“Look at Your Little Face”: A Paul Mescal and Dakota Johnson Reunion
Who among us could resist the chokehold of Connell’s chain? The appetite for actor Paul Mescal tipped from Irish boy-next-door to topshelf lust object when he played emotional wrecking ball and famous necklace wearer Connell Waldron in the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Mescal’s intimately coordinated purée of sexy, smart, and a bit sad left hearts throbbing, as did his lust-manufacturing penchant for the shortest of short shorts. Rather than don a cape and fall down the tired rabbit hole of the Marvel matinee idol, Mescal is sharpening his indie-favorite talons with strategically un–pretty-boy roles—as an American veteran in Benjamin Millepied’s retelling of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a troubled son in the A24 drama God’s Creatures, and a weekend dad in Charlotte Wells’s balmy debut Aftersun. As busy (and erotically potent) as he may be, Mescal still found time to chat up his former castmate Dakota Johnson, who, like the rest of us, cannot resist his charms. —RAVEN SMITH
PAUL MESCAL: What’s going on?
DAKOTA JOHNSON: Oh my god. Is it recording already?
MESCAL: They don’t fuck around.
JOHNSON: Look at your little face.
MESCAL: These shorts must be the most ridiculous things on planet earth.
JOHNSON: Let me see. Oh my god, I can’t take it.
MESCAL: Yeah, ridiculous. Where are you?
JOHNSON: I’m in Boston. Working away.
MESCAL: Well, you look fantastic as usual.
JOHNSON: How are you? I miss you.
MESCAL: I miss you too. I just got in from Toronto today. I literally just got off the plane and I’m here in short shorts.
JOHNSON: What did you have there?
MESCAL: Carmen and Aftersun were playing there.
JOHNSON: Wow. Carmen. I know we’re not meant to be talking about that one. You know, they sent me links to both of your movies and I haven’t had time to watch either of them.
MESCAL: Don’t be worried about that. You’re very busy.
JOHNSON: I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions about each of them, and then I’ll watch the movies retrospectively.
JOHNSON: And when the article comes out, you and I will go through it together and fact-check. [Laughs]
MESCAL: Sorry, is that your trailer or dressing room?
JOHNSON: This is my trailer.
MESCAL: Fucking hell, that’s like a hotel.
JOHNSON: This is where I live. This is my new home in Boston.
JOHNSON: Are you jealous?
MESCAL: I’m very jealous. I’ve never seen a trailer like that.
MESCAL: It’s nicer than the hotel I’m staying in.
JOHNSON: Are you in your hotel right now?
MESCAL: I have to go back in and shoot after we finish.
JOHNSON: What are you shooting for?
MESCAL: Interview, for this interview.
JOHNSON: Oh, that’s weird. That’s how you think it happens in your mind and it never happens that way.
MESCAL: Yeah, it’s weird.
JOHNSON: You look really well.
MESCAL: Thank you. Grooming.
JOHNSON: No, but like, you look good.
MESCAL: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Where are you going after London?
JOHNSON: Is Phoebe [Bridgers] in Nashville?
MESCAL: Yeah, we’re going for a couple of days, and then we’re going to be in New York for a week.
JOHNSON: Are we allowed to talk about Phoebe or should we leave it?
MESCAL: Let’s keep it mysterious.
JOHNSON: I like that. I like to do that too, obviously. Okay. So when you got really sunburned in Aftersun, and you used the product after-sun, how emotional was that for you?
MESCAL: It was like the touchstone for the inner emotional landscape of Calum. Even now when I think about the product after-sun, I want to cry.
JOHNSON: [Laughs] Me too. For you. But really truly, I remember when you were about to go do that movie. You were like, “I’m going to play a dad and that feels really weird to me.” How did that all work out?
MESCAL: I think it’s weird because people tell you you shouldn’t do that. As a young actor, they’re like, “Careful, don’t go play that too soon or you’ll be typecast.”
JOHNSON: Why? Because they think it’s going to age you or something?
MESCAL: Yeah. And I’m like, “Look at me. I don’t look like I’m my age, I look older.”
JOHNSON: You look like you still live with your dad.
MESCAL: I look like I’m 47.
JOHNSON: No, you don’t.
MESCAL: I feel like, generally speaking, I look at least my age or older.
JOHNSON: You look like you live at home.
MESCAL: Well, the casting director and the director of Aftersun disagree with you.
JOHNSON: [Laughs] Okay. I thought that you were meant to be playing a young dad.
MESCAL: Yeah, that was the way we got around it. At the start of the film, Sophie, my daughter, and I are mistaken for brother and sister. He is described as a young dad, looks like a young dad, is a young man. I think it’s interesting when you see somebody who is young and in a position of responsibility, and who is really good at being a dad, but is also struggling with turning 30.
JOHNSON: What’s the relationship dynamic between you and your daughter in the movie?
MESCAL: I play a single dad, she spends most of her time with her mom in Edinburgh, and they’re like best pals, me and my daughter. Frankie Corio plays her and she’s just the easiest person to fall in love with on planet earth. She’s really, really special. The relationship kind of mirrored it. But it’s the whole drama of the film, which I like. You often see absent fathers in traditional drama settings, and you’re like, “Oh, he’s going to have a moment of enlightenment.” Whereas with Aftersun, he is really good at being a dad and is struggling with everything else. He kind of hates himself at moments and never really shows his daughter that, which is dramatically really interesting and sad.
JOHNSON: That is really interesting and sad. But also how I would like to see more men be portrayed in films.
MESCAL: We’ve seen the absent father tons of times. I find it harder to play that role because—maybe I’m generalizing, but that is a trait I would associate with somebody who’s more jaded. Calum has an enthusiasm for life 80 percent of the time, and then there’s a crippling 20 percent of his inner landscape that just dominates a moment, and that feels like—
JOHNSON: That feels like you to me. You have a lust for life that I love.
MESCAL: You have a lust for life that I love.
JOHNSON: Do I?
MESCAL: I think you do. Calum feels familiar to me as well, at moments.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Where did you shoot that movie?
MESCAL: In Turkey.
JOHNSON: What was the accent?
MESCAL: Edinburgh, Scottish.
JOHNSON: Cool. Isn’t it weird when you do a job, and you saturate with the people around you so deeply that leaving feels a little bit heartbreaking, or a little bit of you can’t let go?
MESCAL: The Lost Daughter was that, right?
JOHNSON: It was like that, for sure. I was so depressed after The Lost Daughter.
MESCAL: It’s the worst part about our job, I think, categorically.
JOHNSON: I had a real comedown after that one.
MESCAL: Do you remember calling me when I was in Australia, out of the blue, and you were like, how is your little heart?
JOHNSON: Oh, did I say that?
MESCAL: Yeah, you did. It was cute.
JOHNSON: Oh my god. I do remember that. I remember most of our FaceTimes and conversations, except for the ones we have when we are drunk.
JOHNSON: How much of the movies you did after The Lost Daughter were inspired by me? How much am I a part of your career as an actor? [Laughs]
MESCAL: You are—
JOHNSON: Do you want me to also be in the photo shoot with you?
MESCAL: I think people would go wild for me and you in this matching outfit, standing side by side.
JOHNSON: It’s really a strong look. You do look good in short shorts. Can you ask to keep them?
MESCAL: I don’t want them. [Laughs] I’ve got a pretty extensive short shorts wardrobe.
JOHNSON: We know, Paul. Sorry, I know this is a side note. But did you see Carmen for the first time at Toronto [Film Festival]?
MESCAL: Yeah, I saw it. Impressive.
JOHNSON: Did you love it?
MESCAL: Yeah, I’m really proud of it.
JOHNSON: I saw Ben [Millipied, the director of Carmen] a few months ago in L.A., and he was saying how amazing it was. I mean, obviously he wasn’t saying his movie’s amazing, but he was saying that you were amazing.
MESCAL: That’s nice. I don’t know how you feel about this, but I kind of like watching my stuff back. I think it’s important to look at your stuff early on. And then when I sit down for the first time to watch it with an audience, I’m like, why am I doing this to myself?
JOHNSON: So you like to watch playback?
MESCAL: No, I never watch playback. Watching it by myself or with somebody that I really trust to be like, “What do you think of the film?” is great. But sitting in on the first public screening is a level of torture that I wouldn’t inflict on my worst enemy.
JOHNSON: It’s another ring of hell, yes. The one time I ever felt like, “Oh my god, this is amazing,” was watching Cha Cha Real Smooth in a movie theater.
MESCAL: So good, that movie.
JOHNSON: Thanks. But I mean, the movie was my baby. I was there every step of the way. So I think when you’re so inside of something, to then see it in a theater and really feel people’s reactions, that was crazy.
MESCAL: Well, I don’t watch the movie. It was the same thing with God’s Creatures.
JOHNSON: It’s very weird. Who directed God’s Creatures?
MESCAL: Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis.
JOHNSON: How did you like working with two directors?
MESCAL: It was two for the price of one. You get two incredibly articulate and creative voices, and two sets of eyes on the same material. It’s the darkest character I’ve done, and they were so sensitive and aware that that would be a tricky process.
JOHNSON: When you’re playing a darker character, do you have fun with it, or do you go to a dark place in yourself ?
MESCAL: If I feel self-conscious, that’s normally when I feel silly and that’s not a good feeling to me. I’m very aware that I’m in my body and I’m safe and it’s all okay, but I don’t have the confidence as an actor to distance myself and my character in that kind of, “This is all just fun and games,” way, because it doesn’t feel like that. Your body is going through the wringer. If the character is distraught I get incredibly nervous because there’s a pressure to deliver something that you’re imagining in your head. That feels kind of serious. But when you finish the day, you’re like, “How ridiculous was that? I was crying about somebody else’s problems.” Somebody probably wrote it a couple of years ago, and now you’re actualizing it and feeling these feelings and your body is like, “What the fuck is up?”
JOHNSON: Yeah, totally. It’s exhausting.
MESCAL: And then they call cut and you go off and go home to bed and you’re like, “Okay, let’s go at it again tomorrow.”
JOHNSON: Bizarre. Now that you’re in this position in your career where people are so excited about you as an actor, and want to work with you, what makes you decide what you’re going to do?
MESCAL: It’s kind of a boring answer, but I feel like it’s that classic rule of three you’re given in drama school. It was like, good script, good director, good character—if you can tick off two of those, you’ll be good. Ideally you want three, but if there’s two that you can really compellingly stand behind, then you’ve just got to make sure that you’re at the top of your game. I aim for three. If it’s two I’m like, “I want to do this, but I’m scared it won’t be good.”
JOHNSON: How do you feel about auditioning?
MESCAL: I find it really hard.
JOHNSON: I hate it. I don’t know anybody who enjoys it.
MESCAL: Somebody said that you should treat an audition like an opportunity to act. The idea of that is nice, but I don’t agree with it.
JOHNSON: Do you have to do more self-tapes than actually going in somewhere?
MESCAL: I can’t remember the last time I went in for something.
JOHNSON: Does that seem weird to you?
MESCAL: I did tapes for Aftersun because I was in Donegal shooting God’s Creatures. And the first tape that I had to do was to listen to a Blur song and smoke a cigarette and dance around the kitchen but not dance.
JOHNSON: Which Blur song did you choose?
MESCAL: Fuck. Name a couple of them and I’ll be able to tell you.
JOHNSON: “Song 2.” “Beetlebum.”
MESCAL: “Song 2.” That’s what I did. There’s lots of Blur. Aftersun’s got a crazy good soundtrack.
JOHNSON: They got Blur for the soundtrack?
MESCAL: Yeah, “Tender.” JOHNSON: I have “Tender” written on my arm. Oh, you can’t see it, there’s makeup.
MESCAL: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s in the film.
JOHNSON: Oh, it’s such a good song. What are you going to be doing next?
MESCAL: I’m doing A Streetcar Named Desire in London.
JOHNSON: Oh, that’s right. Have you started rehearsals?
MESCAL: No, I start in just over a month, on Halloween.
JOHNSON: How long is the run?
MESCAL: Middle of December we go up, and then finish in early February.
JOHNSON: You’re going to have too much fun. What theater is it?
MESCAL: Yeah I’m excited. The Almeida.
JOHNSON: Oh, amazing. Where Saoirse [Ronan] did … What’s it called?
JOHNSON: [Laughs] Oh yeah, that one.
JOHNSON: Do you remember your first scene in a movie?
MESCAL: Do you remember my first scene?
JOHNSON: [Laughs] Yeah, of course I do.
MESCAL: Is this to go on record? I would go on record again because it’s a funny story. For anyone who was interested, I was shitting myself. It was in The Lost Daughter, and for some reason, the first scene that we had to do was me kissing you. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?”
JOHNSON: Really the most horrible first—
MESCAL: No, that’s unfair. I think I’d be okay with it if that happened to me now. But I think kissing anybody on your first day’s work, let alone your first fucking job, let alone it being Dakota Johnson, you’re like, “Okay, great.” But you could tell that I was nervous and you were exceptionally disarming and kind. Actually, I think as a result of that, it made us close. I would’ve hated you otherwise, to be honest. [Laughs]
JOHNSON: Rightfully so. I really suck. Most people do hate me. [Laughs]
MESCAL: I did not feel cute.
JOHNSON: I love it so much. I love how that was your first scene in a feature film.
MESCAL: Great content.
JOHNSON: It’s content, for sure.
MESCAL: When do you finish your job?
JOHNSON: Seemingly never. It’s a long one. [Laughs] That’s for another time.
MESCAL: For sure. I also want to catch up with you outside of an interview.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I’ll call you. [Laughs] And I’ll tell you the truth about everything.
Hair: Naomi Regan using Olaplex
Makeup: Lucy Wearing using 111skin at A-Frame Agency
Set Designer: Julia Dias
Photography Assistants: Leigh Skinner and Sid Ellison
Post-Production: Output London