Beau Is Afraid's Nathan Lane On Making A Screwball Horror Movie, Only Murders In The Building, And More - Exclusive Interview

In "Beau Is Afraid," the third feature film from "Hereditary" and "Midsommar" writer-director Ari Aster, Joaquin Phoenix plays the title character, a man who is emotionally and psychologically damaged by his tortured relationship with his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). After the visceral horror of his first two movies, Aster combines a more surreal kind of nightmare with a very dark brand of comedy in this three-hour journey through Beau's life, which has only a tenuous connection to reality.

"Beau Is Afraid" is divided into four sections: In the first, Beau is trying to escape the squalid urban hellhole in which he lives and catch a plane to visit his long-widowed mother on the anniversary of his parents' wedding anniversary. But circumstances result in him fleeing naked through a street filled with danger, where he's hit by a car and inexplicably wakes up in a teen girl's bedroom. That room is in the seemingly peaceful suburban home of the people who hit him, semi-retired surgeon Roger (Nathan Lane) and his wife Grace (Amy Ryan). Although Roger and Grace are kind to Beau and help him recuperate from his wounds — sort of — it soon becomes apparent that not all is what it seems in their bucolic retreat, where their daughter is plotting against Beau and a veteran lives in an SUV in their backyard.

Nathan Lane is an Emmy- and Tony-winning stage and screen legend whose credits include the smash Mel Brooks musical "The Producers," the classic Mike Nichols-directed comedy "The Birdcage," and more recently, his turn as possibly corrupt businessman Teddy Dimas in Hulu's hit series "Only Murders in the Building." As for working on the bizarre "Beau Is Afraid," Lane told us in our exclusive interview, "We laughed a lot because of the absurdity of the situation."

Nathan Lane's character is not what he appears to be

On the surface, Roger is this wealthy surgeon and upstanding member of the community with a beautiful house and family, but then you start to see these cracks and this weirdness under the surface. How did you envision him? Did you invent your own backstory for him?

Amy [Ryan] and I, in discussions with Ari [Aster], tried to craft a backstory for both of them and the whole family and [tried] to figure out the tone and what is real and what isn't. I would always be texting Ari and saying, "Is he really a doctor? Do you think he's really a doctor?" Then when we were shooting this scene, and [Beau] shows me the stitches in his stomach, and they're awful, I thought, "He's a terrible surgeon. I don't think he's a surgeon," but Ari said he was. Ari said he's a doctor, and I said, "Well, then he has a lot of malpractice suits against him."

It's such a strange situation. We knew a certain amount of what was going on because we had read the script. Ari would fill in some of the blanks, and then we had to figure out how we wanted to approach that. He certainly wanted Roger to be this upbeat suburban dad with a lot of corny dad sense of humor and trying to be hip by calling people "my dude, my brother." But there seems to be something else going on.

We would always ask Ari — and I don't want to give away too much, so I can't quite reveal everything — but we would ask him the details, and he would say, "That could be it." He's somebody who was very detail-oriented. Nothing gets past him. Everything in that frame, there's been thought behind how he has composed it, and there are little Easter eggs to be found. But I think he wanted there to be a shift in tone from this Kafkaesque opening where every single thing is going badly for [Beau], and then suddenly he wakes up in Oz and this very sweet suburban couple are taking care of him, and you think everything's going to be okay and then it isn't.

What several of the actors in Beau Is Afraid have in common

A lot of the actors in the movie — yourself, Amy Ryan, Patti LuPone — all come from theater backgrounds. Is that something that Ari Aster was looking for? How do you think that maybe impacted the tone of the film or your performances?

No, it wasn't like Ari said, "I only want theater actors," although they're the best actors. [laughs] It might have been coincidental that a few of us have stage careers. Amy and I have known each other for many years. I met her in 1987 and have watched her become this superb actress. Then we were both on "Only Murders in the Building," and that's when I found out she was going to play my wife in this. I was thrilled that we finally got to work together.

Patti and I have also known each other a very long time, and I'm sorry I didn't get to have any scenes with her in this. But theater actors [are] always punctual. They're very professional. They know their lines. They're always a good hire.

Your section is a mix of almost a screwball comedy and a horror movie. Did it take a lot to get to that tone on the set? Did you guys have to do a lot of rehearsal to find the right vibe?

We did do a lot of takes, because Ari is very exacting about what it is he wants. Finding the right tone was very important. To be honest, we laughed a lot because of the absurdity of the situation, and I seem to make Joaquin laugh a lot, so we actually had a lot of fun filming that stuff. But yes, we did a lot of takes to try to find the right level for those scenes of what was funny but also slightly sinister.

Will we see Nathan Lane on Season 3 of Only Murders in the Building?

Now, you and Amy Ryan didn't work directly together on "Only Murders."

No. She was the murderer, and I was just a suspected murderer.

Are you coming back for Season 3? If so, what would you like to see happen in Season 3?

Well, Season 3 is ... Now, it's only Meryl in the building. It's Meryl Streep and Paul Rudd and a whole bunch of new people. When we last left Teddy Dimas, he was under house arrest awaiting trial. I think my son — this lovely actor, James Caverly — might pop up in Season 3, but I'm not. I've been doing a Broadway play, so I've not been able to be a part of this season. Amy and I discussed that maybe she and I meet, perhaps in prison, and seek revenge on everyone ... Obviously, it's now become a very popular place to work because it's filled with movie stars. The writing is so good, and Marty [Short] and Steve [Martin] and Selena [Gomez] — they're delightful company and so gracious.

What is Nathan Lane's best-known role, and what is he doing next?

Is the stage still your first love? And what role do people want to talk to you about the most these days?

The stage is still my first love, although I could be talked out of it easily at this point. I'm not getting any younger ... And people want to talk about ... whatever is happening, whether it's "Only Murders in the Building" or "The Gilded Age," but people always bring up "The Birdcage." It's become such a beloved film, and still, to this day, people always bring it up. They always say, "Oh, whenever it's on, I have to watch it to the end." It's very sweet that people love it so much and that it's held up after all these years.

And more timely than ever, it seems, these days.

Yeah. Well, it's a classic comedy plot, that one. It's why it's been adapted so many times into musicals and movies.

You're working with ["Borat" director] Larry Charles next.

My next A24 film, yes. The great Larry Charles — I love him to death. We did this R-rated, subversive queer musical based on "The Parent Trap" called "F***ing Identical Twins," written by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp, who also star in it as the aforementioned twins. Megan Mullally and I play the parents that they try to bring back together. It's pretty funny. Let's put it this way — it makes "Beau Is Afraid" seem tame by comparison. That's all I'll say.

"Beau Is Afraid" is now in limited release and expands into wide release on Friday, April 21.

This interview has been edited for clarity.