Palo Alto native James Franco first broke into the public consciousness playing Daniel Desario on the 1999-2000 NBC series Freaks and Geeks, now a cult fave. A year later, he played the title role in the TNT telefilm James Dean, and a year after that, he appeared in Spider-Man as Harry Osborn (two sequels would follow). In addition to two headline-grabbing "performance art" stints on General Hospital (playing "Franco"), Franco's other films include Milk, Pineapple Express, Eat Pray Love, City by the Sea, The Company, Sonny, Date Night, In the Valley of Elah, Flyboys, Annapolis, Tristan + Isolde, The Great Raid, Deuces Wild, and Never Been Kissed, among many others; later this year, he will appear in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, and next year he will star in Rise of the Apes. A notorious Renaissance man and ongoing graduate student, Franco has also directed four features, created the art for two gallery exhibits, and written a number of essays and a collection of short stories (Palo Alto). Franco's current gig is playing Allen Ginsberg in Howl, the closing night film of San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival. During his San Francisco press duties at the Galleria Park Hotel, Franco discussed his recent work and the development of his crafts.
Groucho: So I just got back from two weeks in New York.
James Franco: Oh yeah?
Groucho: And I was in JFK waiting for my flight home, and I was on my laptop, and I read about how your exhibit just opened this week.
James Franco: Mm-hm!
G: I was cursing.
JF: Oh ’cause you were there!
G: I was thinking, “Could I go past security, get back out and see it,” but…
JF: When you were at the airport, yeah, yeah.
G: Anyway, I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Of course, we’re going to get to Howl. But The Dangerous Book Four Boys.
G: The new art exhibit. From what I gather, it’s about the adolescent struggle for clarity of identity.
JF: I mean if you could—if you wanna put one message on the art show, I guess. But yeah, those were some of the themes, I guess.
G: Can you talk a little bit about the experience of putting together your first art show?
JF: Okay, yeah! It’s something that’s kind of been developing, I would say, for four or five years. My involvement with art has been—it started when I was a kid. And then I got more serious about it in high school. I’d go to a—at first, just to stay out of trouble—I’d go to this art league after school every day from three-thirty to ten. And do, life drawing and painting from models. And then I became obsessed. And that was what taught me how to throw myself into something. You know? Because I’d go every day for about six hours. And then—okay, so then this show—I went to UCLA as a literature major and then I left after a year. And then after eight years of acting, I went back to UCLA and finished and got my English degree. But at the same time, I was very interested in art and I was given the opportunity to work with the head of the graduate art program, which is one of the best art programs in the country. So I worked with Russell Ferguson, and I started developing and making these videos. And they were my first kind of “art videos.” And so at the time I wanted to make videos that got away from what I was doing as a professional actor. I didn’t want to be in them. I didn’t even really want much of a performance in them. I wanted non-narrative pieces. I just wanted to focus on a single event or action. And so a lot of them were like these explosions. I got the effects team from the Spider-Man films. So, like, the best in the business. But I was, you know, doing different things to these structures. These—
G: Like the rocketship one.
JF: Yeah. Where they turn out to be children’s structures. And mainly because of this—I was interested in the scale. So we started with store-bought, appropriate structures, but then we starting building our own that became, you know, like even better because they’re much—they’re more minimal and kind of got away from overt implications of, like, blowing up children. So I wanted the feeling of the danger, but without this literal reading every time. Like, “Oh! He’s blowing up children.” ’Cause it was more about the scale. And so I started with those, and so that was like four years ago, five years ago. And then, over the course of that time, you know, I’d get other projects to—collaborating with other artists that showed me how I could make these films that are very different than the commercial narrative films that I do, but how I could also include myself in them. And so that started a whole other series of videos and films that I started making. And then more than six months ago—I think it was like last October—I collaborated on this project with this artist named Carter. Oh! It wasn’t even last October. It was before that. But Carter: we’ve done a lot of projects together. We did one where it was like a photo essay for this magazine called VMan. But I made a movie from that photo shoot. And we were going to show the movie and the Polaroids that we shot for the launch of that issue. And we proposed to show it at the—to hold it at the Clocktower space. So that’s when I started talking to a lot of—we were going to do it on October 31, of last year. But things happened, because I was actually in California on Halloween, so we couldn’t do it. But that started a conversation with Alanna. So Alanna Heiss and I have been talking of the show since October. And it’s developing and we had all the videos, and then I had always planned to incorporate some of the things that were included in the videos in the show as sculpture. I had photographs of the things. So we had all these different aspects to it, and I felt like, together, they all kind of contributed. And so Alanna and I kind of worked out how they all would be displayed, and so that was like a six-month process.
G: Yeah. It’s interesting to me even the way you described that exhibit: sort of bringing together these different disciplines that you’ve worked on into one space.
G: It reminds me of how you have almost like a multimedia attack going on—
G: With what’s on your mind. Because certainly some of that exhibit deals with adolescence. Then you have a book coming out in October of short stories about, you know, the struggles of adolescence, sort of the volatile teenage years. And then you’re exploring—you’re going to be writing a children’s book, right...? So it seems like you have this fertile process going on, and then it’s about all these different vehicles you can use to explore it. Am I wrong?
JF: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think one of the big influences on that multimedia approach to that particular art show was very inspired by this retrospective of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work that I saw at MOCA a few years ago. And in that show—you know, he would document his work in all these different ways. So, you know, he’d manipulate different buildings like in real spaces. So he’d like cut a house in half. You know, like—whatever. But the way he documented it—like you could go out and see the actual house wherever it was, which I’m sure very few people did. And then he would photograph it, sometimes he’d film it, sometimes there’s, you know, pieces of the houses that they—sometimes there’s plans and drawings and all that. And so it’s just hard to pinpoint where exactly the heart of the art is. They all kind of contribute. And at the center it adds up to a greater concept. And so it’s like you can’t quite grasp the center, but all the different pieces, I think, are giving you—giving the shape and giving you the sense of it. And I like—I really love that. And so that was, I think, one of the main inspirations for this kind of multimedia thing.
G: Okay. So I’m going to segue into acting now. And again, I’m reminded of your essay on acting, and how the center that is the actor is the sort of mystery of the performance. It’s kind of giving you a sense of who the person is, and the stuff that’s around. There’s elements of the person in the role—in their expression of the role. Anyway—
JF: You disagree?
G: No! I don’t disagree at all. I very much agreed with that essay. In fact, I was in New York for a two-week intensive on commedia dell’arte, and—
JF: That’s why you were there?
G: Yeah. And I came back and I read your essay yesterday, and I was thinking about what you were saying about escape. How actors—one element of acting can be to want to kind of escape into a role.
G: And of course the mask in commedia is this freeing—
G: A liberating thing for—an escape for the actor into the role. Anyway. We should talk about Allen Ginsberg.
JF: Okay, sure.
G: This role required a real volume of words.
G: The poetry reading, the interview.
G: Did that come naturally to you, or was it sort of a new muscle, to work a little harder, rather.
JF: (Pause.) Yes and no. I’d never done a film performance that had required that of me. But I’ve done plenty of interviews, right?
G: Right, oh yeah.
JF: You know? I’m doing that now, so I know what it is to give an interview. And I know what it’s like to read poems aloud and prose aloud. I’ve done a fair amount in front of—for girlfriends and also in front of audiences. So I kind of had that experience. But the trick was then to do that and to say scripted lines, but to say—like in the interview scenes—to say those scripted lines as naturally as I, you know, I’m just saying this off the cuff.
JF: So—and sometimes that can look really bad. You know? Uh—
G: So you have to really trust your directors.
JF: I trust—I always trust my directors. I don’t decide to do a movie if I don’t I trust my directors. Or director. And so that’s actually—one thing that I knew—you know, Rob and Jeffrey hadn’t done a lot of, you know, fictional feature films before, or directed a lot of actors before, but one thing that I knew they knew how to do was film interviews.
G: Right. (Laughs.)
JF: They're the masters of that. But it was a lot—but I mean, you know—in the scene I’m giving an interview, but essentially learning it is like learning monologues, because I’m just giving these long answers, and then every once in a while the off-screen interviewer will say, “And tell me about this….” And then it’s like another monologue.
JF: So Jeffrey actually played the interviewer. So I was saying all of the monologue to him, but—so in a sense it’s like I was acting with him. (Pause.) But in another way, it kind of felt like I was acting by myself.
G: Yeah. A bit of a one-man show on your hands.
JF: Yeah. In a way. Which wasn’t bad, it was great. I mean, it was a different experience. It was great.
G: One thing that’s great about acting is that there’s a capacity with each role to learn something.
G: You know, it’s almost like being a journalist, I would think. Kind of. There’s this…
JF: Yeah. It is. Very much so. And I imagine, like, one of the things you must love about being a journalist is—at least if you’re getting to work on stories that you’re interested in—
JF: You get to go and learn about them.
JF: All the topics that you want to learn about. And you get to do research about it.
JF: And it’s the same thing as an actor, but here’s one of the things. Here’s one of the reasons that I went back to school is when I was only an actor, I’d put tons of work into the roles. Sometimes I’d sign to a movie eight months in advance or more. Sometimes nine—ten months in advance. I would prepare every day for ten months for a role. Now the problem with that is there’s only so much that a film role can express. A film role is never going to be able to utilize every bit of research that you do. Not that a story could either, but as a journalist—I mean, there’s different cases always, but in, I guess, the ideal case, you get to choose the arc of the story, what you’re going to include, what you’re going to focus on, how you’re going to shape it. As an actor, you’re serving a bigger film, and so there might be like a really juicy bit of research that you found or something that you practiced that you’re really good at, so you can like jump off—ride on a horse like standing up while it’s galloping or something.
JF: But there’s no place in the movie for that!
G: (Laughs.) Yeah.
JF: It’s not gonna happen. So I would do all this research, and then it felt to me like eighty percent of it was always just ending up (whispers:) nowhere. Nowhere.
G: But the process of a role also changes you as a person, right? I mean—
JF: It would change me, certainly, but I also felt like—
G: Hopefully in a good way.
JF: I would do all that research and then I’d see someone else, like, come on like a few days before and they’d get the same kind of reviews that I got.
JF: And you’re like, how does that work? You know what I mean? You just feel—I felt like—not that I don’t work. I work very hard on the roles now, but I’m very clear about the kind of preparation I do. I wanna do what’s necessary, so like with Ginsberg, I’ve studied his whole life, but I knew that it was his life up to a certain age so that’s what I’m going to focus on. I’m not gonna, like, worry so much about what he was thinking about when he was seventy.
G: I have to wrap it up, unfortunately—the time goes so quickly, but maybe just very quickly you could comment on the—you know, Rob and Jeffrey described Howl, in one aspect, as being the first public coming-out manifesto.
G: And I asked them just to say something about what it takes for somebody to come out in the public eye. ’Cause it’s so brave of him in 1955, you know, to do that. And, you know, so much has changed for the better, but still there’s so much pressure on people—society’s still repressive, you know? So what do you think it takes for someone to do that? Having played Ginsberg and going through that process of discovery to do that.
JF: (Pause.) Hm. (Laughs.) I mean, I know what—you’re using Ginsberg as a leaping-off place. I mean, it was very hard for him and very brave of him to do—to write this poem, I think. Especially because people were still being—getting shock therapy for this kind of—for being gay.
JF: (Pause.) And especially because he was expelled from Columbia for being gay.
JF: Um. (Pause.) So, I think, yeah. It’s one of the first coming-out manifestos, you can call it that. But here’s the other thing is— (Long pause.) There is—as far as we’ve come (pause) it’s like the press is still so hetero-normative. It’s like, if anybody—any straight actor—plays a gay role or any gay actor plays a straight role it’s—that’s the issue! That’s what they talk—that’s what they talk about! Straight magazines and gay magazines talk about that! And if somebody came out, both the straight press and the gay press would talk about it, as if it’s like this real big thing. And so it’s like—(Long pause.) I mean, I imagine it’s a big, you know—I mean there have been a lot of movies about it, you know. It’s a big moment in one’s life to come out, but in the public eye it’s something else.
JF: You know what I mean? Everybody’s going to talk about it in a certain way, and so it’s like—(Long pause.) And it becomes a weird thing. Like you have to, I imagine you would like have to answer for it and keep talking about it. You know what I mean?
JF: And it becomes part of your identity and, you know, and where (long pause) just being a straight actor isn’t necessarily something that you would talk about all the time.
G: Right, right.
JF: You know what I mean?
G: Yeah, yeah.
JF: So, I don’t know. It’s tricky.
G: It is what it is.
G: Thank you so much. They’re going to kill me, we’re going overtime here, so it was wonderful to talk to you.