'Uncle Frank' Star Paul Bettany Opens Up about Pain and Playing Gay

Saturday November 14, 2020

Paul Bettany plays "Uncle Frank" in the Alan Ball written- and directed movie with a sense of understatement that feels right for the place and time in which the film is set: South Carolina in the early 1970s. Adopting a gentle Southern accent and dressed in the skinny button-up short and trousers that reflect the era's fashions, the London-born actor disappears into the role, becoming the uncle that his niece, Beth (Sophia Lillis), adores.

Bettany has been in many top-rated films. (He's also passed on some plum projects, including "The King's Speech"; Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar for the role Bettany might otherwise have played, had he not preferred to spend some quality time with his family after being away for months to work on other projects. "I have to do the right thing by my family every time," Bettany told the Associated Press in 2011.) He played the imaginary roommate and best friend of Russell Crowe's character, John Nash, in the 2001 Ron Howard-directed "A Beautiful Mind"; two years later he played opposite Crowe again, in the role of Dr. Stephen Maturin in Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." He's also taken parts in popular blockbusters like "The Da Vinci Code," again working with Ron Howard, as Silas, a monk dispatched to assassinate Tom Hanks' character, Robert Langdon. And, of course, he's played Vision in several Marvel Cinematic Universe movies - and he'll be playing the character again in an upcoming television miniseries, "WandaVision," a sitcom that re-teams him with Scarlet Witch actor Elizabeth Olsen.

Bettany is a strong ensemble actor, but there's no question that he can carry "Uncle Frank." Though, to an extent, this too is an ensemble picture; it's told mostly from Beth's point of view, and, being a study of how lives mesh together and either affirm or distort one another, demands strong performances from a slate of A-listers (including, thankfully, Margo Martindale, who plays the family's matriarch).

The film's initial scenes serve as a prologue for what's to come: Beth is something of an outlier in her family, slightly awkward and very bright, too curious and sensitive to remain in a house and a community where men assert dominance over family through bellowing and belittling. Beth sees this in her own father, Mike (played by Steve Zahn), and she especially sees it in her grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), who's either shouting threats at his energetic younger grandsons or expressing gruff approval at Mike's own threatening style of paternal discipline.

But it's Daddy Mac's hostility toward Uncle Frank that Beth finds particularly troublesome — and puzzling. Uncle Frank, she narrates, was always kind and attentive to her, the only adult who seemed interested in hearing what she had to say. More than that, he's well-groomed — "He wore aftershave; fingernails were always clipped," as she notes, an observation that aligns neatly, and with humorous precision, to a comment her mother Kitty (Judy Greer) makes, later in the film, when she remarks on how good Frank smells.

All of this is code, of course, for Frank being gay — not that Beth knows it at first. It's not until she graduates high school and moves to New York to attend NYU, where Frank is a professor, that she quite literally stumbles onto her uncle's secret by attending a party at Frank's apartment, showing up uninvited and being greeted by Frank's longtime partner, Walid (Peter Macdissi).

If Beth and Frank have always clicked, Beth and Walid are instantly thick as thieves, effortlessly conversing in a lighthearted, and thoroughly adult, manner that's not unlike the rapport has with Frank — though Frank has a slightly starchy demeanor with Beth, which arises from his being deeply closeted with everyone in his family except for one of his sisters. Daddy Mac's sudden death requires an abrupt trip back home to Creekville, and, when Walid insists on being there to support Frank, a trove of comedy tropes opens up.

Those familiar plot points are thoroughly overshadowed, though, by the film's deeper concerns, among them the source of Daddy Mac's animosity, as well as a piercing wellspring of internalized hatred that Frank has inherited from his father. (That's the only thing he's going to inherit from the old man, as it turns out.)

All of this crystallizes in a pair of breathtaking scenes. In one, arguing with Walid, Frank finds himself channeling Daddy Mac's hateful words and sentiments. Ugly slurs pour out of him like a festering fountain, along with pure, intense anguish — the lasting legacy of a too-common dynamic between conservative, narrow-minded parents and their LGTBQ children. In another, Frank kneels at a graveside, wracked with powerful, long-simmering emotions that spill forth in a torrent. Bettany nails these moments with heart-stopping accuracy, but also with volcanic passion, and (in memory, at least) the rest of the film takes shape around them. (In our chat, Bettany referenced a real-life tragedy: The death of his younger brother when Bettany was a teenager, a loss that surely lent force to the graveside scene.)

Catharsis and reconciliation are possible only when the truth is told, and so too is Beth's transformation — exquisitely portrayed by Lillis — into a young woman who is confident, self-possessed, and very much her own person.

EDGE had the chance to chat with Paul Bettany and ask about that intense and brutal scene, as well as other aspects of the film.

EDGE: Is it a different process for you to prepare to play a gay character as opposed to, say, a killer monk or a superhero?

Paul Bettany: The movies have very different expectations of me, and I have very different expectations of them. All movies require different kinds of [preparation], for me, anyway. They often have unique challenges, so I guess the answer is — yes?

[Laughter]

Paul Bettany: I think that this film had a lot of talking. The director and I did a lot of talking about identity and authenticity. It was delightful in that regard.

EDGE: As the film progresses, we learn about Frank's backstory and why there's so much tension between himself, especially his father, Daddy Mack. It seems to me that anyone in the audience can relate to the kind of family tensions that the film portrays. Did Mr. Ball discuss these dynamics much with the cast?

Paul Bettany: We talked a lot about the fact that the movie really is about anybody who had ever felt unable to live their life, basically because of outside pressures, whether those outside pressures are societal morays or family. And so, yes, we discussed that a lot, and we discussed our own relationships with our parents, and specifically, our father-son relationships. And although Stephen Root, who played my father, doesn't have much screen time in the movie, you can feel the presence of that powerhouse still wreaking havoc from beyond the grave, as it were.

EDGE: One of the crucial scenes in the movie — maybe the most crucial — is a moment when the hatred and rejection that Frank has endured come boiling up out of him. How did you manage that in terms of the energy it too, hitting the notes you wanted to hit, and your own psychological well-being?

Paul Bettany: That is a fucking great question, and the most empathetic question I've ever had from a journalist, ever, so I thank you for it. Look — making these sorts of movies has gotten harder, and it's gotten harder because the time that you get to make them has been cut in half. When I first started, you'd be making an intense movie and [the shooting schedule] would be eight to ten weeks, and now you're making your movie in four to five weeks. That puts an awful amount of pressure on getting it right at some point. And getting it right is the death of everything in movies. The upside of being a movie actor as opposed to a stage actor is that you are always in a rehearsal. You're always able to make a mistake and have a brilliant editor cut it out, or only use the bit that is fantastic or serviceable.

When you have five weeks and know you have a huge scene coming up, you're thinking: "Oh my god, it's next week. Oh my god, it's in two days' time. Oh my god, it's tomorrow. How am I going to wake up in the morning? Am I going to wake up energized and feeling creative? Am I going to be able to access those bits of myself?" And I'm fucking fifty years old next year! It's getting harder to summon the energy to go to these places. It's one thing play-acting in front of a camera and remembering something terrible that happened to you in your childhood, or whatever it is you're doing when you are in your twenties. It begins to feel slightly unseemly in your fifties!

[Laughter]

Paul Bettany: It's like seeing a therapist, you're still fucking talking about yourself. At fifty years old, it just feels slightly embarrassing. So, it takes an awful amount of energy. Maybe other people don't, but I feel — I've got a wife and three children and a dog and cat. I've got to find a really compelling reason to have to go there. And once you go there, it is three days afterward of, you know, still being in this place that you went to thinking about something that happened in your life that was awful. And maybe now you're drinking too much in the evening for three days. And you're right, [you have] to think about your mental health. So, thank you very much for asking that question. It's the first time I've ever been asked it, and it is a question that I think about. Is it healthy that I'm here with my brother who died at eight years old, I'm here with him in my heart, and I'm holding his T-shirt, and is it healthy that I'm doing this?

EDGE: Frank's the kind of uncle that everyone loved to have, or wished they had, and maybe a lot of men would like to be in their turn. Did you have a model in mind — maybe an uncle of your own — to pattern your performance after?

Paul Bettany: I did, actually. I had an Uncle Theo and Auntie Jill who were married, and they were, together, my "Uncle Frank." They really saved me in my life. There are a few; also, a woman called Shosh, who became a sort of surrogate mother to me. They all gave me a glimpse into a wider, bigger world, and allowed me to feel seen in a way that I didn't really feel at home. And that's all you really want when you're becoming an adult, right? In your adolescence, you just want to feel that somebody can see you. So, yes, there were.

EDGE: Sophia Lillis plays Frank's niece Beth — she's just fantastic in the role. Did you forge a mentorship relationship on the set with her that reflected the relationship of your two characters?

Paul Bettany: Fucking hell, you know what, I don't think I did. I was thinking about this — somebody asked me this question yesterday, and I've never felt equipped to be a mentor to anybody. And I said that out loud, and I thought, "Jesus, I wonder what my children think about that?"

[Laughter]

Paul Bettany: Then I was thinking that, actually, my children have taught me as much, if not more, than I ever taught them, and saved me as many times as I've saved them, and I'm not sure I've felt confident enough to be a mentor.

And, she's so ridiculously gifted and equipped, anyway. Her ability, at such a young age, to tell stories is... so much of this film is successful because you're watching her, in silence, watch the behavior of other people. I didn't even consider that she might need mentoring, let alone that she would want any mentoring from me. So, there you have it.


"Uncle Frank" premieres on Amazon Prime Video Nov. 25.

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