Interview: James Franco

Longer stuff
September 26, 2013

James Franco is debating the merits of eternal life. You can see his mind working, as if he’s trying to solve a complex mathematical equation. His eyes narrow and he starts to speak, pauses and sighs.

He looks frustrated, as if the right combination of words is purposefully eluding him, or the labyrinthine possibilities of such a choice are too multitudinous to fathom. When it eventually comes, his answer seems to take him by surprise. The words tumble out, like they might turn to smoke on his tongue if he doesn’t say them quickly enough.

“There are a lot of different books and movies that have shown there are upsides and downsides to that – one of the things that gives life value is its time limit. The reason we cherish every moment is that we have a limited amount. But…” He trails off, again. Then, decisively: “I guess if it’s just a frivolous question I’d say ‘no’. But if it’s a serious question then you need to ask what learning means. One of the great joys in my life is learning. If you live forever, you can learn everything. Would you continue to enjoy that? And what does marriage mean? Does that mean you have to stay with that person forever? If you’re a vampire and you’re dating someone who’s not a vampire then do you have to lose them? There’s a whole host of things that are opened up…”

Nobody can accuse James Franco of not taking things seriously.

His CV is, frankly, ludicrous. The former tween heartthrob teaches at least three university classes – graduate film at the University of Southern California, writing at UCLA and performance and art at CalArts. He was famously (or perhaps infamously) enrolled in four masters programs at once, and he’s now, among other things, a PhD student at Yale. He’s a published novelist, short story writer and poet. All this while being a Hollywood A-lister, starring in blockbusters including Spider-Man and Milk (when he was filming Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours he’d fly from LA to New York and back to attend classes on his day off).

And then there’s his art… Memorable pieces include an absurdist performance video in which he ran through Paris with a floppy prosthesis attached to his face, and an installation based on Hitchcock’s Psycho, which includes images of himself playing the blonde lead in the famous shower scene. He has catholic tastes.

There are certain venues that seem appropriate to interview this enfant terrible who straddles the worlds of culture and counter-culture like an intellectual James Dean; a niche gallery in New York’s Meatpacking district, perhaps, or a dive bar in downtown LA. But we meet at a corporate event for the launch of a new BMW (and why shouldn’t brand representation be part of his extended repertoire? He’s probably also a master jet-skier and a superb horse whisperer).

He’s only in London for the day and he looks knackered. This, apparently, is par for the course. He’s not big on sleep. A colleague who worked on a project with Franco described him tapping away all night on his laptop, eventually running out of steam and slumping over his keyboard, then springing up an hour later to continue the process.

James Franco knackered is still several notches above you or I on a good day. He’s boyish for his 35 years; only the creases around his eyes when he smiles betray his age. At five foot nine, he’s smaller than you’d expect, with little sign of the bulk he gained to play corn-rowed gangster Alien in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers; if it’s still there, his neat Gucci suit (another of the brands he fronts), hides it.

He does, though, have massive hands, which constantly vie for your attention; they run through his hair, meddle with his cuffs, clasp and unfurl, fan and wave. They’re at odds with their owner, who sits hunched, rarely making eye contact, scanning the floor like he’s on the look out for a stray mouse.

His voice is slightly higher than you’re used to hearing on screen, with a nasally, California twang. If he doesn’t like a question, he’ll answer in a strained monotone, as though the very act of putting words in a coherent order is a Sisyphean task that James Franco just does not have time to deal with. And then, just like that, he’ll rumble into life, riffing on art and the nature of celebrity, leaning forward and fixing me with the rogueish smile that earned him a place on the bedroom walls of teenage girls across the world in the early 2000s.

Franco could quite easily have milked that cash-cow to death, starring in drab rom-coms and whiling away his days in the VIP areas of LA nightclubs. Instead, he became James Franco, the most eccentric, inscrutable actor of his generation.

There has, inevitably, been a backlash. His taciturn performance presenting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway was widely panned, while the critical reception to his art, and his place in the wider art world, has been mixed. Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, enthuses about him: “One of the biggest things happening in the art world is this idea of expansion. No one embodies this aspect of what art is becoming better than James Franco.” Not everyone agrees: an NYU faculty member is said to have walked out of a screening of his performance art, muttering expletives as he went.

His critics insinuate Franco’s genre-hopping work is a stunt, that the oddball renaissance man schtick is a carefully constructed identity. Is it?

“I don’t do all the things I do to create an image,” he says, fingers splaying in outrage. “I do them because they are projects I believe in – what’s made of that is out of my control. In contemporary art, it’s accepted that artists can practice many different things in many different mediums. The problem that actors face comes through celebrity – if you are famous, you have opportunities to do many things: publish a book, say, or make music, and to have people pay for it because you have that visibility. People are rightly sceptical because this doesn’t necessarily mean they are published because of their quality.

“I have done everything in my power to be the best that I can be at everything I do; I’ve been to all the schools I can. I don’t do things as a stunt, I do them because I believe different subjects are best expressed in different mediums, so I get more energy out of working in these different fields. If you have a piece of music that’s best played on drums then figure out a way to play it on drums. If it’s best classical, then figure out how to play it classically.”

So the problem lies in his critics failing to disentwine his art from his celebrity?

“Sometimes I feel my projects are not fully understood, so if something isn’t received with absolute acclaim, I don’t worry about it. The issue is that I’m doing different kinds of work in different spheres… Someone who knows a lot about my film work might look at something I do in other spheres as frivolous or silly, but when shown in the right context, people can see greater depth.”

So who is it for? Is he making art for art’s sake, or to create a legacy – some lasting body of work that future generations will identify with? “I feel there will eventually be an audience… In that sense I guess I make [art] for future viewers. In time, the lens [of celebrity] people are looking through will go away. I’ll grow older, I’ll be a different person and my hope is that people will just be able to look at the work at that point.”

The cynic in me thinks this is an easy enough problem to solve: he’s rich enough to fund his art and put it out under a pseudonym. But that’s not the Franco way. He plays on his public persona, and the inherent ridiculousness of celebrity, incorporating it into his work. In the film This is the End he plays a sycophantic, self-obsessed version of himself who paints tributes to his co-star and director Seth Rogan (“It was easy because they know my personality and which sides of it are good to roast, just like they know which sides of themselves are good to roast”). He also played an artist called Franco in schlocky daytime soap opera General Hospital (the equivalent of George Clooney starring in Neighbours), culminating in an episode being filmed in – of course – an art gallery.

“My character was named Franco but he was very extreme – an artist-slash-murderer, so it had very little to do with me. But because he was named Franco it added a new dimension – it complicated it, so on one level it’s just a character, and on another it made people identify him with me.”

The perception of Franco as something of a narcissist wasn’t helped when Danny Boyle claimed the actor had a habit of referring to himself in the third person on the set of 127 Hours.

“What Danny Boyle said wasn’t completely true,” says Franco. “But I do see film as a directors’ medium and that I’m there to serve the director’s vision. In that sense I think of myself as a tool – I want to align myself with the director’s vision, so I’m helping tell the story he or she wants.”

Whatever his technique, it works: it’s no exaggeration to say he’s among the most talented actors of his generation. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 127 Hours and there is an internet campaign to bag him another for his brilliantly overwrought portrayal of Spring Breakers’ drug dealing Alien. His latest movie, Palo Alto, which is based on a collection of his own short stories but directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter Gia, has also received tentatively good reviews after premiering at Toronto this month. Even his flops – such as Oz the Great and Powerful – tend to be gloriously messy affairs.

So, James Franco, put your money where your mouth is – if you could only keep one discipline: film, art or writing, which would it be?

Long pause. Sigh.

“The most enjoyable thing to do is directing – you have all the people you love around you, collaborating with you, and artistic collaboration is one of the most intense interactions you can have with another person. Directing incorporates all the different art forms – writing, photography, performance. Everything.”

He’s pretty good at it, too. Earlier this month his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God debuted at the Venice Film Festival, to some critical acclaim. He says he’s “very proud” of the movie, which follows a man living a feral existence away from society who finds the corpse of a woman in a car and makes it his bride.

“It’s a portrait of someone who’s incapable of interacting with others and having relationships with others, and a portrait of extreme isolation. I just felt the urge, like most directors who find something that really moves them, I got the tingle and I wanted to make it.”

Child of God is part of a distinctly literary phase in Franco’s film career, following his Cannes-debuted Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying, which he directed, starred in and wrote the screenplay for. He had previously been linked with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, his favourite book, which would have been an altogether more difficult novel to film but a fascinating prospect nonetheless. Like everything Franco’s involved with, his take on it may not have been great but it would certainly have been interesting.

As we’re finishing up, his minder gives his hair a cursory flick so our photographer can take his portrait (vanity doesn’t seem to be one of his vices). He looks like he’s about to fall asleep. “You look tired,” I tell him. “Naaaa, not me,” he says. “I’m just a very relaxed person.” I don’t believe it for a second.

First published in City A.M.