Readers' expectations are the 'biggest source of anxiety' – Paul Mescal on tackling role of Connell in Normal People
Paul Mescal is remembering a time his whole body became possessed with stage fright. He had just got his first role and it was the lead in the school musical back in his home town of Maynooth.
“We did Phantom of the Opera and I was playing Phantom at 15, it was a bit bananas,” says the stage actor who is set to hit the big time once the Lenny Abrahamson BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People comes out in late spring.
“I was wheeled onstage playing a fake organ,” he continues, “and I remember my knees locked, and then my whole body started shaking so badly. It wasn’t even in front of an audience – the band were rehearsing. I thought, I’ll just stand really straight, and then, my limbs started vibrating.”
In a way though, it was good: “I remember that being a very cathartic moment, not a pleasant one until it was over.”
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Doing the show also changed the direction of his life. Before he applied to study drama in the Lir Academy, Mescal was all set to become a county football star. He used to play for his hometown club Maynooth and for Kildare underage and later under-21s, always in defence. He has the shoulders and the jaw to prove it.
“I grew up very much involved in sport, GAA, that was the main focus for me through my youth and teens and early twenties. The week of doing that show, your identity shifts because you fall in love with doing something else and you fall in love with it quickly. That induces slight panic but a very euphoric, addictive panic. That’s a feeling that you chase a bit.”
There are certainly parallels between sport and the endurance tests an actor faces. “A huge amount of performance is about how you perceive yourself – you want to do well, and you want other people to perceive you to be doing well. It’s an internal competitiveness.”
It’s impossible not to use a phrase like ‘rising star’ when talking about Paul Mescal. Ever since his precocious debut as the Great Gatsby himself back in summer 2017 at The Gate theatre, the actor has been light-footing from project to project, seeming to stumble without effort into the hyped and the uber-exciting.
I put it to Mescal that he often plays nice young men. From Jay Gatsby, who is a hapless romantic, to the likeable Prince in Nancy Harris’s stage version of The Red Shoes, to Brian in the stage version of Louise O’Neill’s book Asking For It, who wants to do the right thing, to the beautifully decent Connell Waldron in Normal People.
“I do generally play the nice guys,” he says. “But you’re looking for the flaws of those sympathetic characters.” He has emerged into theatre at a time senior women in theatre such as Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn are making major work, while producers are at pains to correct the historic gender imbalance in theatre. “The majority of directors I’ve worked with have been women. I’ve been really privileged.”
This January he stars in Martin McDonagh’s satirical comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore in The Gaiety, directed by Andrew Flynn of Decadent Theatre. A change in tempo for the dynamic performer. “I’m looking forward to playing somebody who’s a bit brutal in the way he uses language,” he says of ‘Mad Pauric’ the IRA terrorist he’s tasked with bringing to life.
“He’s full-bodied, he’s passionate, he’s a zealot, all of which will be fun to play and a big departure from the last year, which is more reserved and back-footed.” Lieutenant follows a plot of mayhem and revenge. “It’s going to be good craic. He kills cats and he kills people. His own cat gets killed and that sets off a brutal chain of events.”
He studied McDonagh’s plays in college and watched his movies as a boy – “In Bruges is one of my favourites. He’s one of the first ports of call in terms of modern Irish theatre, in terms of making work that’s innately Irish but also universally entertaining.”
Poldark star Aidan Turner played Mad Pauric in the West End last year and drew throngs of fangirls to the stage door every night. Mescal coughs a laugh, saying he will be a “big departure from that line of casting.” How so? He hesitates. “I’m younger… We’re different actors. I’ve had different experiences.”
Born in Maynooth, his mother Dearbhla is a Garda and his father, Paul, a schoolteacher who also acted semi-professionally “back in the boom days” (when he puts it like that, it does seem like a long time ago). “They’re amazing,” he says.
As well as sport he played piano. He’s learning to drive at the moment and admits he has a “natural competency”. Please don’t tell us he’s good at maths, too? “I’m terrible at maths, you’ve hit my weak point.”
Mescal was still training at The Lir Academy the summer he was cast as Jay Gatsby in The Gate’s first production under Selina Cartmell. He was 21, which he insists was “way too young”, but, he says, “I was like, yay, I’m getting my professional debut so I’m going to take it. It was the most terrifying and most exciting thing. Also a massively vindicating moment. When someone else says to you that you, Paul, are allowed to do this.”
At 23, the former sportsman appears Olympically driven and deeply good and well-intentioned, a winning combination. Charlene McKenna, the Monaghan-born actress who co-starred with him in Gatsby, described him to me as “relentlessly talented”. She wrote: “When we met I was thinking, how’s this new kid going to pull off a role like Jay Gatsby, 10 years his senior, but you could tell within minutes, he had the talent, humility, wit, brains and charm to make me think wait it’s me should be worried!!!” Meadhbh McHugh, the writer who wrote the adaptation of Asking For It, describes him as “very serious about the work. Questioning and perceptive. He is also very affable and likable, very charming”.
It induces a small sigh. The young person we all wish we had been, but never knew how. He gives this interview his whole heart, apologising when he realises there will be pictures: “I would have worn nicer attire”.
Mescal drove to the hotel bar where we meet on the provisional licence he holds because of Normal People. At the audition he “told a lie” about having one, so much did he want the part. He had to drive his lover Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) for several scenes, a 100 gram camera next to them. Now he’s getting lessons. “I’ve two more to do and then I am going to get my licence. I’d be mortified if I didn’t.”
He first read Sally Rooney’s novel when the audition came through. He was doing Asking For It and he had no scenes in the first half of the play so he “engulfed” the book. “The guys in the cast were all up for Normal People at the time. There was a lot of copies of Normal People flying around backstage in the Abbey.
“Reading the book made me nervous. I felt, I know who he is, and I know I could do a good job doing that if I was given the opportunity. I had an immediate understanding of how I would go about playing him.”
What was it about the story that got him so glued? “It’s a beautifully formed book. I recognise the world in it. It’s a book about young people and how they engage with the world. The element of love in the book isn’t the only important thing, which I found really enriching and complex”. Mescal shakes his head a little. “Whenever I’m asked about the book it’s hard not to sound sycophantic.”
Did he relate to Connell’s trajectory as a country boy who finds it hard to fit in with rich Trinity students? “Definitely on a scale. Going into something I wasn’t necessarily sure that I was good at. Moving from a place where you’re respected and seem to be understood. It’s a big departure to go to a place where your identity’s slightly in question. It takes adjusting to.”
The class privilege discussed in the book, where kids boast about their dads’ jobs or drink champagne while discussing trips to India also felt very real to Mescal. “I’ve definitely encountered it… Sally isn’t from Dublin, I’m not from Dublin. You’re looking through a world that’s alien to you, through a cynical lens.”
He met with Rooney a few times for coffee to talk about the script. “It’s always deeply terrifying when you’re going to meet the person who’s created these people that everybody loves. You’re coming in saying I’m going to represent this character who’s been in your brain for five or six years. She’s incredible. It’s a massive privilege to get to sit down with someone who has that intelligence and emotional sympathy, and get to pick her brain. It put my anxiety at ease, and she gave me her blessing to go and do it.”
He has also made a “friend for life” in his co-collaborator, the London actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who is “an absolute star”.
Given this is his first television role and a major series at that, it’s hardly surprising he uses the word “terrifying” a lot. Most “terrifying” for him has been the idea of fulfilling the expectations of readers of the cult novel. “That’s the biggest source of anxiety. There is nothing you can do to fix that. The version of Connell people are going to see is in the editing room now, and it’s my version.”
Full frontal is another first for him, an element of the series he reveals when asked if his parents will be very proud. “There’s episodes where I’m like, we’ll be turning that off at ‘X’ minute. My mum’s pretending that she’s totally cool with the fact that she’s probably going to see me naked.” Because there’s a lot of waist-up sex, I ask?
“Oh no, it’s full. It’s exposing but it’s also… I definitely wouldn’t have said yes to it if I didn’t believe in the writing. To do this book justice and the script justice I happily said yes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not comfortable.”
Because it’s exposing to be naked no matter what?
“Yeah. It’s a really bizarre experience, the first time you do a scene like that in front of a camera. It’s completely simulated and you want to make it look real. But the other side of it is that the book represents young adults in love having sex. Sex is really positive in Connell and Marianne’s relationship. The way we creatively engaged with it, myself and Daisy and Lenny and Ita O’Brien who was the intimacy coordinator who oversaw those scenes, we were very keen to keep it rooted in the book because that’s so exciting to depict, weirdly. To get to see young adults communicating during sex, which you don’t get to normally see.
“It’s beautifully depicted. I think it is sexy, which I think the book is. It’s a relief to get to play that. When you read the scenes you see there’s something massively important going on for these characters.”
For him, one of Connell’s flaws is an “incapacity to communicate” or “act on what you’re feeling”.
“He’s gone through things I recognise in men my age. I’d be very keen in highlighting it, we all know it’s a massive epidemic in this country, depression. There’s that pressure for the man in our society to be strong and stoic. That is incredibly dangerous, actually. Getting to show somebody who finds it really difficult to express those emotions and the inner workings of his heart is a joy to play but also difficult.”
The promotional shots from the series show that he had to tog out and play some real football on the pitch. Mescal has always played in defence – “I wouldn’t be the most accurate of shooters” – though Connell is a centre forward. How did that work out? “The director Lenny [Abrahamson] kind of handed over to me to do what I wanted because he knew that I played football.
The series, he says, is “true to the book” and “exactly how I pictured it”.
Mescal finished shooting Normal People on a Friday in October and went straight to Belfast to shoot Lisa McGee’s new thriller drama, The Deceived, on the Monday. In it he plays local handyman Sean, a supporting role and a regular in the new series by the Derry Girls creator. He had a week to recuperate between The Deceived and rehearsals for Lieutenant. His year has been busy. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired as I am right now.”
Living between Clapton in East London and his family home in Maynooth, Mescal has not had much opportunity to watch the kinds of plays and series he’s been putting together, but he was blown away by Marriage Story. “There was loud crying from me in the cinema, I made a holy show of myself.”
He went alone to Noah Baumbach’s film about a marriage breakdown because he finds it “stressful” going to the cinema with someone. “I need to keep checking if they’re enjoying it.”
When he came home he got his mum to find it on Netflix so they could watch it together, and he cried again. “I’ve been rounding people up ever since who I think might like it”. He likes sad films and he likes “sad indie depressing music”. Has he known the kind of complicated relationship we see in that film, or in Rooney’s novel? The question provokes equivocation and a follow-up chat off the record. “Would people genuinely be interested in that?” he asks in conclusion.
I tell him he better get ready. The strangest thing about a television debut, he says, is “the fact you’re going to be seen by a lot of people. That’s not something I’m used to.”
If he’s not so used to attention, how does it feel when people congratulate him after a show? “It’s a really nice thing. I find it difficult though if I don’t know the person. In terms of conversation, it’s weird. They have an ‘in’ on you. It’s slightly abnormal, it’s not the way humans talk to each other, they don’t talk in compliments. But it kind of comes with the job.”
As for performance anxiety? “I don’t find 30-minute call a pleasant time. I trust myself a bit more now. I try to pretend that I’m calmer than I am. That calms me down.”
Decadent Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ runs at The Gaiety from January 27 – March 14
Photography by Frank McGrath
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