Marvel star: Why I wanted to play a gay man

Now part of the Star Wars and Marvel Comic Universes, with his own spin-off series WandaVision coming to Disney+ in January, Paul Bettany probably didn't anticipate the latest icing on his career cake would come in the form of Uncle Frank.

The film, written and directed by Academy Award-winner Alan Ball (American Beauty), is a 1970s-set drama loosely based on his own life - in which alcoholic gay professor Frank Bledsoe takes a road trip with his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) from Manhattan to their South Carolina hometown.

Bettany's embrace of the character results in one of his most illuminating and personal performances yet, as Frank must heed the advice he once gave Beth - "Be yourself" - when he is forced to come out to his family.

"When I read the script I was going to turn it down on the grounds that it felt very personal to me," Bettany tells The BINGE Guide.

"My father was a gay man who came out to me when he was 63, then when his partner died when he was in his early 80's, he went back in the closet because he was a Catholic and thought it was a mortal sin."

Frank … Bettany took on the role of a gay uncle after being inspired by his own father who came out late in life. Picture: AP Photo/Joel Ryan
Frank … Bettany took on the role of a gay uncle after being inspired by his own father who came out late in life. Picture: AP Photo/Joel Ryan


He pauses: "I was scared about going there, but then Alan told me the story of his coming out to his mother, which didn't go anywhere near as well as Frank coming out to his mother, so it turned out we were both involved in a project where we wanted to put things right."

With the storyline's ensuing themes of prejudice, acceptance and redemption, the role was a much needed therapeutic experience for Bettany.

"I wanted to imagine what things could have been like for my father if he had just got right with himself and accepted himself and his sexuality, which very sadly brought my father a lot of shame. So for me it was a very cathartic experience to imagine a different outcome."

Uncle Frank lives a double life and keeps his sexuality hidden from his family, a theme which Bettany knows all too well.

"When my father came out, nobody was that surprised, and actually, it was a relief to everybody. And I think the whole family had much more trouble with him when he went back into the closet than we ever did with him coming out," he explains.

Bullied … Bettany, who plays Frank in Amazon Prime drama, Uncle Frank, was traumatised by his teenage years. Picture: Brownie Harris/Amazon Prime
Bullied … Bettany, who plays Frank in Amazon Prime drama, Uncle Frank, was traumatised by his teenage years. Picture: Brownie Harris/Amazon Prime


"Growing up, I literally didn't understand homophobia until I went to school in the suburbs, where I felt very alienated."

His gaze is direct: "People find out you have a very different lifestyle with very different family friends from the family friends that they might have. So I was very bullied because of it, which was very confusing for me. I had a very different experience than most teenage boys growing up."

Bettany is speaking via Zoom from his home in New York City, which he shares with his wife of 17 years, actor Jennifer Connelly, and their kids, Stellan, 17, and Agnes, 9.

Bettany is also stepfather to Kai, 23, Connelly's son from a previous relationship.

In these politically correct times, when actors are lambasted for portraying different ethnicities or sexual orientations, was this a concern for Bettany?

"Yes, and I asked Alan that very thing as to why he approached me. And I've just explained why I accepted it, because of my father's shame that he carried throughout his life

pretending to be a straight man, and the ramifications that had in my own life, which were not altogether pleasant," he says.

Cruising … Uncle Frank stars Sophie Lillis, Paul Bettany and Peter Macdissi. Picture: Supplied.
Cruising … Uncle Frank stars Sophie Lillis, Paul Bettany and Peter Macdissi. Picture: Supplied.


"But I had a viewpoint that I think was important, and Alan talked me into the fact that my viewpoint was pretty unique and useful for this production. But as to why Alan cast me, I will say that I know he's cast lots of gay actors in straight roles, and lots of straight actors in gay roles in the past," he shrugs. "And that is, of course, his prerogative."

Bettany was born in London, with his mother a stage singer and acting teacher, and his father an actor, dancer, and drama teacher.

His younger brother died in an accident falling off a roof at the age of eight, when Paul was 16. Understandably, this tragedy ripped the family apart.

Bettany dropped out of school and became a street busker, followed by a stint as an entertainer in a home caring for the elderly.

Eventually, he pursued his passion for acting and attended the Drama Centre in London.

He made his film debut in the 1997 Holocaust drama, Bent, before catching the eye of director Brian Helgeland, who cast him opposite Heath Ledger in the 2001 film, A Knight's Tale.

Marvel … Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in a scene from Wanda Vision. Picture: Supplied
Marvel … Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in a scene from Wanda Vision. Picture: Supplied


In the same year he starred opposite Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, where he would meet his future wife, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Crowe's wife. Two years later he reunited with Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the same year he starred opposite Nicole Kidman in Dogville.

He has voiced the role of J.A.R.V.I.S. in the Iron Man films, which he has reprised in The Avengers franchise.

But ask Bettany to nominate his favourite role and it is that of family man, which he relishes, perhaps in part due to his troubled upbringing.

"It's hard not to talk in platitudes about it. All I can tell you is that I think my children and my marriage saved me," he says.

"They absolutely gave me focus and perspective. You immediately know what's important in your life, even if you have moments of distraction and stray from that path. They taught me as many things as I have hopefully taught them. I realised that you can right things that you wish had gone potentially a different way in your own adolescence and childhood," he muses.

"I love being a father so much, and I can say this really honestly and I think most people would agree with Jennifer and me, that as much as two people working in this business can, we have kept ourselves very much to ourselves. We live a relatively quiet life, especially considering what we do. That other stuff [celebrity] doesn't really hold much interest for Jennifer or myself. We love working and acting," he explains, "but frankly, nowhere near as much as we love a peaceful, quiet life with our children."

* Uncle Frank, streaming Wednesday, November 25 on Amazon Prime Video

Originally published as Marvel star: Why I wanted to play a gay man


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