Now an Emmy award nominee, a BAFTA nominee and set to take on Hollywood in the remake movie of Carmen, Paul is taking on contemporary dance to help support the young performers whose fledgling careers have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown in the new Samsung Spotlight project.
There are people who have won 2020 and then there is Paul Mescal. A year ago, we were not too familiar with the 24-year-old Irish actor, we hadn’t met Miss Rona (COVID-19) and we certainly didn’t know a simple gold chain (@connellschain) could break the internet. But a lot can happen in one year or rather a lot can happen over the course of a twelve-part adaption of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
The new initiative hopes to champion creators in the arts by asking them to enter simply record a short performance of up to 90 seconds and submit their entries via social media using #SamsungSpotlight to be in with a chance to star in a new digital ad campaign.
Effectively it gives performing artists the stage that has been taken away from them – something Paul is very passionate about.
Here, as Paul Mescal launches the campaign, he opens up about how this year has affected his mental health, how he feels about becoming a thirst trap, the pressures of social media, getting the balance between a personal relationships and a career and why performing artists need our support right now…
This project hopes to support the arts and the talent affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, by giving them a stage. How have you found the confidence to take to the stage in your own life?
The first thing to acknowledge is that I’m in an incredibly privileged position that I’ve got to do the job that I love in a year when that hasn’t been the case for a lot of creatives. I went to drama school and I used that time as a safe space in order to figure out if I could actually do it. Genuinely those three years were some of the most important in my life in terms of just giving me confidence to put the work in. But that never guarantees anything as there’s a lot of luck required along the way.
Did you suffer with confidence struggles?
I suppose it’s always having personal ambitions about what you want to achieve and then trying to marry that up with the jobs that you’re getting. There are totally times when you’re in the middle of it and you’re like, ‘oh God, I hope that’s it all pans out.’ I don’t have horror stories though and I was really lucky that I got to work consistently but it’s all relative. Talking to any actor, creative or anybody, their biggest performance anxieties come from within themselves, not actually from the industry. In today’s current climate it’s a totally different because they simply don’t have that outlet to actually be proactive, or as proactive as I was lucky to have been when I came out of drama school.
How has the outlet of performing helped you and how does it help with your mental health?
Oh God, I genuinely don’t know what I’d be doing without it! I can’t envision it, I genuinely can’t. I went into drama school at 18, I was out at 21 and was working at 21 so it has been the constant in my life as an adult. I don’t have any other reference point for how my life would be without that. For a lot of creative people, it’s by doing the thing that we love that really calms us down, gives us an identity and gives us a kind of grounding in the world.
That’s exactly why it’s so scary that performing has been taken away from so many artists this year…
It’s devastating. People who were graduating from drama school didn’t have any showcases as COVID-19 hit. The infrastructure wasn’t in place to support them. Drama students were left in this no man’s land of having trained for three years and agents, producers and people who would typically come to these showcases, weren’t allowed to leave their houses. Genuinely my heart goes out to them. I imagine if they can get through this, it doesn’t get harder than that. If they can survive that, I think it’s only going to stand to them in the long run.
You are trying to give younger performers a head start but who really shaped the start of your career?
My teachers in drama school at The Lir were incredible. I could literally name you the whole department, but I think I always have huge admiration for Loughlin Deegan and Hilary Wood. Loughlin would say, ‘We think you can do this job, and we think that you’re able to be an actor.’ When you don’t have that confidence within yourself, you have to go, ‘I’m going to go and do this.’ You need people who are kind and supportive to take baby steps and know they will catch you.
Do you feel like you have that confidence now in yourself now or do you ever still have a battle with your self-critic?
Yeah! I had that, for example, when we were shooting the video. I was like, ‘why did I decide to dance?’ But you need to go outside your comfort zone because I think that’s when you stop becoming obsessed with the finished product and you realise it’s about the act of doing it. You might look back and think, ‘f**k, that was hard, and I think I could have done better.’ Of course, you feel like an imposter but it’s in that area where you feel uncomfortable that you learn the most.
It’s also about trying to remove the concept of what we deem success or failure and just trying to really focus on what we’re doing and why we enjoy doing it. There are loads of opportunities to relapse when you’re actually out there doing the thing, because of course it’s the most human thing to compare yourself to other creatives in the world, too. It’s so competitive and without a doubt, there’ll be tonnes of ups and downs in it but if you can always come back to the fact this is thing gives me the most joy, then I think you’d be in a good place.
It’s also about not falling into comparison traps, which are the worst!
Oh yeah, but also, I think if that happens you need to acknowledge it and go, ‘that’s natural!’ It’s human!
You just need to focus on the things you can control too…
Yeah and I think that’s also come from playing sport and going through drama school. It is something that was drilled into to me, control the controllable – control the things that you can control. That’s not to say that you’ll do that every time, but if you do it gives you the opportunity to at least give yourself the best opportunity.
If you could sit the younger you down who was leaving drama school, on this call, what would you want to say to them?
I’d tell them that there’s a massive pandemic coming our way and try to start preparing for that (laughs)! I’d say to try as best as possible to focus on the work as one thing and to protect all the important relationships in your life and never let work dominate or silence the other part of your life that you get all your energy from. I’m saying that to myself now. I haven’t remotely mastered the balance at all, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s so easy when you’re trying to establish yourself in the world in a highly competitive industry, that it can become obsessive. It’s totally obsessive and it’s important to know that you do this because you love it, but it can’t be the only thing in your life that gives you joy.
You totally need to make sure you keep part of your life for yourself…
Yeah, totally but that’s such a hard thing to do. That is such an easy thing to say on paper, but as a young people it’s harder than we’re given credit for. Everybody is on different trajectories, but everybody is trying to be the best version of the professional person that they want to be versus being the best person. Trying to balance all those things when you’re still figuring yourself out is a really difficult but ultimately, when the balance is struck, I imagine, it is a really rewarding experience.
With that in mind, what is your relationship with social media like as you now have over a million Instagram followers and that can be quite a tough thing to go through whilst also trying to understand yourself at the same time?
Totally! It’s an amazing privilege to have a platform like that and it did kind of happen overnight. It was going from 1,000 followers to couple of 100 thousand. It’s amazing. I get the most joy out of it in terms of that is that it is coming from people who saw Normal People and really related to it. But it’s also important to acknowledge that I think we do live in an age where we can become obsessed with that (social media following). As time has gone by this year, I’ve learned a lot in terms of needing to step away from those things. Nobody’s going to remember your Instagram following. It’s not going to be written on your tombstone. It’s about what the kind of real legacy you want to leave behind is.
It must have been so strange experiencing the huge success of Normal People at the same time as being locked down. Did you feel out of control in some ways?
It is a load of different feelings. The predominant one is that it’s the most exciting year that I’ve ever had in the most bizarre of circumstances. You are looking at what’s happening in the world and you’re like, ‘is this a simulation? Am I going to wake up and Normal People didn’t happen?’ When Normal People came out, I thought that the rest of this year would be a write off in terms of work and that they would just have to restart again in the new year. I’m weirdly most grateful for the opportunity to have worked during this because I think it would have taken a big toll on mental health and identity. When that thing is taken away from you, what do you do with your time? It’s been a crazy six, seven, eight months, and not without its difficulties, but in the grand scheme of things I have zero, zero complaints.
You really are part of a new wave of masculinity on screen. What does masculinity mean to you sitting here today?
Masculinity is an incredibly complex yet powerful thing that has to be used carefully and used with care, I think, in the world. It’s about being aware of that, trying to use it as best as possible and constantly educating yourself about it. I think that’s the important thing.
How do you educate yourself about it?
By being in tune with how you’re relating to the world, what kind of privileges you’ve inherited, how to use them, how to address them and to just try to be a good person. I think we should all be aiming to do that, I think.
The number one thing we should be as humans is empathetic…
Totally! I totally agree!
It’s so interesting as well because you have become a bit of a thirst trap this year. Do you ever find that quite objectifying in a way?
It’s a byproduct that lives its own life after the show comes out and its people falling in love with a character. As a result of that show, I’m in a position now where I can hopefully support younger artists who are at the start of their career and I am very thankful for that.
The reaction and celebrity reaction to Normal People has been insane. I interviewed Nicole Kidman for her GLAMOUR cover interview and even she was obsessed. What has been a celebrity reaction that has truly taken you aback?
That’s probably up there! I remember seeing that and I was like, ‘wow,’ because I was watching The Undoing at the time. It does feel like a simulation to a certain extent when you’re watching actors and people within the industry who you really admire reacting to your show. It’s pretty cool!