The actor Paul Mescal is glad his new film, God’s Creatures, has the power to evoke feelings of unease and anxiety. The A24 movie, costarring Emily Watson and directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, centers a young Irish man named Brian, whose mother, Aileen, is his biggest supporter and champion. But when she tells a lie for him after he commits a heinous act, their family and community are nearly ripped apart. God’s Creatures is dark—both in color palette and mood—and the film’s buzzing, grating soundtrack creates a menacing energy. “What’s so wonderful about Anna and Saela is that everything is so considered. Nothing happens by accident. And I like working with people like that,” Mescal tells me over Zoom from the A24 offices in New York City.
The film is certainly a departure from Normal People, the project that launched Mescal to superstardom. (In the Hulu series adapted from the Sally Rooney novel, he played a brooding heartthrob in a romantic melodrama.) That divergence is part of the reason the actor said he was so titillated by the prospect of joining God’s Creatures, his first starring role since Normal People. “It represented something different,” Mescal adds. “It was surprising to me, and hopefully surprising to an audience as the next thing that I did.” Below, the actor discusses the best piece of advice he received from his costar, and getting comfortable with the idea of being a public-facing person.
What was your initial response after reading the God’s Creatures script?
It was just a script that I loved, and very quickly I was like, “Can I be in this? How can I be in this? Let me be in this.” I was stoked on it, but in the sense that I feel like the film, to my mind, leaves you feeling empty. That’s an effective thing for a screenwriter to be able to communicate on a first read. The next stage was figuring out what the filmmakers thoughts were on Brian; I wouldn’t have [this role] if I didn’t feel like they were interested in filling out the character in a way that I think is more true to people who commit sexual assault. They’re not just these monstrous kind of people who lurk around, they are people we recognize. And I wanted Brian to feel familiar to people.
The title of this film is pulled from a line that ends one of its scenes: “We’re all god’s creatures in the dark.” What does that sentiment mean to you?
It illustrates a certain primality. To me, it means if you switch off the lights, you would be surprised what is happening in the inner lives of people. What is actually going on when you’re not in the view of everybody? What do we actually think and feel about each other? Sometimes that is a force of good, and in Brian’s context, it is a scary place. The line has also, obviously, got religious connotations, but I’m skipping over that, because that isn’t interesting to me.
The portrayal of Brian and Aileen’s relationship feels kind of wrong throughout the movie—it’s a little inappropriate, how touchy and close they are, especially toward the beginning. Was that intentional?
Yeah, that was one of the things from the script that I was like, Woah that’s so warped, and so messed up. But ultimately, part of the reason why the film works—and something Emily Watson and myself really focused on—is, you’ve really got to make the audience know that they love each other, truly. Brian is manipulative, of course, but he does love his mother and his mother loves him. And rooted in that idea, there’s a higher place to fall from, for her.
Emily Watson is such a force and your performances together are so good. I’m curious what it was like to run lines with her and to rehearse with her. What’s something about her rehearsal style that sets her apart from other actors you’ve worked with?
We had two weeks rehearsal at the start, and she was just so interested in the process of play and discovery and all of those things that you hope people don’t take for granted. All the time, she was ready and front-footed with the process. Maybe I misremember, but I don’t remember running lines a lot with her. We would just hang out and be quiet in each other’s space.
She said something to me which I’ve stolen and will be forever grateful to her for. One day, I was asking questions, and she was like, “Just know, Paul, that you can take up creative space. It’s not about being liked all the time. It’s about protecting the thing that is the difficult part of it. And know that people aren’t gonna hate you if you are a little bit more quiet today than normal, if the scene requires that.” Starting out, I sometimes ask for permission when I don’t really care if it’s permitted or not, if it is important for the job. And I think she’s really, really brilliant for that—and is really protective of the actors around her.
I read an interview in which you said you felt weird receiving a standing ovation for God’s Creatures at Cannes. Are there any other instances in your experience as a fairly newly famous person that have made you squirm a bit?
I struggle with the idea that the thing you make in private, the shooting process, is normally a very intense experience. And then suddenly it is a finished product for an audience, and you receive their opinion, both positive and negative, and everything in between. When it comes to the receiving of praise or the receiving of critical analysis...I’m like, Oof, that’s wild. We made this film in a vacuum. And suddenly it’s for public consumption—which, of course it is, that’s what I love about it. But I also shy away from that a little bit.
And have you watched the film? Do you watch your movies after they’re done?
Yeah, I do. I find I’m getting better at it. At some point, the older I get, I’ll probably stop watching, but as a young actor starting out, it’s important to see the whole process through—see what I feel works about it and things that I would do differently. I use it as a learning experience. And it’s still a novelty: getting to see your movie and all the actors that you love in the film with you.
The reason I ask is because I’m wondering if you knew the finished product would have such a menacing, thrilling, stressful tone to it.
The film, tonally, is as the script is written, but the additions of music and actually seeing the cinematography is always my favorite part of the viewing process. You see all the disciplines that you don’t feel when you’re filming. The process of making it is my favorite part, but don’t get me wrong: the first moment when you sit in the chair and you’re in a room with tons of people who are the first few audiences encountering the film, that’s rough. Like the first 10 minutes of the film tends to go over my head because I’m like, Do people like it? Do people hate it?
How do you move on from that feeling?
Time, actually. Minute by minute. It helps that I like the things I’ve made so far. And I know that probably won’t be true forever—not intentionally, I just think that, if I’m lucky to have a career that is long, I will make stuff that I’m like, Ooh, that didn't work.
Last thing: there’s a video on Twitter by a comedian who dubbed the “Go get your shine box” scene from Goodfellas with a skit about you becoming a Hollywood star, but starting off by starring in a Denny sausage ad. Have you seen it?
What did you think of it?
It’s a very funny bit. My dad was the first person who sent it to me—he was a big fan of that. He sent it to the family WhatsApp group chat and was like, “This is gas. This is really funny.” I feel like that’s the epitome of dad Twitter humor. It’s marketed for my dad, basically. The bit is innately Irish in its sentiment, and we all had a laugh at my expense.