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Introducing Nathan Lane, the Hip New Face of A24

When you’re pondering actors associated with the indie-film company A24, your thoughts may run to the young, hot and impossibly tousled.

In years past, this stable of dewy ingénues has included the likes of Robert Pattinson (“Good Time,” “The Lighthouse”), Riley Keough (“American Honey,” “Zola”) and Lucas Hedges (“Lady Bird,” “Waves”). But it’s time to make way for the studio’s newest muse, a three-time Tony winner whose key roles this year in a pair of A24 films — Ari Aster’s trippy “Beau Is Afraid” and the gleefully silly “Dicks: The Musical” (opening Friday) — offer the delightful opportunity to turn to your cool nephew and exclaim, “Oh, he’s in this?”

Rest assured, the he in question is just as surprised. “I’m now the poster boy for A24,” said Nathan Lane, 67, over a recent morning coffee date in Los Angeles. “Who would have guessed?”

One of Broadway’s most beloved actors, Lane had his breakout moment on the big screen in 1990s studio fare like “The Lion King” and “The Birdcage,” which mined his musical-theater talents and expansive comic sensibility for all they were worth. But though Lane has worked continually in the theater and on TV ever since, the film industry hasn’t always known what to do with him, which makes his current renaissance all the sweeter: He was the first choice for his roles in both of those A24 envelope-pushers, even though they’re utterly unlike anything he’s done before.

Take “Beau Is Afraid,” released in April, a three-hour mind-bender about filial anxiety that had Lane come in for a midmovie face-off with an intense Joaquin Phoenix. (SAG-AFTRA strike rules prohibit Lane from talking about it, but the guild gave him a waiver for the new film.) Or sample “Dicks,” a proudly filthy queer musical that asks Lane to spit deli meat at puppets and ensures that for the rest of his life, he will share an IMDb page with the rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

“Don’t you love show business, when these things can happen to a little boy from Jersey City?” Lane quipped.

Lane’s co-star Aaron Jackson said, “Now that people like us are coming of age and getting to write stuff, it’s like, what about casting one of the most brilliant actors we’ve ever had?”Credit…Erik Tanner for The New York Times

The Lane-aissance could either be a feat of timing or the beginning of a trend. But it’s also a reminder, not long after Michelle Yeoh found Oscar-winning acclaim in A24’s “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” that the studio’s coolness can come from more than the minting of new stars: It can be just as rewarding to pluck well-known veterans and toss them into a world that’s unexpected and wild.

“To me, he’s the foundation,” said Aaron Jackson, who co-wrote and co-stars in Lane’s new film musical with his comedy partner, Josh Sharp. As a child, Jackson would do an impression of Lane as the “Lion King” meerkat Timon to make his grandfather laugh; when he was older, he got a DVD of Lane in a filmed version of the 2000 play “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and watched it on a near loop. “Now that people like us are coming of age and getting to write stuff, it’s like, what about casting one of the most brilliant actors we’ve ever had?”

Though Jackson, Sharp and the director Larry Charles were eager to get Lane into their movie, the actor wasn’t initially sure what to make of the project. A hard-R spin on “The Parent Trap” that Jackson and Sharp based on a play they used to perform in the basement of a Gristedes, their film casts the New York comedians as long-lost twins who conspire to reunite their daffy parents. Hayley Mills never had it so hard, though: Here, dear old Mom (Megan Mullally) is an eccentric shut-in with a detached vagina, while Dad (Lane) is a newly out bon vivant who’s uncomfortably devoted to the two disgusting sewer creatures he keeps caged in his living room.

“When I read it, I said to my agent and manager, ‘Are you serious with this?’” Lane recalled. The script had made him laugh, but he worried the comic situations were too outrageous, even for him. To assuage his fears, Lane met Sharp and Jackson at an Indian restaurant near his house, where their comic sensibilities clicked and cosmopolitans were served until the house lights came on.

“It went on for four hours, and I fell in love with them and wanted to adopt them,” said Lane, who was ultimately won over by the eagerness of Jackson and Sharp to fly in the face of decorum at a time when “Don’t Say Gay” bills were being written into law. “We’re going to say whatever we want,” Lane said, channeling the duo’s brio. “And you’ll have to live with it.”

Still, it’s one thing to read those out-there scenes and quite another to actually perform them, as Lane found when he showed up on set. Many of his big moments revolve around those unnerving sewer creatures, a pair of diapered reptilians that his character dotes on like an attentive mama bird. (Hence the regurgitated deli meats.) Though the filmmakers considered hiring Cirque du Soleil gymnasts to play the sewer boys, they ultimately settled on two puppets, which may be an even creepier touch.

Lane, left, with Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Ryan in “Beau Is Afraid.”Credit…Takashi Seida/A24
Lane with, clockwise from top right, Josh Sharp, Aaron Jackson and Megan Mullally in the new film. “When I read it, I said to my agent and manager, ‘Are you serious with this?’” Lane said.Credit…Justin Lubin/A24

“I’m not crazy about puppets — I’ve worked with them in the past, it’s nothing but trouble,” Lane said, adding under his breath, “I’ll be getting hostile letters from Basil Twist.” In order to play the scenes with true affection despite the twisted context, Lane endeavored to think about the sewer creatures as though they were his character’s pet corgis.

“It has to be very grounded and it has to be subtle,” Lane explained, “even when you’re spitting cold cuts at two ugly puppets in a cage.”

The closing-credits blooper reel suggests that was a tough task: In more than a few blown takes, Lane wonders aloud how the hell he ended up in such a surreal situation. (Asked by the director to spit more deli meats into the puppets’ mouths, Lane playfully pronounces it the worst of “all the humiliations I’ve experienced in my years of show business, and they are legion.”) Even during our coffee, Lane was unable to describe an emotional clinch with the sewer creatures without bursting into laughter.

“You can’t even explain it!” he said. “I was crying and holding these puppets and kissing them goodbye, thinking, I can’t believe this is happening.”

Sharp praised Lane’s ability to still dial into those scenes and commit to something real. “There’s two or three sneaky little heart moments in the movie and Nathan drives all of them,” he said. “He’s a fabulous actor.”

Lane just hopes people will notice. “I mean, this may have killed it,” he joked, “but if it led to other things in film, interesting stuff, that would be great.” A more robust movie career is something Lane wants but has always been wary of: Wouldn’t you feel skittish if you gave one of the most finely calibrated comic performances of the ’90s in “The Birdcage” and the only two film scripts you received afterward were for “Mouse Hunt” and “Mr. Magoo”?

Though Lane felt the stage could offer him a more expansive suite of roles, including his most famous part, as Max Bialystock in “The Producers,” even there, the appearance of typecasting could make him bristle. In 2010, while playing Gomez Addams in a Broadway musical version of “The Addams Family,” Lane read an article in this paper by Charles Isherwood that deemed him the greatest entertainer to appear on Broadway over the past decade. While it was meant as high praise, the description rankled him.

“Amy Sedaris likes to call herself an entertainer, but for some reason it really bothered me,” Lane said. “It’s not like I spent 48 years in Ringling Bros. — I had done plenty of plays, the work of Terrence McNally or Jon Robin Baitz or Simon Gray. I felt like I had shown a lot of different colors along the way, but you become known for a handful of things.”

Determined to shake things up, Lane emailed his friend, the actor Brian Dennehy, who was mulling a new adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Though that shattering drama wasn’t the sort of production he would immediately come to mind for, Lane pitched himself for the tricky role of Hickey, the salesman who forces his fellow bar mates to confront dreams long deferred.

Despite acclaimed performances in the ’90s in “The Birdcage” and “The Lion King,” Lane had trouble getting traction in Hollywood films.Credit…Erik Tanner for The New York Times

Dennehy was intrigued, and the two men signed on for a production that played at BAM in 2015. “It changed the way I approach everything now,” Lane said. “I wanted to be scared again. I wanted to think, I don’t know if I can do this.” From Isherwood, Lane earned a “lusty bravo,” though the review that mattered most was the kind one he received from Dennehy, who died in 2020. “He was a very loving and supportive mentor, and I miss him very much,” Lane said, tearing up.

He hopes more roles akin to Hickey are in his theatrical future, though he noted, “I don’t think they would be handing me that part in a film.” So why is it that Lane can be widely recognized as an unparalleled multitalent and yet good movie offers can be so hard to come by? I asked his new co-star Jackson, who replied with a mordant chuckle.

“Well, Hollywood does hate gay people, even still,” he said. “I mean, they pretend that they don’t, but they do.”

Still, he hoped that Lane’s A24 hot streak indicates that a younger generation of people, raised on Lane’s performances, have more exciting ideas of what do with him than the old guard Lane initially encountered: “He’s so good at acting that now they’re like, ‘Maybe we should let a gay person be a star.’”

In the meantime, there’s “Dicks.” “Our little baby is going out to the real world where people can’t wait to be offended,” Lane said. “When I saw it, I just said, ‘Well, either it’s going to be this cult hit, or we’ll all be deported.’”

Though he isn’t sure how the film will be received — “I’d like to show this to Mitch McConnell, then he’d really freeze” — Lane still offered some marketing suggestions. He told Sharp and Jackson they should record a video to warn that watching the film in a theater could make the audience gay, then ask a few willing football players to serve as the guinea pigs: “You send in Aaron Rodgers and a couple of others, and then they come out of there in caftans.”

The idea was vetoed when they heard that the recent comedy “Bottoms” might also be planning a turn-you-gay marketing angle, but Lane was just happy to have the company. “If you can get away with ‘Bottoms’ — if you can have a high-school comedy about teenage lesbians starting a fight club — you certainly can have ‘Dicks: The Musical,’” he said.

With that remark, our coffee date was over. And though we had met in the early morning, at an hour when some party-hearty A24 stars might finally be crawling into bed, Lane assured me it was no trouble at all.

“This was like therapy,” he said. “I cried, I laughed, I talked about ‘Dicks.’”

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