“Uncle Frank” (Amazon Studios), the second full-length feature from gay, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Alan Ball (“True Blood,” “Six Feet Under”), takes us back to the last half of the 20th century, and the less tolerant South.
Frank (Paul Bettany) escaped the strangulation of his Southern roots and headed for Manhattan, where he could be himself. During a family, visit he bonds with his bright, young niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), whom he encourages to consider applying to college in New York when the time comes. His words of support pay off and she gets into NYU. But Beth’s education doesn’t only take place in the classroom as she is soon immersed in the world of her uncle and his lover Walid (Peter Macdissi).
Following the death of Frank’s homophobic father Mac (Stephen Root), the unlikely trio returns to the family homestead, leading to lots of emotional fireworks. Even with a cast that includes Bettany, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn and Judy Greer, it is Macdissi (who is also Ball’s life partner) from whom we are unable to look away. Viewers who recognize him from previous roles, including those in “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood,” will be surprised and delighted at his performance, which is sweet, sassy and the source of much-needed comic relief. I spoke with Peter about the movie in November 2020.
What was it about the character of Walid in “Uncle Frank” that appealed to you as an actor?
As an actor, what appealed to me is that it was something I had never done before. It was a character who was super positive, super loving and generous. He was sunshine. He was a ray of light. I even asked Alan (Ball), “Are you sure I’m the best actor for this part?” Because I'm normally cast as edgy, intense characters. That was very refreshing and original to play something like that, that I had never done before.
Because of “Uncle Frank”’s late 1960s and early 1970s setting, the characters get to wear some groovy period clothing. Did you have a favorite ensemble that you wore in the movie?
[Laughs] Actually, I did! There were a couple of items I really enjoyed. The scene in the car when he follows Frank, and they have this discussion outside the car. There was that super cool shirt that I really wanted to keep after wrapping, but I didn’t get to. There were some cool (costume) pieces.
Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), the title character, takes a genuine interest in his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) and encourages her to explore the world beyond her small South Carolina town. Did you have an Uncle Frank or someone like him in your life?
Oh, absolutely! But it wasn’t an uncle; it was my older sister Laura. She was my mentor in so many ways. I was younger than Beth. I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. She would buy me a book every week from the book shop and I would read the book. I would be excited about the next book she would bring me. I guess she was my mentor in terms of the importance of reading and being knowledgeable and things getting better in life. It was she who was the first person to instill these principles in me.
Peter Macdissi. Photo courtesy of Macdissi.
Do you have any nieces and nephews, and if so, are you an Uncle Frank to any of them?
I do have one niece, but she's like 10 months old. I haven’t gotten to be an Uncle Frank to her yet, but I'm looking forward to it.
Beth and her friend Bruce crash a party at Walid and Frank’s which results in Frank coming out to Beth in front of Walid in an emotional scene. Later, Walid talks about how what Frank did arouse him. What did you think of the way that the movie strikes a balance between seriousness and humor?
Alan Ball is the king of that. If you check his work, not just “Uncle Frank,” all his work, he’s a master of marrying the drama with the comedy. His work is very deep, very moving, very empathetic to the human condition. He has tremendous amounts of compassion for his characters. Nevertheless, he never forgets the importance of entertainment; getting laughter in between. He’s super at that. I don't think anybody does it as well as he does.
After Frank’s father dies, “Uncle Frank” becomes a road movie with some surprises. The road movie comes from a long cinematic tradition. Do you have a favorite road movie?
I keep getting asked this question. “Lady Bird,” about the mother and daughter, with the actress Laurie Metcalf who was in “Roseanne.” That was a kind of road movie. That was the last one I saw.
In a diner, Frank tells Beth how he met Walid. How did you meet your partner, writer/director Alan Ball?
I shy away from private stuff because I don't think it has anything to do with the work. But (I will say) it was an introduction agency. At the time, we didn't have all these apps and all this technology. But I think it was through an introduction agency, how we met.
There is a touching scene when Walid calls his widowed mother in Saudi Arabia from a payphone. Do you or did you have a good relationship with your family?
Yes. I am very close to both my siblings and my parents. We're quite close, I would say.
Would you say that there are rewards and challenges to working with Alan, as you have done for several years?
We sometimes have different opinions about things that we fight for. But not major things. It's never like a crucial element about the project. Little things, here and there, sometimes crop up. We share the same sensibility in so many ways. We understand each other and we complement each other. I feel super lucky and privileged to have a job like that, actually.
Have you started working on or thinking about your next movie project?
We are working on the next project, but I cannot say anything about it because it’s not yet greenlit. It's a very exciting project. Completely different from “Uncle Frank.” I can't wait to be able to start working on it because it's super original and exciting. It’s really cool. You would never guess what it is. Seriously, I’m going to remind you next time I talk to you when the project comes out!
That’s a deal!
Gregg Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.