Patti LuPone is not someone to be trifled with. The Broadway legend has tussled with Andrew Lloyd Webber, gone toe-to-toe with John Houseman, and even confronted theatre patrons (sorry to that one woman whose eventual obituary will lead with the fact that she had her phone confiscated by LuPone for the sin of texting during a performance).
But in her new film, the wonderfully deranged horror-comedy Beau Is Afraid, LuPone’s intimidation factor is taken up to 11 by director Ari Aster. The Hereditary and Midsommar director casts LuPone as the ne plus ultra of mothers from hell, a woman named Mona who completely and cruelly manipulates the life of her emotionally stunted fortysomething son played by Joaquin Phoenix. It is an idiosyncratic bit of casting that makes perfect sense once experienced in Aster’s three-hour epic, which is not for the faint of heart (among its more extreme elements: a giant penis monster).
Now that the film has been out for several weeks and readers can safely be told that (spoiler warning, I suppose) LuPone’s character appears in the film’s final half-hour after faking her own death, the actress was free to talk with The Globe and Mail about the highly unusual production. And what Canadian audiences can expect from her upcoming stage show.
How did you connect with Ari? And were you surprised to be approached for this role?
Completely. I got a phone call one day from my manager saying that Ari wanted to have a Zoom. I couldn’t figure it out. Was he a musical-theatre queen? The first thing I asked him was, “How do you know me?” It turns out he had seen many years ago a David Mamet play I was in called The Anarchist on Broadway. It’s a dense play, very wordy. I’ve been a Mamet actor since 1976, and Ari loved how I handled the language. Later, I wrote David and said thanks for getting me the part in Ari’s movie.
I have to ask whether you and Ari talked about his relationship with his own mother for this film. Is that something you were able to get into?
No, we did not even speak of his mother, no. We had ... I had to read the script a couple of times because there’s so many layers to this and so many things that I missed even the second or third time around. My approach of it is there’s a mother who loves her kid unconditionally, and she’s trying to make a man out of him even though he’s pathologically indecisive. I mean, she manipulates him, his entire journey, as a test. But it’s also protection.
So you’re not playing her as a villain.
You can’t because you have to have an audience. You can’t play a villain unless you play their good side, too. There’s a reason that she’s this way. It’s not all villainous. I have a son, and I’m constantly worried about his safety. He’s out jogging now, and I’m like oh my god, is he going to fall and die? It can be an irrational fear. But it is common for mothers.
Has he seen the film?
Yes, but he knows I’m not Mona!
There’s a lot of Jewish humour in the film, including a great Shiva gag involving Mona. I know you’re not Jewish, but you are asked to play a lot of Jewish characters. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Driving Miss Daisy, The Comedian with De Niro ...
Italians and Jews are one person! I actually did a 23andMe test recently and it turns out that I have 12 per cent Ashkenazi Jew in me, so there you go.
Did you and Ari talk much about the Jewishness of this comedy?
No, and I didn’t even know it was a comedy till we were [in post-production]. I did not approach this comedically. I don’t even remember him saying to me it was a comedy. I would’ve approached it differently.
So you’re glad he didn’t let you know what he was thinking?
Yes, because I would question, “Where is the comedy?” By the way, I’m playing Toronto in November.
Yes, what can audiences expect?
Lots of Broadway showtunes, my life on-stage.
So there won’t be any clips from Beau Is Afraid?
The penis monster! I’m bringing the giant penis monster with me. As a guest performer.
Let’s hope he doesn’t get cut for time. I did want to ask about working with Joaquin. He’s known as an intense and committed actor, and I read that he actually fainted while on-set.
He was great. We were shooting in this wedding destination hotel outside of Montreal, a bizarre place that had seen better days and better weddings. But it was me, Ari, and Joaquin was there with his wife and dog and new baby, just the cutest family. We connected as human beings. All I want as an actor is to look at another actor and see that they’re looking back, so I know that we can connect. And that is Joaquin 150 per cent. When he is looking at you, he is really looking at you.
So one day he was helping me during an intense scene, and he hyperventilated. By the time we got to that scene, it was only two weeks left of shooting, and he must have been exhausted. We were on night shoots, and you know, he has a kid. I don’t know how much he slept during the day. So he crouched down before we shot, and then when he stood up he keeled over. He was out for maybe 10 seconds. When he woke up, he asked, “What happened?” He just stood up too quickly.
Beau Is Afraid is now playing in theatres. Patti LuPone: Don’t Monkey with Broadway will be performed Nov. 17 at Toronto’s Meridian Hall.
This interview has been condensed and edited.