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Smoking cigarettes is an affectation that you don’t see as often in movies anymore. Part of that stems from the ethics of the filmmakers and studios who don’t want to promote a deadly habit, and perhaps even more influential is the fact that tobacco use now has a strong influence on the calls made by the MPAA. That being said, you can tell a lot about a character from the way they take a drag – which is why Paul Bettany likes that his titular role in Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank is a smoker.
As seen in the video up top, the subject came up earlier this month when I had the pleasure of interviewing both Bettany and Ball in advance of the new movie’s release – specifically in a conversation about “Uncle” Frank Bledsoe’s style in the film. Discussing both the character’s fashion and physicality, Bettany first noted that one thing he loved about the opportunity to star in the Amazon Studios release was that he got to dress like the stars of cinema when he was growing up. Said the actor,
I grew up watching movies from what Alan and I both think of as the golden era of American cinema, the seventies, I'm sort of steeped in those movies and was as desperate as any actor would be to wear a Brown corduroy suit. I've watched Robert Redford as much as the next man, unless the next man Alan Ball. It was really fun to dress him and style him and all of that.
It was certainly an appropriate look for the character, who is a New York University professor in the 1973-set film. It was Alan Ball, however, who brought up the subject of Paul Bettany smoking in Uncle Frank. He highlighted the decision, specifically addressing the subtext that it addresses. Ball said,
The smoking, I think, was also a really good choice, because to me it's like, you know, people call smoking the poor man's antidepressant. And I always think every time he takes a drag, he's like burying that pain. That's what it read like to me.
Written and directed by Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is a coming of age story told from the perspective of Sophia Lillis’ Beth Bledsoe, who grows up in South Carolina idolizing her father’s brother. When she heads off to college at NYU, she discovers a secret that Frank has long been keeping from his entire family: that he is gay, and has been living with another man (Peter Macdissi) for about a decade.
As addressed by the filmmaker, Frank stores up a lot of pain that extends from his closely-guarded secret, and watching the movie you most definitely do notice that the character lights up a smoke when the tension is at its highest.
Responding, Paul Bettany concurred with Alan Ball, and added that a character’s smoking habit was a subject he had once discussed with an acting teacher:
That's interesting, Alan, because I remember talking to an old acting teacher about smoking, and how much story can you tell with a cigarette and the way you inhale and the way you exhale. And it's really true! It's fascinating, because your breath is suddenly visual, and it's really something. You really can.
In addition to Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, and Sophia Lillis, Uncle Frank sports an absolutely outstanding cast that includes Margot Martindale, Judy Greer, Lois Smith, Steve Zahn, and Stephen Root. The film is arriving on Amazon Prime Video tomorrow, November 25, and stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more from my interviews!