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Amazon’s Uncle Frank stars Paul Bettany as Frank Bledsoe, a gay professor of literature living in early ’70s New York City with his partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi). Having left behind a close-knit family in his native Creekville, South Carolina, Frank lives semi-openly as a gay man in New York while keeping the rest of the Bledsoe clan in the dark about his sexuality — that is, until his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) arrives in the city for college and stumbles upon Frank’s secret life.
When Frank’s father dies suddenly, Beth and Wally persuade him to return to Creekville for the funeral — and the three embark on a road trip so that Frank can confront his past. The trip triggers the memories of an early relationship with another young boy, whose tragic death severed the ties Frank had with his hometown.
Writer-director Alan Ball and star Bettany sat down with THR to discuss their Emmy-nominated film and the personal connections they found to Uncle Frank‘s story and themes.
Alan, what inspired you to write Uncle Frank?
ALAN BALL When I was 33, I was living in New York City, and I went home to my hometown of Marietta, Georgia, to come out of the closet to my mother. First of all, she grabbed her head like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone and said, “Oh, God has dealt me some blows in this life.” And I started laughing because I didn’t know any other response. And then she said, “Well, I blame your father for this because I think he was that way, too.” Which was a big shocker to me, and my dad was already dead. It wasn’t something I could talk to him about. And then the next day, we were driving around, and we passed a lake. My mom said, “Oh, that’s where Sam Lasseter drowned. … He was a real, real, real good friend of your daddy’s.” And I later found out that my father had accompanied Sam’s body on a train back to their hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. And so my inner Tennessee Williams got triggered. And it just rattled around in my head for 30 years. I sat down to write it, and Uncle Frank is what came out.
Paul, what was your first response when you read the script?
PAUL BETTANY I was incredibly excited because I was a huge Alan Ball fan from Six Feet Under. I got on a phone call with Alan, and we had a really honest chat about whether I could or should play this role. I said, “Who is the script for?” And Alan said, “This script is for anybody who’s ever struggled to live their life authentically.” That really resonated for me. I grew up with a gay father, who came out at the age of 63 — and then suddenly went back into the closet as a very old man because he wanted to go to heaven. And it broke my heart. I think that the struggle that my father and I had together all stemmed from his inability to live his life authentically.
What were some of the concerns you had about the role?
BETTANY As I get older, I have found I need a very good reason to go to dark places for the purposes of entertaining people. And Alan gave me some really, really good reasons. As a straight man, I wanted to know that there was a personal connection that was part of my own story and that I could actually summon up the things that Alan needed. I felt a really strong connection to imagining a version of my father’s life where he was able to accept himself. That’s how we both came to work.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that gay characters must be played by gay actors. But I am curious, Alan, if that was a concern of yours. What made Paul the perfect choice for the role?
BALL Before we went to Paul, we certainly talked about possibly going to some out gay actors, but none seemed the right fit. They were too young or they just didn’t feel right. They just didn’t feel authentic for the picture that I had in my head of Frank, which is kind of a version of Atticus Finch, honestly. I had seen Paul’s work in a movie called Journey’s End, and he played this man with such incredible dignity in a horrible, horrible situation. He had this air of quiet heroism and dignity that just struck me as being exactly what I wanted to see Frank have. Once I had the phone conversation with him, it was a done deal — I could tell that we were on the same page, that we wanted to make the same kind of movie, we wanted to tell the same story.
The film is a great ensemble piece. Alan, were any of the supporting characters based on people in your life? And Paul, how did you adjust the level of comfort Frank had around his family members?
BALL Frank’s mother is not my mother. But that culture, those family dynamics, were very, very familiar to me. I didn’t want to make fun of them, either — I didn’t want to be one of those movies that goes to the South and makes fun of Southerners. Many of them are limited in their beliefs and their ability to accept other people for who and what they may be. I was definitely drawing on my upbringing and my experience, having witnessed those kinds of characters from the day I was born.
BETTANY I really wanted Frank’s accent to become stronger as he traveled farther south. That’s a pretty dangerous thing to do as an actor, especially when you come from another country, because people can think of an accent going in and out. I was trying to do something a little nuanced. As far as working with the other actors, there are so many greats. There was one moment I will remember on my deathbed: My scene with Lois Smith. She’s one of my heroes. She was in East of Eden, and [that film is] one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor. Then we were doing a scene, and when we got to the end of it, she seemed sort of disappointed in herself. I was just amazed at the amount of verve and vigor she still has for the work. I looked at her and I went, “What’s going on?” She said, “I don’t know if I really got it.” I went, “Lois, honestly, I was in the scene with you, you were extraordinary.” She looked at me and went, “Yeah, Paul, but what do you fuckin’ know?” (Laughs.) You know, I feel like she had a really good point.
This is a drama with a lot of great comedic actors: Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale. Even Stephen Root, who plays Frank’s awful father, is a brilliant comic performer. Did that help find a specific tone you were searching for?
BALL Well, I certainly wanted the film to be funny — I didn’t want it to be a dirge. These are all actors who, while they may be well-versed in comedy, I’ve also seen in dramatic roles. I have a tendency to not really put that much of a distinction between comedy and drama.
BETTANY That’s what I was going to say about Alan — I think the line between comedy and drama for Alan is sort of nonexistent — one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel is really his modus operandi.
BALL There’s the kind of sketch comedy performing, where you’re trying to be funny winking at the audience and saying, “Look, isn’t this funny? I know. It’s funny!” That certainly has no place in a movie like this. The actors were all so good and played the reality of the moments that they were in. As an actor, you find what’s real, find details and specific shadings, and you go for it.
There’s also so much truth in humor. It reminds me, Alan, of what you did when your mother reacted to you coming out: You laughed at the absurdity of a painful situation.
BALL I mean, she literally grabbed her head like if she didn’t hold on to it, it was going to shoot off into space. By the way, she came around, and after a few years, she and I were able to have a real, genuine, intimate relationship. I wouldn’t have been able to have that had I not come out of the closet to her. And the same goes for Frank: You can’t have a real, genuine relationship [with anyone] when you’re not being honest about who you are.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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