‘Beau Is Afraid’: Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan Discuss Their New Film and Giving Comedy Advice to Star Joaquin Phoenix

Beau is AFraid

Nathan Lane as Roger in the new black comedy 'Beau is Afraid,' a film he calls "surreal and a fascinating odyssey to follow." Photo: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24

Even within the kaleidoscopic realm of cinema, the sprawling and surreal new horror/drama/black comedy Beau Is Afraid is an outlier, a film so unabashedly freaky that co-star Nathan Lane admits viewers “have to be up for a cinematic challenge.”

As the reliably humorous Lane, 67, told Zoomer via Zoom from New York alongside Beau co-star Amy Ryan, 54, “If you’re going to see a three-hour arthouse film by Ari Aster starring Joaquin Phoenix, you know it’s not Cocaine Bear. These are serious artists with something to say.”

At an estimated cost of US$35 million, reportedly the most expensive film to date from A24 — which recently cleaned up at the Oscars with the also-out-of-left-field Everything Everywhere All at OnceBeau is Afraid is described by IMDB thusly: “Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.”

Lane and Ryan play Roger and Grace in the film — a married couple who take in Beau as he recovers from an accident. Though, as you’d expect from this film, things aren’t what they seem on the surface.  

Despite developing the script for more than a decade, Aster himself seems somewhat baffled by it all, recently telling IndieWire, “I don’t know what to say about this movie,” which bears little resemblance to the director’s previous offerings, the horror films Hereditary and Midsommar, save also being rather unsettling. 

One thing that can be said unequivocally is that every penny of A24’s budget is on the screen. The film, told in four tonally distinct chapters with addendums including a flashback sequence, features wildly elaborate sets, vivid animation, and striking visuals by Aster’s go-to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and Oscar-nominated production designer Fiona Crombie. 

Its cast, too, is exceptional — stage and screen veterans Lane and Ryan, plus Parker Posey, 54, and Patti LuPone, 73 — though the film is carried by the supremely versatile Phoenix, 48, who plays the twitchy, paunchy, hangdog protagonist of the title, and whose waking life seems to be a cross between an acid trip, a nightmare and a funhouse adventure gone sideways. 

Photo: Courtesy of A24


So yeah, Beau Is Afraid is exceptionally weird and probably divisive, with some likely to find its squiggly narrative exhilarating and others the suspension of disbelief required to stick with it far exceeding their capacity. 

Either way, the film — shot in and around Montreal — is already stirring debate. That beats a ho-hum reception, but do bring a snack, as its 179-minute running time does not include an intermission. Ahead of it opening in theatres on April 21, Lane and Ryan spoke to Zoomer about the film, their roles and the comedy advice Lane gave to Joaquin Phoenix.


KIM HUGHES: Tell me about reading the script for Beau Is Afraid the first time. What were some of the adjectives that ran through your mind?

AMY RYAN: Delirious (laughs). Absurd. Thrilling. Unlike anything I had read before.

NATHAN LANE: Yes, unlike anything I had read before. Darkly funny and surreal and a fascinating odyssey to follow. 


KH: What was more compelling about the project, the script or the director?

NL: We’re just in one chapter of the film. But both really. Ari is somebody you want to work with because he’s doing things that nobody else is doing. And he is not only challenging himself, he is challenging you and he is challenging the audience, especially with a film like this. On a personal level, when we had a Zoom call about the film, I fell in love with Ari. He is such a sweet and kind man, so funny and smart. But you’re thinking there’s also this twisted mind that comes up with this disturbing stuff [laughs].

AR: It’s hard to separate out the script from Ari. You ask which was more attractive, but without one, there is not the other. The fun of the film is the same as with Ari: you may think you know what’s going to happen, you may think you understand these feelings, and yet it all presents very differently. And as Nathan said, Ari is just such a mensch of a guy, a gorgeous sweetheart, not some dark, twisted ogre you’re afraid to go to work with. Quite the opposite. He sees the humour in this dark material, and that’s the way through it.


Beau is Afraid
Amy Ryan as Grace, who, along with her husband Roger (Lane), take Beau ( Phoenix) in fallowing an accident in ‘Beau Is Afraid.’ Photo: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24


KH: What was the hardest thing to get right with these characters?  

AR: Because the film is in chapters, when Nathan and I arrived, the tone and even the set [of our chapter in the film] was very different [than what had come before]. It was jarring for Ari and Joaquin. We showed up full force in our denim and sweaters and the world Ari and Joaquin were coming out of, the first chapter, we all had to fight for the humour of our chapter. 

NL: The first section of the film is harrowing, it’s this Kafkaesque opening. And then Beau wakes up in suburbia in our teenage daughter’s bedroom and it’s more black comedy. At least that’s how I perceived it as written. So, when we started to shoot, Joaquin was still doing the opening section but now we were in this whole other world. As always with him, it was very, very truthful but emotional. We shot for, like, three hours, took a lunch break, and then I said to Ari, ‘I have to be honest with you. I think we’re losing the humour in this opening scene where our characters are introduced.’ 

Ari agreed and Joaquin felt the same way. We went back to shoot. I don’t really know Joaquin but I gave him a bit of comedy business [laughs]. I said, ‘I don’t know how to break it to you, but this is supposed to be funny.’ There was all these stuffed unicorns on the wall behind him. I said, ‘Take one of these and stick it beneath the blanket. When you start talking, pull it our and stare at it like you’ve been sitting on it. You’ll get a laugh.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Sure you can. You won an Oscar! Put your mind to it.’  He started laughing and it broke the ice. This movie can and should have humour. That was all about how collaborative we were on set.


Nathan Lane, who plays Roger in ‘Beau Is Afraid,’ says he gave Phoenix “a bit of comedy business” during the filming of the movie — a laugh-inducing moment that helped break the ice for the actors. Photo: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24


KH: One could tease out metaphors for psychoanalysis, Freud, Kafka, Greek mythology and so on within this film. Were you guys having intense conversations about that kind of stuff on-set?

NL: No. Those kinds of discussions happen early on with a director if you want to talk about that. And that would be covering the overall story. Amy and I are just in this one section, so we wanted to know what was going on with our characters, Roger and Grace. We created backstories for ourselves about why this situation was happening and what we were up to in these scenes. Stuff about our son, and our adopted son who lives in a trailer outside. We tried to put all those pieces together. As Mike Nichols used to say, ‘I’m the bird, you’re the ornithologist. You figure it out.’ 

One version of this [film] is: this is one man’s life passing before his eyes before the end. Or maybe it’s somebody telling you about a dream they had the night before that turned into this nightmare. Whatever effect the movie has on you, you have to be up for a cinematic challenge. If you’re going to see a three-hour arthouse film by Ari Aster starring Joaquin Phoenix, you know it’s not Cocaine Bear. These are serious artists with something to say and it’s going to be smart and provocative and it’s not going to give you any easy answers. 


Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous character in ‘Beau Is Afraid.’ Photo: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24


KH: What will success look like for each of you with this film? 

AR: I judge success for a film now when I’m shooting it. Am I happy to be waking up at five in the morning, going to that set and working with that cast and crew? So yes, this was a wild success for me. Sharing that month in Canada with these filmmakers and actors was a dream. I also think there is such a saturation of content out there that if this finds its audience — and I feel confident it will — that is a success in itself. 

NL: I wholeheartedly agree. At this point, it’s about the hang. Yes, the challenge of the work. But do you want to be with these people every day? The answer here was yes. 

Beau Is Afraid is in theatres on April 21. Click here for more information.