Paul Mescal skyrocketed to stardom at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, when everyone was huddled in their home looking for something new to watch, and Hulu’s Normal People filled that void, due in large part to his performance as the charismatic but conflicted Connell Waldron. And with that success came a flood of offers for what the Irish actor should do as his follow-up.
Mescal picked two independent films, God’s Creatures and Aftersun, both of which are debuting at the Cannes Film Festival. And when we sit down to talk in a serene little garden in Cannes after his first screening of God’s Creatures, it’s clear that he plans to stick with independent film for as much of his career as he can. Could he have taken on a big studio movie or even a superhero film? Sure, there were offers. “There’s always some form of a temptation,” he says. “But I don’t know. I’m 26. I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t have kids. I want to make films that I can sit in and watch and be incredibly proud.”
According to him, he’s driven by a deep desire to be proud of the work he takes on, saying he finds that mostly in independent film. Plus, he’s a little afraid of what he’d do if he did a project that he wasn’t happy with. “I think that a lot of it is motivated by fear as well,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to have, say, made a film that you’re not proud of, and you then have to do this [press] and you have to talk about it. The kind of duality of that scares me.”
Since the frenzy around Normal People, Mescal, who made his feature film debut opposite Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter, has spent the past year or so out of the spotlight, but he seems excited to be stepping back into it to promote these two projects. “I’m incredibly proud of the films and the choices that I’ve made,” he says. “There’s something incredibly satisfying about that—like choosing things for the right reasons.”
The first right reason came along in God’s Creatures, which played in the Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes. The A24 drama, directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, is set in a small fishing village where Mescal’s character, Brian O’Hara, returns to his family after spending some unknown number of years in Australia. When Brian is accused of attacking a young woman in town, his mother (Emily Watson) struggles with the choice of protecting her son or telling the truth.
“I often think about what my acting teacher said: ‘It’s not your job to be moral, it’s your job to invest into this character’s life and find what motivates this person to be good, to be bad, to be indifferent,’” Mescal says. “I like the craft that goes into something that is far away from you. And I think that if we were all playing characters that we thought were good, or just, or heroic, films would be boring.”