Some dishes are served with a heaping amount of angst, and this is certainly the case with the new black comedy, The Menu, a wicked thriller that takes a myriad of our senses on a wild cinematic ride.
Directed by Mark Mylod, this film tells the story of a couple, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who travel to a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest for a more than memorable dinner.
The thrilling meal takes place at an exclusive restaurant, Hawthorn, where the reclusive celebrated Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish tasting menu for his select special guests.
Joining the couple are three young, already inebriated tech bros, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), an older wealthy couple and repeat clients, Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney), renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), and her magazine editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein).
Also joining them is a famous middle-aged movie star (John Leguizamo) with his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). And of course, there are numerous twists and turns along the way.
Hosted by the immaculately dressed front-of-house staff led by general Elsa (Hong Chau), the evening unfolds with increasing tension at each of the guest tables as secrets are revealed, and unexpected courses are served.
With wild and violent events occurring, Chef Slowik’s motivation begins to rattle the diners as it becomes increasingly apparent that his elaborate menu is designed to catalyze a shocking finale.
In addition to stellar performances, the movie has some of the most beautiful food shots in the history of recent films. The Menu debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened nationwide on November 18.
Leading a stellar cast and a master director, Taylor-Joy is best known for her award-winning performance as a chess savant in the Netflix series Queen’s Gambit; and soap opera star turned sitcom star Light is currently starring in Julia, the HBO Max series about the life and times of celebrity TV chef Julia Child. Bring your appetite and off-beat humor to this rather unique dinner party.
Read on for why Taylor-Joy, Light, Nicholas Hoult, director Mark Mylod, and the other stars of the movie were attracted to The Menu, how they prepared for these unique roles, how their curiosity was piqued, and the emotional punch that the movie packs for us, while taking us on a dark and exciting ride.
Monsters and Critics: The Menu was shot chronologically; how did that affect your performances?
Anya Taylor-Joy: I believe it helped us immensely. There’s a specific turning point in the film where things start to get darker, dramatically darker. Up until that point, we’d been having this nice if, odd dinner party, and then the way that this scene was shot was so visceral I think it shocked all of us when it happened, and that sort of led us down the new tone of the film.
Nicholas Hoult: It was what we talked about in rehearsal, was this idea of how can we get our guests to walk into that space so full of entitlement and their fleshed egos and to have these layers gradually peeled back and their vanity stripped back, so by the end of the film they’re emotionally naked and are they willing to pay the check for their own demise.
Judith Light: When you have a script that is so fragile and so skeletally creative on the surface, but there’s so much going on underneath. There’s so much creativity and expansion, and that was really how we came to work on it together, and also this comradery formed. There was this intimacy that was created that allowed for all those different tones to take place.
M&C: How did you initially see the screenplay?
Anya Taylor-Joy: it’s a tricky script. I signed on not knowing what the final product would look like, and it was exciting to me because I was curious to see how it turned out. I knew that the people involved were great people to collaborate with and to take that leap of faith with.
I was a huge fan of Succession, and I knew this film’s director Mark Mylod would be able to take these characters who are unlikeable for so many reasons and somehow create a story that you cared about, not necessarily what happened to them but care about the situation. It was just surprising that I felt even some sort of heartbreak for some of the characters, and that’s just a special gift that Mark [has].
Judith Light: I think this movie is going to pique the curiosity of the audience and pull them in. There’s an enticement within the structure of this film and this filmmaking. Mark has the best sense of humor in the world, so that made all of the lightness in all of this; this could have been a really dire experience. His humor is so delicious as well as his talent. All of that really made a difference.
M&C: Anya, all we initially know about your character is she couldn’t care less about this fancy food and that she’s not supposed to be at the dinner. Talk about working with Ralph in the scenes when the chef takes particular interest in your character.
Anya Taylor-Joy: What can I say about Ralph? He’s the most phenomenal actor. Whatever he wants to transmute on screen, it happens, so of course, as an audience member, you will feel this formidable presence and fear whenever he’s there. Maybe it was our characters, maybe it’s the way we both approach acting, but all of our scenes together felt so warm and intimate even when we were being quite rude to each other. When the stakes are pretty high, I always just felt really comfortable with him. I felt like I had a very generous dance partner, and we were both enjoying that bizarre intimacy. We had a really great time together.
M&C: Nicholas, did you do a lot of research into the world of food influencers to prepare for this role?
Nicholas Hoult: Yes, it was really difficult because I had to eat at a lot of nice restaurants and watch a lot of food shows [laughs]. The more of the Chef’s Table I watched, the more awe and amazement I was by these dedicated chefs that committed their whole lives to their craft.
The food advisor for the movie, Dominique Crenn, who designed the menu was on set one day, and I was starstruck. I had seen her episode, and I was like, “Oh my god, it’s her!” I’d ask her how to pronounce all these words and if she was like you got it right, I’d be like, “Ah! I got it right!” I was just obsessed with that world, so it was very easy to be in those scenarios with Ralph. I’m in awe of him as an actor anyway, so I can use that in the character.
Mark Mylod: One of the keys here is how willing everyone was to jump into this. We were on set together every day and sometimes unaware of where the camera was going to be for those group scenes. I think the way everyone improvised, they just keep the secondary and tertiary layers of the conversation going. The thoughts beyond the scripted dialogue and the insight that that gave us all. Anya and John (Leguizamo) get the gold medal for that for providing some of the biggest laughs we’ve had in our screenings. These laughs help us explore these very entitled characters and find the underbelly and where their vulnerabilities lie.
M&C: What moments struck you during the filming?
John Leguizamo: I loved the political and social commentary of this film because I feel like it’s tapping into something that’s happening, especially in America. Maybe in other parts of the world also, and that thing is the disappearance of the middle class. People who think they can control our democracies, control our social platforms, and how they separate us and keep us out. I think it’s a great commentary on the privilege that’s happening in America and people creating like us vs. them. I love those people getting their punishment in this flick.
M&C: John, you did one of the juiciest roles that someone can play — a movie star that is behaving badly. Were there any folks in particular that you borrowed from?
John Leguizamo: I’m not being typecast here cause I’m not a washed-up action star, but I worked with a lot of action stars that became washed up. I modeled after a particular guy who’s a bit of an a-hole. Ok, Steven Seagal, I modeled after Steven Seagal because I did a movie with him, and in rehearsals, he knocked me out, and he didn’t care. He hit me with his elbow in my solar plexus and against the wall because I was laughing at him. I forgot to mention that part that I was a bit of a d**k then. Sorry I have to give that fact. You know, I’ve seen these privileged guys come into a room with so much narcissism it’s like they suck the oxygen out of the room because they want all the attention everything’s got to be on them otherwise, they turn negative. That’s what I was trying to create because it doesn’t come naturally to me.
M&C: Mark, how did you find the balance to serve all of these different thematic courses?
Mark Mylod: I think one of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mash-up of terms that Anya said that it’s quite a small target to hit. I think we were all attracted to how specific it was. For me, it was a few days of the week that we spent during our version rehearsal which is basically to sit together in smaller groups and to interest us in the script and our story and our characters, and in doing so, perhaps it’s less about what we’re actually saying and more about getting on the same level. By the time we’re on set, we’re all tuned in together.
M&C: It’s interesting you bring up the changing power dynamics because you can definitely see that with the older married couple (Judith Light and Reed Birney; two theater legends at the same table is amazing. I love how her arc changes, and she comes in like a lamb and leaves like a lion. Judith, can you talk a little bit about that?
Judith Light: I feel very much the same way that you do, and I adore Reed; we’ve been friends for a very long time. When you watch a woman who has lived her life giving up her soul and herself in order to have the privilege that she so desperately wants and begins to realize through the course of the film, just like Amy just said, you think it’s one way, but it’s not that way. You begin to see that she wakes up as she realizes her life is not what she wanted to be, she’s not who she wanted to be, and she’s not living the way she wants to live.
M&C: Please tell me more.
Judith Light: There is this cauldron that’s underneath all the time in this shifting dynamic, and where that begins to be seen is in relation to Anya’s character so that you begin to see that there’s this uniting of these two women. You know, you walk into a restaurant, and you see those people, and they’re not talking to each other, and you say to your partner, “I’m never going to be that person in that relationship,” and there you are, and one day you wake up, and you are that person.
From Searchlight Pictures, The Menu is playing in theaters nationwide.