Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal: A First Look at the Epic ‘Gladiator II’ (2024)

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In Ridley Scott’s sequel, a new generation of warriors clashes in a savage Rome: “It’s pretty gnarly.”

Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal: A First Look at the Epic ‘Gladiator II’ (1)

By Anthony Breznican

Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal: A First Look at the Epic ‘Gladiator II’ (2)

Sword and Scandal: Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal draw blood in Gladiator II.Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Paul Mescal turns and looks out the window as he talks about playing a warrior fighting for his life in Ridley Scott’s long-awaited sequel to Gladiator. The light strikes the steep angles of his face, and for a moment it’s easy to picture him as a millennia-old marble bust. “My nose just is kind of Roman,” he says. “So it’s useful in this context. The nose that I absolutely hated when I was in secondary school—and used to get ribbed for—became very, very useful when Ridley needed somebody to be in Gladiator II.

Paul Mescal’s Lucius washes his hands in the sand, just as Russell Crowe’s Maximus once did in the original Gladiator. The first trailer for Gladiator II will drop July 9.

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Mescal didn’t expect that his breakthrough role as the sensitive overachiever Connell Waldron in the romantic series Normal People would lead to him playing a ferocious sword-swinging hero in the follow-up to 2001’s best-picture winner. But the swoony adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller is where Scott discovered him. “When I watch anything, I tend to be clocking who’s interesting,” the director says. “It’s just in my DNA. And so, watching a TV show that’s not really my kind of TV show almost four years ago, I said, ‘Who’s this guy?’” As the possibility of Gladiator II became more and more real, Scott arranged a Zoom with Mescal while the actor was performing A Streetcar Named Desire in London. “I met with him and he said, ‘Of course, I’d love to do it.’ And that was it,” Scott says. “We were away and running with the ball. He was a special find. He was absolutely perfect.”

It really did happen that fast, Mescal confirms. “We spoke for about 20 to 30 minutes,” he says. “I wanted to get a flavor from him about what the story was going to be about, so we spent about 15 minutes talking about that, and then we spent another 10 minutes talking about the sport that I played growing up—Gaelic football. Maybe that was something that helped with it, in that I’m used to being physical in my body.” They talked about possibly doing a camera test, but Scott decided he didn’t need it. “My memory of it is that probably two or three weeks later, the offer came in,” Mescal says.

Pedro Pascal’s Roman general Acacius is “a man in deep regret with his life and doesn’t know where to go with it,” says director Ridley Scott.

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Now, with Gladiator II heading to theaters on November 22, they’re ready to tell the rest of the world where the story picks up in the years after Russell Crowe’s Maximus gave his life, upending the leadership of the decadent and corrupt society. The central character portrayed by Mescal is Lucius, last seen as the young son of Lucilla, Connie Nielsen’s noblewoman from the original movie. Nielsen also returns in the sequel, playing one of the few true-life figures in the otherwise fictional Gladiator storyline, the daughter of the late emperor Marcus Aurelius. In the actual history, Lucilla was a firebrand revolutionary who despaired of the direction Rome took after her father’s demise.

As Gladiator II picks up her story, decades have passed and Lucius has come of age far away from his mother. While he was still a child, Lucilla sent him to the northern coast of Africa, to a region called Numidia that was (at that point) just outside the reach of the Roman Empire. He never fully understood why, and as he grew stronger, so did his resentment—even if his mother’s reasons had been pure. “There’s a lot of Sophie’s Choice going on here, where these are impossible situations that we are being forced to reckon with,” says Nielsen. “There is an authoritarian power that is parading as if it were still somehow the vestiges of a Republican government. Inside of this travesty are human beings who are caught in this gamesmanship and power. That is what I find always so interesting in Ridley’s stories. He’s really showing the effect of power on people and what happens in a place where power is unrestrained.”

Denzel Washington’s Macrinus is an arms dealer who lives lavishly and keeps a stable of gladiators for sport.

Cuba Scott/Paramount Pictures.

Mescal saw meaning in the story beyond the thrill of men clashing swords, fighting wild animals, or staging deadly combat for the amusem*nt of the masses. Asked what Gladiator II is really about, he says, “What human beings will do to survive, but also what human beings will do to win. We see that in the arena, but also in the political struggle that’s going on outside of my character’s storyline, where you see there’s other characters striving and pulling for power. Where’s the space for humanity? Where’s the space for love, familial connection? And ultimately, will those things overcome this kind of greed and power? Those things are oftentimes directly in conflict with each other.”

The actor speaks more affectionately about the Gladiator II script than Crowe ever did about the original screenplay for the first movie. Crowe has often claimed that he nearly quit the movie because he thought there were only about 26 useful pages in the script. Crowe has said he and Scott reworked the story during filming into the successful film that ultimately arrived onscreen. Asked if she remembered that from the first movie, Nielsen laughs and says: “I remember Russell feeling like that. I remember that he definitely had some thoughts and feelings.”

Connie Nielsen returns as Lucilla, the mother of Lucius, who was just a boy in the first movie. “Lucilla really only had one weakness, and that is her child,” Nielsen says.

Cuba Scott/Paramount Pictures.

“Ridley’s process tends to be extremely collaborative,” she adds. “He is extremely open to suggestions and ideas, which is what makes him a dream director in that way. He hears you, he sees you, and I, for one, come up every morning with my list of ideas that I run by him. He will go, “Yes, interesting…okay.…no, that’s way too much.…yep.’ I know that I’ll get some things through. And then there are things where [he follows] his instinct about the movie that he’s wanting to make. That was the same on Gladiator I. That’s why someone like him could handle someone like Russell saying, ‘There are only 23 pages that are workable.’ Another director would say, ‘Well, f*ck you too—and do it over there, please.’”

As Gladiator II begins, Mescal’s Lucius has a wife and child, and lives a relatively peaceful life with them until conquerors from his homeland begin to encroach. “He’s taken root in a seacoast town in Numidia. He’s a blue-eyed, fair-skinned man with red hair, and he couldn’t be more different from the inhabitants,” Scott says. “It’s one of the last surviving civilizations, as the Romans begin to descend in North Africa and take it all over.”

Leading that charge is Pedro Pascal’s Marcus Acacius, a Roman general said to have trained as a junior officer under Crowe’s character, although he wasn’t seen in the first movie. This is one of the threads the filmmakers created to link the sequel with Maximus. “This movie has an identity that is shaped by his legacy. It wouldn’t make sense for it not to,” says Pascal. He describes Acacius as a fighter who “learned from the best, so of course this code of honor is ingrained into his training and into his existence. But at the end of the day, he’s a different person. And that can’t change who he is. Maximus is Maximus, and that can’t be replicated. That just makes Acacius capable of different things.”

Both men made their trade in brutality, but while Crowe’s warrior was a master of control, Pascal says his character is someone who finds himself carried away by circ*mstance. “I think that a lot happens before you can stop and question what you’ve done. And then of course there’s no changing it,” he says. “He’s a very, very good general, which can mean a very good killer.” To Lucius, Acacius is a symbol of everything he detests. “The film begins with the raiding party of the Roman fleet, which comes in from the sea and decimates Numidia,” Scott says. “It’s pretty gnarly.”

Brick Wall Paul: “He got so strong. I would rather be thrown from a building than have to fight him again,” says Pedro Pascal.

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Lucius, once the grandson of the emperor of Rome, finds himself a prisoner of it. “When you’re a POW in Rome, if you are damaged, you are killed. If you are fit, you’ll get put into some kind of service, as in slavery, or you would go into the arena to die,” the director says. That leads to a twist the filmmaker is willing to reveal now: “The wrinkle is, when he gets to Rome as a prisoner and has a first round in the arena, he sees his mother—to his shock. He doesn’t know whether she’s alive or not. How would he know? You don’t have telephones. There’s no press. And there’s his mother in the royal box looking pretty good after 20 years. And she’s with the general who he came face-to-face with on the wall in Numidia.”

Lucilla doesn’t recognize the battered creature in the Colosseum as her son, and has no idea about the bloody history between him and the man she loves. “She’s a woman who has had a huge loss, and in the middle of that, a gift that is Pedro Pascal,” Nielsen says. “What a gift that guy is. Even to play with, to work with, I just absolutely love him, and he’s so perfect for this role. He is one of those rare actors who really has heart, soul, and at the same time this incredible gift of transformation.”

Ridley Scott directs Paul Mescal in a behind-the-scenes photo from Gladiator II.

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Naturally, the film eventually finds Lucius and Acacius locking swords again, but then Lucius is prepared to fight everything and everyone. “It’s very ‘angry young man’ drama in that sense. He can see the way Rome has kind of fallen in on itself,” Mescal says. “Rome represents all the personal neglect that he felt as a child. Suddenly he’s thrust back into that world and has direct proximity to all of the things that he thinks he hates and doesn’t feel attached to anymore.”

Throughout Gladiator II, the reluctant hero encounters a number of other colorful and dubious characters. Denzel Washington plays a dashing powerbroker named Macrinus. “Denzel is an arms dealer who supplies food for the armies in Europe, supplies wine and oil, makes steel, makes spears, weapons, cannons, and catapults. So he is a very wealthy man. Instead of having a stable of racehorses, he has a stable of gladiators,” Scott says. “He’s beautiful. He drives a golden Ferrari. I got him a gold-plated chariot.”

Asked if Macrinus is good to his fighters or cruel, the filmmaker scoffs: “To the guys who fight in the arena I guess he’s pretty f*cking cruel, right?”

Joseph Quinn as Emperor Geta. Ridley Scott calls the ruling brothers “damaged goods from birth.”

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

The leadership of Rome is similarly sad*stic. Two relatively young brothers rule the vast empire, with Fred Hechinger (Thelma) as Emperor Caracalla and Joseph Quinn (Stranger Things) as Emperor Geta. Scott says they threaten Lucilla’s wellbeing as a means of controlling Acacius. “They’re using her as a little bit of leverage if they have to,” the filmmaker says. “Caracalla and Geta are twins and are definitely damaged goods from birth.” Their leadership is a harbinger of the end of centuries of Roman dominance in the ancient world, and Scott says they were a kind of reversal of the legend of two brothers raised by a wolf mother, who were said to be founders of Rome: “This moment is wobbling along on all the brutality, cruelty, and wastefulness, and the two princes, of course, pay no attention. In a funny kind of way, they’re almost a replay of Romulus and Remus.”

The rage Lucius feels toward all of them is channeled into his battles with Acacius. “It’s brutal, man. I call him Brick Wall Paul,” Pascal says. “He got so strong. I would rather be thrown from a building than have to fight him again. To go up against somebody that fit and that talented and that much younger…. Outside of Ridley being a total genius, Paul is a big reason as to why I would put my poor body through that experience.”

“I wanted to do as much of the stunts as humanly possible,” Paul Mescal says. “There were two or three things that I wasn’t allowed to do for insurance, but I wanted to be at the front and center.”

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Mescal says his training centered on his fight choreography, rather than workouts aimed at sculpting him into a sex symbol. “I just wanted to be big and strong and look like somebody who can cause a bit of damage when sh*t hits the fan,” he says. “I think also, sometimes, one could, in striving for that perfect look, end up looking more like an underwear model than a warrior.”

Inadvertently looking easy on the eyes was a side effect of learning how to pulverize an opponent in single combat. “Muscles start to grow, and that can be deemed aesthetic in certain capacities, but there is something about feeling strong in your body that elicits just a different feeling. You carry yourself differently,” Mescal says. “It has an impact on you psychologically in a way that is useful for the film.”

“We’re watching this incredibly inhumane thing, but for some reason, there is still an entertainment in it,” Paul Mescal says. “There’s something ingrained in the psychology of us all that I find deeply concerning.”

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Gladiator II has special meaning for Scott, who’s still hard-charging at the age of 86 and turning out at least one epic-scale film every year or two. One thing he tends not to do is revisit his work for a sequel. “I was slow out the starting gate,” he says. “I mean, I should have done the sequels to Alien and to Blade Runner. You change over the years. At that time, I didn’t want to go through it again. So Jim Cameron came in—and then David Fincher—on Alien.” Decades after its initial release, Scott intended to direct the follow-up to Blade Runner, but then the opportunity to revisit the Alien universe arose with 2012’s Prometheus and he ceded the director’s chair to Denis Villeneuve. “I was regretful, although he did a good job,” Scott says.

Scott was determined to keep the second chapter of Gladiator for himself. That was a power he didn’t wield over the producers of his earlier films. “I’m the author of two franchises. Most directors in Hollywood—certainly, let’s say, at my level—don’t let that stuff go. But I did Alien as my second movie, so I didn’t have much choice. And Blade Runner was my third movie. So, I had no choice because I had very tough partners. It was kind of ‘Welcome to Hollywood.’” He says the option to make those sequels back in the ’80s simply didn’t exist: “I was never told or asked. You can imagine I wasn’t happy.”

Paul Mescal’s Lucius looks upon the arena armor worn by Russell Crowe’s Maximus in the original Gladiator.

Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures.

Gladiator II means a lot to Scott because it is imprinted with some of his personal history. Born in 1937 in the northeast of England, he found himself thrust as a young boy into the land of an enemy he had come to despise during his childhood in World War II. “I’m a war baby, so I was bombed every night and slept in an Anderson shelter. So, did I like the idea of who the Germans were? I did not,” he says. His father, an acting brigadier general with the Corps of Royal Engineers, helped devise makeshift harbors for the D-Day invasion, but after the war ended, he moved his family to the very nation they had battled into submission. “In 1947, I am 10, and I’m shipped to Germany to live in Hamburg and Frankfurt because my father is now very much into the forefront of rebuilding Germany with what they call the Marshall Plan,” Scott says. “Of course, I’m right there at the forefront right then. This is my education.”

Mescal’s Lucius senses opportunities to potentially change things for the better—if his contempt for what Rome represents will allow him. “He wants nothing to do with the image of Rome. He wants nothing to do with it other than to tear it apart initially,” Mescal says. “The Romans were some savage, savage individuals. They would go from continent to continent and just destroy communities and nations. The film doesn’t shy away from the kind of brutality of that, and the emperors at the center of it, and this kind of corrupted power that he can see through. There’s a wonderful clarity to him. He’s unafraid of the establishment in a way that makes him dangerous to the establishment.”

Paul Mescal is the man in the arena in Gladiator II, filmed mostly in Malta and partly in Morocco. “It was like taking Game of Thrones and multiplying the size in a big way,” says Pedro Pascal, who played the Red Viper on that HBO series. “I’ve been on such big sets and I have never seen anything like this.”

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Just as Lucius must decide if there is something to save in Rome, rather than just see it burn, Scott recalled seeing his father change from a destroyer to a builder in Germany. Even as a boy, Scott also sensed that change in himself. “My dad was very much pro-German, in getting them to recover. When we went there, you would think an H-bomb had dropped,” he says. “At the end, when we were done, he said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to leave now,’ and the Germans didn’t want him to go. They offered him the job of head of the port authority, and he said, ‘You know what? I need to go home.’ But oddly enough, I think he should have taken the job. I’ll always remember that—I’m the lad that said, ‘Take the job!’ And I was told to shut up.”

Today, Scott sees the conflicts of the contemporary world in terms of the pointlessly punishing battles that marked the ancient one. Describing the political atmosphere he explores in Gladiator II, the director says: “The leadership is in total chaos. We have demagogues—that’s a good word. The people who are in charge are out of their minds, and everyone is too afraid to contradict. That’s familiar ground right now.”

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Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal: A First Look at the Epic ‘Gladiator II’ (3)

Senior Hollywood Correspondent

Anthony Breznican is a senior Hollywood correspondent at Vanity Fair. He has covered film, television, books, and awards for more than 20 years, developing special expertise on blockbuster franchises such as Marvel, Star Wars, and DC, the films of Steven Spielberg, and the writings of Stephen King. Anthony previously worked... Read more

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Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal: A First Look at the Epic ‘Gladiator II’ (2024)

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