How Nathan Lane Got Joaquin Phoenix to Lighten Up for ‘Beau Is Afraid’: ‘You Won an Oscar. Put Your Mind to It.’

"Joaquin was playing it like he was Olivia de Havilland in [‘Lady in a Cage’]," his co-star said. "But when I read this, it was funny."
Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane
Joaquin Phoenix; Nathan Lane in "Beau Is Afraid"
Getty Images/A24

You’ve never seen Joaquin Phoenix quite as you do in “Beau Is Afraid,” playing a 49-year-old Jewish virgin on a Freudian guilt trip to meet up with his smothering mother on the anniversary of his father’s very peculiar death.

It’s as flamboyantly physical and schadenfreude-inspiringly comic a performance as he’s ever given. The same star who once danced down a flight of New York steps, mid-psychotic-episode, as Joker is now falling down city steps, tumbling down ladders, breaking through glass doors, all while endowed with a pair of speedbag-sized testicles.

Phoenix may be notorious for the seriousness of his roles — and his rumored seriousness on a film set, which his “Beau Is Afraid” co-stars Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan refute entirely in interviews with IndieWire. But “Beau Is Afraid” takes us back to “Inherent Vice” panic-attack-slapstick territory, the three-hour feature-length equivalent to Phoenix’s priceless shriek reaction when Jena Malone’s character shows him a picture of her deformed baby in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, his last honest-to-god comedy.

Still, “Beau Is Afraid” evidently took Phoenix to such extremes that, according to writer-director Ari Aster, he fainted on set from exhaustion during a take that didn’t even involve him but on which he was, instead, trying to help his co-star Patti LuPone. “I knew that it was bad because he was letting people touch him. People were tending to him, and he was allowing it, and he was very confused,” Aster said.

“You hear of, like, that’s the way Daniel Day-Lewis does it, so maybe that’s the way Joaquin does it, but it’s just so the opposite,” Amy Ryan said. “But I will say if it’s not truthful to him, he won’t do it. He just won’t do it. I feel like that’s the only time I might have seen him get angry, and angry’s not even the right word. But he’s not going to stand by something that’s not truthful.”

Beau Is Afraid
“Beau Is Afraid”A24

Lane and Ryan play loopy suburban couple Roger and Grace, a surgeon and a compassionate social-do-gooder who take Beau into their home after Grace accidentally (or is it so?) slams into him with her van. In this three-hour Odyssean stress epic of a movie, the three actors share relatively little screen time, though it lends to some of “Beau’s” nuttiest moments.

Lane is doing his best Nathan Lane as a straight-up goofy, almost profoundly incompetent doctor trying to nurse Beau back to health after the bad crash but who can barely get a suture to seal. (Roger and Grace are, meanwhile, trying to replace the dead son they lost in war.)

“Joaquin is arguably the finest actor working in film today. I think he’s extraordinary. He’s a total sweetheart. He’s a lovely man and very accessible. No movie star bullshit. It’s about the work, and that’s all he cares about,” said Lane, who previously said Phoenix couldn’t look him straight in the eye during takes for fear he’d start laughing. So what you’re seeing, in dead-on close-ups, is Phoenix looking at the bridge of Lane’s nose.

Though Lane stressed that Phoenix is a “real artist and just a beautiful guy,” there was an early moment in production where he had to get the actor known for his brooding approach to lighten up just a little. And that extended to Ari Aster’s direction, too.

“We started shooting, we were shooting the scene when he wakes up in the bed. As written, the scene was funny, because it’s like after this Kafkaesque nightmare section, he wakes up in Oz, and he’s in a teenage girl’s bedroom surrounded by boy band posters and stuffed unicorns, and he’s hooked up to an IV. He’s heavily medicated, with an ankle bracelet. Joaquin was playing it like he was Olivia de Havilland in [‘Lady in a Cage’]. It was really intense and emotional and we could barely get our lines in, so he wasn’t doing the dialogue as written,” Lane recalled.

Beau Is Afraid
“Beau Is Afraid”A24

“We shot for about three hours. Then we went to lunch, and I said to Ari, ‘It’s your movie. You can do what you want. But when I read this, it was funny. You’ve written black comedy.’ And I said, ‘The audience will have gone through this awful opening section, and when we get to this, we should feel relief.’ Now, it’s like, ‘He’s in suburbia! He’ll be alright! These people seem OK!’ He seems corny. All of that was very deliberate on his part. So I said, ‘I think you’re missing that, or you’re shying away from it.”

Aster spoke with Phoenix, who according to Lane was “not happy with the way it [was] going either.” After some behind-the-scenes back and forth of how to nail the right tone, Lane recalled turning to his co-star and saying, “Look, Joaquin, we don’t know each other. I don’t know how to break it to you, but this scene should be funny.”

“So I gave him a little comedy tip. I told him to take one of the stuffed unicorns, and I gave him a piece of business, too. I said, ‘Pull it out from under you, like you’re in pain, and then pull out the unicorn and stare at it. You’ll get a laugh.”

Phoenix told Lane, “I can’t do that,” to which Lane replied, “Sure you can. You won an Oscar. Put your mind to it.’ He started laughing. It broke the ice. It allowed us to find the right tone for that section of the film, and then of course, because of that, everything I said, he laughed, and if it was my close-up and I was talking to him, I would improvise, and he would say ‘I can’t look at you.’ There were many things that were cut.”

Lane said this actually wasn’t the first time a colleague told him he couldn’t look directly at the Tony- and Emmy-winning comic actor for fear of an outburst. “William Hickey once said that to me, too. Wonderful character actor… who played my father in ‘Mouse Hunt,’ and he was at the end of his life, and it was his last film. He was in a hospital bed, and he had that very specific voice which borders on Harvey Fierstein, but he said, ‘I can’t look you in the eye or I’ll laugh.'”

“Beau Is Afraid” opens from A24 in New York and Los Angeles on April 14, followed by theaters everywhere on April 21. Look out for deeper dives into the film with Ari Aster, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, and more into this weekend.

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