Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis and Paul Macdissi on the Personal Significances of Alan Ball’s ‘Uncle Frank’

Uncle Frank” marks one of the most poignant explorations of identity and cultural change in America from writer/director Alan Ball. Since winning the Academy Award for writing “American Beauty” 20 years ago, Ball has worked in film and television to explore how beneath the veneer of U.S. prosperity, lives are tortured by emotional turmoil. Along the way he has worked with consistent collaborators and new additions. Paul Bettany and Sophia Lillis are the latest major talents to join the Ball universe of personalities fighting against conformity and ignorance. Returning is actor Peter Macdissi, who has regularly appeared in Ball films like “Towelhead” and shows like “Here and Now,” primarily busting Middle East stereotypes. 

For Bettany and Lillis the Amazon film is a welcome turn to a more intimate kind of storytelling after respectively appearing in major blockbusters like “Avengers” and “It.” Set in the 1970s, the movie stars Lillis as Beth, a sharp 18-year-old who has grown up her entire life in the cloistered world of rural South Carolina. Among her family of patriarchal, homophobic men, her uncle Frank (Bettany), an NYU literature professor, always seems the most endearing and helpful. When Beth gets accepted into NYU and moves into the city, she discovers that Frank is gay and has kept his orientation secret from the rest of the family. He lives with a partner, Wally (Macdissi), who fled anti-gay violence in Saudi Arabia. When news arrives that a family member has died, Frank, Beth and Wally go on a road trip back home, to confront not only painful past memories, but the need to finally come out and be free.

Bettany, Lillis and Macdissi sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss the making of “Uncle Frank.”

Paul, “Uncle Frank” marks a return to a more personal, intimate kind of film after your work in some big blockbusters. What specifically attracted you to this script?

I’ve always wanted to sort of bounce between studio films and independent movies. I love playing with the big toys and doing wire work and crazy techno cranes with cameras on them, I love the experience. But as opposed to a more intimate movie with a small crew you don’t get to know anyone, there’s so many of them (laughs). I loved reading this script. I’m a big Alan Ball fan. I was incredibly confused as to why he wanted me to do it (laughs). We got on a phone call and I totally fell in love with him. We decided to go on this journey together. 

This is also your first major collaboration with Alan Ball. You’ve already worked with some celebrated filmmakers like Ron Howard and Peter Weir. How did working with Ball compare to some of the other greats you’ve worked with? And, what was unique about the experience?

Well, it was a very personal story for Alan, so you’re already in a place where you wanna be delicate but also honest and frank as you’re making this movie together. You want to help a director realize a very personal story. Different directors have different shorts of strengths, some are very visual and some are very aware of how to talk to actors. Alan’s real strong point as a director is his empathy. He really loves actors for a start. I’ve worked with directors who find the process of filming kind of frustrating. They can’t wait to get back into an editing suite to properly manipulate you without you talking back (laughs). Alan really loves actors and the experience of making a movie.

Sophia, Beth is from a small town in 1970s South Carolina who then moves to Manhattan for college. All of her traditional perceptions are immediately challenged. How did you prepare to play her?

We had a two-day rehearsal before actually shooting and we just went over the script, Paul, Peter and Alan Ball and I. I got some notes about what Alan specifically wanted. But with every single character that I do I try to relate to the character. For instance, Beth at the beginning is not that confident, but she really looks up to Frank as a mentor. Then by the end she becomes more independent and courageous. Before I started acting I really didn’t have that much confidence. I didn’t really know what I was good at. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But once I found acting it was like a whole different world opened up to me, it gave me the confidence I needed. I can relate to her in that way.

Beth and Frank develop what almost feels like a father-daughter relationship. It plays off very strongly on screen. Tell us about working with Paul to create this bond.

He’s such a great actor. He’s so real and subtle. Peter works so hard. He brings a notebook or binder and writes notes in it. I remember I saw that the first time we did rehearsals and the next day I brought my own binder and my own notebook to make notes. It was like the relationship Beth and Frank have, she looks up to him and tries to learn stuff from him. That’s how I looked up at Paul. 

Peter, this is not your first collaboration with Alan Ball. You both have been working together going back to “Six Feet Under” at HBO and “Towelhead.” What keeps bringing you both together and how has the creative relationship between you two changed or grown?

The professional relationship has evolved and has gotten even better than it used to be. We’ve been working together for the longest time. It’s great. We compliment each-other, we share the same sensibilities. We do have some differences sometimes but those differences make the project better, because it’s ultimately about the project. Rarely does the ego show up in our collaboration. It’s an environment that’s so conducive to creating original work. I just feel super privileged to have worked with him for so long.

“Uncle Frank” deals with LGBTQ life in the 1970s and how many gay men had to live dual identities. As an openly gay actor, how much of this story do you see as attitudes already left in the past but still relevant on a global scale?

That is so true. I think the movie is so important on so many levels. It shows how it was in the ‘70s and how far we’ve come along, which is super important to acknowledge. In America we like to think that we lead the world in those issues, and Europe too, but a lot of people in the world need to see the movie to understand the oppression that people feel, because many people still are denied to live their lives as they want to. There are people who cannot live as they want because of sexual preference, because of the color of their skin, because of their immigrant status. It’s so medieval and embarrassing that we still have remnants of these ideas in America and the world. It’s important to have movies and shows like “Uncle Frank” where we see we are all very similar and not that different.

Paul, you capture the character of Frank with keen precision. He is an intellectual but also a haunted, tortured soul brought on by having to deny his sexuality in an oppressive South Carolina upbringing. Where did you draw inspiration for this character?

My father. My father was a closeted gay man who had come out at 63 and had had a 20-year relationship with a man named Andy, who was the love of his life. When Andy died the dogma of my father’s Catholicism dragged him back into the closet and he was sort of in denial that he had ever had this relationship. Consequently he was unable to mourn the loss of the love of his life, and that struck me as incredibly tragic. He could never really be authentic with anybody including his family. Rather than getting to know my father I kept hearing repeated, curated anecdotes from his life that actually kept you at arm’s length, because there was a secret history to my father’s life. I used that to draw a map and gain the energy to make the movie. I wanted to imagine what if my father had managed to overcome the sense of shame he felt over his own sexual identity.

Sophia, you have also worked on some major genre movies like “It” and acclaimed TV shows like “Sharp Objects” and “I’m Not Okay With This.” How did working on those compare to an intimate, condensed movie like “Uncle Frank”?

The other ones were kind of very dark and edgy. This was a nice change of pace. That’s what attracted me to the role, it’s so different from the kind of films I usually do. It seemed like the perfect way to kind of head in a different direction. There’s also a lot less time to shoot. On “It” we had a lot more time while with this one it was very short. We moved at a very fast pace, so that was also a change from the usual stuff I’ve done.

Peter, you have also portrayed Middle Eastern characters in Ball’s movies that defy typical Orientalist stereotypes. In “Uncle Frank,” Wally is gay and shares about the persecution of gay men in Saudi Arabia. Talk with us about that aspect of your character in this film and what it means for Middle Eastern representation in media.

It’s super important for other ethnic groups to be included in the industry, that’s a big thing for me. Obviously Middle Eastern characters have been very demonized in America, especially after 9/11. I think my role is to present these characters as people, as relatable to you and me. We need to show that people are people. With Wally I am so glad that he’s resonating with people, specifically because he is an immigrant, he is a Muslim, he is from Saudi Arabia. It’s a mission I hope I’ve accomplished in this movie. Without sounding too pretentious, it is a battle I will be fighting for the rest of my life.

And finally Paul, on the horizon you have a big series coming up with Marvel’s “WandaVision” in early 2021. Share with us about what we can expect?

I can tell you we took a real big swing with this one and I hope it pays off. Marvel has always taken big swings. It’s easy to forget when they made “Iron Man” in 2008 it was a really big swing, they took a big risk. This is one of those. We shot episode one in two days in front of a live studio audience. It was crazy. I can promise you it only gets more bonkers and bananas. It’s very beautifully written by Jac Schaeffer and as every episode is aired, fans and the audience will be able to peel layer after layer of the mystery and understand what the fuck is going on in this strange town.

Uncle Frank” begins streaming Nov. 25 on Amazon Prime Video.