The latest cinematic nightmare from Ari Aster, Beau Is Afraid has been met with a wide variety of reactions from critics and audiences alike. Having built a passionate following in horror with Hereditary and Midsommar under the beloved indie distributor A24, a little chaos and controversy is nothing this filmmaker can’t shake off. Those who have sunk their teeth deep into Beau Is Afraid have found plenty to chew on though, as the acclaimed writer-director exposes his true self in this very personal film. Aster’s greatest strengths as a storyteller are on full display here, blending surrealism, black comedy, and horror in a three-hour cerebral character study. Ambitious doesn’t even cover it. Joaquin Phoenix has been rightfully receiving tons of praise for delivering yet another arguable career-best performance. However, there are two other names in the cast that Beau Is Afraid couldn’t work without: Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan.
A Nightmarish Odyssey
Our story begins the day before the titular Beau Wassermann (Phoenix), a paranoid middle-aged man, is set to leave on a trip to visit his wealthy mother Mona (Patti LuPone). Beau spends most of his time either confined by the deteriorating walls of his cold apartment or with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who provides him with the necessary prescription pills to get by. It’s quickly established that Beau exists in an alternate present, a sort of heightened reality where the chaotic streets of his city are filled with all kinds of exaggerated violence and adultery. And the world beyond is filled with even more terror. This is where Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan come in as an unlikely married couple who accidently hit Beau with their truck when he’s being chased by an insane naked man with a knife as a consequence of locking himself out of his apartment.
Due to dire circumstances, Beau decides earlier in the film that he can’t visit his mother. But when he soon discovers that she’s the victim of a sudden fatal accident, he’s propelled into a wild journey home against his own will. He must hurdle one obstacle after the other, both physically and mentally, if he is to make it in time for his mother’s burial and funeral service. It’s clear that Beau has his own fair share of familial trauma to deal with, which is what made him anxious about visiting his mom to begin with. However, when Roger (Lane) and Grace (Ryan) enter the picture, Beau is forced to face the demons of their own dysfunctional family which includes angsty teenage daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) and the unstable Jeeves (Denis Ménochet) who suffers from severe PTSD after serving in war with their biological son killed in action.
Roger claims to be a world-class medical surgeon, hence why he takes it upon himself to nurture Beau back to health. He and Grace are the two most seemingly happy people in Beau Is Afraid, accepting our distressed main character with open arms and doing their best to heal and send him to his deceased mother. But, of course, there is something much more sinister boiling underneath the surface. Being the respective acting legends they are, Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan provide Beau Is Afraid with its strongest dark humor, playing into the film’s absurdism with eerie smiles and a sense of looming dread in each of their scenes. It’s hard not to laugh seeing Lane talk down to Joaquin Phoenix as if he’s his loving father all the while treating his actual daughter like crap and stopping Jeeves from killing Beau on sight.
One Happy Family
We had the privilege to sit down with Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan for an exclusive interview to get a firmer grasp on the madness behind Beau Is Afraid. The two actors admitted that they had not seen either of Ari Aster’s films before this project, but they sure knew who he was. “I don’t want to put myself through that, life is hard enough,” Lane gives as the humorous reason why he’s avoided Aster’s past works. They both did finally watch the two movies before coming on board, though it was truly Aster’s script (then titled Disappointment Blvd) that convinced them to say yes. “I was really knocked out because scripts like this don’t come around much, if ever,” says Ryan. Meanwhile, Aster made an adorable impression on Lane during their initial Zoom call. “There’s no other word for it. He’s totally adorable, sweet, and very smart.”
Funny enough, Amy Ryan herself was also one of Nathan Lane’s main reasons for joining Beau Is Afraid. The two have known each other since 1987 and were working on Only Murders in the Building at the time of getting offered the script, “but we’d never actually had any scenes together” Lane claims. Regardless of being longtime good friends, their first time on screen together wasn’t a walk in the park. When mixing genres as Aster does in Beau Is Afraid, finding the right tone for any given scene is crucial. Ryan and Lane revealed that balancing the dark comedy and psychological horror of their characters was the hardest part of the process by far. “There’s a bit of a surrender to like, you don’t quite know if we’re going to achieve what Ari is setting out to do. But everyone was certainly trying and believed in it,” Ryan states.
The Trickiest of Tones
As incredibly detailed as Beau Is Afraid is visually – no less thanks to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski – Ari Aster was always open to improvisation and fresh ideas from Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as long as it brought them closer to nailing the right tone. For the character of Grace, Aster approached the actress with key details on the role. As Ryan explains, “Ari had a really strong take on Grace, he would come to me from time to time to say she really is all-loving and is always positive – even in just the tenor of her voice, it always sounds sunny.” She goes on to reaffirm that Aster’s “imagination has so much detail, and yet he’s the first to let it go and let you play around in it.” When it came to establishing the character of Roger, Nathan Lane had a slightly different experience.
“The tone was very tricky,” Lane asserted without hesitation. The actor reveals that many discussions took place before and during shooting about his character and what exactly was going on in the plot. “Am I really a successful surgeon? Or am I pretending to be?” Lane and Aster surprisingly disagreed on this. “Ari did feel that I was a doctor. At a certain point, I kept saying, ‘He’s not a surgeon, he’s an out-of-work actor!’ But no, Ari said he’s definitely he’s a doctor. He downgraded him from surgeon to doctor! And I said, ‘Well if he is, he has several malpractice lawsuits against him’ (laughs).” When discussing the overbearing trauma of Roger’s family, having lost a son and now taking care of his unstable friend with PTSD, Lane was quick to note that Roger is “obviously medicating Grace, giving her pills because she’s still dealing with the grief.”
The Unicorn Solution
Nathan Lane jokingly explains that Beau Is Afraid is “meant to be very darkly funny, and then some of it is just weird. And, you know, only Ari and his therapist can talk to you about that.” Both actors tease that there was plenty of on-set improv that allowed for a lot of laughs between themselves. Particularly, the first family dinner scene with Beau at the table was more hilarious behind the scenes than it perhaps seems in the final product. “It starts with like the Lord’s Prayer and Grace wants to know if her dead son wants to comment on it, so the already the balance is off-kilter,” says Amy Ryan. She goes on to remember that Phoenix couldn’t control his giggles throughout their scenes due to Lane’s performance; “We just had so much fun dropping in and out of the severity of the scenes.”
When asked if he really was the main reason for Joaquin Phoenix breaking character on-set, Nathan Lane had a story to share with us. He recalls that when Phoenix came to shoot the introductory scenes between himself and Ryan, the actor was still tortured and worked up from filming the first act of Beau Is Afraid all by himself. “We started shooting and he was crazily emotional” Lane states. The dialogue they shot for three hours in their first scene “sort of went out the window” since Ryan and Lane “were just trying to calm him down.” Of course, if you’ve seen the movie then you know this moment plays out differently and more comical. Well, you have Nathan Lane himself to thank for that because he approached Aster during their lunch break to rework the tone of that scene, which is around the beginning of the second act.
“Look, it’s your movie. You could do whatever you want. But as written, this scene is funny. It should be fun,” Lane told Aster. “[Beau] has been through this nightmare. And then he wakes up in Oz. He’s in a teenage girl’s bedroom surrounded by boy band posters and stuffed unicorns. He’s hooked up to an IV, he’s heavily medicated… where would he have the energy to emotionally go the way which we’ve been shooting this?” Ari Aster ultimately agreed with Lane’s feedback. “You’re not allowing us to establish these two characters who are weird in their own right and what you’ve written is actually funny,” Lane proclaimed to Aster about his and Amy Ryan’s characters. It turns out Phoenix wasn’t happy either, so the group spent about half an hour talking when they came back from their break to shoot, yet those conversations also went nowhere.
“I don’t know how to break this to you, but this is supposed to be funny,” Nathan Lane tells Joaquin Phoenix. The solution to their tonal dilemma came in the form of a stuffed unicorn, one of many in the room where Beau wakes up hooked to an IV after being hit by a truck. “You see that stuffed unicorn? Take one of those and put it underneath you. And when you’re feeling really uncomfortable and you have to say ‘What’s this?‘ reach underneath you like you’re in pain and then pull out the unicorn and just stare at it. One day at a multiplex, you’ll get a laugh.” Phoenix’s attitude rang differently after that recommendation. “Joaquin said ‘Well, I can’t do that.’ I said, “Sure, you can. You won an Oscar.’ Then he started laughing and it broke the ice on this section of the film,” Lane happily states.
What Does It All Mean?
The two actors are both aware that Beau Is Afraid is not for everybody, but that’s why they signed up in the first place. “I think anyone who is walking in to see a three-hour arthouse film director directed by Ari Aster and starring Joaquin Phoenix knows that, you know, Cocaine Bear it’s not,” jokes Nathan Lane. “You’re going in for what will be a challenging cinematic experience that’s not for the faint of heart.” Lane compares it to his experience with Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. “‘What is it supposed to mean?’ People would often say to me when I did a production of it on Broadway with Bill Irwin and John Goodman. I would say, ‘It’s whatever it meant to you. Whatever it had on you.’ I can give you an idea of what I think it means, but it’s all about what it meant to you.”
Speaking deeper into the themes of Ari Aster’s new film, Nathan Lane hopes that audiences will walk away pondering “the effect that a parent has on a child and the notion of being judged by your parent.” Similarly, Amy Ryan sees this tale of mommy issues as more about “having compassion for people we don’t quite understand or for those who are not quite like us.” As mentioned at the start, moviegoers have been sharing their passionate takes on Beau Is Afraid across the internet. Nathan Lane says it best; “It takes nihilism to new heights. So, you know, either that’s your cup of tea or not.” The additional talents of Parker Posey, Armen Nahapetian, Zoe Lister-Jones, and Richard Kind elevate Beau Is Afraid as a genre piece unlike any other you will see this year. If not for Phoenix, see it for Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan’s chaotic performances.