You have to make the world as inclusive as possible and that starts with conscious casting and conscious storytelling.
In Uncle Frank, Alan Ball—the writer behind American Beauty and the creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood—casts Paul Bettany as a gay man forced to confront his Southern family, to whom he’s stayed closeted, following the death of his father in the early 1970s. Bettany’s titular role is shared by fresh-faced newcomer Cole Doman in a series flashbacks to Frank’s teenage trauma that’s left him emotionally paralyzed. As young Frank, Doman, who made his acclaimed feature film debut in 2015’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party from Stephen Cone, delivers another breakthrough performance. This is the kind of role that portends big things for his future.
Anthem spent an afternoon with Doman in Brooklyn this month, where he told us all about working with Ball and Bettany, the parallels he drew between his character’s youth and his own, and his hopes and dreams for the future in his still-infant and blossoming career.
Amazon Studios purchased Uncle Frank for $12 million in an otherwise quiet year out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A release date is yet to be announced.
On Uncle Frank, you worked with Alan Ball. Did you find his writing discernibly, strikingly different to other screenplays you’ve read?
You feel the specificity, and you sort of feel the heat—that seems to be a good way of putting it. Certainly with this script, which takes place in the south, you feel really transported when you’re reading it. There’s a real tenderness and an authenticity to that tenderness, which oftentimes when you’re reading a script feels is hard to find or to do well. You read a lot of bad scripts. [laughs]
You studied at Steppenwolf in Chicago and among your teachers was Amy Morton. I met her years ago—she’s fantastic. I noticed something you have in common, which is that acting entered your lives with great influence from your mothers. Amy’s mother enrolled her in a drama class when she was 6 to, as she put it, “get me out of the house for part of the summer.” Your mother was an actress herself. Could you talk about those early beginnings?
My sister—she’s 18 months older than me—and I’m really close. We were both eccentric kids. My sister very much had that over-the-top star quality and she was always performing. I was more shy and I think my mom wanted to give me some creative outlet and harness my eccentricities. So it started really young and I just found this love for it. I think as soon as she saw that it was something I cared about, she found places for that to be nourished. I started getting into performance arts summer camps, doing productions of The Wizard of Oz and The Music Man and all these old school musicals. Then it in my own way became literary where I started reading a lot of plays and I wanted to access this understanding of how playwriting and the theatre had evolved. I really got into history. It was all of these things that at one point was a fun, creative thing to do that became academic to me like, “I actually understand this. I want to take this art form and study it and learn technique.” Amy was my Meisner [technique] teacher. So I feel like I really found my own path with it, and it’s also very much thanks to my mother and my sister.
You made your film debut with the titular role in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. It appears that you connected to that material a lot, having grown up in a fairly religious family, having gone to Catholic school, and being a gay man. How did that compare to your connection with Uncle Frank?
They’re both touching this really pivotal moment of adolescence for a young gay man. It’s this moment of recognition in themselves, not of being different and what that is, but recognition of what that’s called by other people. It’s like, all of a sudden, what everyone else has been saying about you behind your back you finally understand to be a truth about yourself, and it seems like sometimes you’re the last person to know what that’s called. It’s endlessly interesting to me to approach that from different environments and ecosystems of being a child: Uncle Frank taking place in the ‘40s south versus Henry Gamble, which is about this modern evangelical family that lives in the suburbs of Chicago. With Uncle Frank, I think there was just much more to excavate, especially with the time. I feel really honored that people trust me, especially two gay male writer-directors, with that really profound moment of growing up. Alan had actually seen me in Henry Gamble and that’s why he thought I might be a good fit. He thought I resembled Paul [Bettany].
Did Alan and Stephen [Cone] want to know about your own adolescent experience?
You’d think that would happen more often. I sent in a tape for Uncle Frank and after I sent in the tape was when Alan I Skyped together and got to chatting a bit about what it was like for me—the moments. So of course we got to that place of talking about my personal life and what’s important to me, but it was more about honoring the story and what’s important in the film because it’s such a pivotal moment for the character.
In those flashbacks, we witness the teenage trauma that’s left Frank emotionally paralyzed as an adult. I don’t know your personal experience—did that maybe open up some wounds?
Yeah. Listen—acting for me is like living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, right? Mine weren’t as traumatic as Frank’s and I was really lucky to have such a warm family who loved me unconditionally, but you have something instinctually as a person about shame and guilt that’s built into your DNA. So when you’re doing those takes over and over again, when you’re shaming someone else for the person that you are yourself in that scene, yeah, it’s exhausting. You leave the set that day with a headache and you just feel spent. It feels like you’ve been crying for hours, and I kind of did. You’re exerting so much. It’s hard to leave that behind. I can’t flip a switch for my own sanity as easily as I’d like to, I guess. [laughs]
Did you get the opportunity to work on the character together with Paul at all? Maybe you’re not afforded the time to do that.
We were definitely not afforded the time. I didn’t meet Paul until I got to set. But I’d seen his work. I think he’s an incredible actor—A Beautiful Mind—and I watched so many interviews. I was trying to maybe tap into how he carries himself physically more than try to copy any voice. It was more observational, in the space between his trailer to mine, seeing him walking around. I would try and see what kind of weight he carries and what that would look like for someone who hasn’t dealt with the hardships of growing up in the world and being a person in society who’s kind of lifted up a little bit. But it wasn’t extensive, and you’re right, time just wasn’t there on a small indie film like this. They shot it in something like 25 days they said.
Actors are probably the best voyeurs out there, apart from maybe mimes. That’s where you get all your material from.
I understand that on Henry Gamble, Stephen provided you with a playlist to help you get into that character. Did you use music to prep for Uncle Frank?
I did. But for Uncle Frank, it was less about accessing what I thought Frank would listen to and more about how I would need to enter into a scene because these are flashes of intense trauma, so I was trying to relate to and live in that. I was listening to a lot of Grouper. [laughs] I was trying to put myself in this ambient place where it felt like I was really accessible to reacting and tapping into that space.
I saw that YouTube clip of you singing “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. You have a great voice, Cole. You went into school as a musical theater major, is that right?
[laughs] That’s how I started. I think musical theatre is for a lot of people the first entry point into performance. It’s so accessible, and like I said, you grow up listening to these songs in the car. I fully fell in love with musical theatre early and I still love musical theatre so much, even though my focus isn’t there as much anymore. I was actually supposed to go see the revival of Company tonight with Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk, but they cancelled it because of coronavirus, which is such a bummer. But yeah, I love singing. I would love to use my singing voice in a movie. I would love to do a movie musical. There have been a few opportunities that have been floating around, but we’ll see.
Now with social distancing, how do you think that will affect your creativity? What do you look forward to doing with more alone time?
That’s a great question. As it already is for actors, when you’re working, you’re so busy that you feel disconnected from everyone around you except for the people you’re immediately working with, and when you’re not working, you have endless amount of time. You’re reading scripts. I read a lot in general. I also write. I’m working on this script with my best friend in L.A. and we’re trying to make it in the summer. It’s looking like it’s going to happen so I’m really excited about that. It’s a personal project. You can’t wait around for every amazing script or opportunity to be presented to you like Uncle Frank. I go to the gym. I like to run. I catch up with friends. I subscribed to the Criterion Channel four months ago and I’ve been working my way through as many films and directors as I can. I just watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
That movie has incredible cinematography.
It’s amazing. I also rewatched 45 Years by Andrew Haigh. It’s such a perfect movie, in my opinion. I’m a huge fan of his.
I’ve only watched Weekend.
Well, Weekend, of course. If you’re a gay man, you have to watch that movie. 45 Years is incredible. Charlotte Rampling gives a performance of a lifetime.
You said before you’d like to do a movie musical. What else do you dream for yourself in terms of the craft and your overall trajectory in film?
This is a complicated question, I guess. I don’t have famous parents. I don’t have rich parents. Really, to even be a working actor requires a certain saying yes to things that don’t always necessarily inspire my deepest creative impulses and truths. But I’m so grateful for every opportunity I get. If I’m looking at the big picture, I’d love to be in a position where I can afford myself to be more selective and pick projects based on the director or the script that I really want to work with. There are so many directors that I’m dying to work with. A dream career, if you put it like that, is really about collaboration. I would love to work with Andrew Haigh. I want to work with Mike Mills, Todd Haynes… I loved Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think she has a really exciting career already and also ahead of her.
I read this great interview with Kelly Reichardt recently where she talks about the prevalence of macho male characters in movies and a particular actor she worked with on one of her movies. To quote her directly, with macho behavior on set, it’s “really difficult to slog through.” Do you feel optimistic about where we’re headed in terms of inclusivity and representation in both film and filmmaking? What changes would you like to see?
First of all, I have to say that I just saw First Cow and I loved this movie. I’m a huge fan of Kelly Reichardt as well. She has a really beautiful hand. As for that question, listen—it’s something I come up against all the time. I think there’s a responsibility in storytelling, that we’re not painting this picture of a community with a gloss over it—a point of view that’s non-queer. When non-queer people make stories about queer people, it’s not authentic. Then what happens is that other people see that inauthentic representation of queerness and they go about their lives expecting that’s how queer people walk around the world and act. A lot of the times, that representation looks like a gay man who’s fit, white, and talks like a straight dude. I need to see gay voices on screen, other than as a bane of a joke. I audition for so much comedy because it seems like no one is capable of listening to someone who sounds gay fall in love or be a person outside of being the assistant. This is a tired thing that all of my gay actor friends and I talk about endlessly. It’s exhausting to talk about, and it’s not only about representation. When an actor playing this gay role falls in love with another man in a play or a movie, a young kid is seeing that representation. Nowadays, in the world we’re living in, that kid goes home, goes on his phone, goes to IMDB, and goes to YouTube and watches videos of that actor. The kid realizes that the actor is actually straight and has a girlfriend, and that kid is feeling like, “There’s not really a place for me in that because he’s play-acting.” But how amazing is it when these kids go see a movie with a gay love story let’s say, and he gets home and goes on that actor’s Instagram or YouTube and sees him living his truth? That kid will be like, “I can actually do that. That feels accessible to me. I can fall in love and be understood because it feels real.” It’s about authenticity. Yes, actors should be able to play whatever they want and I think that should be a standard, but when our culture is so intertwined with the Internet and just with where we’re at in the world, you have a social responsibility to acknowledge that kids are influenced. Kids see things. You have to make the world as inclusive as possible and that starts with conscious casting and conscious storytelling.
The beautiful thing is that you also write and you have the outlet to course-correct.
But that’s only if valid projects get produced and paid for and funded. People need to fund and pay queer filmmakers—queer filmmakers of color, specifically—to make sure that can actually happen. I can write as many scripts as I want, but if they’re not being made because it doesn’t fit into some formula of sales for people, then it’s never gonna happen.
I wasn’t implying, “You go fix it.” We all have to put in the work. It falls on everyone.
[laughs] Listen—I have so many amazing friends in the industry who are queer, LGBTQ+, and doing such amazing things. I watch all of them have this glo-up and it’s so exciting. There are even more voices that people don’t even know about yet. I feel so inspired by the people around me.