When Paul Mescal was studying drama at Dublin’s Lir Academy he yearned to play Stanley Kowalski, the thuggish lead character in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Loughlin Deegan, the course director, told Mescal he was more suited to play the sensitive, courteous Mitch and that to have any chance of ever playing Stanley he would have to be brave and take risks as an actor.
Mescal did not protest or take offense. “OK,” he said.
A few short years later Mescal is now playing Stanley in a London stage production that is about to transfer to the West End and is coming to grips with an additional role: global film star.
The 26-year-old was this week nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the drama Aftersuntopping a clutch of accolades that have established Mescal in the indie A-list and invited comparisons to Marlon Brando.
For Deegan it is a testament to Mescal’s dedication. “The talent was very evident from the get-go. The other aspect is how grounded he is, that sense of inner confidence and self-awareness.”
Instead of bristling at the suggestion that he was not a natural leading man, Mescal took risks in workshops and productions, stretching his range and approach, said Deegan. “He is utterly focused on building the character from the text and honoring the work.”
International audiences first saw that in 2020’s Normal Peoplethe television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel, when Mescal played Connell, the self-doubting teenage lover of Marianne, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones.
It may have helped that Mescal, like the character, came from a small Irish town and played Gaelic football.
Overnight he became a heartthrob. He does interviews as required but does not court social media or give any sense of wanting to be a celebrity. Quite a feat given he has been in a relationship with the US singer Phoebe Bridgers.
“I’d describe him as a humble charmer,” said Aoife McGreevy, a manager at The Roost, Mescal’s local pub in Maynooth, County Kildare, in the center of Ireland.
“He is almost the talk of the town. Maynooth feels like it’s on the map because of him. But he’s very laid back – a normal Irish boy who became really famous but is still an Irish boy.”
On visits home Mescal slots back into a tight-knit family: his police officer mother Dearbhla, school teacher father Paul, and two siblings. “The family are such nice people, just down to earth,” said McGreevy.
Aidan Minnock, a neighbor and family friend who coached Mescal at the local Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club, said at the age of 14 Mescal gave up hurling and rugby to focus on Gaelic football.
“In football and life in general he’s very determined, very driven. He had a brilliant attitude to training, he applied himself and wanted to be the best.”
Mescal was a precocious left-back and took command even when playing with older boys at club and county level, said Minnock. “He was a great reader of the game, very coachable, he listened and put into practice what he was coached.”
Mescal continued in a game even after suffering a broken jaw. The injury eventually ended his playing days, but on visits home he coaches youth players and mixes with GAA friends.
Deegan thinks Mescal’s rootedness has helped him navigate fame. “It has really prepared him to respond to this tsunami of attention and to stay focused on the work.” He deeply researches roles but abjures method acting extremes, said Deegan.
Mescal has so far shunned blockbusters and focused on quieter, more challenging fare – a supporting role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughteras a man accused of sexual assault in God’s Creatures and then as a troubled father in Aftersun. His most mainstream role is in the upcoming sci-fi drama Foe, starring alongside Saoirse Ronan.
Moments after the Oscar nomination was announced on Tuesday, Mescal was on a WhatsApp call to his family. “To see his face and to see him so shocked and so joyful, I’m so grateful. I’m very grateful,” his mother told RTE.
Dearbhla Mescal is soon to start treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, but hopes to join her son in Los Angeles for the Oscars ceremony in March.
It was important to share a child’s joy, she said. “You move mountains for them because you want them to achieve in whatever they are doing. You just want them to be as happy as they can be.”