“Uncle Frank” Director Alan Ball on Trauma-Bonding With Paul Bettany

The emotional, humor-tinged family drama is a deeply personal "what if" tale, says the out filmmaker.

When True Blood and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball learned that his father might have been a closeted gay man whose relationship with a young peer from his conservative Southern hometown came to an abrupt, tragic end, it planted a seed for what became Uncle Frank. The 1970s-set film is his sophomore feature.

Sophia Lillis stars as Beth Bledsoe, an NYU student whose favorite family member is her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). A literature professor living in New York City, Frank has managed to keep his sexuality — and his Middle Eastern boyfriend, Wally (Peter Macdissi, Ball’s real life husband) — hidden from his virulently homophobic rural South Carolina family. When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) dies, the trio takes a road trip together. The experience is fraught with threats of violence, legal persecution, and racial bigotry the deeper into the backwards South they go, and could ultimately lead to an awkward-at-best family reunion, an almost-certain coming out, and painful reconciliation of a relationship Frank had as a youth — and keeps trying to forget about with alcohol — that ended in tragedy.
 

Bettany, a Marvel star who reprises his role as the Vision in upcoming Disney+ series WandaVision, proves a perfect fit for the role. In fact, his own late father, dancer-actor Thane Bettany, came out late in life and enjoyed a relationship with a man after divorcing Bettany’s mother in 1993. He later died in 2015.

Ball, whose writing credits include 1999’s American Beauty (for which he won an Oscar) TV’s Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and HBO’s Here and Now, discussed Uncle Frank, the pros and cons of working with his hubby (who also co-starred in Ball’s 2007 feature directorial debut, Towelhead), and whether Bettany spilled any Marvel tea while making the movie.

When did you learn that your father might have been gay? In the director’s statement, incidentally, you just refer to him cryptically as a “family member.”

When I came out of the closet to my mother, she said he might have been “that way,” too. I was initially hesitant to say it was my father [publicly], because I don’t know if it’s true and don’t want to out someone who wasn’t gay. But he did have a very good friend that he was close to. When that young man died, he accompanied the body on a train back to their hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, so that’s where that element of the film came from. It’s a “what if.”

If your father had come out to you when he was still alive, how do you think your own life would have been different?

Oh, I probably would have been able to embrace who I am much earlier. I was 33 when I came out to my family. It took me that long to be okay with who I was. I was born in 1957 and grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and absorbed a lot of toxic ideas of what being gay meant from the media, religion, my education, and the culture I was living in a Southern small town. I think it would have made things happen for me a lot faster if my father had done that, but for men of his generation, it wasn’t an option.

Did you and Paul discuss that and the fact his own father, Thane, was gay and came out later in life, and how that might have connected him to Frank?

Yes, we did. We talked about it a lot, and the fact we both had very traumatic experiences in our adolescence and how those stayed with us. For Paul, the movie became a chance for him to have his own “what if” story about his father. What if he was able to really embrace who he was and live his life fully?

Brownie Harris/Amazon Studios
Paul Bettany in Uncle Frank.

On a lighter note, how did Paul enjoy rocking a ‘70s look?

I think he really enjoyed it — and that mustache. One of the fun things about making a movie that takes place in the ‘70s is everybody loves to wear the fashions. They’re so fantastic and terrible at the same time.

Did he spill any Marvel tea?

He did say that some of the costumes Captain America and Thor wore are augmented to make them look even more muscular than they are. On True Blood, Ryan Kwanten’s jeans were deconstructed and sewn back together so they fit him like they were painted on, and I understand you’ve got to make the guys look good!

There’s sort of a “retro homo” moment happening right now if you put this next to Netflix’s The Boys In the Band remake. Do you see them as companions of sorts?

In a way I would say yes, because they take place in the same era, but in a way it’s different. Even though Uncle Frank takes place in the 1970s, it’s a contemporary movie and was written now. Boys was [written in the 1960s and] a product of that time. So, yes and no.

Clearly, the 20th-century rural South wasn’t an ideal place to be gay, but if you could exist in any other era or place, when and where would it be?

This is a pretty good era to be gay in, because we have rights and are recognized for the most part. But I would say Ancient Greece because I would like to see what that was like, although I’m sure it wasn’t as romantic as I imagine in my head.

Brownie Harris/Amazon Studios
Alan Ball (R) with Margo Martindale.

Your husband, Peter, has worked with you many times now, on Six Feet Under, True Blood, Towelhead, and Here & Now. What were the pluses and minuses of having him play Wally in Uncle Frank, specifically?

The plus is just watching him and how great he is in the movie. Him bringing this character to life was a joy for me to watch. We’ve done so much together that we have a sort of shorthand. The only minus is sometimes, when the workday is over, I don’t want to talk about work anymore. Sometimes he wants to process what happened throughout the day and I’ll say, “I’m done for the day.” That’s really the only minus!

Is there a gay-themed project you’ve worked on that hasn’t yet made it to production? Let’s put it out into the universe!

I wrote a screenplay years ago based on an idea pitched to me by Tom Hanks about a gay cop in Cleveland in the 1960s who goes to a murder scene and discovers the victim was his lover, but he was in the closet. I loved that script and thought it was really interesting, but it didn’t go anywhere. It’s sitting on a shelf somewhere.

Uncle Frank premieres November 25 on Amazon Prime.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber