The satirical thriller The Menu is populated by people who exemplify the term “love to hate.” The film follows a particularly eventful meal at Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant on a private island run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). While he’s no saint, as the courses of his impeccably curated dining experience intensify, it becomes clear that most of Slowik’s guests are monstrous in their own ways. Watching each of them receive their comeuppance proves—please forgive the obvious metaphor—delicious.
So how do The Menu’s storytellers make despising these characters so enjoyable? The film’s cast and crew—including actors Anya Taylor-Joy, Hong Chau, John Leguizamo, and director Mark Mylod—gave The A.V. Club a peek behind the curtain of their creative processes. Mylod, director-producer of the similarly dastardly Succession and Shameless says, “One hopes the more universal themes, of the corrosive nature of ego in art and the bad choices that we make and have to live with—one hopes that those human flaws are timeless.”
“Never judge your character”
As The Menu teases out why Julian and his maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau) have handpicked the evening’s guests as carefully as the restaurant’s high-end ingredients, bits of backstory emerge for the players: food fanboy Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), fading film star George (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), married couple and regular Hawthorne diners Richard and Anne (Reed Birney and Judith Light), haughty food critic Lillian and her editor Ted (Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein), and tech bro business investors Soren, Bryce, and Dave (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr). The only unknown entity is Anya Taylor-Joy’s prickly Margot, who Tyler brought as a last-minute date. Her mysterious background is a wrench in Julian and Elsa’s system, making her fate uncertain; she’s even given the choice to side with the kitchen staff rather than the customers.
“You should never judge your character,” Chau says of her process. She adds that actors must often invent their own biographical information to better relate to their roles. “I’m always trying to find the reason why my character does what they do. In this case, I did have to come up with my own backstory for Elsa because there wasn’t much there on the page. There’s no moment where Elsa breaks into a big monologue about who she is and why she came to work for [Julian].”
To relate or not to relate?
While Chau may not be able to relate to her character’s fanaticism for her boss (which eventually escalates into attempted murder!), there are other paths into the minds of even the wildest characters. “My parents, when I was growing up, had a little mom-and-pop restaurant,” Chau says. “From that experience, I understood how much work goes into preparing a meal and it arriving at your table for you to just casually and mindlessly consume. And I also understood how difficult it is for a restaurant to turn a profit. So, you know, my heart’s always going to be with that group of people versus the diners, the consumers.”
Carrero says she took a different path for her character, Felicity. “Once I enter the point of contact, I actually have a lot of fun just using my imagination, which I know is not everybody’s process,” Carrero says. “I don’t really have much in common with Felicity. She’s sort of Hollywood royalty. Her mom is a big executive at a studio, my mom’s a Spanish teacher, you know?” Whether an audience finds a way to relate to the characters is more important than whether they like a character or approve of their moral compass, she adds. After all, actors are called upon to play sociopaths too, in The Menu and beyond. “I don’t have to like [my characters]. I just have to understand them.”
Leguizamo, funnily enough, takes the opposite approach. “I do need to like my character,” he admits. “I don’t need the audience to like my character, but I gotta like him because I gotta inhabit him … And so I’m playing a washed-up action star, and I’m not an action star and I’m not washed-up. Yet.”
For Taylor-Joy, the differences between herself and her characters can unlock qualities within herself. “I’ve never been a very passive-aggressive person, I’m more of a people pleaser, and I apologize for myself a lot,” she says. “So there’s an element of Margot’s thorniness that I wish I had a bit more of sometimes. I do wish that I was more comfortable in my skin. She is deeply comfortable and her confidence is almost unshakable. And that is something that I am trying to get to … Hopefully you learn something new every single time you leave a project.”
There’s evil in comedy
The mystery at the heart of The Menu is what makes it an edge-of-your-seat thriller: What exactly is going on at this lavish dinner? As Hoult points out, introducing a character’s villainy is far more effective later in the story as answers emerge. “Tyler is odd because I think it gets revealed more and more throughout the film how horrible he is, all the despicable decisions he’s made to bring Margot here. So obviously at the beginning, you don’t want to reveal all those things too soon and play that up. But also in your mind, I think you have to kind of come up with ideas and a backstory that would make sense for that person to have made those decisions and to end up in that area. That’s what I focused on.”
That may be the actor’s most essential trick: they know how a story ends, and must work backward to chart it. By the time we’re learning the reasons behind these characters’ behaviors, the performers playing them have laid the groundwork to make those reasons believable.
It’s also no coincidence that a reveal like Tyler knowing the full conceit of this fateful dinner leads to one of the film’s funniest moments between Hoult and Taylor-Joy. Getting the rug pulled out from under us is as delightful as it is disarming; the first inkling of Julian’s sinister intentions, for example, is marked by a jolt of unexpected comedy. Presented with tortillas stamped with various damning details for each of the guests, one asks Elsa what they are. “They are tortillas,” she responds, with Chau rolling her “r” with deadpan conviction. Her refusal to answer the question, of course, is our first indication that this maître d’ may not, in fact, hope her customers enjoy their meal.
Mylod laughs remembering the moment, giving all credit to Chau. “It was so brilliantly specific and so oblique,” he says. “It’s just everything that’s brilliant about Hong, that she will make such bold and deliberate choices and specific choices that you would never see coming.”