James Franco (April 14, 2013)
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.
He has flown into Los Angeles for the day to talk about his latest movies, Harmony Karin’s Spring Breakers. It is just one of many projects. He has an incredible nine movies in development as an actor or producer. He is also a multimedia artist, a soap star, a Playboy columnist and an author. He has become an eternal student studying for his PhD at Yale while also a teacher to film students at UCLA.
He takes his literary side extremely seriously. His 2011 collection of short stories, Palo Alto, was praised by critics. Palo Alto is 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. He excels at performing delinquency and hurt.
His portrayal of James Dean in a 2001 biopic won him a Golden Globe. He seems to enjoy throwing himself entirely into a character.
He ended what he called 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.
It is quite mesmerising the amount and variation in his work. He was Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk and Peter Parker’s ex-best friend in Spider-Man. Weirdly he played a character called Franco in US daytime soap General Hospital. He was a charming and menacing multimedia artist. He then wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the aesthetic legitimacy of soaps and coordinated a video installation at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles in which Franco examined the implications of Franco playing Franco.
In Spring Breakers he plays Alien, a sometime sweet, sometimes crazy gangster rapper. He is unrecognizable with multiple cornrows and a mouthful of silver teeth. His co-star in the movie, Vanessa Hudgens, told me, ‘I have no idea who James Franco is. I know who Alien is. I don’t know what James Franco is all about as a human being.’
Franco is as method as Daniel Day Lewis. For City By The Sea he played a homeless person. He hung around junkies and street people, poured beer on himself and ‘really stank’ so homeless people would recognise him as homeless.
He hung around with real-life male hookers in New Orleans and paid them by the hour to listen to their stories when he played in Sonny, about a man who was brought up into prostitution by his mother.
He obtained a real pilots licence for his role in Second World Drama flyboys. He spent eight months learning horse riding tricks – somersaulting and leaping from one hors to another in Tristan and Isolde only to find his big battle scene had been cut.
In the US Spring Breakers got an R-certificate, not the dreaded NC-17. You wonder about this because I’ve never seen so many breasts on screen since the ill-fated Showgirls.
Korine, whose credits include the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, is an agent provocateur director. It shows the mythic dimensions of a spring break – boobs jiggling, beer swilling, cocaine sniffing. It’s all shot in anamorphic widescreen and burns and dazes with its fluorescent colours. The character Alien is as far away as Franco can get from academia and his previous career as a matinee idol.
I ask Korine was he surprised at his R rating? There was a sharp intake of breath where he says, ‘Let’s just say it’s very good. It’s actually a secret morality tale.’
Harmony Korine lives in Nashville where he paints until one of the images he creates inspires a movie. He is twelve years sober with a new wife and baby. Of his previous existence he says, ‘I was out of it. Debased. I got to the point where I just decided I’m going to try this other thing,’ he says by way of explaining a movie that’s fuelled with sex and drugs and girls in bikinis and ski masks.
Did Franco draw on any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? ‘He came from a lot of different sources. Harmony (Korine) and I started talking about this movie a year and a half before we shot it. We talked about the character before there was even a script.
‘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 big reasons people go. It’s an environment where you don’t have rules, so you don’t have to take on the same persona. It’s a phenomenon that’s been going on forever. Even in the past where they had maypole fairs and carnivals.
‘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 other things other than how to be criminals.’
It is an impactful movie. Clever. At times you feel like you are drowning in mammary flesh. It’s a non-stop party where lines of cocaine are sniffed from buttocks. Alien, with his braces on his teeth, his crazy cornrow braids is wild and abandoned.
Did he draw any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? He 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. I’m in a fortunate position where my work is the same thing as my passions. So 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.’
His production company is called Rabbit Bandini after the struggling would-be writer in the John Fante novels. It’s as if he sees himself as a person who is still struggling.
He once told me that he used to feel 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. When you surround with people who care about the things you do it’s incredibly invigorating.’ Perhaps that’s why he now likes to surround himself with like-minded people.
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 – Alien with his love of threeways and he is upcoming as Hugh Hefner, the ultimate heterosexual playboy.
Is it 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.’
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.