Even before graduating from the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College in Dublin, Paul Mescal was cast in his first professional stage role as Jay Gatsby in the Gate Theatre’s production of “The Great Gatsby.” Now 24, with two years of theater under his belt, Mescal stars in his first major screen role and a major breakout performance as Connell on Hulu’s “Normal People.”. Here, he reflects how his theater training has informed his fledgling acting career.
How did your theater training prepare you for your first screen role?
It was two years of consistent work onstage. It’s very hard to describe what it was but obviously, the time spent, three years in drama school and two years on the stage, I think somewhere on the line, something leads you to be ready for when something like this arises.
Is there one thing you learned in drama school that you keep with you for every job?
The overall thing I remember was the head of the drama school, he said when we all graduate, “You learned all you’re going to learn in this setting. My one piece of advice going forward with the rest of your life is don't be a dick.” I think that is actually massively important in an industry where it requires a lot of exchange of personality. You have to be both strong and considerate at the same time in terms of your opinions, your values. It doesn't matter how talented you are; if you’re not a nice person, people aren't going to want to work with you. The head of acting at the Lir said if you’re not listening, you’re not going to be able to act. It's important that you’re always listening to your director first and foremost, but if you're not listening to your scene partner in any context, you’re just acting in a bubble and that’s not fun to do.
You landed the role of Jay Gatsby right out of school. What did you walk away from that experience having learned?
I was let out early, thankfully, by the college to do that job. I was working with theater giants in Ireland. I was working with Charlene McKenna, Owen Roe, people I had watched throughout college and they were incredibly generous not only with their talent but with their time. That first year I was working with people who are brilliant, brilliant actors and sharing a dressing room with them and seeing them every day, that was like your training a lot in itself. It's one thing to train with your own peer group, then you start working with actors who have pretty much seen it all and [to] pick their brains and be in a rehearsal room, that to me was invaluable. To be fair, our teachers in college said this is as far as your training is going to take you.
What performance should every actor see and why?
You think of Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter,” Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront,” Al Pacino in “The Godfather.” Michelle Williams in “Manchester by the Sea.” Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine.” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story.” Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name.” It’s [also] amazing to see a film like “Little Women,” people who are my peers in terms of age and delivering on that scale consistently is really inspiring.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There’s stuff I would tell him now that would make life a little bit easier, but I think it's important to figure those things out at the time. Hindsight is the best thing ever, but I don't think I would've changed my approach to make it easier for myself. I think some things that you really want are supposed to be hard.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
I’ll obviously read the sides, memorize the lines, and I'll try and do that as quickly as possible so the closer I get to an audition I'm not thinking about lines. Sometimes you don't have that time. It's about trying to organize your thoughts about how you think about going about playing it. And sometimes you have to do that quite efficiently because you don't have a lot of time to prepare. If you’re lucky enough to have the whole script, it's about going through that as many times as possible. Some auditions require more preparation than others. I’ve learned that for myself. It's not about preparing the same way for each one because that can be exhausting. If you're auditioning for a period piece, you need to have a greater understanding of the physicality of the time. Ultimately, preparation is the only thing that's going to support you when the nerves hit.
What is your worst audition horror story?
I think I’ve been blessed that I don't have any of those absolute hell auditions, which is incredibly boring of me! I haven't done a huge amount of auditions in the sense that the two years I was working in theater, the way that that works it pulls you out of auditions. I was starting a theater job for three months, and half way through that run, I would’ve booked another job. I think in that three years I maybe auditioned for three or four things.
What’s the craziest thing you ever did to get a role?
I don't think I'd ever do that. I don’t know why, I just think then when you do that you lose autonomy over yourself a little bit. Ultimately I think you have your own worth as a person, your own worth as an actor, and you go in and you try and protect that and you show whoever you are. You've done the work and you’re ultimately right for the part. That’s not to say I never will, I'm not ruling anything out. It's not something I’ve ever done. I think it comes down to personality.
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