The Broadway legend brings the horror to Ari Aster’s latest smothering-mother fantasy.

By , a features writer at Vulture and New York

Photo: Hana Mendel

Patti LuPone, legendary for her work on the Broadway stage and with the English language, once called Madonna a “movie killer” who is “dead behind the eyes.” She erected an “Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool” at her Connecticut home in the ’90s with the money she made suing him for replacing her in Sunset Boulevardthen called him “the definition of a sad sack.” There is an entire section on LuPone’s Wikipedia page dedicated to her “views on theater conduct,” including the time she yanked a phone out of an audience member’s hand mid-performance and the time she told told an American Theatre Wing patron to wear a mask or “get the fuck out.”

“‘Controversy’ is my middle name,” she tells me cheerfully, sitting behind a little table backstage at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, the Off Broadway venue that’s now owned by a movie studio and LuPone’s most recent employer, A24. “It’s not intentional. People think it, and I say it. But just in case I do something stupid, he’s here to stop me,” she adds, pointing to her publicist, a man named Philip, whom she’s known for 40 years and who looks alternately charmed and unbothered by everything that exits her mouth.

She and Philip are not concerned about LuPone accidentally spilling plot points from her A24 movie presently in theaters, Beau Is Afraid — though spoilers ahead. They are concerned about LuPone leaking details about her upcoming Marvel show, Agatha: Coven of Chaos. Indeed, on The View later this same day, she’ll reveal she’s playing a 450-year-old Sicilian witch named Lilia Calderu in the WandaVision spinoff series. When I joke that Disney is famously litigious, she bursts into delighted laughter. “Uh-oh,” she says. “There’s not enough money in the world.”

LuPone’s near-Shakespearean quotability and relish for calling a spade a son of a bitch has for many fans been a feature, not a bug, of her decades-long career. Andy Cohen, for one, regularly hosts her on Watch What Happens Live in a segment called “Does Patti Give a Damn?” in which LuPone doles out spontaneous assessments of casting announcements and celebrity breakups. That delicious transparency has sometimes gotten in the way of her Hollywood aspirations, relegating her to playing, as she puts it, “witches and ninth”: angry Italian wives who yell at Robert De Niro (The Comedian) and Danny DeVito (Wise Guys) or pissed-off single women whose limited patience is tested by Harrison Ford (Witness). But it’s the very same quality that helped LuPone land a part in Beau Is Afraid — the “best role I’ve ever been offered on-camera” — as Joaquin Phoenix’s towering, smothering mother in Ari Aster’s darkly comic Jewish anxiety opera.

When Aster reached out to LuPone, she had “no idea who he was” and hadn’t heard of Hereditary and Midsummer, the A24 golden boy’s previous features about deranged women and the hapless men upon whom they rain terrible punishments. Her son, 32-year-old Joshua Johnston, urged her to hop on a Zoom with Aster. “He said, ‘Mom, this is the guy,’” recalls LuPone. “And so I watched Midsummer and Hereditary. And I said, ‘Why me? Is he a musical-theater queen?’”

Aster, who has not self-identified as such, cast LuPone for two reasons: He was impressed, she says, by how well she “handled the language” of 2012’s The Anarchista “Talmudic” David Mamet play. (“I was so grateful that Ari came to me from the legitimate side of my stage career, not the musical-theater side,” says LuPone, who has won three Tonys for her work in musical theater.) He’d also seen a clip of her calling Donald Trump “a motherfucker” on a red carpet and thought she seemed like a “hard-ass.” (“It just flew out of my mouth,” shrugs LuPone of that moment, which quickly went viral. “I turned to Philip after and I said, ‘Well, you are going to have to be dealing with something in about ten minutes.’”)

Beau Is Afraid follows Phoenix as the titular character, who embarks on a Homeric journey to attend the funeral of his mother, Mona, played by Lupone, after he’s told she was beheaded by a falling chandelier. Along the way, Beau gives Lloyd Webber a run for LuPone’s sad-sack title, becoming the victim of a break-in, a stabbing, a near-drowning, an attempted kidnapping, a compulsory crack smoking, multiple murder attempts, and Nathan Lane. In the days since its theatrical release, the three-hour Oy-dyssey has become a polarizing piece of filmmaking with some calling for Aster to be locked up in movie jail and others proclaiming it “one of the most fascinating films of recent years.” Critics seem to agree on one thing, however: Despite appearing in only a handful of scenes, LuPone runs away with the film.

LuPone admits she found the whole thing a bit baffling tonally: While filming Beau in Montreal in the summer of 2021 (during a break between critically acclaimed performances in London and New York productions of longtime collaborator Stephen Sondheim’s Company), she played Mona totally straight, unaware that the film was Aster’s version of a black comedy. “I did not see the humor,” she says, lifting up her legs and calmly removing her Manolo Blahniks from her feet as she talks. “I saw the horror.”

Not even scenes featuring a gigantic talking penis — a “character” who is identified as Beau’s biological father — tipped her off. “Well, I didn’t think that was funny,” she says. She recalls seeing the penis for the first time in a big barn on their set and responding, “Oh, shit.” “I never saw it move,” she adds. “But I tried to figure out how he penetrated Mona.” LuPone says she and the cast were typically in thrilling disbelief during filming, often asking one another, “Somebody put money behind this script?”

LuPone’s co-star, Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays Beau’s therapist and whom LuPone has been friends with since they studied together at Juilliard in the 1970s, kept referring to the movie as “vaudeville,” and LuPone was totally lost. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t feel ‘vaudeville’ at all. What am I missing?’” Later, when she was recording dialogue in postproduction, LuPone noticed that a grotesque portrait of a woman with green skin and a wide grimace had appeared behind her in a pivotal scene. “I said, ‘Ari, who is that?’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘That’s Mona’s mother.’ I went, ‘What?’ and I burst out laughing. I said, ‘Oh my God. I wished I’d known it was a comedy.’”

LuPone is, nonetheless, uproariously funny as Mona, oozing passive-aggressive Jewish guilt and Machiavellian manipulation as she puppeteers her pathetic son’s entire existence. Near the end of the film, it’s revealed that, in a staggering, lifelong attempt to test Beau’s devotion to her and protect him from what she sees as an irrevocably dangerous world, Mona created an entire corporation whose central purpose was to track and control her son. After faking her own death, then killing her beloved housekeeper as a decoy, Mona tries Beau in a kind of extralegal, existential court for, among other things, regifting her the same Bette Midler CD twice.

Fascinatingly, LuPone didn’t play her character as a villain. “I see her as deeply concerned. She structured her entire life around that child,” says LuPone, poker faced. “And he constantly disappoints!”

LuPone first appears in Beau in an audio-only scene that takes place after Beau reneges on a long-planned flight to visit Mona, and she makes a meal of it, peppering the dialogue with long, loaded pauses hinting at biblical rage. She tells me the scene was her first interaction with Phoenix — she was in New York, dialing him from her own cell phone; he was in Montreal on set. The two did the scene a few times with LuPone taking her cues from Phoenix.

“Joaquin took a very long pause. And I went to myself, Am I still connected on the phone? Are you wasting my life, basically, kid?” she laughs. “I told myself, Just be patient. Just be patient. And then he finally said, ‘What do I do?’ And I thought, Wow.”

Once LuPone made it to Montreal, the two became friends, having coffee each morning on their hotel balconies with Phoenix’s partner, Rooney Mara, and their baby. “I would bring out my French press and say, ‘Does anyone want coffee?’ And Ari and Joaquin and I would chat not about the movie but just ‘What a day!’ I think it helped Joaquin and I be able to go at it as we did.”

LuPone similarly bonded with Zoe Lister-Jones, who plays young Mona in several flashbacks to Beau’s childhood. The two are playing the same tune but in different keys: Lister-Jones draws out the character’s incestuous overtones, while LuPone hits heavy notes of shame. They didn’t scientifically calibrate their performances, but they did hang out a lot, going to museums and dinner, casually studying each other’s mannerisms. “Because she’s a very fine actor, she understood the responsibility that she had in playing an earlier version of me,” LuPone says. The two still keep in touch — “I think it’s important that you establish a friendship with people” — but LuPone knows how this song ends. “These are never going to be friendships that last forever,” she says matter of factly. “It’s show business, after all.”

LuPone has always had a dramatic relationship with show business. Although she’s dominated the stage for decades, she decided to give up her Actors’ Equity cardwhich she announced LuPone-ishly in the fall of 2022: “Quite a week on Broadway, seeing my name being bandied about. Gave up my Equity card; no longer part of that circus. Figure it out.” Without the card, LuPone can still perform on Broadway, but she tells me she “doesn’t even want to.” She launches into one of her favorite topics: the Las Vegas–ification of Broadway. “I don’t think it’s encouraging audiences to be educated,” she says, convincingly falling into character as an American theatergoer who willingly pays $350 to debase themselves. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s go see Oh mama! I wish the Phantom would come back.’”

(I ask LuPone if Lloyd Webber’s musical finally closing on the same weekend LuPone’s biggest film opens is meaningful to her, and she throws her head back with a cackle and brief applause. “No, but yay!”)

Patti LuPone as Mona in Beau Is Afraid. Photo: Takashi Seida/A24

She’s not done with theater — she’s merely looking downtown. “I want to work on East 4th Street. I want to go to the New York Theatre Workshop,” she proclaims. She gestures to the space around us at the Cherry Lane, where she’s pondering bringing a new play she might produce. “Let’s get creative,” she says. “The audience will find me.”

Historically, audiences have found her. Over the years, the gays and Jews (Ryan Murphy, Lena Dunham, Rachel Bloom, et al.) who grew up mainlining her show tunes have given her memorable cameos and supporting roles on shows such as Hollywood, Girlsand Will & Grace. But she hasn’t had a lead TV role since the early ’90s, when she played the matriarch on a network sitcom called Life Goes On. She’s never had a starring, or even hefty supporting, role in a film until now.

“It’s definitely the nose,’” says LuPone, turning so I can see her profile. She thinks it’s why she’s so often cast as Jewish, Italian, Greek, and, at least once, Latinain 2013’s Parker as a shitty mother to Jennifer Lopez. When I tell her I often forget she isn’t actually a member of the tribe, she is visibly exhilarated. “Thank you!” she responds. “I did 23andMe, and I am 12 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Italians and Jews, we’re the same.”

When Aster offered her the role of yet another Jewish mother, LuPone was “so proud” to finally get the chance to play what she describes as an “attractive, vital woman” with an emotional arc and a monologue so juicy it’s already incited some Oscar chatter. “That’s so dangerous, to talk about awards, because it only leads to disappointment,” she says. She will, however, emphatically request that A24 and Aster put her in more movies. “Put me in everything, Ari,” she says. “I don’t care if I’m sneaking around a corner, just sticking my head in.”

I ask LuPone if she thinks Mona, a character with whom she continues to empathize, ever took things too far. “I think ultimately she does, and she regrets it at the very end,” she says. She pauses for a moment, then shakes her head, disagreeing with herself. “But he missed his flight to see her, goddamn it! Now let’s see whether he shows up when she’s headless. What the hell else does she have to do?”

“I think it’s understandable that a mother becomes irrational when it’s her child,” she adds, laughing.

This raises the inevitable question regarding LuPone’s own mothering of Joshua, her only son with her longtime husband, Matthew Johnston, a cameraman she met while filming a TV movie in the ’80s. “I’ve never gotten as mad as Mona. I’ve never created a baby formula or an empire around my kid,” LuPone says. “But I do love my son unconditionally. And I worry about my son the same way that she worried about her son. I’m always worried that my son is going to die, and then I think, Am I projecting? Am I going to create it?

I ask what her son thought of Beau Is Afraidand LuPone gets a mischievous glint in her eye for approximately the fifth consecutive time during our conversation. “I think we should call him and find out,” she says, whipping out her phone. LuPone dials Johnston, who picks up immediately, and briefs him on our conversation. “What do you mean that I am going to die, Mom?” he asks, vaguely frightened. “Oh, I always worry, Joshua,” she says. “I’m always worried that you’re going to die. It’s my biggest fear besides falling onstage. Which is more important, falling onstage or my kid dying?”

Johnston quietly mulls the question. “It’s terrifying when you’re not in control of a situation,” he says. “That’s probably what you’re fearful of with me.”

So what did he think of Mona, the mother he never had? “I’ve lived with a lot of interesting characters that you’ve played over the years,” Johnson says, “but it’s a testament to your acting ability that the person onscreen was not anyone I was familiar with.”

LuPone looks pleased. “Brilliant,” she says. “He’s a very smart boy.”

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