Wonderland.

PAUL MESCAL

Propelled to the centre of what can only be described as online hysteria, the Irish actor talks the seismic impact of Normal People, the palpable nature of first love and whether there is a future for Connell and Marianne.

Paul Mescal laying down on chair

Knit ZEGNA

Paul Mescal laying down on chair
Knit ZEGNA

Taken from the Summer 2020 issue. Order your copy now.

There is a shuttered room in the underbelly of the internet reserved for truly obsessive fandom. Rarely — aside from the occasional X Factor-cultivated boy band and YA vampire trilogy — does it ever percolate to the outer sunshine-receiving layers of pop culture. But on an unassuming Sunday earlier this month, amidst a global pandemic, the much-anticipated BBC/Hulu television adaptation for Normal People quietly dropped all 12 episodes at once — and without word or warning, it blew the roof off.

No one is more acutely aware or surprised than its leads, newcomers Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, the latter being the main recipient of the hysteria. Since the show aired, an irrepressible public thirst has engulfed Mescal’s social media. At its epicentre, an Instagram account (@connellschain FYI) — 90,000 followers strong — dedicated solely to voyeuristic close-up screenshots of his character’s chain necklace, captions pulped with the supposedly sexually-charged nature of it. Brace yourself.

At the moment he is isolating alone in his flat in London, grateful that the media circus and hysteria is somewhat dimmed, and he is surprisingly calm about it all. “I feel the success of the show when I pick my phone up, but when I put my phone down, nothing has changed from before or after the release,” the 24-year-old tells me modestly when we speak over Zoom one afternoon. So far, the extent of IRL fan interactions have been limited to someone approaching him for a photo at the self-checkout of his local shop. “It was the first time I had experienced that kind of thing and went bright red and panicked a little,” he laughs, recalling it. And how is he dealing with the magnified romantic interest?

Paul Mescal in green shirt

Boilersuit FENDI Vest SUNSPEL Necklace ALAN CROCETTI Socks PANTHERELLA Shoes ZEGNA

Paul Mescal in green shirt
Boilersuit FENDI Vest SUNSPEL Necklace ALAN CROCETTI Socks PANTHERELLA Shoes ZEGNA

“By consciously avoiding it,” he adds a little wearily. “Ultimately it’s dangerous because I haven’t changed drastically in the last two weeks, it’s just weird that people’s perceptions of me maybe have slightly, so trying to avoid it as best as possible.”

It was an intoxicating and inevitable recipe for success. The intimate story of the first love and complex relationship between two teenagers in Ireland — Marianne and Connell — blazed into our collective consciousness via Sally Rooney’s critically-acclaimed novel back in 2018. At one point that summer, every tube carriage bore droves of commuters hungrily consuming its pages. Its word-of-mouth buzz rapidly established a legion of loyal mega-fans; the very same people who rejoiced when news came of a television adaptation. But no one could have foreseen the near-mania that has followed — collecting obsessives who have never even read the book. It is clearly a love story that resonates. Amplified no doubt by quarantine, its seismic success can be attributed to not only its refusal to shy away from important sensitive topics but also its pared-down, simmering portrayal of sex. In all of us, it has strangely unlocked this shuttered room, unveiling our own horny, heartbroken selves.

Paul Mescal sitting down on floor

Boilersuit FENDI Vest SUNSPEL Necklace ALAN CROCETTI Socks PANTHERELLA Shoes ZEGNA

Paul Mescal sitting down on floor
Boilersuit FENDI Vest SUNSPEL Necklace ALAN CROCETTI Socks PANTHERELLA Shoes ZEGNA

“I think everybody has that experience of first love where it’s very palpable and very strong,” Mescal offers when I question him on its phenomenal success. “It’s not something you easily forget.” It is this authenticity, with an added ambition to rewrite the script when it comes to on-screen portrayals that drew him to the show in the first place. “Sex. Mental health. Young people today,” he adds. “It was the opportunity to present something that you feel is documented in a way that feels realistic to you as a young person… And I wanted to do due justice, with the way [Marianne and Connell] were written we had a massive opportunity to put certain things right with how sex is portrayed on screen.”

Indeed, denizens of Twitter and critics alike have lauded the show’s ability to get so many things right that its contemporaries have glamorised, demonised or failed to hit the mark with completely. The show’s lengthy total of 41 minutes of sex scenes never err on pornographic. True to life, they are awkward, unglossy and often almost look-away intense — but at their crux they depict what healthy, consensual sex looks like. The cast notably worked with an intimacy coordinator to choreograph the scenes, even using “safe words” to make Mescal and Edgar-Jones feel their most comfortable. And also, laughter. “Yeah, it just kind of broke the tension,” Mescal remembers. “Like me and Daisy got along really well, so we quickly realised how bizarre the situation is, that you’re in this position with one of your friends, and you kind of click out of it. You’re just like, ‘This is crazy’. But we laughed a lot especially during those scenes, just because they’re quite intense and I think it’s quite important when that happens.”

Paul Mescal lying on the grass

(LEFT) All clothing FENDI (RIGHT) Jacket and boots ZEGNA Vest SUNSPEL Trousers FENDI Chain ALL BLUES

All clothing FENDI Jacket and boots ZEGNA Vest SUNSPEL Trousers FENDI Chain ALL BLUES
Paul Mescal lying on the grass

And it’s not just sex the show gets right. At a time when television is rife with reality shows metastasising toxic masculinity and emotional manipulation into the minds of young people, Mescal hopes Connell and Marianne’s realistic, often fumbling, navigation of romantic relationships prove to be somewhat educational. “Yes, there are dysfunctional parts to their relationship,” he expands. “A healthy, loving relationship isn’t always easy. It has ups and downs. But the important part in theirs is that they love and care for each other. They get a greater gratification talking to each other than they do any other person, and they have a healthier sexual relationship than they do with any other person that we see.”

Even if Mescal feels somewhat unsettled by the romantic attention the show has brought, it’s the torrents of positive feedback, especially from back home his town of Maynooth, that have emboldened him. “Yeah, I’ve had people reach out to me,” he tells me. “Ultimately that’s what I feel like I’m representing, it’s the people that I know. Like I see a lot of my friends and family in both Connell and Marianne, and a lot of people are reaching out to you and saying that’s what it was like for me in school, that’s what my first sexual experience was like, or I had that conversation with a guidance counsellor. That’s the satisfying part because what you’re imagining is representative of people’s realities.”

Paul Mescal in white t-shirt and chain

(LEFT) Knit UNIQLO Trousers ZEGNA Stylist’s own necklace (RIGHT) FENDI

Paul Mescal in white t-shirt and chain
Knit UNIQLO Trousers ZEGNA Stylist’s own necklace FENDI

Another triumphant success of the show is its eye-opening representation of mental health in young people, as well as the rarely lensed mental health crisis in Ireland. When at university at Trinity College Dublin, his character Connell becomes depressed after an old school friend commits suicide — something which Mescal himself had personal experiences of at his school when he was just 13. “I wasn’t in as close proximity to that person as Connell was, but I’ve seen first-hand the devastation that has on a community, and for a lot of people watching it it’s fiction and a dramatic moment, but for a lot of people I know it’s a reality,” he admits quietly. And Mescal’s portrayal of severe depression also delivers a nuanced and authentic gut-punch. How it can manifest itself as emptiness, guilt, a loss of all sensation, a light going out. “I was prepared to really imagine what I thought he was really going through,” Mescal adds. “There’s a section of the book where he lay down on the ground for like hours and hours and hours and that was something I did to try and maybe see what that felt like.”

And while Connell’s relationship with Marianne is by no means his entire salvation (the first painful step during his depression sees him admitting to a counsellor there is an acute problem), Mescal wants to emphasise to viewers the nurturing capabilities that a healthy relationship can have in times of strife. “I want people to recognise how important Marianne is in his road to recovery,” he says firmly. “And the importance of talking and speaking to somebody when you feel that vulnerable. Somebody who loves you is really the only person who can really help you here.”

Paul Mescal laying down in all black

Jacket and boots ZEGNA Vest SUNSPEL Trousers FENDI Chain ALL BLUES

Paul Mescal laying down in all black
Jacket and boots ZEGNA Vest SUNSPEL Trousers FENDI Chain ALL BLUES

And although the series has seemingly propelled characters, Marianne and Connell, into the big leagues of iconic literary couples, it certainly hasn’t wiped away the exasperation surrounding what many people deem to be a frustrating ending to the novel or screen adaptation. Spoiler for both: they don’t end up together. “I thought it was just the most beautifully sad ending to a story,” he begins. “Totally, the romantic in me is like why doesn’t she just tell him to stay? Or why doesn’t she come over to New York? But it doesn’t make sense in the reality of those two character’s lives. I think ultimately if they did decide to stay together at that moment, it would be way more disappointing than the reality of the ending.”

So far, he has already avoided the errors that many other young excitable actors have made, preferring to keep his personal life under wraps. When I quiz him on whether he thinks there is a Marianne and Connell for everyone — whatever that means — he remains tight-lipped. “The romantic in me would like to say yes,” he muses. “I’d like to think there’s one person for everyone, but I’m not fully convinced that life works that way…” He pauses, and adds for good measure: “Ask me in 20 years!”

It’s been a seismic start for Mescal. It is not often that young actors are bestowed with the privilege of such a sensational, nuanced role so early on in their careers. And while he realises his positioning, he is adamant that nothing has changed. No golden ticket has been issued, and “[acting is] still a hard profession that requires a lot of work”. Coming up, he has a film project in its early stages, divulging nothing for now except that “when that comes out it will be very exciting”, and adding that he would like to return to theatre at some point too (it is, after all, where he made his debut).

Paul Mescal in beige knit

Knit: ZEGNA

Paul Mescal in beige knit
Knit: ZEGNA

But finally, I get to the part that all Normal People stans are hungry for. Is there a future for Connell and Marianne? Following a show’s success, it’s not uncommon for scriptwriters to imagine a future past the point of — or divert from — where a book’s plot full stops (see The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones). On the burning question of whether he would ever consider a second season if the opportunity presented itself — the answer is promising, but he remains respectful. “Oh, there’s no question that character to me is still alive and breathing and very much has a lot of life left to live, and has a relationship with Marianne that is maybe unfinished,” he says in an excited breath. “But I do feel like the series that has finished is its own thing, and I’m totally comfortable with that. It’s not on the cards at the moment, but if I got the opportunity to play him again, amazing.” There you have it.

Paul Mescal black leather jacket and shirt
Paul Mescal in black and orange outfit

(LEFT) Jacket ZEGNA Vest SUNSPEL (RIGHT) Knit UNIQLO Trousers ZEGNA Stylist’s own necklace

Paul Mescal black leather jacket and shirt
Jacket ZEGNA Vest SUNSPEL Knit UNIQLO Trousers ZEGNA Stylist’s own necklace
Paul Mescal in black and orange outfit
Photographer
Bartek Szmigulski
Fashion
Kieran Fenney
Words
Maybelle Morgan
PAUL MESCAL