‘You Just Want to Put Him on a Ritz and Eat Him’: Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan on Ari Aster and ‘Beau Is Afraid’

The "Beau Is Afraid" scene-stealers thought they knew what they were in for after seeing "Hereditary" and "Midsommar," but they tell IndieWire how Aster is nothing like the twisted storyteller you'd imagine.
Beau Is Afraid
"Beau Is Afraid"

Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan steal all their scenes in Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid” as Roger and Grace, a quack surgeon and his compassionate do-gooder wife who’ve fallen on hard times and take in Joaquin Phoenix’s neurotic mommy’s boy after Grace accidentally (or does she?) mows him down with a van. The veteran character actors had not previously worked together, despite meeting all the way back in 1987 when Lane was in the national tour of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”

“She was dating the young man who was playing Eugene, William Ragsdale,” Lane told IndieWire over Zoom. “I watched her become this superb actress, and then we were on ‘Only Murders in the Building’ but we didn’t have any scenes together, so I was thrilled that we finally, finally after all these years had gotten to work together.”

The duo share a loopy chemistry as a couple grieving the long-ago loss of their son in combat who are now trying to replace him with a surrogate child — and Beau, whose car-crash wounds they nurse in their daughter’s bedroom, plastered with K-pop posters, also happens to have a very rich mother, so that’s convenient for what turns out to be a long-game nurturing kind of extortion attempt.

Neither had seen the films of writer-director Ari Aster prior to being cast, though they’d certainly heard of the depraved horror movies “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” (Lane was Aster’s first choice, a pie-in-the-sky casting idea that he suggested almost as a joke in pre-production.)

“I knew of Ari Aster, and I knew he was a celebrated director of unusual talent, but I had not seen the movies, only because I really don’t do well with horror movies as an audience member. It kind of freaks me out,” said Ryan, resonating with “Hereditary” star Toni Collette, who similarly is not a horror fan and yet signed on to lead Aster’s demonic dysfunctional-family breakout anyway.

BEAU IS AFRAID, Nathan Lane, 2023. ph: Takashi Seida / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
Beau Is AfraidCourtesy Everett Collection

“I watched them in the daylight hours before I was going to work with Ari. I’m watching these films now through the lens of ‘I’m about to go work with this man and I am struck by how well he works with the actors. He seems to like actors,’ is what I’m taking away from it,” Ryan said.

“I hadn’t seem them, but I’d heard extraordinary things about ‘Hereditary,’ and so I’d see them on pay-per-view or something, and think, ‘I have to watch that! Everyone’s talking about this film!’ and then I was always thinking, I just cna’t get my head around this terror thing just yet,” Lane said. “Then, when the script came my way, I said, ‘I’ve got to sit down and watch these movies.’ He’s an extraordinary young filmmaker and he’s certainly put his stamp on this genre in a whole new interesting way.”

Aster is ever self-deprecating about his career in interviews — he’s even not sure he still knows how to talk about his wildly imaginative three-hour new Oedipal epic about a son trying to get back to his overbearing mother. Ryan says that’s all real.

“I don’t think that’s a show, the self-deprecating humor doubt, but to me that’s not just, ‘He’s an insecure guy.’ He’s a guy who keeps questioning, is this right? Is this as good as it can be? He’s humble. All the success of those other two films, he’s still really humble, and I don’t think that will ever go away, because that’s who he is,” she said.

“We had a Zoom call, and he’s adorable. That’s the only word. He’s adorable. He’s a pixie. You just want to put him on a Ritz and eat him,” Lane said. “He’s so sweet and funny and smart, and you would never think these twisted notions were lurking in that brain. … Like Joaquin, he’s a genuine artist, and a total sweetheart. It turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve had on a film.”

BEAU IS AFRAID, from left: Amy Ryan, Joaquin Phoenix, 2023. ph: Takashi Seida / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Beau Is Afraid”Courtesy Everett Collection

That’s in spite of the many brilliantly disturbing images Aster conjures. You walk away from his movies wondering if he has a really hard time with his mother. (Here, the mother is played by Zoe Lister-Jones in flashback and Patti LuPone in present day.)

“Believe me, that came up a lot,” Lane said. “He doesn’t seem to have a hard time, although, then he would say something that sounded like, ‘Oh that sounds a little passive-aggressive!’ I thought, well, she’ll live to regret that once she sees this film! It’s obviously coming from somewhere, and it’s his version of this Kafkaesque, nightmarish odyssey to get home and see his mother.”

Speaking of the Kafkaesque and nightmarish, the movie’s first act is an extended post-apocalyptic set piece that unfolds in a nutty downtown (the movie shot in Montreal) featuring tableaux of violent, deranged characters stabbing each other, running through the streets naked, covered in filth, as Beau tries to get out of town and on a plane. Ryan has a small part in this scene that even the most eagle-eyed viewer might not catch, but she was still able to watch the chaos unfold — and testifies to Aster’s skill in juggling it all.

“I was able to have a really great vantage of watching Ari direct that scene. He’d run up to every one of those characters with such specific detail, like the guy dancing into the reflection of the storefront window, or the tattooed guy. He had very, very specific moments for them, and it helps people stay interested to want to stay out there til 4 a.m. on a cold night. They are told they matter, and they do. He was so energetic, fired up, giving them notes,” she said.

“Beau Is Afraid” is now in limited release from A24 and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, April 21.

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