce good work — or work that I’m proud of. I can’t work in a kind of tense, pressurized environment as well. I can do it but it’s not as conducive to good work for me. And I think she just provides an atmosphere and a diligence and a kind of understanding of what actors do and knows how to put those things in place on a day to day basis.

CR: Yeah, I mean, and I think like it’s really, that the movie is like a testament to that (laughs) as well. I think you can see that just in the filming. You, I mean obviously you kinda like broke out with Normal People. I feel like you’ve racked up, in a very short amount of time, incredible performances that people are either, you know, a lot of praise for them and stuff. Do you, are you, do you… Are you the type of actor who goes back and like watches themselves and are you picking up things? Or do you not… Like how do you… Like how are you evolving, do you feel, as a performer in like just these last two years?

PM: I think I do, especially with, well I (laughs) can’t watch myself on stage but, I do think at the moment it’s important to look at my work back. I’d, I think would quite like to get to the point where I don’t feel the need to do that but like I’m learning as I’m going along. Like this is my first leading performance out in the world so I think it’s like of course I don’t think I’m at like, I’m able to do an Adam Driver on it and not like watch my work back but, hopefully I’ll get to that position but it’s, uh, I just think it’s useful. It’s like you, your kind of expectations versus reality in terms of what you thought a day’s work looks like versus the finished product of it for the time being is, important.

CR: Yeah, and like I mentioned at the top here, you were nominated for, the Gotham Awards. It’s on a Monday. It’s tonight, so congratulations on that nomination. You’re obviously a Spirit Award nominee as well and like you said, this is like your first like lead performance in, in a film like this, of this caliber. I mean to get that kind of recognition for this, I would imagine it feels great, but like, or like, I guess, how does that feel like, basically, to get that kind of recognition so far? (laughs)

PM: It’s a, it’s a huge honor. It’s like this film was made into… Like it was the kind of film that was so small that we didn’t even need to announce it until it was going. Like it wasn’t… It is, I don’t know. I, I take great pride in the fact that people still watch small films and have an appetite to go to the theater and… Like there’s, there’s, there, there is room for films like this to exist and kind of have an impact on people and for that to… And if nominations and all of those things help an audience come to those films, I take great pride in it. And I, I also think it’s like a huge honor for people to look and engage with your work and, and deem it, um, worthy of something. I don’t know. I think that there’s… It obviously has its pitfalls. Like you can, you can’t be reliant on that to, to elicit a pride in your own work but it helps. (laughs)

CR: Yeah, for sure. I mean this is I think one of the movies, too, from an awards perspective where I’m like, “People genuinely love it.” Like you know what I mean? Like they’re genuinely responding to it. It’s not like in like a tradition… Like I would say like you know like an award, you… Like the kind of movies you would be like an awards bait (laughs) movie. This is definitely not it and I think it’s like-

PM: This is not, (laughs) this is the like-

CR: People are like… But it’s like the fact that it has gotten so much recognition in such a short amount of time so far is like I think a testament to the power of the film and the originality and the performances and stuff like that, yeah, for sure.

PM: It’s really … for sure.

CR: Yeah, great chatting with you. Paul Mescal, who stars in Aftersun, in theaters now. It’s a great job. Thank you so much, Paul.

PM: Thanks very much. See you later.

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