Among the strange cast of characters Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) meets on his nightmarish journey through the mind of Ari Aster, perhaps the most memorable is Nathan Lane’s Roger. At first glance, he’s living the idyllic suburban American dream: a spacious house, a successful job as a surgeon, married to a loving wife (Amy Ryan’s Grace). The facade begins to break when we learn more: his son was killed in military duty, virtually replaced by his PTSD-stricken fellow comrade Jeeves (Denis Ménochet) who now lives outside their house and is prone to violent outbursts; their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) despises both them and the new addition of their family, Beau, who is recuperating in her room; and Roger and Grace may or may not want to trap Beau inside their domain with no chance for escape, extending their fabricated family.
Ahead of Beau Is Afraid expanding nationwide this week, I had the opportunity to talk with the delightfully entertaining Lane, who revealed the elements of the script (and title) about which he disagreed with Aster, how they found the right tone for his scenes, his advice to Phoenix, and more. Check out the conversation below, and beware that spoilers abound.
The Film Stage: To start out, had you seen Ari Aster’s film before? And what were your first discussions with him about this film?
Nathan Lane: I had only heard about Hereditary and Midsommar, and then when I knew I was going to be talking with Ari, I finally got around to seeing them. I think I was hesitant because they looked slightly terrifying. And I would always look and say, “I should really watch this, but I just I’m not up for this kind of terror.” I finally did and then joined the ranks of his biggest fans. He’s just a really extraordinary young filmmaker and had put his stamp on that genre and in a really intelligent and interesting way. I knew the acclaim these films had gotten, and so I was sent this script that was then called Disappointment Blvd., which was a title I had great fondness for––although he said it was a fake title. He sort of made it up one day. I had dinner with him where I argued before I saw the movie. I said, “Don’t change it to Beau Is Afraid. Disappointment Blvd. is hilarious. You’re telling me this is a nightmarish comedy, then that’s the title.” And then I saw the movie and I said “Oh, well, maybe not.” But I liked Disappointment Blvd.
Anyway: as anyone would tell you, I’d never read anything quite like that screenplay. And it just seemed really out there and you hoped he was on the right medication and then they set up a Zoom call and he was adorable. That’s the only word for it. He’s adorable––sweet and funny and smart and so you just want to work with him and help him fulfill this vision of a disturbing, nightmarish comedy.
I love your section because it’s the first breath of fresh air, initially, where you think Beau is in the home of someone that might care for him. The audience really has to believe the pain that is in your family, despite the situation around you and your characters. You have to see this fully and play it straight to a degree. What was your discussions with Ari around the tone?
Yeah, the tone was very difficult to find. And Joaquin and Ari had been shooting the first section of the film and that was really intense. And then we started shooting where he wakes up in the bed, hooked up to an I.V., and with the ankle bracelet on and in our teenage daughter’s bedroom with boy band posters and stuffed unicorns. So as written, to me, it seemed like, “Oh, we’re moving into sort of black comedy.” [My character is] so upbeat and corny. Yet there seems to be something sinister going on underneath. But it took a while to find that tone and to find the level and also just to establish our backstory and what was real, what wasn’t, what is really going on. Why are we doing this, exactly? And to have that explained to us. How much of it should we believe? Am I supposed to believe he’s really a doctor? You look at the stitches that I did on his stomach. It’s not good. He’s not done a good job. So Ari would argue that he was a doctor. I kept saying, “He’s not a doctor. He’s an out-of-work actor pretending to be this suburban dad, successful surgeon.” But Ari felt he was a doctor at the very least. I said, “Well, then he has several malpractice suits against him and he really needs some money and he talked Grace [Amy Ryan] into going along with this bizarre scenario that has been concocted.”
That’s a tricky thing to play, because within whatever role-playing there might be, there’s also the real situation of their troubled teenage daughter who I don’t seem to have much interest in. And then of course they are dealing with the grief of losing his son and taking in their son’s friend who was also in the war, who has post-traumatic stress, and lives in a trailer outside of the house and doesn’t talk much. It’s like a strange short story, but it’s just one section of the journey.
Your sequence is the first time you realize there might be some sort of fantasy element at play. Because when Beau is watching the TV and starts fast-forwarding, you see what’s going to happen in the future. When you either read the script or saw the film and the movie jumps to a really wild place after your sequence, what was your first reaction?
It is like someone saying, “I had a really weird dream last night and I’m going to tell you about it while I still remember it.” You could say the whole film is his life passing before his eyes. At the very end, you see the whole thing happen. It’s hard to classify. It’s been called a surreal, nightmarish comedy. I think it has some of those elements, but it’s sort of its own genre. It’s like a therapy session of this person whose life is in shambles. Ari has referred to him as a loser, and he wanted the audience to know what it feels like to be a loser––which sounds like Donald Trump––but I think of Beau as more of a victim than a loser. He’s a victim also of his own neuroses and paranoia.
Look, it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking. If you’re going to see a three-hour arthouse film by Ari Aster starring Joaquin Phenix, you know you’re not in for Cocaine Bear. You know this is going to be a challenging piece of work that some people will love and some people will not because it’s dangerous, what he’s doing. It goes off on many different levels. Sometimes you think, “I’m not sure what’s happening.” When he’s in the forest with the theatrical troupe. I’m sorry we didn’t get to come back at the end, myself.
You could have had a dance number or something.
Well, no, not in the forest––no, I did not want to be in the forest. Let me tell you. No, I wanted to come back at the very end. Yeah, that would have been good. And I guess he actually considered it, but…
Oh, really? I watched your interview where you mentioned working with Joaquin was funny because he didn’t want you to crack him up so he never looked into your eyes. What was it like working with him on set? He’s in every scene––it’s quite a commitment.
Joaquin is a real artist and he’s a total sweetheart and he’s so gifted. When he arrived, he was in our teenage daughter’s bed hooked up to an I.V. and he had just come from two weeks of doing the first section of the film. We shot for about three hours, that opening scene with him, and he was very emotional. And a lot of it, he wasn’t really doing the lines. He was just trying to play what was happening to his character. Then Ari said to us, “Joaquin wasn’t happy with the way it was going.” And I said “Well, if you want my opinion, as written, what you’ve written is very funny. The scene is funny, the dialogue, and you’ve written a funny dialogue for him being heavily medicated and it seems like you’re not really establishing our characters. It’s all about this flood of emotion. We’re losing that––we’re now entering another world and it’s darkly funny.” He said “Yeah, I think that’s true.”
So we talked for, like, a half an hour, and then I finally said––because I don’t know Joaquin Phoenix; he’s just this guy in a bed––”Listen, I don’t know how to break it to you, but this is supposed to be funny. So listen.” And I gave him, like, a piece of business: I said, “Grab that unicorn behind you and stick it under your leg. And when you have to say, ‘What’s this’ pull with difficulty the unicorn out and then just stare at it.” And he started to laugh and he said “Oh, I can’t do that.” And he said, “You could do that. I can’t do that.” I said, “Sure you can. You won an Oscar. Put your mind to it.” So then he started laughing a lot and it kind of broke the ice and it sort of set the tone for: “Okay, now we’re in a whole other section of the film, and it’s sort of working on two levels. We seem to be helping him, but are we really and should he trust us? Should he not trust us?” And yet he’s this corny guy with dad humor and calling people “my brotha” and “my dude.” [Laughs] So it’s trying to strike that balance. And yes, so after that he said, “I can’t look you in the eye or I’ll start laughing.”
Beau Is Afraid is now in limited release and expands wide on Friday, April 21.