One year ago, Paul Mescal became an overnight sensation when Normal People introduced the world to the Irish newcomer.
The role of Connell Waldron was his first acting credit outside of drama school and the buzz around his performance is still continuing over a year later.
“To still be in the conversation is really exciting and gratifying,” says Mescal, who was nominated for an RTS Award for his role in the hit series.
Mescal’s meteoric rise to stardom at the start of a global pandemic is far from the ‘conventional’ way to break into the industry.
“I haven’t done a huge amount of auditioning, it's more been Zoom chats with directors which I always find much easier because you’re not having to impress them with your acting in a kind of falsified medium,” laughs Mescal.
Adapted from the Sally Rooney novel, Normal People tells the story of the complex and intoxicating love between the popular and easy-going Connell, and the lonely and proud Marianne, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones.
As they navigate the complexities of growing up, the one constant that remains throughout the series is the love between Marianne and Connell. When asked to describe their love, Mescal takes a long pause before answering.
“The love between them is so deep,” Mescal says, pausing again before saying, “their dependency on each other is like roots twisting around each other and applying pressure at different times, while also giving the other person the opportunity for growth.”
Mescal recognises that it takes time for Connell to “grow into himself” and he is an inherently “good human”. He remembers being a teenager himself and the prospect of public affection in school was “terrifying”.
“Connell is mature almost to his detriment, he overanalyses every single action… Marianne is just another level of goodness, I feel like she needs to be sainted in literary history,” laughs Mescal.
Mescal and Edgar-Jones weren’t the only breakout stars from the series, his now famous silver chain garnered its own cult status and boasts over 170,000 followers on Instagram.
“I feel like the chain needs its own credit,” laughs Mescal, admitting he would never have thought “that cheap little necklace would have garnered the attention it did.”
Mescal put the power of the chain to good use by raffling off his own personal chain to raise money for suicide prevention charity Pieta House, a cause that is close to his heart.
“It was my first kind of experience of seeing what the power of a show and a character, and even a piece of costume, can do potentially for parts of society that I care about,” he explains.
Connell’s inability to express his emotions and struggle to find his place begin to take a toll on his mental health, which starts to deteriorate throughout the series.
One of the standout scenes from Normal People was Connell’s heart-wrenching therapy session.
“That was one of those days I was terrified to shoot. I’m really proud of that scene because of how scared I was of it… I remember reading that scene in the book and it destroyed me,” says Mescal.
Although Mescal has not gone through anything on that scale, he made sure to talk to people who had gone through similar experiences prior to shooting.
Mescal praised Rooney for writing so authentically about mental health in a way that resonated with so many people and felt “deeply relatable to people of our generation”, and accurately described the experience “where your brain feels like its collapsing in on itself.”
This put a certain pressure on Mescal because he had never loved a character like Connell and knew how important it was to show a masculine man talk about his feelings on screen and become visibly upset.
“What helped me was that, at that point, I had played him for three or four months, so I feel like I wasn’t reaching for my interpretation of who he was,” he explains.
Looking back, the further Mescal moves away from Normal People the more he misses the show and the people, “it will forever be a really special time in my life,” says Mescal.
After spending almost a year talking about Normal People and not filming any new projects for a while due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Mescal was nervous about going back to work for the first time.
“I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to act,” Mescal admits. “It’s really nice to be back on set and reminded that this is actually the important part of it all… the really exciting things have been the opportunities I’m being afforded as a result of Normal People.”
Looking at the actors of his generation, Mescal takes inspiration from their consistently high performances and the fact that “they take nothing for granted.”
He cites the performances of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine, Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name and Saoirse Ronan “in pretty much anything she does” as major inspirations, noting they are “really raising the bar”.
“It’s that kind of feeling when you leave the cinema and from an acting perspective, you’re like, ‘I should pack it in now, I’ve had a good run but I’m not going to be able to do that’,” laughs Mescal.
“There’s an energy in the actors around my generation and I feel like I really want to go on that ship and go with them,” he says.
Now that production is back in full swing, Mescal is certainly not allowing the ship to leave without him; he is one of the leads in the film adaption of the classic opera Carmen and is set to star in the upcoming film The Lost Daughter alongside Olivia Colman, something he describes as a “huge moment in my life”.
At the moment, Mescal is working on a film he feels will be different from what people are expecting from him, and although he misses the long form aspect of TV, he laughs, “…but films are pretty cool.”