'Normal People' Breakout Paul Mescal on Fame and Chains: "I Have No F***ing Idea What's Happening"

Paul Mescal - P - 2020
Credit: Ruth Crafer

"As awful as 2020 has been, it's been professionally and personally an incredibly amazing year," says the 24-year Irish actor, who's had a phenomenal career boost — all experienced under lockdown — thanks to his portrayal of Connell Waldron in the hit BBC/Hulu drama.

Few would disagree that Paul Mescal has had a rather unique and somewhat transformative lockdown experience.

In mid-March, as much of the world slowly began shutting up shop due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the 24-year-old was a young actor looking forward to his first significant on-screen debut. Just three months on and as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased, the Irishman is set to emerge not simply a critically-lauded star, but a social media obsession for a growing legion of international admirers and a British tabloid newspaper favorite being stalked by photographers.

The show in question was — of course — Normal People, the BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s wildly popular novel, charting the complex and fraught love story of school sweethearts Connell (Mescal) and Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones). The hype and hugely positive response to Normal People has catapulted Mescal into the public domain with the sort of phenomenal, isolation-fueled speed only a few have had before.

Of the numerous Instagram fan accounts now set up in his honor, one dedicated solely to the much-written about silver chain he wears both on and off screen amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in just a few weeks. More recently, Gucci appeared to cash in on his fame and growing fashion icon status, launching a pair of expensive shorts that many online considered remarkably similar to those Mescal has been wearing while out jogging (and caught by the paparazzi, now a regular occurrence). 

And all of this has happened during a unprecedented period of lockdown, with the actor mostly confined to his East London flat. 

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Mescal describes dealing with the past few months both personally and professionally, figuring out what he'd like to do next and coming to terms — or not — with the fixation over a piece of jewelry. 

Bit of an open-ended question, but how has the lockdown been for you?

It’s had a bit of everything. Ha, how best to describe this? It’s obviously had the show coming out, anticipating a show that you're intrinsically involved in. And that has its own nerves. You also have the kind of stress and pressure of being in lockdown anyway. Then you have the pressure being locked down during a time when something big is happening in your life. And you have the kind of fallout of the show coming out and the media side of things, which is all learning. So yeah, it’s a little bit of everything!

Congratulations on Normal People. It’s a really wonderful show and so beautifully done. 

Thank you. I'm really proud of it. I think the further I get away from the show, the more I'm able to view it objectively.

The response has obviously been phenomenal, which must be so lovely to hear.

Yeah. It feels like I've been spoiled with this job. This is my only experience of a show coming out in this sense that's in like, on the screen. And it feels like it's been overwhelmingly positive.

What was your method with the reviews and responses? Did you go online actively looking for them?

I followed people's advice, and they were like, stay off, promote the show, do all those things, but stay off — don't go actively looking for things. And then kind of as we got further into it, they were like, I think it's actually pretty safe, that responses like this don't typically happen often. And I imagine they're few and far between in one's career. So the advice then was to try and enjoy it as much as you can. And given the current kind of circumstances where everything, you could argue, is pretty bleak in the world, it's important to take the little joys that you can find.

I spoke to Daisy a few weeks before Normal People came out and she was talking about how weird it’s been to have this major breakout moment while stuck inside, effectively trapped inside her own bedroom. I imagine it's been just as peculiar for you?

Yeah, it's massively peculiar. A lot of time and effort and love goes into making something like this, but then you're also living in a world where Coronavirus is happening, and there's also mass protests happening across the world. It puts a lot of things into perspective. So sometimes it feels kind of like odd talking about it, but there's ways of doing it in a tasteful manner. So yeah, it's just like a quagmire of like, figuring out your personal life in terms of how am I coping with the idea of being locked within four walls away from family, but also what I feel is politically happening in the world and how feel active and present and proud of my actions outside of that, and then also promoting a show that I'm incredibly proud of. So it’s been a really formative few months.

Have you and Daisy spoken much about it?

Oh yeah, we’re in regular contact, which is great because we're both in very similar positions. It's always good to have an ally in that sense.

Alongside the great reviews, how does it feel to have become a focus of internet and tabloid obsession as well? I imagine you’ve noticed there’s an Instagram account dedicated to the chain Connell wears that has more followers that many celebrities?

It's not even an attempt to like brush over that, but I haven't gotten to the point where I'm able to articulate a response, other than that I have no fucking idea what's happening. It wasn't that it was bothering me, but I was like, if there is something that's gaining this much attention… and it's an inanimate object. It’s a chain. It's not something that says lines, it's not something that has an emotional response to a situation, it's not something that expresses anything. It's a thing that's clipped around a character's neck.

But it's been great because recently I feel like I've reclaimed some form of ownership by raffling off one of my own personal chains for a charity in Ireland — Pieta — that deals with suicide and mental health, things that are directly associated with the show. So it was like, okay, I can make sense of this and feel some sort of ownership — it’s not something that is just directly happening to me.

Is the chain obsession the most insane experience you’ve had so far?

Between the necklace and being photographed going to the shop. It’s pretty, pretty weird, and it’s uncomfortable. It just seems so insignificant in the grand scheme of the world.

Most actors who have just had such a major breakout moment will most probably be flown over to the U.S., do the rounds the big agencies, producers and casting directors and sign up for the next big blockbuster. Have you been having your own lockdown experience of this, remotely from your bedroom?

Yeah. I've been signed with Curtis Brown since drama school, but I've since signed more recently with CAA. And it's been great. As much as I’m as eager as anybody else to go out and work, it feels like it's been a really nice time to get the team and myself and to figure out how everybody functions. And it's nice, because you're able to get through a volume of scripts because nobody knows which ones are going to go first. I suppose there's loads of negatives to be taken from but the positives are that you've time to meet casting directors and producers via Zoom and go into detail about what your taste is and what you respond to in terms of work and acting in parts and filmmakers. Like everybody else, I would like lockdown to end. I desperately miss acting, I miss it a lot.

What sorts of scripts have come though? Similar to Normal People or completely different?

There are things that are similar and there's things that are wildly different and on various mediums in terms of TV, film and theatre. It's just about getting through them, even scripts that I know I'm not going to do it — it's important to read and go like, why don't I like that, why do I do that, that's not the right thing to do next. Or it's just about acclimatizng to the industry and knowing what kind of scripts are getting produced and green lit and why. It's been a really informative few months in that sense of kind of starting to see the kind of inner workings of the industry in a way that I haven't seen before.

Often there is a mad rush to capitalize on an actor’s buzz and sign up for everything, so it must be nice to sit back and take your time. 

Exactly. I don't know how this would have happened if the show had come out under normal circumstances. I feel like I haven't really had a second to breathe in general, but I don't know what it would have been like in terms of jumping on planes and going to meet people. As much as I'm sick of lockdown, I don't think I can complain in that sense. As awful as 2020 has been, it's been professionally and personally an incredibly amazing year.

Do you have anything else lined up? Did any of the scripts pique your interest?

Yeah, there's a couple of projects that I'm signed up for, and it's just a matter of knowing if and when they will go, which is impossible to tell.

Given Normal People’s success, there’s inevitably been talk of a second season. I appreciate that Sally [Rooney] hasn't actually written anything yet, but is this something you’ve considered or would like to do?

There's loads of parts to that question. The selfish actor part of my brain knows how challenging and how fun it is to play a character like Connell. There's also the part of me that goes like, OK, I'm really proud of that show, but I don't want to go in and do a second season too soon and fuck it up. Because often that can be the case, where that perfect thing suddenly becomes less perfect. I would obviously love to play Connell again, but that decision has got to come from people who are way higher than me in terms of creative input. I think you've also got to let Connell and Marianne grow up a little bit, maybe five, 10 15 years. If you were to go and look at these characters again, you've got to let them enter a different phase of their lives.