Relationships, romantic or otherwise, are so often bookended with a tinge of fantasy—of what could be, of what could have been. Moments and conversations—rekindled throughout the course of our lives—sometimes to give us courage, other times to consider that which was left unsaid or unresolved. It is these moments of dream-like tension and catharsis that director Andrew Haigh beautifully captures in his new film, All of Us Strangers.
Out this December from Searchlight Pictures, the film stars Andrew Scott (of Fleabag and Sherlock) as Adam, a listless screenwriter living in a near-empty apartment block in London. After a chance encounter with his enigmatic neighbor Harry, played by Paul Mescal (of Normal People and Aftersun), a relationship between the two begins to unfurl. Soon after, Adam, who is writing about his parents and their tragic passing, feels the urge to revisit his childhood home (shot in the actual childhood home of Haigh).
To his shock, Adam finds his parents, played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, going about their daily lives—the same age they were when they died some 30 years prior. With memories of loss punctuated with silver linings, Adam leans into the inexplicable reunion. Despite the elation of connection, Adam must wrestle with difficult conversations about his sexuality with his parents, and the pain that their absence has caused. Moments that are approached in the film with sincerity, vulnerability, and humor.
Ahead of its release, fellow Irish actor Saoirse Ronan (of Lady Bird, Atonement, and Brooklyn)—who co-starred in the recently released thriller Foe alongside Mescal—attended a friends and family screening of All of Us Strangers. Ronan describes how the audience left silent and deeply moved. The morning after, FLAUNT had the chance to listen in on a conversation between Ronan, Mescal, and Scott to discuss the film, bringing lived experiences to their roles, and the childlike qualities that actors hold onto.
Saoirse: Andrew, um, Paul was making fun of me because I have a ring light.
Andrew: I was gonna say, you look radiant.
Paul [laughing]: Fucking desperate is what that is.
Saoirse: I have a ring light because my basement is too dark and I wanted to look good for you. I don’t care about Paul, but I wanted to look good for you.
Andrew: What a humble brag. “My lower ground level is just a bit too dark.”[Several minutes of lighthearted ribbing later...]
Saoirse: Anyway. Let’s talk about your gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous film. You’re two unbelievably talented, brilliant, beautiful men that I love very much and I’m very, very proud of. One of which I know incredibly well. One of which—Andrew—I don’t know as well, but you are truly one of the best actors in the world, and that’s not mincing words at all.
Andrew: Not yet, Saoirse. Not yet.
Saoirse: You are! We watched [the film] last night with Paul’s, um... very small collection of friends.
Paul: I did a friends and family screening, Andrew, and I wanted to cancel it because—and this isn’t like a ‘woe is me’—but I don’t have lots of friends. And none of my family showed up to it. So honestly, I had about five actual friends there. There were more people there that I’d never met before.
Andrew: Yeah, but your siblings had seen it already!
Paul: But still... Like fucking show up is what I think that to that.
Andrew: Who was there?
Saoirse: Andrew, how did you access things about your own experience [in the role]? Was it painful? Do you feel changed in any way? Do you feel like you’re being kinder to yourself? Do you feel the same? How do you feel after the whole experience?
Andrew: It’s unlike anything else, isn’t it? When you see something in a script and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to get to express something that’s never been expressed before.’ So even if it’s very vulnerable I’ve never really found it painful to be in pain on screen. I think pain expressed is pain released. It’s a really beautiful thing about our job, particularly in something that’s so personal to me in this story.
But weirdly, when we went to see a screening for the first time after the strike, I did feel very exposed. I think, Paul, you thought this too, in relation to Harry, because obviously we’re physically very exposed in the film—but there were scenes that I didn’t realize were so immersive, and being there in front of 350 people who are watching moments in the film where I really don’t feel like I was acting. It feels like it was just me, and for that to not only be seen by an audience, but for it to be understood, and for other people to connect with it feels completely magical. When I was younger, I thought that part of me would never be seen, and if it was, it would be rejected.
Saoirse: And Paul, what about for you?
Paul: I think I differ slightly from Andrew in that approach... When I’m thinking about starting to play Harry, I’ll normally spend like a day and go, “Where are we similarly aligned?” Then that starts to get a bit painful, and I’ll say, “Okay, I’m not going to think about that.” I’m going to focus on an accent or something that’s different, or I start thinking about the aesthetic, how I want him to be kind of shaggy and have a mustache. They’re just kind of loose ideas. I was surprised on set because, and I know we’re amongst friends here... and I know it’s going to be in a magazine, but there was a moment that I was surprised at how unavailable I was to myself.
There was a day on set when we were shooting the scene with Andrew where he’s talking about his mother’s death, and my mom had just gotten sick, and I was so oblivious to the fact that it could have been triggering. We were setting up for the scene, and I remember the cameras getting set up, and I was like, “Oh fuck this! I’m going to have a panic attack.” I wasn’t even aware at the time that, of course, it was associated with the death of a parent. Thankfully my mom is doing quite well now, but at that time it was all in flux. I ended up having a panic attack and ran off-set. So that kind of tunes into the fact—and I don’t know if it’s damaging because I feel like it works for me when I’m acting—I focus on the differences because I feel like the similarities simply exist.
Andrew: I think that day was, not to go on about it too much, but that day was so enormous for you and you had so much on your plate. The wonderful thing about you is how much of a hard worker you are. I think that’s really important to say. I love that about working with you, that you care so much. But when you have a scene like that and when the camera is trained on you, that is a really tough thing to do.
Paul: The thing that scares me most is, I wasn’t even aware. I was so focused on you, the camera coming in, and focusing because honestly, I was panicking about that scene. This is one of the few opportunities that Harry has to say something that is quite telling about his personality when he says, “I know what it’s like to stop caring about yourself.” It’s one of those big junctions, especially when you’re playing a supporting role. It’s almost like you get a few cracks in the rhythm to get something right. So I was completely trained on, if I listen to Andrew, the rest will come.
Saoirse: I feel like you could see that, Paul. I didn’t know that you had gone through that [on set], but knowing about what you had been experiencing, that makes a lot of sense to me. That was the moment where I felt, as the audience member, that I really got to know you.
Paul: I’m sure you’ve told me this before but Saoirse, what do you look for? Do you look for similarities first or do you look for differences in your own self?
Saoirse: This is what I’ve always found really hard about talking about acting. I don’t know. I think other people seem to be very good at being able to sort of lay it all out, and go, ‘Well I do this and I do this and I do this.’ I don’t know if it’s because I started when I was young, but it comes from a purely emotional, instinctive place.
Saoirse: This was something that I said to Paul last night [after the screening]. We sort of slightly disagreed on what was going to happen to Adam. This is kind of the whole conversation about the dreamlike quality that goes throughout the whole film—and in particular for your character, Andrew—
Paul: The thing that we were disagreeing about was your concern for Adam at the end of the film. Him having lost his parents and lost Harry—I felt like obviously those things are true, but the fact that he gets to go back and visit his parents and receives the love from Harry is... I feel like the end of the film is a beginning rather than an ending.
Saoirse: But no, it wasn’t that I had a concern for his well-being. What we disagreed on was, and what I took away from it was that for Adam, it was actually, it’s going to be enough for him. To stay in this world that he’s created with these people that he loved and that are gone. For me, there was this sort of tragic, sad beauty to this love that he has that goes beyond death. And I was wondering, Andrew, had you thought about what was going to happen to him?
Andrew: Yeah, I kind of do feel like it’s hopeful. I feel like he’s in a state of purgatory. There’s an element of—in that weird, empty apartment block, there’s a feel of purgatory to it. Where he’s not moving on, he’s sitting eating biscuits, he’s on his own. You don’t get a sense that he’s stuck, and that he’s trying to write about something. And so in order to move on, he has to conjure back up his parents in order to be seen and to learn how to love.
I think he’s trying to learn how to love himself in some way. Once he finds that feeling of love from his parents, that I think is so necessary, he’s able to love Harry. He’s able to let Harry in. And once he does, whatever happens with Harry, I do think there’s optimism at the end. I remember seeing it in the script and it really made me—It was really beautiful. I feel like it’s hopeful, even though it’s fucking sad.
Saoirse: It’s very sad, but actually for me that the hopefulness was still there. I was just sort of like: ‘No matter what happens after this, whether he writes a script, whether he meets someone else or not. It reminded me of being an only child, and being so satisfied with make-believe or with whatever is in your mind, and these relationships that may not physically be present anymore or tangible, but they’re still just as powerful. That’s what I found really fascinating about the whole texture and style of the film. That it doesn’t matter what’s technically real anymore or what’s not because he’s felt it.
Saoirse: I’ve said this to other actors as well but, the bare minimum of our job requirement is to learn your lines. It’s really cool to show up on time, and it’s really fucking cool to know your lines.
Paul: It’s really cool to know your lines, actually.
Saoirse: I think it’s the coolest thing that any actor can do. I think it’s really cool, and I hope any young actors who are reading this also realize that.
Paul: There’s nothing that incites panic in me, maybe it’s because I’m insecure, but when you hear about an actor’s process, I’m like, “Oh, Jesus, I’m not a serious person.” ... Not to undercut that though, because acting at the best of times can be a difficult thing. But whatever floats your boat, go for it.
Andrew: It’s the talking about it, not the process. I always think about something—I think I was saying to you the other day, Paul. It’s like if you invite people around for dinner.
Paul: Oh yes. I loved this
Andrew: You invite people around for dinner, and you spend the whole time saying, “Well I couldn’t find an organic chicken for the life of me. I had to go to three different farmers markets, and then I did the hoovering, and then I did this, and then I set the table.” Like, so fucking what? You’ve invited me for dinner. The preparation is not really my concern.
[The conversation dips momentarily into a roundtable of rehearsal horror stories.]
Paul: The first time that you get up, it should be bad. Let’s be committed to being bad and work on it. The work doesn’t start around the table. I don’t think the work starts on the first day you get it on its feet, but it starts once you get past the panic of seeing the whites of the other actor’s eyes, feeling how a director is going to work in the room or on set. How do you all feel about rehearsing for a screen because obviously [Saoirse and I] rehearsed together, but me and you, Andrew, didn’t really rehearse.
Andrew: So what did you guys do? Did you guys do like weeks of rehearsals?
Paul: We did kind of a theater rehearsal style. It was amazing.
Saoirse: Well, I was going to ask you guys that because for Paul and I, I knew we would get on anyway. I think the reason why we’ve now got the friendship that we’ve got is because we had like two and a half to three weeks where we did very—it wasn’t even intense like text-heavy rehearsals—but we were spending so much time with the director and with the intimacy coach. We were physically so comfortable with one another that by the time we actually started, we already had like a really, really close bond. So you guys didn’t get to do that? How was that then on day one? Did it sort of lend itself to the beginnings of a relationship kind of feeling anyway, or?
Andrew: We knew each other a wee bit, but not like half as well as we know each other now. In a way that kind of helped because we were strangers, pardon the pun, in the story. There was a kind of a frisson, but I don’t know.
Paul: If I had to do either of those things with both of you again, the work would have to be like undoing the relationship that I have.
Andrew: I think there was something about that that was kind of really nice. We didn’t really rehearse that much, but if we did, I’m sure it would have been fine. It just worked out that way. I think sometimes you just trust people, don’t you?
Paul: I like when a director knows what they want and asks an actor. I’m happy to rehearse. I’m happy not to rehearse. But I want to play into the director’s style because if I’m going to do a film, it’s going to be because I admire the director. I want them to cook me their dinner... If you want to rehearse, we’ll rehearse for three weeks. If you don’t want to rehearse, I’m happy to do that because ultimately my job doesn’t change. All those things that predate filming, it’s part of the work, but it’s not the work. It’s like when the camera’s turning on.
Saoirse: I don’t know if you guys have found this as actors, but I’m sure there are certain directors that you’ve just really chimed in terms of style and tone. I was always a very sort of long, gangly thing, but since working with Greta [Gerwig], I speak and I gesticulate in very specific ways that are very similar to her that I didn’t do before and that she really encouraged in the performance. She brought that out in me and they’ve sort of stuck to my person. Have you guys had that?
Paul: That’s such a gorgeous mark of admiration because that’s clearly you just absorbing somebody that you creatively really admired, and it probably wasn’t even conscious. I think acting is one of the few art forms that requires collaboration. Like if you’re a poet or you’re a painter or you’re a writer, your job is to do that in isolation. And I think the fact is you can’t act in a vacuum. You can’t act by yourself. It requires a director’s tone and requires the other actor. That’s the best part of our job, hands down, when you’re in a scene with somebody.
It’s an amazing thing that a film ever even gets shot, or a play even ever gets put on, because there’s so many moving parts that everybody has to be collectively going towards the same thing. And that’s why I like not to be fixed in terms of “I require a rehearsal process or I require that we rehearse.” I’m just going to go and let it go, because I think the best directors are always kind of like a benign dictator. They don’t sound or feel like it, but they know it’s their ship to drive. If nobody’s in charge, then we can’t come in behind it. I just love coming into the community of acting.
Saoirse: We can all learn so much from children. Children in every environment they’re in, they adapt. They don’t question and they’re open. They’re loving. They believe. They totally believe if you say we’re in a dollhouse right now, even though we’re sat here, they’re like, “Okay, yeah. I’m a doll, okay.” I think you had said something about that a while ago, Andrew. [Acting] is not just pretending, you totally believe it. Whenever I work with kids, even now on a film set, they’re the ones that I look to the most... I think the really, really brilliant [actors] like yourselves have held onto this child-like quality, even though you’re very hard workers.
Andrew: It’s a seriousness, and I think some people have an embarrassment about acting. That’s what I genuinely think it is. Our work is to play, you play a part. That’s what our job is. If you feel like that’s not a particularly honorable thing to do with your life, then you talk an awful lot about it—Oh, sorry, my phone’s ringing. Hold on. Hello?
[Andrew steps out of frame for a moment]
Saoirse: I thought it was going to be like a delivery or something.
Paul: Yeah, yeah, breakfast.
Saoirse [mocking]: My Uber Eats is here.
Andrew: So sorry. Anyway, you know what I mean? I think it’s just the feeling that this is a wonderful thing to be able to do. To have an imagination, to hold onto your imagination, and to be proud of the fact that you play for a living as an adult... [Sometimes] you’re talking about very serious issues [but it] still requires playfulness.
Saoirse: You can see that in the performances as well, which I’m always so relieved by. We’re all so obsessed right now with, “What’s the message? What’s the message of the film?” But what was so gorgeous about this, and why I think the reason why people are so touched by it is that there’s humor in it. You’ll be talking about something that’s really quite hard to listen to and sad and tragic, and you’re sort of reading between the lines and you’re like, “There’s a lot of darkness here,” but you’ll say it with a bit of a giggle or you’ll go, “But I don’t know.” That’s the levity that the audience needs to then be able to go, “Oh yeah, that’s how I am when I talk about my shite relationship...” You feel it. It’s such a pleasure to watch. I could tell that you guys felt the pleasure of playing those roles.
Andrew: For such a serious film, I do think it is a lot like the way human beings are. You do look towards the light. If you get a horrible diagnosis of an illness, you go, “Okay, well, we caught it early.” If it rains on your wedding day, you go, “Well, it brightened up.” That’s what human beings fucking do. We look at even the most serious thing [with levity] and I think that’s the balance.
Saoirse: And sometimes that’s not even like, “Oh let’s see the silver lining,” it might just be, “Well this is shite isn’t it?” You can own the shittiness of [hardships] with a smile and with a laugh. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years with COVID and all the awful things that are going on, humans need that lightness more than the dark.
Styled by Gorge Villalpando
In Conversation with Saoirse Ronan
Introduction and Moderation by Bennett DiDonna
Flaunt Film: Isaac Dektor
Flaunt Film Music: Jonathan Bustamante
Photo Assistant: Alfie Bungay