Joe Alwyn and Paul Mescal Get Honest About Anxiety Battles and Sex Scenes: It Must ‘Feel Safe’ but Not ‘Stale’

Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski

Paul Mescal and Joe Alwyn are literary heartthrobs, having both headlined TV series based on Sally Rooney books. In 2020, “Normal People” put Mescal on the map as a brooding student. And as married actor Nick in 2022’s “Conversations With Friends,” Alwyn’s character became enmeshed in a messy love triangle.

Their latest projects show what else the actors can do. In “Aftersun,” directed by first-time filmmaker Charlotte Wells, Mescal is a single dad who tries to bond with his preteen daughter (Frankie Corio) on a trip to Turkey. Alwyn had a busy year on the festival circuit, playing an enigmatic Englishman in Claire Denis’ Nicaragua-set romance “Stars at Noon” opposite Margaret Qualley, and a medieval uncle in Lena Dunham’s “Catherine Called Birdy.”  

Paul Mescal: So what’s the name of the WhatsApp group that we’re in?

Joe Alwyn: It’s the Tortured Man Club, I think. It’s me, you — and Andrew Scott started the group. 

Mescal: He’s just on it every day. He’s just on it by himself. 

Alwyn: Just messaging himself good mornings. We were both in the Sally Rooney universe and crossed over with Lenny Abrahamson. We were so lucky to have that experience. 

Mescal: Yeah, I think Lenny is one of those directors that definitely formed me. He’s been hugely important in everything that I’ve done since then. Was there anything you took from playing somebody like Nick into “Stars at Noon”? 

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Alwyn: With “Stars at Noon,” that was such a singular, strange, unusual entry point. I was brought on very last-minute, which was a first for me. I got an email Friday morning saying, “Will you read the script as soon as possible? If you’re interested, Claire would love to Skype with you.” And so obviously I did, I Skyped with her, and she said, “Will you join us?” She was already in Panama. 

And four days later, I got on a plane. And she was standing outside the hotel with a glass of rum for me and gave me a hug. And two days later, we started shooting. 

Mescal: Oh, wow. Is there something liberating in the process? You probably can’t do the amount of prep that you would. 

Alwyn: Yeah, it was hard. At least at the beginning. 

Mescal: Was it just gut feel?

Alwyn: Yeah, and some conversations with Claire. Her way of shooting was so unusual. I can’t remember if I told you this before: She would shoot things out of order, even in a scene. It was very fragmented. 

Mescal: Disconnected and fragmented.

Alwyn: I think she feels things in an animal way and is piecing it together as she goes. And there’s no traditional coverage either. 

I wanted to ask you, thinking about Lenny and thinking about “Aftersun.” I absolutely loved it. And you’re incredible in it. With the space given to you guys to breathe in a room, and not stuff it full of exposition, and just have the camera rolling in a very real, naturalistic way, it felt quite Lenny-ish. Is that fair to say?

Mescal: I think it probably is. It was directed by Charlotte Wells, who is going to be one of those directors that we’ll all be talking about. I haven’t come across somebody as assured as Charlotte. 

Alwyn: Is that confidence in the script? 

Mescal: The stage directions are really confidently written. I don’t know about you, but I love acting in that space when you know that there’s a kind of theatricality to it, but the stakes are high. We only had Frankie for about four hours a day.

Alwyn: How old was she?

Mescal: She turned 11 on set. 

Alwyn: How much of that is improv?

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Mescal: Ninety-five percent of it is scripted, I’d say. The karaoke scene, for example, was just about getting Frankie comfortable with the idea that an 11-year-old who hasn’t ever acted before is going to have to stand up in front of a camera and an audience and sing “Losing My Religion.” And she does it brilliantly. In the rehearsal, the camera wasn’t working, and Frankie ingeniously went, “That’s OK. I’ll record it with my mind camera.” I remember turning to Charlotte like, “That’s the most brilliant line of all time.” Charlotte wrote it in afterwards. 

What’s a kind of ideal rhythm for you on set? Well, you’re just investing in Claire Denis. 

Alwyn: And you know her use of bodies. There’s a sex scene in the first scene . Her direction was just like Francis Bacon.

Mescal: Wow, just that? And, go! I’d like to get into that a bit, because obviously I think it’s fair to say we’ve done our share of intimate scenes. How did that experience on “Stars at Noon” differ from “Conversations”? 

Alwyn: So different.

Mescal: Yeah, really? 

Alwyn: “Conversations With Friends,” there’s an intimacy coordinator. The scenes are spoken about. They’re rehearsed. Every movement is almost choreographed like a dance or a fight. And they’re quite blocked, even though there’s freedom within it. But I trusted Claire and I trusted the crew. And Margaret, obviously. And you feel safe within that. I think trust and feeling safe is the main thing. 

Mescal: That is the main thing, totally. But it is interesting, with that question, being it’s a hot topic in the industry. I think you’re right that you never want scenes around intimacy to feel stale. But ultimately they have to feel safe. And I think you can feel safe multiple ways, and that’s through trust. 

Alwyn: Absolutely. I wanted to ask you, which is kind of off topic, but I remember us speaking before about anxiety and shooting and being able to get outside of anxiety in order to do the job. How are you finding that? 

Mescal: It’s that cursed feeling of, once you feel like it’s disappearing, it comes back and hits you like a ton of bricks. But I was talking to somebody about that. They said, “I don’t think it’s ever going to leave you, because it’s a personality type.” But for me, it’s trying to use that anxiety or fear or fear of failure — repurposing that to be like, “What I’m doing matters to me.” Might not matter to everybody, but it matters to me at that moment. How do you feel about that stuff? 

Alwyn: It’s interesting and tricky. Because it gets to a point where there’s a degree to which nerves are completely inevitable and can also be helpful. But at the same time, there’s a danger — and I’ve certainly felt this in the last couple of years — where that can start to take away some of the pleasure and the fun of doing it. So recently it’s been a rethink: Going forward, just jumping in in the same way but caring less in the right way.

Mescal: Talk to me a bit more about that.

Alwyn: Just trying to find a way to have more fun and sense of play. 

Mescal: I learned a huge amount from Frankie, because Frankie had never done it before and just loved acting. I feel like that’s a good instinct to have as an actor — to try and really get to the center of when you watch somebody act with abandon. 

Alwyn: On “Catherine Called Birdy,” Bella Ramsey, who plays the lead, she was 17 when we shot it — probably 15 when she was cast. She’s just going for it. It was the first job I went back to out of COVID, and I remember feeling really nervous because I hadn’t done it for a while. And there was this world of masks. And Lena Dunham was having to direct on Zoom when I joined. 

Mescal: What is a Lena Dunham set like?

Alwyn: She’s a force. And full of energy, positivity, creativity. I think maybe also because she performs herself, she has a good understanding of what an actor might want. She really takes care of people. She will come in and tell you what she liked, or she’ll give you a thumbs-up. And, also, she’s just so funny. 

Mescal: Do you like auditioning? 

AlwYn: I’ve come to quite like making tapes. It used to drive me mad.

Mescal: I prefer being in the room, I find. I feel like my issue when I’m making a tape is that I have too much control.

Alwyn: Do you go on and on? 

Mescal: Yeah. And then it’s hour three.

Alwyn: You’ve got 50 takes to watch, and they all look the same.

Mescal: It’s an absolute nightmare. What do you look for? 

Alwyn: Erotic thrillers. 

Mescal: Same. 

Set Design by Jack Flanagan