The Menu is one of the best movies of the year, and one that consistently misdirects its audience as the night unfolds and Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) reveals his dark and twisted menu to a group of guests who are all there for a very specific reason (but you’ll need to watch the movie to find out what it is).
One of those guests is Ted, played by Paul Adelstein, who is the editor for Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer). Both of them sit at a table and criticize Slowik’s menu, and they have one of the best pairs of the movie filled with impeccable performances from a star-studded ensemble. I had a chance to talk to Paul Adelstein via Zoom on the making of the movie, and you can find my full transcribed conversation below. Rest assured that the interview is spoiler-free, though you are better off seeing the film without knowing anything about it beforehand, which means not even watching the trailers.
What part of The Menu made you want to be a part of this terrific ensemble?
The script is so sharp, funny, and well-crafted. I was lucky that, when I got the script, Ralph was already attached. Chef Slowik is the key to the whole thing. It can be played in many different ways. Knowing that Ralph would be playing the chef was such a good grounding element to read the script with because I could hear it. It also told me something about the tone of it. I was dying to be in it because it just seemed like so much fun, while also having full of amazing characters. I love being in an ensemble. It’s one of my favorite things, and The Menu was a perfect opportunity to be in a great ensemble.
Can you talk about your collaboration with director Mark Mylod on the movie? What was his specific vision for your character?
Mark is a wonderful director, who is very collaborative. He sat down with us individually, and then in pairs, with each table, the groups of twos, to talk in an in-depth way about what everyone’s relationship is so that we could keep track of everything that was going on. Janet and I spent a lot of time together talking about that and mapping it out. With Mark’s help in crafting it and making it specific, part of his vision was that everything stayed alive, even if it wasn’t the main dialogue or action. There are not a lot of wider shots other than when somebody or more than one person is in the background doing something. We had to get these dynamics down to keep our characters alive. We would then keep improvising in the background. Mark’s vision was what he called a Robert Altman idea, which was a camera that would pick stuff up, and he would tell us “Go for it. If we find something we like, we’ll double down on it. If not, we’ll correct it. But don’t be shy.” That was the general direction for taking that challenge. And he was very specific about that from the get-go.
Did acting in this movie require a lot of improvisation?
Yes, quite a bit. All of the main stuff is scripted. But there was a lot of improvisation around the food and around what was happening with the menu. Most of my interactions with Janet were improvised, which is interesting because that doesn’t happen when a script is so incredibly strong. The main dialogue would be there, but you would improvise the first three rehearsals in the first couple of takes, and lock down what it was going to be. Oftentimes, Mark would like it or change it a little bit. He would bring the camera over to grab something he heard that he liked. In that sense, it was a fairly collaborative experience.
How did you build your on-screen chemistry between yourself and Janet McTeer’s Lillian Bloom?
Right before COVID, Janet and I were working on a pilot together. And we were cast in that as we were each other’s nemesis. We got to spend some time rehearsing and getting that process ready, and we got to know one another, but it got canceled because of COVID. I felt lucky because I was such a fan of hers that I got another shot at it with The Menu. We spent a lot of time together talking about the nice dynamic between the editor and the writer, and the way that Lillian takes credit to a certain degree for Slowik’s success, putting him on the map, as they say. And my character took credit for Janet’s success by putting her on the map in my magazine, even though she’s way more powerful than I am. I feel like I’m responsible for her, but I’m totally dependent on her power, which is a dynamic that was fun to play over the course of the evening as it unfolds.
You mentioned Chef Slowik, so what was it like to have been able to share the screen with Ralph Fiennes?
He’s everything I was hoping and expecting him to be. I got to sit four feet from that guy and watch him do those monologues, 20-30 times each. It was just like a master class. Acting is listening, and you have to be present and pay attention. That was not a challenge, because I was like “Okay, let’s see where he takes us,” which mimics what’s going on in the movie. He is in control. He would come out and do those monologues. Every once in a while, there would be some crazy curveball he would throw. It’s just so exciting to watch. Ralph is so precise in his language and instrument, and the emotional journey that the character goes on, and he’s also just a lovely guy to be around and work with.
The movie has a lot of surprising twists and turns. Slowik’s menu gets darker, and the characters evolve as the menu progresses. As an actor, how do you approach material that consistently shifts in new and exciting ways, and how do you evolve your character within that shifting narrative?
Mark Mylod was very clear about not wanting us to plan a scene too much, but to let it happen. That’s a scary proposition. But when you have a strong director, you’re in good hands because you can’t be in abject terror for two hours, and you can’t go comatose. It has to have ebb and flow, but you want to make sure that you’re doing it for the good of the group, and not just for your own character. He would let it be organic. After a couple of takes, or after rehearsal, you would have to do it in a couple of different ways. He would then zero in on what he liked. We didn’t know which take it was going to be until we saw the final product. It was very much a kind of group hive-mind collaboration. He would talk to us, individually and in duos, but he would also give notes about the tone and about how heightened it should be in any given take. A lot of times, you don’t have time to explore on set. And The Menu had a really tight schedule, but he still encouraged us to kind of find our performances in the moment.
What do you hope audiences will grasp from The Menu?
I hope they find it both thrilling and funny. Thematically, it’s a great scouring of a certain kind of snobbery, whether it’s food or anything else about how culture gets made, and how the people that consume, criticize, comment, and create culture can become. They lose sight of the thing itself. It becomes self-referential, and so, excuse my French, up its own ass, that it becomes almost meaningless. think that that’s not just true of Slowik, but of Janet and my character, for the tech bros. for Reed Birney and Judith Light‘s characters, they’ve either over-consumed, or are consuming without any thought, or that it’s too precious. There are sins on both sides of the spectrum, and I hope that is what lands with the audience.
The Menu is now playing in theatres.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]