For the first time in over five years, Nathan Lane finds himself back on the silver screen in filmmaker Ari Aster’s pitch-black comedy, Beau Is Afraid. But Nathan? He’s not afraid—not one bit.
Over the past four decades, the legendary actor has built an incredible career spanning film (The Birdcage, The Lion King), television (The Good Wife, Only Murders In The Building), and theater (The Producers, Angels In America) with no signs of slowing down.
Even still, there’s something about his work of late feels especially fearless.
Take Beau Is Afraid, for example, an anxiety-riddled odyssey for the eponymous Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), in which Lane plays one half of a suburban couple who act as our tragic hero’s caretakers/captors after accidentally (up for debate) hitting him with their car. Lane’s a hilarious standout in the sprawling epic, creating a character whose dopiness may be masking a real danger.
And as wild as that sounds, the actor promises it’s tame compared to his next movie: The upcoming F***ing Identical Twins, which is billed as a twisted, queer take on The Parent Trap.
“If it ends my career, that’s fine,” Lane jokes, only proving our point. At 67, with three Tonys, three Emmys, and plenty more accolades already under his belt, he sees no reason to hold back these days.
As Beau Is Afraid rolls out to theaters nationwide, we sat down with Lane to discuss the bold new phase of his career, to reflect on coming out in the ’90s, and unpack his status as a reluctant role model.
QUEERTY: Your career’s been going strong for over 40 years now, and you’ve really never stopped working. That being said, it’s been a minute since we’ve seen you in the movies! What was it about Beau Is Afraid that brought you back to film?
LANE: Well, Ari Aster! Just the notion of working with him and Joaquin Phoenix and my old friend, Amy Ryan, who I’ve known since 1987. We’d been working on Only Murders In The Building, but we’d never had any scenes together. So, finally, this came along! And I was really thrilled about that, to finally get to work with Amy, because she’s so spectacular.
And certainly Ari—with Hereditary and Midsommar—has just become one of the most talked about filmmakers out there. He’s extraordinarily gifted, so it seemed like a great idea!
Right, he’s such a singular voice, and he creates these vivid worlds through his work. I imagine, as an actor, it’s hard not to want to play in those worlds!
He thinks out everything. It’s why people say you could go back and see some of these films again and again, because there are all these little easter eggs in them. And, certainly, it’s true in this film. He’s really thought about in tremendous detail.
And, you know, when you meet him, he’s adorable. There’s no other word for it: He’s adorable, and he’s so sweet and funny and smart. You would not think that things like that are lurking in his brain. But apparently they are! And we can only hope his mother never sees this film—it’ll kill her.
We’ve had this conversation where I’ve said to him, “What are you going to do about your mother? What is this about?” And he would say, “Oh no, it’s not about her!” But then, every once in awhile, he would tell me something where I would think, “Oh, well that sounds a little passive aggressive!” [Laughs.]
Your character, Roger, is this outwardly gregarious man. And it helps that someone as charming as yourself is playing him, but it’s hard to not think there’s something nefarious going on—or maybe it’s all in Beau’s head. Considering the big swings in tone, did you approach him as a purely comedic character?
Well, there was a lot of discussion about the tone, but also what was really going on. I would always question, “Is he really a successful surgeon, or is he just pretending to be?”
And Ari would say, “Oh no, he’s really a doctor.” So it is real, you know, the teenage daughter is troubled, and and they lost their son so they’re dealing with grief, and they’ve taken in the other their son’s friend who has post-traumatic stress.
So, yeah, there’s the notion that he is this sort of corny, suburban dad who’s calling everybody, “my dude,” “my brother.” [Laughs.] It’s so wrong! But I think he thinks he’s being hip, or trendy. And there also seems to be something slightly sinister underneath, or something’s a little bit off that you can’t quite figure out at first. So we had to come up with not only a backstory, but also: Why are they doing this? And, whatever that is they’re doing, they’re trying to do it in a compassionate way. But it’s an odd situation!
Well, sure—we all show compassion in different ways!
Yes, and mine is grilling! Grilling steaks for Beau. I’m just very excited about grilling. [Laughs.]
We’re also very excited to see you in this upcoming movie, F***ing Identical Twins, from Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson, which sounds like a wild, gay time.
Oh, my children! My babies! I couldn’t love them more. [Sharp and Jackson] are so talented and so funny. And, yeah, we’re hoping to find out when A24 will release F***ing Identical Twins. But [that movie] makes Beau Is Afraid seen tame—you have no idea. Bowen Yang plays God in it!
As he should!
Yes, who better? Megan Mullally and I are the parents of [Sharp and Jackson’s characters,] and—oh god. You know, I went and did some ADR on it and it all looked very funny to me. So we’ll see! These days, people can’t wait to be offended, but this reaches new heights. Oh, it is so outrageous.
Considering how wild both of these films we’re talking about are, does it feel easier for you to take big swings and try something new now versus earlier points in your career?
Well, you know, Beau Is Afraid is more of a big swing for Ari. [Laughs.] I’m just I’m just helping out! So that, for me, was easy.
F***ing Identical Twins—and I love saying that—I did really have to think about that one. Because I read it, and it did make me laugh, but I was like, “I can’t possibly do some of these things that they’re talking about!” I would ask my agent and manager and even they seemed a little frightened. [Laughs.] And then I said, “Well, I just have to meet these two guys. So then we had a dinner that went on for hours, and then that was it! And also the fact that [longtime Seinfeld director] Larry Charles wanted to do it, that he loved them, and that he got it.
But I hear the movie’s as gay as ever! Look, if it ends my career, that’s fine. [Laughs.] But I hope for Aaron and Josh it’ll be a big success. It’s one of those things where we’ll either all be deported, or it’ll become this cult classic.
Not long after you first came out publicly, you told Bruce Vilanch you didn’t see yourself as a role model. But, for many of us who grew up watching you on screen, you’ve certainly become one, just by being yourself and putting in the work…
Oh, and it’s very gratifying. Some of these [projects,] like The Birdcage of course—well, the nice thing about that film is that it sort of has held up, you know? I mean, look, it’s a classic comic plot, and it has been done as a musical, and then our version, and the French version, which is where it all started. Many people have said to me, “When I was a kid, I went with my parents and we saw it,” and so they were seeing gay characters on screen! They were seeing a long-term gay relationship that was a marriage, of sorts, so [these folks] saw their parents reacting positively to these characters. And that’s incredibly meaningful.
And, look, by making people laugh, that’s always how you draw people in. And how you get your message across, if there is a message—it’s the best way of doing it.
So, of course, it’s lovely to to hear. [Laughs.] But the notion of being a role model when I was younger, I was nobody’s role model, darling! Nobody’s! [Laughs.] But at this point I can appreciate taking that mantle on.
And let’s not forget: Timon does drag in The Lion King, so you’ve been representing for us before we even knew it!
He does! But here’s what I’ll tell you about that—let’s clear this up.
So, those characters, [voiced by] Ernie Sabella and I, they were kind of created around us, because we had auditioned for the hyenas. And they didn’t want us to be hyenas but they created these parts as the comic relief. And, really, the models for those characters were essentially from Guys And Dolls [because] we were doing the musical at the time—that’s what they wanted us to bring! They wanted them to be like Damon Runyon characters.
It was so long ago that I don’t really remember, but apparently it was an ad lib where I said, “What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula?” I forget how it all came out, but then we went ahead and did the number!
And then, when we did the press for The Lion King, I tried to upset Disney as much as I could because I didn’t think they had paid me enough, so I loved to suggest that Timon and Pumbaa were gay—I would always say that. But, in actuality, the characters are not gay. Now, of course, Billy Eichner has taken it to a whole other level. Apparently Timon can only be played by gay actors! [Laughs.] But, as the original Timon, I will tell you that the Timon in the film is not gay… just the actor who played him was!
Look, we’ll take our gay meerkat representation wherever we can get it!
Well meerkats do stick together!
Chosen family—I’m seeing the metaphor.
Oh, totally. [Laughs.]
In the past, you’ve also talked about initially not wanting your identity to only box you in to certain types of roles. I think it’s fair to say that’s not been the case for your career—here you are playing a straight married man in Beau Is Afraid—but do you think the industry has changed in that regard over the years?
Yes and no. Even before that interview [with Bruce Vilanch], which was after The Lion King came out in 1994— first of all, nobody ever had asked about my sex life [before.] But in 1994, I think it was somebody from Us Magazine, they asked me if I was gay. And I said, “I’m 40, single, and I work a lot in musical theater—you do the math! What do you need, flashcards?”
So I thought that I had covered it, but apparently not. And then, when The Birdcage was about to come out, my my publicist—just before we went into the press junket—said, “What do you want to do about your sexuality?” [Laughs.] I said, “What do you mean? It’s too late now!” I had been out since I was 21. He said, “Well, people may ask you about it.” And I said, “Well, I don’t want to talk about that, I wanted it to be about the movie.”
Nowadays it’s fine, people seem to admire discretion, or I’ll just drop it into my acceptance speech—”my lover, Phil!” [Laughs.] You know, it’s a whole different world! But then, if you didn’t make some public declaration, you were considered a traitor. And I just wasn’t prepared to make a public statement.
But of course, if you want to say, “Oh, I’d rather not talk about my personal life,” you might as well say, “Oh, by the way, I love d*ck!” So the jig is up! You might as well l have said, “I’m gay!”
Look, it was all so new to me—being in that position, suddenly being considered a public figure, or that people would even care. So it was really weird, and I had to go through my own process. I wish I had been braver about it.
And, you know, I almost don’t want to talk about this part because, every time I bring up this Oprah interview, 8,000 outlets write about it. [Laughs.] But it was was like, “What am I doing here with Oprah?” So I just couldn’t—I wasn’t ready to do that. But I wish I had; I especially wish I had done it on Oprah. Or, as Robin [Williams] used to say, “You’re not on Oprah, you’re just near Oprah!” No, but that would have been great. I just was not emotionally prepared to to have that conversation with Oprah.
And that’s very fair. Nathan, as always, we’re just so lucky to have you in our lives—thanks so much for your time!
Thanks, it’s been a pleasure!
Beau Is Afraid is now playing in theaters nationwide.