By a stroke of good fortune, Lenny Abrahamson happened to be in London on the day that Paul Mescal received his Oscar nomination for Aftersun, having flown over to see the actor perform on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire.
“We ended up having a drink afterwards with a bunch of people and celebrating,” the Irish filmmaker and screenwriter notes, speaking to from the sidelines of the Dublin International Film Festival (of which he’s a board member). “It was a really nice, serendipitous time to be in London.”
Of course, if anyone has earned the right to celebrate Mescal’s success with the star, it’s Abrahamson, who directed him in 2019’s TV smash hit Normal People, his breakout — literally his first significant screen role — and helped kick start one his dramatic cinematic rise. Not that Abrahamson is taking any credit.
“You do know when somebody’s brilliant,” he says, noting that Mescal’s audition tape for the role of Connell Waldron was one of the first they received. “Everybody in the office was just blown away by it. I wasn’t some Svengali who saw a little spark. It really didn’t take a genius.”
Mescal went from Normal People (for which he won a BAFTA TV award), to a supporting part in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, to his first Cannes Film Festival appearance in 2022 courtesy of leading roles in both God’s Creatures and Aftersun. Alongside a number of projects shot and awaiting release, he also landed arguably his biggest project to date when he was cast by Ridley Scott to lead his long-awaited Gladiator sequel.
“It’s wonderful how meteoric that transformation is: from Normal People to Aftersun through to Gladiator. It’s amazing,” says Abrahamson. “You wouldn’t write it. It almost has a cartoon strip three-panel structure to it.”
Abrahamson, himself an Oscar nominee for 2015’s Room (starring Brie Larson), suggests that this transformation is due to Mescal’s unique pairing of a “very particular masculinity as well as this great vulnerability,” adding that “there aren’t that many people who have that combination of screen presence and delicacy, and also just pure skills and instinct as an actor.”
But he also credits the actor’s careful choices and the fact he hasn’t simply taken advantage of his rising status to agree to everything that comes his way.
“You can’t know in advance which projects are going to really work. Actors have to rely on their instinct and their biggest point of control is just saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things,” he notes. “And I think he’s been really true to his own instincts about doing work that he cares about.”
Aftersun, for example, was a small film that few people knew about until it was announced as premiering in Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar.
“But [Mescal] bought into the vision of the director. He recognized somebody with real talent and understood how he would fit into that role,” says Abrahamson. “It was a brilliant choice. Similarly with God’s Creatures and the other decisions he’s made — he’s just gone for work that’s meaningful and, as it happens, has kind of made those choices so brilliantly.”
On the subject of God’s Creatures, while Aftersun has garnered more headlines since bowing in the south of France, the intense Irish drama — which was arguably the bigger project heading into Cannes, thanks to his co-star Emily Watson and with A24 already on board — is now getting some attention.
The psychological drama — set in a windswept fishing community — opened the Dublin International Film Festival on Feb. 23, where local boy Mescal was the star attraction, posing for selfies and signing autographs on the red carpet. The following day, he was on hand to present his co-star Watson with the festival’s Volta Award, celebrating the careers and contributions of international filmmakers.
In an intimate ceremony in the bowels of Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, Mescal recalled a moment during during the God’s Creatures shoot when Watson expressed her concern to him that her performance in one of the more emotional scenes might not have been good enough.
“I sat across from her for five weeks and I’d seen her work in God Creatures, which is just absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “And to see somebody turn in that performance and care so much, and be so devoid of ego to be actually concerned that it wasn’t good, I just thought: you can’t fake that.”
Abrahamson admits he told Mescal on the set of Normal People that life would probably never be the same for the actor afterwards. But even he acknowledges he had no idea that less than three years later his young star would be handing lifetime achievement awards to Emily Watson, getting major job offers from Ridley Scott or preparing to walk the Oscars red carpet.
“I do remember saying to Paul that things will change,” Abrahamson says. “But I don’t think any of us quite realized just how things would change, how completely things would change.”