This is not the first significant role of Scott’s impressive career. His Hamlet earned widespread acclaim on the London stage. His Fleabag Hot Priest still inspires memes. But as far as toplining an Oscar-contending movie from a major Hollywood studio, it’s an obvious breakthrough. “Your hope as an actor is that you’re not going to get pigeonholed, or that people don’t cast you based on your box-office opening or even the fact that you may not have played loads of leading roles in film,” he says. “When I was growing up, the idea that a film like this would even exist, and that I would be able to play that role in it—it’s miraculous.” And Strangers, hitting theaters on December 22 via Searchlight, seems to mark only the beginning of a far more public era for the Dublin-born Scott. He has the titular role in Netflix’s fresh take on The Talented Mr. Ripley coming up next.
Yet the unadorned rigor of this stage-trained actor, who just completed a tour-de-force Vanya run on the West End, remains firmly evident. He embodies Strangers’ Adam with an intricate attention to physical detail. “You don’t want somebody pretending to be a boy, but you want a sense of the vulnerability of a child, and also somebody who is learning to fall in love as an adult—and how those things are intertwined,” he says. “I don’t know if that is apparent in watching, but it’s a very, very tactile film…even the way he is able to be embraced by his parents, and then learns to be the embracer of Harry, it’s something that I had to map out silently for myself.” One lovely scene later in the movie finds Adam back in his childhood home, wearing pajamas, curling up into bed with his parents—with, again, all three actors in question roughly the same age. It’d feel absurd, bordering on campy, if not for Scott’s gentle verisimilitude. “I feel very proud of it,” he says of the sequence. “It takes work.”
For Scott, there’s a direct connection between the way he plays a moment like this and the many frank, sensual sex scenes between Harry and Adam. “Adam wouldn’t have touched people in a really long time,” the actor says. Haigh devises an authentic and gradual trajectory for the character to find himself sexually with the new man in his life—and it’s sold by the sweet, subtle chemistry between Scott and Mescal, who’ve become close friends out of the production. “We have a very special bond,” Scott says. “It added something to this burgeoning relationship, because we had a burgeoning relationship ourselves.”
This did not mean the sex scenes were straightforward. The choreography, developed with an intimacy coordinator, needed to be balanced with spontaneity: listening to each other, being present in the moment. Scott admits of shooting these sequences with Mescal, “It was a bit scary at the beginning. Then you get more used to it—and he’s great fun. The good thing about working with somebody that you love is that the process is really enjoyable.” The changing dynamic between their characters presented its own challenge. “How do you portray nervousness? How do you portray lust? That’s a really interesting one, and Paul and I’s chemistry in real life is actually kind of irrelevant,” Scott says. “I was playing a very, very lonely, quite repressed character, which I don’t feel in my own life—and that’s a great challenge. It speaks to me of empathy, and that’s what our jobs are.”
There, again, Scott reflects on acting in terms of execution. He examines the work, even on a film as intimate and humane as this, like a technician, bringing his best solution to the complex dilemmas presented by the script. For a film that hit so personally, Scott had to turn inward for answers. “It takes a lot of mental work in my imagination, about what note you should play and, more specifically, when you should play it,” he says. “Our first job as actors is to power into that imagination, so that’s how I would characterize my experience—to really engage in that part of me that exists, and is within me in so many ways.” Watch All of Us Strangers, and you’ll see that side of him. To the movie’s ultimate credit, it’s unmistakable.