(Warning: Spoilers follow for the ending of Beau Is Afraid.)
Beau Is Afraid originally had a bit of a different ending. Not enough to be an alternate ending, but as star Richard Kind teases, there was supposed to be another actor in his place (though he won’t reveal who, or why, exactly, he was replaced), and perhaps a different final shot as well.
“I don’t know [if] I’m allowed to say this,” Kind tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, though he doesn’t hesitate in continuing to tell us about the original ending he shot.
Ari Aster’s latest movie sees Joaquin Phoenix as a lost man journeying home to honor his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), who perished after a chandelier fell off its hinges and straight onto her head. But along the way, Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) must fight off evil suburban parents, skid row killers, and his own anxieties—only to discover, once he finally makes it home, that Mona’s actually alive. She staged her death only as a test of his commitment to her. (He failed.)
After a lengthy, stellar monologue from LuPone about her endless dedication to parenting her son, Beau attempts to strangle his mother, then sets off into the starry night on a boat headed nowhere in particular. He ends up sailing straight into his own destruction, at a giant arena filled with an audience who watch the vague, slightly horrifying trial of his life, represented by a useless defense team that fails to make a case for him before Mona.
In the movie’s current ending, while Mona sits speechless beside him on an elevated platform, Dr. Cohen cusses out helpless Beau, stories below them in the pool of water. Dr. Cohen uses clips of Beau’s past against him—like the time he invited his friends over for a panty raid on his mother’s lingerie, or when he hid from his mother in a mall and she tore ligaments trying to find him—which feels ripped straight from Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life. (Aster recently included the film in a screening series of works that “complement” Beau.)
Heading into filming that tragic final scene, Kind says he knew next to nothing about the movie. Aster only told him that his character was in love with Mona, causing his anger with Beau—the director didn’t even alert Kind to the fact that he’d be filming in a green screen-covered room, standing on a ledge 30 feet in the air. But maybe not telling Kind anything else was the right move. Going in blind works best for a wild movie like Beau Is Afraid—which is why Kind also never asked Aster to unpack that (literally) explosive ending.
“None of your questions are answered! That’s great art. That’s the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s [2001: A Space Odyssey],” Kind says over Zoom, comparing Beau Is Afraid’s story to one of sci-fi classic’s most haunting mysteries. “What the hell was it? That’s up to you to come to terms with what it was. Whatever it is, it could be an infinite number of things. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, I don’t think they have an answer. They may have a thought, but it’s how you come to terms with it.”
Speaking with us just before the film’s release, Kind explained why an expensive sushi dinner nearly lost him the role, how Network inspired his character, and what his character’s single scene represents to him.
How did you get involved with the movie?
Somebody [else] had been cast in it—I won’t say the name. [Ari] wanted to talk to me, and I thought it was an audition. It was during the summer, and I’m out in the Hamptons. I was offered a meal at a very expensive sushi restaurant with friends of mine, and I knew they were going to pay.
I get a call that day saying, “Ari Aster wants to meet you at 9:15 [p.m.] to talk about this movie.” I figure it’s an interview or an audition or something. But I said, “I’m not going to meet him tonight.” I’ve got a great sushi meal that is going to be extremely expensive. I can’t afford it. That’s a done deal. An audition isn’t a done deal. So I said, “Can we meet at another time?”
We met at around 12 or 1 o’clock on the next day, Friday. We had a lovely talk, because I’m a huge fan of his. My kids are even bigger fans, of course, as those aged between 16 and 25 are. In talking to him, he said, “You’ve got the role.” I said, “Let me please audition for you. I want you to hear it, because if I’m bad and I come to set like [the original actor], we’re sunk!” About 30 seconds into it, he goes, “Stop, stop, stop! You’ve got the job.”
That was Friday afternoon. [My character has] a five-page monologue, I’m due in Montreal to start shooting at 7 o’clock. Word for word, it’s the toughest job I’ve ever had.
Why? Because you had to memorize that monologue so quickly, or because of the filming process?
I’m 30 feet-up in the air on a platform. I’m scared of heights. And I’m screaming to nothing, because it’s a green screen. It looks like thousands of people, but I’m screaming to nobody. Down below in a pool is a boat with no Joaquin Phoenix. I’m screaming to nobody, but pretending he’s there—and with such vile!
We must have done this monologue 40 times, from every angle. I’m screaming. It’s sort of muffled when you see it in the movie, and some of it was cut. I had no idea there was going to be film showing in the background. I thought it was just me firing brimstone, talking to a stadium. I had no idea. But [Ari’s] got a vision that’s just ridiculous. You go to the set, and you see it one way with your own brain, and he knows exactly what’s going to happen. He’s probably got a cut in his mind and knows exactly.
How did Ari prep you into your character?
The interesting thing is that Ari said I have feelings for the mom, Mona Wassermann. I have tremendous feelings for Mona. She’s right by my side, and I adore her. I love her from afar— unrequited love. And I hate him! I hate everything he’s doing.
The guy who did it before me was more even-keeled. It was just a lawyer. He was wonderful. I heard the audio, he was fantastic. Fantastic! Not good, fantastic—but very different from me. I likened myself to—you’re young, I hope you know the movie. Do you know the movie Network?
You remember Ned Beatty in Network?
Oh yeah, that comparison makes sense.
That’s what I thought it was. [Beau] missed his mother’s funeral, claiming—remember, in the script, it says claiming—to have not gotten a ride. There’s all these excuses about what a lousy kid he was, and how, at every turn, he betrayed his mother. I’m speaking on her behalf, and I’m going, “Fuck you, kid! To hell with you, you ungrateful ingrate! How dare you?” I was admonishing him.
I also got a Defending Your Life vibe from that scene.
Very much! The other guy, the defendant—his lawyer gets pushed off the plank. Yes, very much Defending Your Life. I never thought of that, but it’s true. Very Rip Torn.
When you and Ari met to talk about Beau, did he pitch it to you as a comedy?
In my position in the world of showbiz, things don’t get pitched. Things are: “We have this role. Would you like to do it?” It’s the life of a character actor. I don’t carry the movie. I don’t take the arc. I do usually like to know the genre, because that helps me. But how do you categorize Ari’s genre?
I remember I did a movie called Inside Out. They said, “It takes place in the brain of an 11-year-old girl. That’s where the emotions are.” Did I picture what was going on—having orbs in a deep canyon of her memory, and these memory orbs go down? I don’t have the kind of mind to imagine that! We now have a reference and can see exactly what it looks like. But before we see it, we have no idea of what it looks like. If you have preconceived notions, and they change, your job is to move with speed to where the director has taken you.
Did your preconceived notions of Beau match up to the reality of your scene, with you in the big stadium, screaming 30 feet in the air?
I had no idea! I was on this platform, a diving thing. Like I said, I’m afraid of heights. The rail only came up mid-thigh. I was terrified for two days. I’m swinging to the rafters and moving, and I’m right up there. I was scared.
Ari was always down below. I would look down, and he’s looking up. I’d go, “How was it?” He’d go, “Great, great, great!” Also, something that’s very interesting—[the monologue] was very natural, but certain words were utterly specific that I would not have used. I had to hit those words. But they were unusual, unusual words in an unusual order—a poetry of [Ari’s] own that he was endeared to. In seeing the movie, I’m wondering if all those words that Nathan would call [Beau]—like “pal” and “daddio” and “buddy”—I wonder if those were Ari’s or if they were Nathan’s. I don’t know. “Pally”—I love that.
Was it just you on that ledge, or was Patti there too?
It was with Patti. And I know Patti. Patti is a friend. Of course, being the diva that she is, I adore her like that too. I adore Patti LuPone’s talent. I see everything, everything that she does. To be there talking, doing all the performance—she’s just sitting there stone-faced, staring straight ahead. I’m doing all the work. I look down, and I go, “Patti, how was it? Was that good? Do you think she liked it?” She goes, “You’re great. You’re great.”
In the movie, they add music, they add sound, they add camerawork that’s down on [Joaquin], looking at the movie and everything like that. It’s very different. You think it’s “To be, or not to be?” and actually, it’s the Burning of Atlanta from Gone With the Wind.
Did Ari ever unpack the ending for you?
I gotta tell you—did you ever see the movie A Serious Man?
Yes, I was actually going to ask about how fans are connecting Beau to that movie too, ironically.
The beginning is that whole Russian thing. It’s really weird. If I was to ask the Coen Brothers, “What does that mean?” I think they would shoot me a look and then shoot a bullet into my head. How dare I ask what that means? I would never in a million years ask Ari, “What does this mean?”
What about the animated part [midway through the movie], with the theater troupe? Remember, there’s a theater troupe in Hamlet. They put on a play. I have a feeling that was certainly an influence on him, that this guy was Hamlet and he’s meeting a traveling theater troupe. There’s allusions to all sorts of pop culture and literary things that have influenced him. It’s epic in its scope, and it’s epic in its allusions.
We don’t get to see you up close in the final sequences, where everyone’s walking out after the explosion. Did you and Patti just walk out too?
I will tell you this—I don’t know [if] I’m allowed to say this. The movie ended differently. It ended with Joaquin’s mom sobbing, crying, and having to be dragged off the platform and out of the courtroom. That was cut.
We worked hard on that. She would cry and cry, and I would have to drag her out. But it was tough. I don’t know why it was, but that was it—us going off, and me taking her out. Now, it’s just: The boat exploded, and he’s gone. The credits roll over that.
A handful of people have compared Beau to A Serious Man. Do you see a connection there?
I’m really lucky in my career that I don’t look like some soap opera star, or some Aaron Spelling Melrose Place star. If you want me, you’re not hiring me for a pretty face. Usually, I get a thinking man’s vehicle. That’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is I get to be in some really good, smart projects. The bad thing is I don’t surround myself with beautiful women lying by a pool. But I’m very very lucky.
The only parallel, and it’s not even genre, is these things are not spoon-fed. [As a viewer], you’ve got to work for it. If you have to work for it, you may be bored. You may want to go in to just be entertained. The goal of the Coen Brothers and for Ari Aster is to entertain, primarily, but also have you think while you’re being entertained. For that reason, there are easy parallels. It’s a philosophical, psychological plight that you have to deal with. Everybody lives a lifetime with thoughts that must be explored. These great artists try to do that.