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Alan Ball Is Still Trying to Make Sense of It All

The Oscar-winning writer of ‘American Beauty’ opens up about Kevin Spacey, casting straight actors as queer characters, and the personal story behind his new film ‘Uncle Frank’

Remember People magazine’s “Best and Worst” issue of 1999? Alan Ball sure does. The film he wrote, American Beauty, was heralded as one of the best of the year, with award-worthy performances from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening; in a few months, Ball would win the best original screenplay Oscar for it. But he also had a new sitcom, Oh, Grow Up, which would soon be canceled.

“On one page, it’s the best movies of 1999, and American Beauty is one of them. You turn the page, and it’s the 10 worst TV shows; Oh, Grow Up is one of them,” Ball tells me on a Zoom call from his Los Angeles home in mid-November. “That was a big lesson for me in balance.”

After Beauty came more success and failure in tandem. The acclaimed series Six Feet Under, which ran from 2001 to 2005, was essential viewing on HBO. But Ball’s 2007 directorial debut, Towelhead, a film about child sexual abuse, was divisive and panned as “crude.” The next year, his second hit TV show, True Blood, premiered on HBO.

Ball is back again with the film Uncle Frank. Loosely inspired by his family’s roots in Marietta, Georgia, Uncle Frank is a tender look at a closeted gay man in the 1970s (played by Paul Bettany) who returns home for his father’s funeral. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, is out on Amazon Prime.

In the #MeToo era, as allegations of Spacey’s sexual abuse come to light, American Beauty‘s enduring success has dimmed. So what does Ball, 63, do when personal disappointment strikes? He takes the advice of actor Ed Begley Jr., who once told him on the set of Six Feet Under, “The only thing you can do is do the very best work that you’re capable of doing and stay out of the results.”

Ball, who admits to once having a bit of an ego, is still working on staying out of the results. “I haven’t quite gotten there yet, no matter how much meditation I’ve done,” he says.

Alan Ball (right) on the set of Uncle Frank with Margo Martindale, who plays Frank’s mother, Mammaw Bledsoe. Credit: Amazon Studios

Interview edited for length and clarity.

You’re from Marietta, Georgia?

Yes! Home of the Big Chicken.

What was it like for you growing up in the South?

On the one hand, it was kind of great. It’s beautiful and idyllic. I played in the woods a lot when I was a kid. And then on the other hand, growing up knowing that I was gay, that was a big source of conflict because it wasn’t an option where I grew up and when I grew up. I was in high school in the ’70s. I know a lot of people came out in the ’70s, but I wasn’t there yet. 

When I came out of the closet to my mom, she told me that she thought my dad might have been that way too. If that is true, that probably had something to do with how hard it was for me. If I outed myself, then I might have subconsciously picked up on or known something [about him]. I didn’t come out to my mom until I was 33. I came out to people in my life prior to that, but I tried to be straight for a really long time. I was really bad at it.

Why do you think you waited until you were 33?

Well, it took me until my late 20s to come out to myself. I think I was just afraid of how she would react, and my dad had already died so she was the only parent I had left. But ultimately, I think I was just scared. I was scared of what it would do to my relationship with her. It did get pretty frosty there around that time, but in her defense, she was born in 1913. So her idea of what [being gay] was and what it meant was so antiquated. To her credit, she came around and we were able to have a real relationship before she died.

Paul Bettany plays the titular Frank in Uncle Frank. Ball cast him after seeing his “decent and kind” portrayal of a WWI solider in Journey’s End. Credit: Amazon Studios

So, Uncle Frank: Why did you cast Paul Bettany to play Frank?

I had seen Paul in an obscure little movie called Journey’s End. It was about a bunch of WWI soldiers in a bunker during wartime. They slowly come to realize they’re not gonna escape. They’re all gonna die. His performance — he had such dignity, and he was so decent and kind. These are qualities that I always wanted Frank to have. 

We had a conversation, and it just became very clear to me and to him, I think. He came into the conversation not sure if he was right for it, but in that conversation I shared my personal connection to the story. And he told me how it connected to him personally: His father was gay and came out when he was 63. He had a 20-year relationship with a man. Then that man died and he went back in the closet because he was Catholic. He felt like he wouldn’t get into heaven if he was gay.

I think, for both of us, Uncle Frank became kind of a “what if” story. For him, it was, “What if my dad had been able to fully embrace who he was?” And for me, when [my mom] told me she thought my dad was [gay], what if that was true? I don’t know — I’ll never know — because he was already dead when my mom told me.

Do you think you’re trying to complete a narrative for your dad that he might not have gotten to experience?

Maybe. I can see how that might be true. But it would be an unconscious thing, because I don’t think that way when I’m writing. My process is really, one might say, undisciplined. I prefer to think of it as organic. I don’t plot out a lot of things and then go in and fill in the blanks. It just sort of comes out. Later, I can look at and go, Oh, that’s about X. But I can see how it could be an attempt on my part to create some fictional alternative for this possible version. [Laughs] That might have been a more fulfilling life for him.

If your dad was gay, would you have wanted him to let you know?

Probably, if it was something he was okay with. If it was a source of pain or conflict, probably not. He was a great dad, but he was not particularly emotionally expansive. He was kind of distant. Not so much that he didn’t care, he just seemed sort of preoccupied. And I always got the feeling that there was some secret tragedy that he was carrying with him, which also played into when my mom told me about [his childhood friend] drowning. That played into who Frank came to be in the script as well. If it was for him a source of shame or a source of pain, it’s best that it wasn’t shared with me.

How old were you when your dad passed?

He died in 1976. I was 19, so it was before I was even remotely ready to face it in myself.

You hadn’t yet identified as gay personally?

No, I knew that I was attracted to men. But I wasn’t yet ready to say, This is who I am. I was thinking, Maybe I’ll grow out of it. Maybe this is a phase. The usual bullshit.

Back to casting Paul Bettany: There’s an ongoing discussion about the need to cast gay actors to play gay roles. I wanted to get your thoughts on that in regards to this role.

Well, I was certainly open to casting gay actors. But there’s also the element of, you have to bring an actor who means enough for the producer to want to spend the money. So my question is, who is that? Because I wanted Frank to be middle-aged. I want him to be in his 40s. Who is that middle-aged gay actor who carries the financial clout that would [convince a producer to] say, “Yes, I’ll write you a check.” I certainly was glad that Paul had an organic connection to the material through his own history. Looking back, I think his performance is so amazing that it’s hard for me to think of anybody else in the role. I was certainly aware of that at the time. But sometimes you have a choice: Do I do the ethically, politically whatever correct thing? Or do I get the movie made? 

I don’t think Actor X being gay would have necessarily brought more to the role than Paul did. The only thing that would have been different? It would have been a gay actor portraying a gay role. Maybe if we lived in a world where I didn’t need an actor who was a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to drum up some financing, things might have gone differently.

Peter Macdissi, Alan Ball and Paul Bettany on the set of Uncle Frank. Macdissi, Ball’s life partner, plays Frank’s boyfriend in the film. Credit: Amazon Studios

You’ve created gay characters throughout your career, such as Michael C. Hall in Six Feet Under. Do you feel more pressure now, about casting gay actors in gay roles, than you did 20 years ago?

I understand the necessity of it. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that’s like, “But you just cast the best actor!” Most of the gay characters that I’ve written, I guess, have been played by straight actors. Peter Macdissi, who plays Wally in the movie, is gay, so that’s maybe a first for me. [Laughs] [Macdissi is Ball’s life partner.] 

I’m aware of [the conversation], but at the same time I’m also aware of the mechanics of getting something financed. It’s not exactly the same as casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender character. It’s certainly not the same as getting a Caucasian actor to play mixed-race. It’s always my intent to cast the actor who brought the character to life in the most realistic and interesting way. 

Do you ever go back and watch your old work?

I don’t. I ended up, for some reason, watching a part of Six Feet Under a few months ago — about half of an episode. I remember the episode being very different. [Laughs]

You’ve done several different projects now with HBO over the years. How do they keep you around?

I did Six Feet Under and True Blood for HBO. I did Banshee for CineMax, which was a part of a HBO. Then I spent two years developing a pilot for them, shooting it, and it ended up not going. Then I did one season of a series called Here and Now, which was pretty universally loathed and reviled by everyone. I think my days at HBO are done. I don’t think they’re interested in working with me anymore. [Laughs]

Do you feel that’s one-sided, or are you ready to move on as well?

I loved having a home like HBO. But HBO, as everything in this entire industry, has changed so diametrically from what it used to be. I’d love to do something with HBO again. I’m just saying, when you say how do they keep you around, I’m not being kept around. [laughs] 

Popular showrunners have big package deals now, like Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes at Netflix. How is it operating in that space for you?

I had development deals when I was at HBO. Banshee came about as development while I was running True Blood. But I’m not a person who can have four, five or six different things going on at the same time. I just don’t have that energy. I don’t like to work that way. I’m not saying this is true of other people. I only admire people who can be that prolific. But for me, I feel like the quality would suffer if there were too many things going on at once. 

I’m very fortunate in that I already made more money than I ever thought I would or than I need. So I’m not somebody who’s driven by, I want to get a big crazy overall deal. Because the flip side of that is you have to deliver. If they’re gonna pay you that much money, you’ve got to be working on 19 different shows 24 hours a day. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t really want to live that way.

How do you handle something like Here and Now getting canceled after a season? Is that humbling?

Well, it’s heartbreaking. I’m not a person who can just go, like, Okay, that didn’t work. I tend to pour a lot of myself into things, so when they don’t succeed it’s heartbreaking. You know, it’s really upsetting. Yes, very humbling. But that’s part of it. Not everything can be successful. I certainly feel like I’ve learned a lot from the things I’ve done that have not been considered successful. 

I wrote and directed a movie, Towelhead, about 13 years ago, which I’m super-proud of. It was not successful. Critics didn’t like it. Some people call it child porn. It did not do well at the box office. But I still feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Ultimately success is decided upon by the marketplace, which it pretty much is in film and TV. You can get all the bad reviews in the world, but if you make money, people are still gonna love you. You have to figure out a way to be able to process success and failure at the same time. 

I want to talk about American Beauty. I’m wondering how you feel about the Kevin Spacey allegations and if they’ve overshadowed your film?

Yeah, I think they have. I think it’s hard to watch it now and not think of that. And that’s a real shame, you know. It’s very unfortunate. I still think the movie stands on its own. But I do think it’s hard to watch it and not think of those allegations.

Have you gone back to watch it since those allegations?

No. I watched it a few years ago, before the whole #MeToo thing and definitely before the Kevin thing.

Do you think you will ever watch it again?

Oh, I’m sure I’ll watch it at some point.

Do you feel like you’ve lost control over its legacy?

Well, I never felt like I had any control over its legacy to begin with. I mean… I don’t feel like I have any control over it. [Laughs]

It has to at least be some sort of a bummer.

A little bit. But at the same time, I have to go, okay, I got this movie made. My first screenplay got produced, turned into this cultural phenomena and won some statues that people find very meaningful. It really opened a gazillion doors for me in my career. Ya, it would be great if the Kevin Spacey thing never happened, but it did happen. So you just have to accept what is. 

Following the Spacey allegations, a lot of people reconsidered his character in the film. 

Yeah.

Did you do this as well? Should we be as sympathetic to Lester as we were when it first came out?

I think we should be sympathetic to Lester, and I think we should be sympathetic to Kevin. I don’t know what Kevin’s backstory is, but I know his brother claims his father abused them both. I do also know that behavior is learned behavior. I’m a Buddhist. I try to maintain some compassion for everybody as much as that’s possible.

Certainly Trump has made that very challenging — but then I also think, what must it be like to live inside that man’s head? And I have a tremendous amount of compassion for him because I think he is so fucking crazy and self-loathing. 

[With] Towelhead, I feel a tremendous amount of compassion for Aaron Eckhart’s character. Does that mean what he did was okay? [In the film, Eckhart’s character sexually assaults a 13-year-old girl.] No, of course not. It was terrible. It was wrong, and he gets punished for it. I think the human psyche is a lot weirder and messier than perhaps we would like it to be when we look at it through the framework of ethical considerations and what is considered proper and improper behavior. 

Do you ever think about why Spacey took on the role of Lester? The character’s predatory actions are possibly similar to what he was allegedly doing at the time.

I don’t know. I think the fact that Angela is not a boy would create a big disconnect, you know what I mean? Although I remember there was a woman playing Peter Gallagher’s trophy wife [Amber Smith] and Kevin making some reference to how hot she was to me, Bruce [Cohen], Dan [Jinks] and Stan [Wlodkowski], the producers, all of whom were gay. For him to talk to us about how hot this woman was, we all sort of looked at each other, like, What’s that about?

This wasn’t in the script? This was during filming?

This was during the day, and [Smith] wasn’t, like, a teenager. She’s a former Playboy playmate. Everybody knew Kevin was gay. Everybody knew it, and for him to purposely say to four gay guys, Check out this woman, isn’t she hot? We all were like, Okay, what are we supposed to do with that?

It seems you haven’t spoken about Spacey much since 2017. If that’s true, is there a reason you haven’t wanted to talk about it? The allegations, American Beauty and the parallels between the two.

I mean, if somebody asks me a question, I’ll answer it. But it’s not something I feel like I really need to talk about. It’s unfortunate. I feel a lot of compassion towards him. I feel a lot of sympathy towards the young men that he was inappropriate with. It’s just a bad situation all around.

To wrap up, I want to go back to Uncle Frank. The film is set in 1973. I just watched Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band on Netflix, which also takes place in a pre-AIDS era of gay life — a time that feels rare to revisit in a lot of today’s queer culture. Why was this the era you wanted to set Uncle Frank in?

Well, it needed to be a time in which it made sense for a middle-aged college professor to be in the closet. It didn’t seem like that would really be the case today. The film is many things, and one of them is a coming-of-age story for Beth (Sophia Lillis). I myself came of age in the ’70s. I was a sophomore in high school in 1973. It felt right.

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