Hitting the Road with Uncle Frank
By Jay S. Jacobs
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Take Uncle Frank, the new movie by writer/director Alan Ball of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame. Uncle Frank looks back to 1973 – right in the middle of the Nixon years – to tell a story about sexual identity, ignorance and family bonds which still resonates today.
It tells the story of Beth (Sophia Lillis of the It films), a young woman in rural South Carolina. She feels a little bit estranged from her parents and her extended country family. The one family member she really likes, in fact sort of idolizes, is her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany of A Beautiful Mind and the Avengers films). Frank is smart, handsome, hip and a professor at NYU. His life looks so glamorous to her.
She finds him fascinating and doesn’t understand why much of her family, particularly her grandfather, don’t seem to like him. Uncle Frank, on the other hand, seems guarded around his family and rarely comes back home.
When she comes of college age, she follows her dream of going to school in New York at NYU, she gets to know Frank better. She also learns his big secret from the family – that he is gay and has been living with another man he loves for years.
Frank’s longtime lover Walid, aka Wally, is played by Peter Macdissi. Macdissi is also Ball’s partner and co-produced the film. A couple of weeks before the release of Uncle Frank on Amazon Prime, we caught up with Macdissi to discuss the movie.
A little bit off topic, but it’s everyone’s topic right now, how have you been surviving in the whole new shelter at home socially distant world?
That’s an interesting question, because at first it was okay. It was like, oh, nice. Then it starts to get to the point where it’s kind of horrible. On an emotional level, it’s really taxing being stuck in all the time. It’s the new norm. Everybody’s having a hard time to get adjusted, because it’s just something very, very new and the whole world suffering from it. It’s not just here in the country. It’s hard. It’s quite hard. You have to push yourself to do something. It’s just taking the toll right now. At this at this point, it’s taking a toll, I have to say, unfortunately.
You’ve been working with Alan on many projects for years going back to things like Six Feet Under and Towelhead. I know you have a personal connection too but just as an actor and or producer, why do you feel comfortable working with him? What’s the working dynamic like?
I love working with him. I think he does, too. (laughs) It’s a very comfortable relationship. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We have creative collaboration; we know each other well and we share the same sensibility. He relies on me on many creative decisions because I’m his business partner. We produce things that we were not involved in – and in terms of acting, directing, and writing – like Banshee, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with Oprah. Then we did Here and Now, where I was an actor on the series, and he ran the show.
That was a good show…
So, it’s great. It’s based on respect. It’s very professional. There’s a lot of give and take. We process things together out loud. I hit the jackpot. To find somebody who has the same sensibility and to whom you can rely on and vice versa is just awesome, just great.
You just said that you work together creatively. Did you help him fleshing out the character of Wally while he was writing the movie?
Not just Wally. He presented the script to me in the first draft, and I would start giving notes until the day of the shoot. There’s always notes being given as the producer. I do that. Definitely, Wally is one of them. There were a few suggestions – just to make him more relatable. That was important, specifically for a character who is an immigrant from Saudi Arabia. We did want him to be relatable. That was something that we definitely worked on together, as well as Frank and the family. And Sophia’s character, Beth. The whole thing.
So you are comfortable creating together.
Making a movie actually happens in the editing room. That’s the biggest time we spent together on the movie, trying to flesh it out. Trying for it to make sense to be audience. We did that together, yes, of course.
One thing I really liked about Wally as a character is that he was very cheerful and happy most of the time. It really took a lot to throw him off his stride. In what ways do you feel like Wally is like you as a person and what parts were harder for you to capture as an actor?
It’s interesting you’re asking that because a lot of people think – or have thought – that Wally is easy to play, because he’s so positive all the time. He gave me a bit of a hard time, actually, once I started working on him as an actor, because you wanted to know where that was coming from. You don’t play the result of a character. You just have to understand what the roots are, where the source is, where he comes from. Right?
I had to do a lot of research on him. First of all, being an immigrant. Being a Muslim. Being a man of faith. We see him praying in the house, which means that he is a man of faith. I do think that his upbringing and his close relationship with his mother, and his beliefs – the belief in his religion – make him the man he is. He has tons of character, Wally.
Yes, he does.
Dealing with an addict is not an easy thing to do. Under the surface, I see the strength. I see the commitment. I see the love. The nobility. I see Wally as very noble. For him to just stick by Frank the whole time, by hook or by crook. That’s [something] we don’t see often. In this culture, at least we don’t see it. So, it took a bit. Then I understood. Then everything came together. He became the sunshine in the movie. He’s the positive force. I think he’s the character in the movie who knows himself the most if you really think about it.
Much of Uncle Frank is sort of a classic road trip film. Do you have any favorite road trip movies that you looked at for inspiration with playing the role?
No, not an inspiration. I don’t like a movie based on… whether it’s a road trip or not. I like it based on how hit moves me. On how it touches me. If it means anything to me on an emotional level. That’s what I’m interested in.
I thought it was interesting that the film took place in the Nixon years, because the last few years has been very similar to the Nixon years. Specifically for these characters, after all the advances in LGBTQ rights, suddenly you have a very conservative Supreme Court that’s making rumblings that trying to maybe overturn the Obergefell case. Why do you think that the story of the past may have things to say to inform the present and the future?
We see from the past what exactly is happening in the present. We understand how history repeats itself most of the time. When I watch Uncle Frank, and I see what it was like in the 70s, I could relate that compared to what it is like now. The decision from the Supreme Court, which just automatically means that we’re going backwards. We’re going backwards, or we’re not moving forward. That’s how important that is. I think Alan has deftly conceived that – the way the story takes place in the 70s, with these two characters, specifically. That was interesting.
There was one thing that Paul did that really struck me. It was a minor thing that spoke volumes. The first time that he faced Mammaw, after she found out about him, he sunk into the chair, and shrunk into himself. Wally also had the phone call with his mother, and while I think she probably would have been okay with his lifestyle, he lied and tried to keep her happy. Why do you think that grown men that become successful and mostly happy in their own lives still turned into little boys at the thought of disappointing their mothers?
Why do I think that? (laughs) Because mothers are very, very powerful. Mothers have tremendous amount of power over their children. It’s this visceral relationship that they have. It’s so connected. They’re so connected with the umbilical cord. You don’t even think about it. You automatically become the kid. That was an interesting choice that we had Paul sit like that once we meet Margo [Martindale]. I forgot her character [name]. It is mom in the movie. Mammaw, yeah. It’s just a choice that translates how powerful she is in his psyche. How much yearning he has for her approval of who he is. I think that was that was very beautiful to look at.
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 27, 2020.
Photos ©2020. Courtesy of Amazon Studios. All rights reserved. Photos 4 & 5 by Brownie Harris.