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In Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid, Joaquin Phoenix plays a man on a quest of mythic proportions—to visit his feared mother, Mona. Aster withholds any sight of present-day Mona from the audience until the nearly three-hour A24 film’s climactic scenes, and to play her, he cast an actress with the charisma and presence to make it worth the wait, Patti LuPone.
LuPone, a three-time Tony winner who has appeared in the TV shows American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful and Pose, considers Mona her greatest screen role to date. The actress spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about crafting the memorable character together with Aster, what to expect from her upcoming performance as a Sicilian witch in Marvel’s WandaVision spinoff, and why she’ll never return to Broadway.
How did Ari Aster approach you about this role?
My manager said, “Ari Aster wants to talk to you about a part in his next film.” And I went, “Who’s Ari Aster?”
My 30-year-old son went, “Oh, this is the man, Mom. This is the guy.” So I watched both Midsommar and Hereditary. And then we had a Zoom, and I still wasn’t sure why I was in the mix. I didn’t want to ask him, but I thought, is he a musical theater queen? Is that why he wants me? And it’s the first question I asked him. I said, “Ari, why me?” He said that he was friends with Clara Mamet, David Mamet’s daughter, and came and saw David’s play, The Anarchist, on Broadway, which I did with Debra Winger for two weeks. It got eviscerated by the critics, and we had a very stupid producer who closed it, not the lead producer, but the one with the money. And [Aster] said he talked for a week about how I handled the language. You know, I cut my teeth on Mamet. I started working with David in 1976. I wrote to David afterwards, and I said, “Thanks, David. You got me this part.” I considered myself incredibly lucky because this is the best role I’ve ever had on camera. The language, working with Joaquin, and being directed by Ari. It’s an extraordinary role. On paper it is a three, three and a half page monologue.
What kinds of conversations did you and Ari have about the role of the mother in this movie?
They were intense. I was at a hotel in Montreal, and we had a lunch, and he talked about the film, and he talked about Mona and Mona’s relationship to Beau. At the end of it I said to him, “Does your brain hurt?” He said, “All the time.”
Mona loves her son. I don’t come to this character thinking she’s a villain. She loves her son unconditionally, and perhaps is constantly disappointed by him. I think she’s trying to make a man of him. I don’t think she’s intentionally monstrous. She’s not an evil person, but you can’t play that anyway. You can’t play a monster unless you show the audience their good side.
As the mother of a son, do you feel any connection to Mona in terms of the intensity of her love and her worry?
I am constantly worried about my son, but I think every mother has the same fear. I was seeing a therapist for something else entirely, and I said, “I wake up with nightmares that my son is dying or has been hit by a car.” He said, “This is a common occurrence in mothers.” Oh, great. I haven’t lost my mind. My son is 32 and he’s still my kid. I suppose you’d have to ask my son if there’s any traces of Mona in me. I don’t think he’d say that. I laugh too much. I have too much fun.
I heard you and Joaquin were doing a scene together and he passed out. Can you tell me what happened?
By the time Joaquin and Ari got to me, they had been shooting for two months, and Joaquin works at that 150% energy level. He was exhausted, and we were on night shoots. We were in the process of filming a very intense part of the scene, and [the camera] was on me. And he was helping me. He was showing me something and was in a crouched position, and when he stood up, I think he just hyperventilated. He keeled over backwards and hit his head, it’s like, oh, fuck. He was awake in 10 seconds, and he said, “What happened?” I said, “You fainted.”
Prior to shooting did you and Joaquin go off to some mother-son bootcamp to try and build a bond?
Well, we were in this hotel in Montreal. There were three rooms that had terraces that faced this lake. I was in one, Joaquin was in the one at the very end and Ari was in the middle. I had brought a French press coffee pot, and in the morning I made coffee, and I’d go out in my little nightgown and I’d go, who wants coffee? Which established a relationship between Joaquin and me. I think Joaquin saw that I wasn’t this, you know, Strega Nona bitch. Seeing each other as human beings took the pressure off what we had to do as characters in Ari’s piece. Then you’re free. You can go the distance and they know that’s not who you are.
Did you meet Ari’s mom?
No. I don’t think this has anything to do with his mom. I think this is the wildness of this child’s brain. I took Ari out. We went to the Zinc bar [in NY]. I wanted him to have a good time because I think that Ari is constantly in this whirlwind. A hurricane, that brain is. He came and said, “What are we doing?” I said, “We’re listening to a band, Ari.”
You’ve resigned from Actors’ Equity, the union that represents stage actors. Is that permanent? Will you really never return to Broadway?
I don’t think so. I’ve been offered something and there’s something I’m interested in doing, but I said to the producer, “Don’t do this on Broadway. I want to work on East Fourth Street. I don’t want to work on Broadway anymore.” Broadway’s now turning into a combination of Disney, Las Vegas and the circus. Plays are closing. The education of an audience is in grave danger. And so what’s the point? Plus Times Square is a nightmare. It’s like the lowest common denominator of humanity hanging out in Times Square. They’re not going to the theater. They make it difficult for people who are trying to get to the theater. And then when you go to the theater, it’s way too expensive and it’s compromised. So I’ll never do eight shows a week again, ever. It’s just over. I mean, I have had that [Actors Equity] card for 50 years, 1973 to 2023. And that’s enough. I don’t want to be on stage. I want to end my career on film.
Did you leave Twitter because of Elon Musk?
I think social media is so dangerous to start off. I’m actually quite vulnerable to it. People would go, you’re tough as nails. No, I’m vulnerable, made tough as nails cause of this business. But still the core of me is vulnerable to criticism. And I don’t shut up. It’s too dangerous an environment right now. Ever since 9/11, I fear when I’m on stage that somebody’s gonna come out of the aisle with a gun. With the division in this country and loose gun laws, it’s just too dangerous.
What can you tell me about the Marvel show you’re making, Agatha: Coven of Chaos?
We are a coven led by the great Kathryn Hahn. I am a 450-year-old Sicilian witch and my power is divination.
Do the witches sing?
They do. Our lead singer is Kathryn. I’m singing backup, and the songs have been written by Kristen and Bobby Lopez.
What’s it like to sing backup?
I said, “Listen, I don’t harmonize. I’ve always been a soprano. I’ve always been on the top line.” But it’s just been great fun. There’s no CGI either. What I am seeing on this show is craft.
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