James Franco’s mood can shift from wary to jokey in a heartbeat. This I find particularly charming. As well as his faded grey and white check shirt, distinctive cheekbones and eyes that dart. On film, his latest roles highlight this versatility — he can be seen this month in both Spring Breakers and Oz the Great and Powerful. He has an incredible nine movies in development as an actor or producer. He is also a multimedia artist, a Playboy columnist and an author. He has become an eternal student studying for his PhD at Yale while also a teacher to students at NYU and UCLA.
On film he was Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk and Peter Parker’s ex-best friend in Spider-Man, as well as the confessional poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl. He is perhaps best known, though, for Danny Boyle’s 2010 film 127 Hours, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He played the climber Aron Ralston, who was trapped in a canyon in Utah, and cut off his own arm to survive. Between takes Franco (who is just as method as Daniel Day-Lewis) elected to stay trapped, nose in a book, rather than get out from his claustrophobic hole.
He takes his literary side extremely seriously. His 2011 collection of short stories, Palo Alto, was praised by critics. The book was set in the town where he grew up with his maths teacher father and poet/writer mother. He asked her not to read it. It referenced his teenage years where he got into trouble for drinking, shoplifting and graffiti-ing. He said at the time, ‘I think I was running. I didn’t know how to focus my energy because I was scared of failure.’ Perhaps that is where his tumultuous drive originates. He is still determined not to fail.
Franco talks very energetically, very enthusiastically. He doesn’t come over as a person who lives on catnaps. But how does he fit it all in, the teaching, the writing, the acting, the preparation. Does he sleep? ‘I sleep on airplanes a lot. I do sleep at night. I do a lot of things but I collaborate with a lot of people so I’m able to work on one project while another is being developed. I never do nothing. People always ask me do I relax? I guess that means sitting on a beach and reading a book or watching television. I do all of that. I don’t know what nothing is. If it means going to a bar and just getting drunk I don’t want to do that… when I’m working I’m happy and I don’t really need a break in the same way that somebody who hates his job might. I work with all my friends and people I love so work is also my social life.’
He excels at performing delinquency, hurt, rejection and heart. His portrayal of James Dean in a 2001 biopic won him a Golden Globe and put him on the map though not necessarily for the kind of work he wanted. He called a halt on what he has since termed his ‘young leading man in bad movies phase’ when he enrolled in UCLA in 2006. He’d always regretted dropping out of college to go to acting school, paid for by a job at McDonald’s.
In Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers he plays Alien, a sometimes sweet, sometimes crazy gangsta rapper. Korine, whose credits include the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, is an agent provocateur director. It shows the mythic dimensions of the traditional American college spring break — boobs jiggling, beer swilling, cocaine sniffing. It’s all shot in anamorphic widescreen and burns and dazes with its fluorescent colours. Alien is as far away as Franco can get from academia and his previous career as a matinee idol: with a mouthful of silver teeth and crazy cornrows, he is wild and abandoned.
Did he draw any of those qualities from his Palo Alto teenage years? ‘Alien came from a lot of different sources. As an actor I look for things I can relate to, so yes I’ve been to parties and I understand that in a liberated state people just let loose. That’s one of the reasons people go. I can relate to Alien in that he’s a teacher, a mentor, albeit a very dark one. He’s a mentor in the ways of the underworld. I am a teacher and I teach students the same ages as the characters in the movie but I try to teach them things other than how to be criminals.’
He once told me that he used to feel like an outsider when he was growing up. ‘In high school they don’t pay attention to the arts, so if you’re interested in those things you do feel an outsider.’ Perhaps that’s why he now likes to surround himself with like-minded people. His production company is called Rabbit Bandini after a struggling would-be writer in John Fante’s novels. It’s as if he sees himself as a person who is still struggling.
He has had a history of playing gay men, which has caused lots of gossip. As well as Ginsberg there was Hart Crane in The Broken Tower. What is that attracts him or fascinates him?
Long pause. ‘There are some coincidences and some deliberateness to those choices. I think as a creative person there are many things that I am attracted to. I like artistic characters, creative characters. So a lot of people whose work I am attracted to happen to be gay.
‘Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane were both gay. It doesn’t mean I enjoy their poetry any more or any less because they are gay. It was incidental for my love of those two characters. But in addition to that I’m also an artist who is attracted to things that are anti-normative, that are against the flow, or are projects for people who create fissures in our accepted way of life, so I think there are sometimes gay scenes, or perhaps you’d call it queer scenes, that are a good way to step outside of normative ways of life and ask the kind of questions I want to ask.’
Recently he has co-directed a short movie called Interior. Leather Bar. where he plays the leading character called James. It has been called a cruising movie, an exploration of sexual freedom. What is fascinating is the way he juxtaposes the overly gay with the over-the-top heterosexual — as well as Alien later this year he will be seen in Lovelace as Hugh Hefner, the ultimate heterosexual playboy.
Is it his intention to express extremes? ‘I have a lot of different interests and there are a lot of different sides to me and sometimes different sides come out at once.’ He says this shyly, but he is right. It is as if he is constantly looking at himself in a fairground mirror, each time finding a new side, a new route to becoming a potentially great artist, and certainly a prolific one.
Photo: Contour by Getty Images