Natalie Portman and Paul Mescal on Playing Bad People, ‘Healing’ Sex Scenes, and Being ‘Willing to F— Up’ as an Actor

Paul Mescal and Natalie Portman Variety
Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski
Natalie Portman and Paul Mescal are actors whose craft inspires as much admiration as the finished product on-screen. Portman, whose career now spans more than 30 years, including films like “Black Swan” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” keeps us enthralled — this time, with her simmering performance in Todd Haynes’ psychodrama “May December.” The Oscar winner portrays an actress preparing to play a tabloid fascination (Julianne Moore), who became romantically involved with her husband (Charles Melton) when he was 13.

Mescal, whose meteoric rise began in 2020 as a tortured young man in love with a damaged introvert in Hulu’s “Normal People,” delivers another poignant turn in Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers.” A meditation on grief and regret, the film sees Mescal as the free-spirited neighbor and potential mate to a screenwriter (Andrew Scott) quite literally haunted by his past. Together, Portman and Mescal discuss physical transformation, the positive evolution of sex on film and the directors who changed their lives.

PAUL MESCAL: I just want to say how utterly brilliant you are in “May December.” The fact that it’s innately about an actor’s process — was that a big part of why you said yes to this project?

NATALIE PORTMAN: One of the things I loved about Samy Burch’s script for “May December” was all the questions it raised about how [actors] are seeking to understand the human heart. But there’s also the paradox that you’re cannibalizing emotions and stealing people’s true stories, true feelings, and exploiting them.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

MESCAL: The film navigates that in such an elegant and funny way. Your character, Elizabeth, becomes malignant and slightly terrifying, but from an actor’s perspective, she’s incredibly diligent.

PORTMAN: We don’t judge the characters. We’re here to understand human behavior: Is it possible to really be amoral with your art? Is depicting something somehow endorsing it? Have you ever felt like you had judgment for one of your characters?

MESCAL: Once you decide to play a role, you’ve got to become subjective and protect your character. You’ve got to look after your little patch of land. That’s something I find artistically liberating. I don’t want to play people who are perceived as good all the time, because I think films would be very boring as a result.

PORTMAN: That’s something I was so impressed by in “All of Us Strangers.” Your character’s like a dream man. He’s so emotionally available and caring and loving to the point that it was a fantasy. But you manage to make it real. How did you make him human?

MESCAL: To play love is such a great privilege, I think. And to do it with Andrew Scott, who’s the king of playing love. It’s just innate in his being both as an actor and as a human. Going into scenes with him is one of the greatest honors of my career to date.

What was it like being in scenes with Julianne Moore? Where did that relationship flourish?

PORTMAN: Probably from extreme fandom on my part. I’ve admired her for so long — and especially her collaborations with Todd Haynes. “Safe” is one of the performances I have in my head all the time. To work with both Todd Haynes and Julie together, I almost blacked out.

MESCAL: The movie feels like a conversation about craft that’s both really funny to observe and also serves as a warning to actors in general.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

PORTMAN: It can be dangerous. I talked about it a lot with Todd, how we wanted to enter the movie. It was very tempting to make fun of actors and come into this small town and be absurd. He said, “No, no, no. We need to trust you as our guide through this story.”

I really loved the intimate scenes in “All of Us Strangers.” They were very hot but also very tender. Why do we see that so rarely, and particularly for same-sex relationships?

MESCAL: Films like this are an indication of a distance that we’ve traveled, but ultimately there’s quite a ways to go. All I can talk about is my experience with filming those scenes. Andrew Scott’s character, Adam, who is in his mid-40s, has a difficult relationship to sex. My character serves as a safe landing space for him to re-explore his sexuality. I think sex in film, when it can be healing and sexy at the same time, that’s when it’s at its best.

PORTMAN: And it’s such an antidote to all the other depictions of sex that are bombarding us.

MESCAL: I don’t know about you, but I’ve been lucky that I haven’t been in a sex scene in a film where I think, “I don’t know why this is here.” I don’t know what your relationship to that is, but I also think that the sex scene in “May December” is a huge moment and so stark. There’s a wonderful line that your character has, which is so terrifying, when Charles Melton is sitting at the end of a bed and you say, “It’s just what adults do.” My stomach dropped. I thought, “This is so cruel.”

PORTMAN: It’s so callous. I feel like your choices are always so incredible. You’ve chosen so many first-time directors. How do you know that you’re going to be able to make magic with these people?

MESCAL: It’s a gut feeling. I feel very lucky that I know what I like. That’s not something that actors talk about enough. I don’t believe in the concept of “building a career” — I think that comes through cultivating your taste. Films like “All of Us Strangers” or “Aftersun” feel very much in conversation with each other. But, also, I don’t want an audience to be bored or to expect that kind of film from me.

PORTMAN: You’re in the middle of shooting the new “Gladiator.” How much time do you spend thinking about the Roman Empire?

MESCAL: All day, every day.

PORTMAN: What was it like to prepare for that role?

MESCAL: Lots of protein shakes. It’s a big departure from everything that I’ve done before and so unbelievably fun. It feels like just exercising a totally different skill set. I’m having a ball. We’re going to finish it soon.

Something people quite rightfully would associate with you as an actor is the level of transformation, both psychologically and physically, that goes into it. The one that comes to mind is “Black Swan,” obviously.

PORTMAN: The thing I find that’s interesting about physical preparation is that you often get so much of the character through it. On “Black Swan,” I was spending so much time with ballet dancers. They talk while they’re doing all of their exercises and choreography, and suddenly you’re getting all this information about their lives and personalities. You think, “Oh, I’ll take that.” I’ve been working for 30 years. I’ve been working longer than you’ve been alive, man. I’ve been obsessed with these questions of private self, public self, performance, identity, truth — all that this raises.

MESCAL: Is there a director that has changed the course of your life, either creatively or personally?

PORTMAN: Mike Nichols was really an important person in my life, both as a director and as a human. I could talk about this for years. He was the first one to send me to a vocal coach. He was the first one to talk to me about how I prepared. He would say, “You can tell the difference between the older generation and the younger generation, because the younger generation shows up and just expects magic to happen.” He also told me that to do what we do, we need an hour a day to sit and stare at the wall.

Who has changed you?

MESCAL: The ones that jump out are Lenny Abrahamson [“Normal People”], Charlotte Wells [“Aftersun”] and Andrew Haigh. But I think the director of the drama school that I went to — her name was Hilary Wood. She’s this larger-than-life woman who taught me that it’s OK to be bad when you’re acting. It’s such a gift to be able to give students. Teachers are some of the most important people in the world. She totally changed my life.

PORTMAN: It’s most important to be willing to fuck up.

MESCAL: Exactly.

Variety Actors on Actors presented by “American Fiction.”

From Variety US