Ari Aster’s newest movie Beau Is Afraid is disorienting, to put it mildly. The titular protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix as if he just got done screaming his head off or is about to, lives in hell. His city is awash in crime and zombie-like street dwellers, his keys and luggage are stolen from his apartment doorway in the blink of an eye, and he keeps getting notes from a neighbor asking him to turn his music down when no music is playing. We know he’s medicated and on the verge, and very early on it’s clear that his perception may be unique to him—and by extension, viewers of the movie. “Point of view” is too tepid a phrase to describe how this movie shares life through his eyes—it’s more like an all-encompassing umwelt that is both emotionally oppressive and narratively liberating. Beau’s paranoia and disturbance translate reality as fantastical as he makes the journey home to his mother, played by Patti LuPone and reported dead mid-movie. Along the way, he finds himself adopted by a couple who is (big shock!) not as benevolent as they initially seem and is plunged into an extended animated sequence that envisions an alternate life path for him.
Beau Is Afraid is the kind of movie that people (writers for NPR, Vulture, and RogerEbert.com) describe as a “fever dream.” And so does LuPone, or at least she did when I met her last week at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre to discuss her role in the film. To be precise, “a mad genius’ fever dream [about] a man that is pathologically indecisive,” is how she put it.
For her part as the controlling Mona—who, spoiler alert, fakes her own death seemingly in order to ensure Beau’s return home—LuPone said it was her understanding that what happened in the script was “all real.” But it took her a few reads to really get it: “There’s so much that I missed when I read the script two or three times, and Ari had to explain to me how she does manipulate this whole thing, how she does control him in protection of him, and how he constantly lets her down.”
When Aster, the director of previous A24 hits Hereditary and Midsommar whose name is practically synonymous with “elevated horror,” reached out, LuPone said she hadn’t seen his movies, but her 32-year-old son Joshua Luke Johnston told her, “Mom, that’s the guy.”
“I thought, ‘Why me?’” recalled LuPone on getting the call. She remembered wondering if Aster was a “theater queen.” The writer-director had seen her in David Mamet’s play The Anarchist, as Aster is, according to LuPone, friends with Mamet’s daughter Clara. LuPone has worked with Mamet regularly since the ‘70s, and so when she landed the role in Beau Is Afraid (which she says was originally intended for Fiona Shaw), she wrote Mamet to thank him.
LuPone called Mona “the best movie part I have ever been given.” What drew her to the role was “the language, the emotional arc of it, the ability to play several different colors in the part. And this is all a woman. You know what I mean?”
“I get to invest it with a variety of emotional qualities, which is, you know...women [characters] are pretty much one or two flavors,” she explained. I wondered if the scripts she received have been getting better in terms of more fully developed characters, and she conceded that they “probably” have but “they still have a long way to go, I think.”
Then I wondered what “better” even means when you’re Patti LuPone, a certified Broadway legend with three Tonys under her belt and a thriving screen career (she’s appeared in Ryan Murphy productions like American Horror Story, Pose, and Hollywood and will make her entry into the Marvel universe with the WandaVision spin-off Agatha: Coven of Chaos on Disney+ later this year). Does Patti LuPone think of a good role like Mona in terms of what’s on the page or the broader representational implications of her performance?
“I don’t think broader,” she said, her straight shot unwavering. “You know, this is not necessarily the way we want to represent women on film.” To LuPone, it’s all about bringing the words on page to life. “I approach everything that way and try to understand that is what I’m responsible for, and only that. I’m the storyteller, I’m telling his story,” she said. LuPone said she considers herself a “director’s actor” and she loves being directed. The script’s tension did not affect her on a personal level—LuPone said she doesn’t carry in life the emotions she conjures for roles.
“David Mamet said it: Wipe your feet at the door. Put it on stage. Leave it on the stage,” she said. Acting is, at this point in LuPone’s 74 years, “simple” for her. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. “The hardest thing about acting is the simplicity of it,” she said. She values onstage stillness. “If you are in the moment, if you’re just standing there listening, that’s all acting is,” she explained. “You don’t have to impose anything on the words. You just have to say them and you just have to believe them.” She said that she was trained as an ensemble player and loves the rehearsal process, so ego doesn’t get in the way of this stillness. “Other people remind me I’m a legend,” she said, as I had earlier in the interview.
I got a taste of her “director’s actor” attitude just by sitting across from her for about a half hour and controlling the conversation. She was engaged and open. She took on each open-ended question with a kind of eagerness to contextualize (a less generous interviewee looks for reasons to dodge). She wasn’t afraid of complexity—Mona may not be the kind of character we admire, as LuPone indicated, but she also, in LuPone’s estimation, isn’t the movie’s villain.
“I think she’s just desperately disappointed in her kid,” she said. “But I know a lot of people think that Mona is a villain, and she behaves villainously in disappointment.”
Perhaps LuPone’s resistance to the idea of being the antagonist here is a function of her craft. “You have to play: How did someone become villainous? What happened in their life that turned the corner on them? You know what I mean? You always have to operate from that if you’re going to play a villain,” she said. “And I think in her particular case, it’s probably a frustration, almost a repetition of how her mother treated her, how her kid is treating her. Why her? ‘Why me? Why? Why am I being robbed of love? Respect? Look what I’ve done for you?’ And that’s a lot of people’s stories. You know what I mean? A lot of mother-child stories. But I don’t think it’s villainous. I think she’s acting out because he’s so pathetic.”
The movie resists diagnosing Beau or pointing to a direct cause of his condition, though LuPone believes that Mona must have played some role. “Do our parents ever see how much they damage us?” she asked. “They think they’re doing the right thing for us. My mother said, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to you kids,’ when she died. What do you think she was? A serious burden. Nothing was in order. ‘I don’t want to be a burden.’ Thanks, Mom.”
While LuPone’s zen may have guided and ultimately defined her time on set, there was at least one big scare for her—when Phoenix took a tumble as they acted in the scene in which Mona reveals herself to him. After the film’s surprise April 1 screening, in a Q&A, Aster described the collapse, which he said wasn’t even his shot (the camera was on LuPone). LuPone told me the story from her perspective.
“[Phoenix] was helping me with something,” she said. “And he subliminally was doing it while he was in a crouching position. He stood up, because Ari called action, and hyperventilated. But what worried me is he fell [backward] and he hit his head. And I thought, ‘Natasha Richardson.’ I thought, ‘Oh fuck.’ But he was out for 10 seconds. He woke up, he said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘You fainted.’ And he was shocked, but he just hyperventilated. He was exhausted.”
“I was very concerned about him,” said LuPone. Just like a mother.