Normal People's Paul Mescal on the 'massive responsibility' of bringing Connell's breakdown to screen
It's been a few months since Normal People arrived on Hulu to break our hearts and frustrate us (sexually and otherwise), but we're sure everyone's still thinking about that one scene where Connell (Paul Mescal) breaks down in a therapy session after the death of a high school friend. As it turns out, that scene was pretty memorable for Mescal too.
As part of EW's Emmy's Awardist coverage, we chatted with the Irish actor (who's nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series category) about what it took out of him emotionally to bring that moment to life. "When I read that scene I was like, 'Oh, God this is a big scene to have to play,'" he tells EW via Zoom call, adding that he felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement at the prospect of bringing those pages from the book and script to life. "There was an opportunity in that scene to discuss something that...feels very rooted in a society which I know: young, Irish men. It's what I come from and what I know best, and seeing that scene represented in the scripts and the book, it felt like a massive responsibility. On the converse side of that, from an actor's perspective, it has everything in it to challenge you. It's definitely the most challenging scene that I've ever had to play, and with that comes fear and excitement really close to each other."
Mescal went on to share that during a table read for the pivotal scene, he was sitting next to Eanna Hardwicke (who plays Rob, Connell's friend who kills himself) and his reaction has really stayed with him since. "He's one of my very good friends and we got to the therapy scene and I think it was the part when I say, 'I hate it here; I don't feel like I really click with anybody' and — I don't think he'll mind me saying this— I remember he had quite a visceral response to it and that really upset me," explains Mescal. "Weirdly, having that response at a read-through added to the pressure of having to deliver something similar on set. But it was weirdly nice to know that I was able to do it, or that it had happened before, rather than just arriving on the set and hoping for the best."
When he did arrive on set that day, there was a palpable shift in the atmosphere which was usually lighthearted and fun, due to the closeness of the young cast. "Everyone was totally quiet and serious and reverential which was tricky to adjust to initially, but ultimately it served the scene well," says Mescal. As the cameras started rolling to first capture a couple of wide shots, Mescal fully broke down, but when they then moved in for the close-ups, he wasn't feeling the emotion as much at first. "I felt disconnected from it because the first two takes were quite strong — or at least there was a huge amount of emotion coming out of them — but then nothing was really happening on the first couple of close-ups," shares the actor. "Between each take, we took a lot of time to decompress, then we'd do notes and go again. I was nervous that nothing was going to happen after the wide shots; I thought I'd blown it from there."
Raising the high stakes even more was the knowledge that so many people have been in a similar position to Connell, feeling lost and overwhelmed and seeking help. "I hadn't played a scene where that content was required before," says Mescal. "There was more pressure on it because of the content and the responsibility I felt towards achieving something that is fictional, but a reality to lots of people in the world and people that I know." Mescal was grateful to both the detailed writing in the book and the conversations he had with people who had been through similar experiences and was blown away that people have reached out and thanked him for a performance that made them feel seen since. "When people responded the way that they did, it was a massive compliment and one that I'll take to my grave," he says.
Watch the full interview above. Normal People is available to stream on Hulu now.