When Peter Macdissi first began going on auditions, there weren’t many roles for a young man from the Middle East.
“It’s getting better,” the 46-year-old Lebanese actor and producer tells Variety. “On TV, there are some things right now, and it’s really getting better. When I first started in my twenties or early thirties, oh my God, there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing. Right now, it’s amazing with Amazon and Netflix and all of it. You have a wide range and that’s very good. I enjoy the fact that we have a lot of things from different parts of the world and different kinds of people. I would just get bored watching white people all the time…It’s very constricting and it’s very unimaginative.”
Today, Macdissi is co-starring in and producing “Uncle Frank,” an indie drama about Frank, a gay English professor (played by Paul Bettany) in 1970s New York City who returns to his childhood home in the south when his father dies. The trip forces him to confront past traumas and his decision to keep his sexuality a secret from his family. Macdissi plays Wally, his Muslim lover from Saudi Arabia who convinces Frank to let him come home with him.
Written and directed by Macdissi’s partner Alan Ball, “Uncle Frank” premieres on Amazon on Nov. 25. The story is inspired by the time Ball’s mother revealed to him that his father may have been gay. While on set for the film, Macdissi said that it was sometimes a struggle to balance his two roles as an actor and producer.
“I like both acting and producing the same,” Macdissi said. “I think my controlling nature is taken care of by producing. I like being in control, making the right decisions, but the hardest part is navigating while I’m on set as an actor to be with my fellow actors and not be the producer. It should be a clean relationship actor to actor, as opposed to, ‘Oh, this is the producer who is acting.’ That’s just not good for the dynamics between actors on set. Acting is my passion. It’s something that I need to do. It’s just something that is super fulfilling for me.”
Macdissi laughs when he says his work as the overly optimistic and faithful Wally was inspired by his dog. “My poodle is always there for me,” he said. “He’s ready to please me whenever I want.”
As for the casting of Bettany, Macdissi insists he wasn’t familiar with his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Vision. “Paul seemed the right choice for me personally because first of all, he’s an actor and he’s not bigger than the role,” he said. “It’s like if you get Jim Carrey, for example, it becomes about Jim Carrey, not about Frank.”
Asked about people who feel gay actors should play gay roles, Macdissi said casting shouldn’t be about someone’s sexuality. “I think it’s a bit opaque and uninspiring and not thinking outside the box, in my opinion,” he said.
Though they have worked together on four past productions, while shooting “Uncle Frank” in Wilmington, N.C., Macdissi and Ball lived in separate apartments. “We were on opposite sides of town because we just could not deal with it,” Macdissi said. “I had to have my own space and he had to have his own space. And he does not like to talk about work. Over the weekend, I would go over to his place and say, ‘So in regards to the scene or whatever’ and he just did not want to deal with it anymore. But for me, it’s always on my mind 24/7. I’m just obsessed with the whole project that it just consumes me. It’s hard to separate me from the part or the project once we’re in it. It’s very hard.”
Also difficult was getting “Uncle Frank” made. Macdissi said they were repeatedly turned down by studios because they were told the movie wouldn’t make money or that the market didn’t need another gay indie. “We chipped in some of our own money,” he said. “It was a real passion project of love.”