“Have you seen the sausage ad?” Andrew Scott asked me.
“No, no, we’re not going to talk about that,” Paul Mescal said.
It was a mid-November morning in Los Angeles, and I was having breakfast with two actors who have created some of the most indelible romantic leads of recent vintage: Scott, 47, played the “Hot Priest” on the second season of “Fleabag,” while the 27-year-old Mescal broke through — and broke hearts — as the conflicted jock Connell in Hulu’s “Normal People.”
Now, instead of aiming those love beams at women, they’ll point them at each other in the drama “All of Us Strangers,” due Dec. 22 in theaters. It’s like an Avengers-level team-up, if the Avengers recruited exclusively from the ranks of sad-eyed Irish heartthrobs who caused a sensation over the 2019-20 television season.
But before we could talk about their sexy, shattering new movie, Scott gently ribbed his co-star about an ad for an Irish sausage brand, Denny, that Mescal had starred in just out of drama school. (Though the rest of the world was introduced to Mescal in “Normal People,” Ireland already knew him from the ubiquitous sausage commercial.)
“Look, I needed that job in a massive way,” Mescal said. “That paid my rent for the rest of the year. But if I could take it back …”
“Ah, no, it’s lovely you have that!” Scott said. “I actually thought the character you created in the sausage ad was …”
“… career defining?” Mescal offered.
“It made me want a sausage!” Scott said a little too eagerly, causing both men to laugh. “Easy, folks, that’s too easy a joke,” Mescal said.
Scott and Mescal’s teasing, affectionate chemistry is put to excellent use in “All of Us Strangers,” directed by Andrew Haigh (“Weekend,” “45 Years”). Scott stars as Adam, a lonely writer who finds that his childhood home has become a mysterious portal that allows him to reconnect with his long-dead parents (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell). At the same time as Adam grapples with this past made manifestly present, he navigates an uncertain but tantalizing future with his neighbor Harry (Mescal), with whom he develops an intense romantic bond.
Over breakfast, we discussed the movie, which recently took the top prize at the British Independent Film Awards in addition to wins for directing, writing and Mescal’s supporting performance. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Andrew, you were attached to this movie first. How did you feel when Paul was cast?
SCOTT I was really thrilled because I was hoping that people would be able to see how cinematic and brilliant that role is.
MESCAL It never occurred to me that people wouldn’t be interested in it.
SCOTT Well, the character is such a vessel for love. To be able to play love, it’s something that you have to just know how to embody, and Paul is so excellent about being able to allow the audience in. When I heard he was interested, I was saying to Andrew, “Make that happen!”
MESCAL Even if I didn’t like the script or Andrew Haigh as much as I do, and I knew Andrew [Scott] was going to be doing the film, I still would have done the film.
SCOTT Would you?
MESCAL A hundred percent. And I know that probably sounds sycophantic, but when I was reading it and imagining you’d do it, I thought, “This is built for an actor of your caliber.” There’s lots of brilliant dramatic actors in the world, but what I think separates Andrew is his capacity to understand the dramatic requirements of a scene but also to play utterly against it. He finds humor in subject matter like this, which is really quite heavy, and if you can make an audience laugh, you’re halfway to making them cry.
This is a very tactile movie, too.
SCOTT There’s so much touching, whether that’s familial touching or a more sensual thing. People have talked an awful lot about the chemistry and the sex between our characters, but actually what I think is really radical and affecting about the relationship is how affectionate and tender they are with each other. It’s such a beautiful thing to play, isn’t it? Just real care.
MESCAL I find it healing to watch that kind of emotional intimacy. I remember being surprised when we watched it for the first time, because I didn’t remember being so close to your face when we were talking, how we were totally taking each other in. There’s a weird thing that I don’t think you can cheat: You know how when somebody you love is talking to you, and you look at their lips? It’s like, Jesus, I can’t remember doing that.
Andrew, you’ve said before that acting is a matter of revealing. What’s being revealed about you by taking on this role?
SCOTT I think an awful lot, if I’m honest. I’m happy to be able to say that to be emancipated from shame has been genuinely the biggest achievement of my life. For a long time, I have felt very comfortable with myself, but it doesn’t take much to go back there — something a taxi driver can say can still wound you. If he might say, “You’ve got a wife?” You could go, “No, I don’t,” or is that sort of a lie by omission? I think the challenge was to undo the work and go to that place where you feel frightened.
How were you able to emancipate yourself from shame?
SCOTT I genuinely think that acting helped me. When I was a kid, I started doing elocution lessons because I had a really bad lisp. “She sells seashells,” I had to say that 17 times a day. So they sent me to elocution, which was boring, but eventually it was speech and drama classes. I was so shy and terrified, but then someone would say, “Get up and do an improvisation,” and some part of me felt …
MESCAL … free?
SCOTT Free, and I loved it. And then I practiced it a little bit more and then started doing it as a job. When I was 18 or 19, I was playing gay parts but I wasn’t out. A lot of people within the industry were queer, so I was surrounded by them and then, bit by bit, started to feel confident. To make something like [“All of Us Strangers”], it moves me, because I never thought that I’d get a chance to expose myself so much in a film like this or for it to be in such a trusting environment with such brilliant colleagues.
And do you rush headlong into the chance to expose yourself like that?
SCOTT I do. It’s my responsibility. The further I go into acting, I think that’s all it is, actually.
In the first scene you share, Paul’s character is boldly trying to flirt his way into Andrew’s apartment. Paul, it’s a kick to see you play a man so assertive and sure of what he wants.
MESCAL I was just so giddy because I don’t think I’ve got many opportunities to play somebody like that. It reminded me of characters I would have played in drama school — a lot more front-footed, a little bit bolder. Part of it was surprising an audience that might associate me with more interior, back-footed characters that I’ve played.
SCOTT I remember so clearly you saying the line, “There’s vampires at my door.” That line could seem completely preposterous and it’s a hard sell, but it’s unique, right? I’m obsessed with writing that has a real autograph about it.
MESCAL ChatGPT wouldn’t come up with that.
SCOTT Exactly. And human beings have an extraordinary way of expressing themselves. I feel the same way when people talk about big acting.
MESCAL I love big acting.
SCOTT Some people do that kind of polite, nobody-will-notice-me acting, and sometimes it can be a little dull.
MESCAL You’re looking for an opportunity to play something truthfully, but also if that truth can be a bigger, more fractious choice, maybe that could be fun.
What’s the biggest acting you’ve ever done?
SCOTT Oh my God. Pick a card, any card. I did a play called “Present Laughter” by Noël Coward, about a guy who’s an over-the-top actor. It was kind of a farce, and I’m obsessed with farce.
MESCAL I am so jealous of people who can do farce, I don’t know where I would start.
SCOTT It’s all about timing the slam of the door, and there’s no greater feeling than when you’re talking to the other actor and you are waiting for the audience to stop laughing. You’d love it because it’s so physical as well.
MESCAL I’m just a bit scared of comedy because I didn’t do a lot of it in drama school. Don’t think [I’ve got] a particularly funny disposition.
SCOTT Are you out of your mind? I’m going to have a little think now.
MESCAL I’d love to do a rom-com.
SCOTT I think you’d be very good at playing some sort of neurotic.
SCOTT Yeah. I love those kinds of characters that don’t have a sense of humor.
MESCAL No sense of humor. Great. I can do that, I can do that easily. [Laughs.]
MESCAL I remember the first couple of months of that happening, I was like, “Jesus, what can I do?” And the answer is actually nothing. There’s nothing you can do about it if somebody wants to imprint or project onto you.
SCOTT That was all during the pandemic, wasn’t it?
MESCAL Yeah, yeah.
Was it better or worse that you were in your house for most of it?
MESCAL Much, much better. Even doing junkets when “Normal People” came out, I was really glad to do it within the confines of my own home. I could put the laptop down and nobody knew where I was.
Andrew, you weren’t trapped at home when “Fleabag” came out. Could you tell something had changed in the way people perceived you?
SCOTT It already happened a little bit when I did “Sherlock” [playing Moriarty] because that really does have a fandom. There were like a thousand people that would come to set, it was absolutely insane.
SCOTT So “Fleabag” was completely different in that sense. It didn’t have the same frenzy.
Maybe not as you were filming it, but there was definitely a passionate fandom once it was released.
SCOTT There was, but I really enjoyed that because I love the show. I’m so proud of it and I loved that part, so I liked that it really affected people so much.
MESCAL Still! I watch it once a year.
Paul, you even dressed as the hot priest for Halloween.
MESCAL I did. That went down a bit of a storm.
When you have a breakthrough project like those two series, and you’re seen differently in this business afterward, is it hard not to get swept up by all the offers that come your way?
MESCAL I know what I like. I don’t have the confidence in myself as an actor to do something that isn’t good. I don’t think I can pull the wool over people’s eyes with bells and whistles in terms of performance, and I’m actually glad I can’t do that.
SCOTT But is it weird when you are in L.A. now? I opened up my curtains this morning, and there you are.
MESCAL Yeah, my Gucci billboard.
SCOTT That’s insane.
MESCAL It is bananas. Yeah, I’m really proud of that, but I’m also acutely aware the only reason that’s happening is because people are enjoying the work that I’m doing. It can all disappear, like that.
Paul, you’re currently working on Ridley Scott’s sequel to “Gladiator.” I’m sure you’ve been pursued for a lot of blockbusters, so what made you choose this one?
MESCAL I love the first film and I think Ridley is an all-time great, so that was a no-brainer to me. I don’t really have a desire to make lots of big films in my life, but if this was the only big film I was ever to make, I would put my name into the mix anywhere for that. I’m having a great time doing it, but I also think there’s an obligation to understand that I don’t want an audience to get bored of me, or expect me to do the big indie film every year or two, because they’re really hard to get right.
Which is hard to get right, the big film or the indie?
MESCAL A film like “All of Us Strangers” or “Aftersun.” I’ve been incredibly lucky that those scripts came across my desk because there’s lots of other indies that are really well intentioned that don’t reach an audience. Also, it’s hard to go to the emotional well year after year with stuff like this, so I don’t want an audience to get bored of my choices or expect that I’m going to do that.
SCOTT Do you remember you got the “Gladiator” call when we were on the set of “All of Us Strangers”? You were so excited. I think I was even more excited, but you were so lit up about it. I think one of the fun things about being an actor that’s open to you is that you can do whatever you really want.
MESCAL That’s what makes you tick, to go from scenes like we get to play in “All of Us Strangers” to then doing stuff where you’re running around in an arena. If I was to boil down why I love this job, it’s that you get to go to work and pretend all day long but the thing that you would imagine as a child is actually actualized.
SCOTT Have there been any moments in “Gladiator” where you’re like, “This is amazing”?
MESCAL The first day was just bananas. There was camels and thousands of extras. Two close-ups on me. A close-up on the action. And you’re just like, “I’ve got to fake this till I make it.” Wild. Wild. Wild.
SCOTT Yeah, it’s playing. It really is. You’re required to play a part, you’re not required to work a part.
It’s heartening to hear you both describe acting as play or pretend. You talk about it in such joyful terms, but some of the other leading men I’ve spoken to will …
MESCAL … fetishize the pain.
SCOTT It embarrasses them.
MESCAL It’s important to say that “pretend” doesn’t make it any less emotional or difficult to do, but I think it actually gives you a greater range of possibility in a scene. That’s not to say there weren’t days on [“All of Us Strangers”] that felt like some sort of psychological torture.
MESCAL But the act of making it? It can’t be that, because then it just becomes about “How hard can I grip this table? How much pain can I put myself through in order to talk about it to the press?”
SCOTT I think of it sometimes like you invited somebody around for dinner and you said, “I could not find any organic chicken in the market, it was an absolute nightmare. Then I had to hoover the place from top to bottom.” And they’re just like, “Give me a glass of wine. I don’t want to hear about what you did, I’m just here for dinner.”
MESCAL Yeah, that’s spot on.
SCOTT What you need to do is have the generosity to get the chicken out.
MESCAL Organic or not.