Months into the release of “Aftersun,” Paul Mescal is still pleasantly surprised when someone approaches him about it.
“It’s one of those things [where] it’s so small and so intimate that you’re like, ‘God, I hope that resonates,’” the actor recalled in an interview with TheWrap. “And the last couple of months have just been a testament to the fact that it has.”
So have Tuesday’s Oscar nominations, where the 26-year-old earned a nod for Best Actor. Written and directed by Charlotte Wells, “Aftersun” chronicles a summer vacation taken by Calum (Mescal), a young father deeply at odds with himself, and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio). Told from Sophie’s perspective at different ages, the film lives at the crossroads between memory and hindsight.
While Calum wears fatherhood like a protective armor, Mescal slips into the role like a second skin. Playing a parent may have been daunting if it weren’t for his and Corio’s close bond.
“If you like the people that you’re working with, normally the chemistry passes into the film. And I feel like luckily that was the case with this,” he said.
“I feel an immense love for [Corio], and care, and kind of responsibility because I was acutely aware of her talent. I was like, ‘Whoa, you’re going to be acting for a long time. And I want you to be okay, and looked after.’ And those feelings, I think, mirror a lot of the things that Calum was feeling,” Mescal said.
Their rapport feels so natural that, at times, it almost feels improvised. In reality, Mescal estimates that 95% of the film is scripted. “A testament to [Wells’] dialogue and screenwriting skills,” he said.
That was something he’d picked up on almost immediately after getting hold of the script. “Let’s just say the first couple of pages I was like, ‘This is somebody who knows exactly what they want and how they want to go about doing it,’” he said.
Mescal’s instincts served him well. During the shooting process, he felt so dialed in with Corio that the cameras faded into the periphery: “We’re in this little bubble together, and nothing’s gonna shake it.”
Read on for the full conversation, in which Mescal reflects on parenthood, the film’s surreal ending, and how he’d feel about acting in another Sally Rooney adaptation.
When you read the script you immediately knew you wanted the role. Was there a specific moment that did it for you or was it more of an overall feeling?
It was like when you read a good book… I can’t remember an exact moment. Let’s just say the first couple of pages I was like, ‘This is somebody who knows exactly what they want and how they want to go about doing it,’ even just from the writing, before I met [Wells].
How do you prepare to play a young father to an 11-year-old, somebody who’s close enough in age to be a sibling?
That was obviously something I was nervous about before we started working. Then I started to think about stripping away the fact that, yeah, I’m not a dad or anything like that. So it was about just spending as much time [as possible] with [Corio]. Also, there’s a practicality to like, if you like the people that you’re working with normally the chemistry passes into the film. I feel like, luckily, that was the case with this. The preparation was just actually putting in the time with [Corio], to be totally honest.
If the Sophie character had been younger it would have just naturally been a different dynamic.
For sure. I’m not 30, but the implication is that [Calum] is mistaken as her brother throughout the film, so it made sense to me.
Did you walk away from the project with any insights into parenthood or what parents go through behind the scenes?
It opened my eyes. You forget that your parents are these fully fledged human beings with their own needs and desires. That doesn’t stop the minute you have a kid, it just gets put in a different place. It definitely is eye-opening and helps me sympathize way more with my own parents, you know?
The videos that Calum and Sophie take account for so much of the film. I’m curious how involved you were in the creation of the camcorder footage?
Some of it is scripted. There’s only maybe one camcorder moment that’s improvised and it’s when I am slagging Frankie, or Sophie, off by saying that she has a big head. That was just us walking around. So a lot of the camcorder footage [was] scripted, which I think is a testament to [Wells’] dialogue and screenwriting skills.
Given that this is Frankie Corio’s first time acting was there an effort to keep things spontaneous on set?
Lucy Pardee, the casting director, recommended that [Wells] didn’t share the script with [Corio], but gave her the story. So the rehearsals were just kind of exercises for me and [Corio] to hang out and spend time with each other, and essentially do the holiday before we shot the holiday, you know? Which was really useful.
Does your dynamic with her on-screen evolve out of the real friendship that you were developing then?
I think so, for sure. I feel an immense love for [Corio], and care, and kind of responsibility, because I was acutely aware of her talent. I was like, ‘Whoa, you’re going to be acting for a long time and I want you to be okay and looked after.’ Those feelings mirror a lot of the things that Calum was feeling. It’s a nice blending of those two things.
We learn as the film goes on that this is a composite of Sophie’s memories, from a subjective point of view. As Calum, you play both a memory and a complete person. How did you negotiate that?
I never really focused on the memory of it. I let [Wells] direct that. But it’s kind of impossible to play a memory version of somebody and for it not to feel ghostly, or separate, or distant. So I was very keen to focus on the present-tense, active version of Calum.
But I imagine it’s hard, because we only really learn about Calum’s past and inner feelings in small, concentrated moments. Do you have a clear picture in your mind of what he’s going through? Is it more about just sitting in his feelings?
It’s both things. It’s important to do the work early in prep, to be like, ‘What do I think is going on medically?’ And then the closer we got to filming, the less useful I found that, because that’s not the information that he has. I don’t think he’s been diagnosed with anything. I think he’s sitting in these feelings, and deeply confused and upset by why he’s not able to enjoy himself, or because everything else on paper is good. He’s with the person that he loves most in the world and he should be happier than he is, and that’s devastating.
I think one of the most fascinating windows into that is how he watches the footage that they’re taking every day.
It’s like a mantra, yeah.
What does that say to you about how he’s struggling to be present? Is he stuck in the past or in the future?
He’s watching those videos in an attempt to remind himself that he is good and that Sophie loves him, and that he’s doing a good job. It’s like positive reinforcement or else he feels like he’s going to disappear off the face of the earth.
That also comes through in his physical expressions of care with Sophie and the way that Calum’s body is present in these frames. What were your conversations with Wells about that?
It was just an attempt for [the physicality of it] to be as tender as humanly possible … that Sophie should feel so safe that she can just fall asleep while I’m stroking her forehead [or] cleaning her face with cleanser. All of these things I just feel are so wonderfully, wonderfully tender. But it’s also just an instinct thing. I don’t remember a specific conversation with [Wells] about that because it felt like that’s the physical language of Sophie and Calum’s relationship.
The ending of the movie is ambiguous and surreal in a sense. For you, is it important to leave that up to the audience’s interpretation?
For sure. I don’t think we get enough films like that, where you challenge an audience to be an intelligent bunch of people who go in and want to interrogate something and come away with different responses. And I think they’re all valid. I absolutely think it should be left to the discretion of the audience.
What was it like seeing that on screen for the first time, and the film as a whole?
It was amazing. It’s one of those things [where] it’s so small and so intimate that you’re like, ‘God, I hope that resonates.’ The last couple of months have just been a testament to the fact that it has. People want to see films like this. I don’t know, maybe that’s a projection of what I want to see more of, but it’s been really, really satisfying.
I feel like there’s some overlap between Calum and Connell, your character in ‘Normal People.’ Do you find that people are connecting to this character in a similar way?
It’s weird, I always expected people to see ‘Normal People’ because the book was so popular, but it still does take me aback when I’m in a coffee shop and somebody’s like, ‘I saw your film in the cinema last night.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, thank you. Thanks for going out and watching it.’ People are going to the theaters to see it and it’s f–ing wonderful.
Would you be open to appearing in the next Sally Rooney adaptation if you were asked? Would that be too confusing for the cinematic universe?
I think it probably is. I would be very tempted to operate in that literary landscape and to be playing all of her characters, absolutely. But I think it would be maybe a tad confusing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.