Earlier in the day, at a press conference, Franco had looked by turns bored (head slumped against microphone, yawning frequently) and amused – teasing his young co-star, 13-year-old Joey King. “I changed your life, didn’t I?” he urges her to tell reporters.
Perhaps best known for playing Peter Parker’s friend in Spider-Man, Franco first rose to fame with the cult television series Freaks and Geeks. In the past few years, he has had several leading roles, most notably in the survival drama 127 Hours, for which he received an Oscar nomination. But he is now almost as well known for his extraordinary attempts to unshackle himself from a regular Hollywood career. The attempts range from the relatively ordinary – painting, writing poetry and short stories – to the bizarre: running through the streets of Paris with a prosthetic penis attached to his nose for a video he entitled Dicknose in Paris; deconstructing himself by appearing as Franco, a mysterious multimedia artist, in 54 episodes of the afternoon soap General Hospital, and subsequently turning the experience into a video installation which examined what it meant to be Franco playing Franco.
Playing the fraudulent wizard with humour and panache in Oz, Franco says he identified with Diggs’s journey through life. “He dreams about becoming great, becoming recognised, and when I was younger those were things I dreamed about too.” Growing up in Palo Alto, California, Franco started acting in high school and after a year in college dropped out to take acting lessons instead. “My parents weren’t happy; they wouldn’t pay my rent any more so I worked at McDonald’s.”
Disney's "OZ: The Great and Powerful" Credit: Disney Enterprises
The actor is the eldest of three brothers. His late father was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur while his mother Betsy is a poet, author and editor. When his acting career first took off, it seemed he was achieving his dream. “But after 16 years in the business, I’ve come to understand success in a different way,” says Franco today. “I think I have had a change of heart and changed the way I do things, just like Oz does.”
He explains that he used to be difficult to work with. “Because acting was my only professional outlet, I put a ton of pressure on the roles that I did. I overstepped my bounds, I tried to control things that were out of my purview as an actor and in some cases even tried to direct my scenes because I felt I knew how they should run rather than trust the director.”
The only way he could stop this behaviour, he says, was by finding other outlets: “On the outside it seemed like I had a good life. But I wasn’t happy with who I was. Part of that was because of my on-set behaviour: making movies started to be very unpleasant both for me and the people I worked with. So I went back to school and it opened up all these other outlets.” Is he happier now? “Ohhh,” he says throwing his head back, “incredibly. A million times more.” As a director himself now, he avoids casting opinionated young men. “I don’t cast somebody that I think is like my younger self,” he laughs.
Franco took four master’s degrees concurrently, published half a dozen books and worked as an artist, exhibiting in museums and galleries. He wrote and directed many conceptual-art features and short films as well as advertisements and a music video. In 2008 he became the new face of the Gucci men’s fragrance line. The acting continued: now 34, he has some 60 movies under his belt. And he teaches, too: “I am teaching six classes in all different kinds of disciplines, on both coasts,” he wrote recently in his regular Huffington Post blog, of the courses he teaches in film-making and poetry in New York and Los Angeles.
Cultivating the enigma of Franco is a full-time job in itself. Is he clever or crazy? An idiot or genius? Serious or having a laugh? Straight or gay? This last question is the first one most people ask. He has played several gay roles convincingly – Sean Penn’s lover in Milk, Allen Ginsberg in Howl – and recently premiered Interior. Leather Bar, a pseudo-documentary about the Eighties homoerotic thriller Cruising. He has appeared in drag, most famously in his disastrous presenting of the Oscars two years ago, when he dressed as Marilyn Monroe and stiltingly co-hosted the event with Anne Hathaway. A recent art show called Gay Town in Berlin was billed as “very autobiographical”.
Hathaway and Franco presenting The Oscars, 2011 Credit: Getty Images
During the earlier press conference, a male journalist asks Franco whether he would ever get married. Franco looks at him as though he doesn’t even understand the word. His co-star Mila Kunis, sitting next to him, bats him impatiently on the arm: “Married. Do you want to get married?” “Oh,” says Franco, looking stunned. “Errr, yeah, I mean I have a great family, we were raised very well, I love children, I teach now, my students are older but I love that kind of relationship – passing on experience or knowledge, I find that very satisfying.” There is a pregnant pause – everyone is waiting for more. Franco sighs: “So at some point, I’d love it. I’m not fighting it. But I don’t know.”
Franco, who broke up with his long-term girlfriend actress Ahna O’Reilly in 2011 (but has cast her in his forthcoming movie, As I Lay Dying, an ambitious adaptation of the William Faulkner novel), tells me later: “One of the things that’s discussed often is my sexuality and by calling the [Berlin art] show Gay Town, it’s just addressing the fact that these are self-portraits of the public version of myself. I really don’t care: that discussion about my sexuality doesn’t interest me or concern me in the slightest but it is a big part of my public persona.”
"Gay Town" Installation for Peres Projects, Berlin, 2013 Credit: Peres Projects
He is very taken with this theme of the public persona, suggesting perhaps that there is something very different beneath it all. Or maybe nothing. What is not in dispute is his extraordinary work ethic. Even his younger brother Dave, also an actor, seems as mystified by him as the rest of us. “When was the last time you weren’t working on something, just sitting around doing nothing?” he asks Franco in a 2011 video recorded during an Esquire photo shoot. “What does that mean?” asks Franco in bemusement. “Going somewhere just to relax, hang out…” explains Dave. Franco laughs: “I don’t know what that means.”
Dave describes Franco’s inability to switch off. “You said you never like going to bed because it was like admitting failure so you always pass out when you physically cannot stay awake another moment.” A few years ago a photograph circulated of Franco fast asleep during a lecture. The anti-Francoists leapt on it as proof that his frenetic hyper-studying was really just a pose. Franco later explained that it was an after-hours seminar independent of his course work.
One story about Franco stands out above all the rest. When filming 127 Hours, he spent six days a week, 12 hours a day, for five weeks, in a gully in Utah, re-enacting the ordeal suffered by hiker Aron Ralston, who trapped his arm after a fall and only freed himself by sawing it off with a blunt knife. Naturally, Franco did not saw off his own arm, but he did suffer real pain and severe bruising during filming. Even between takes, he insisted on staying in the gully, reading Proust and academic textbooks to pass the time.
James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours Credit: Opulence Studios
But what is most remarkable is what he did on the seventh day, his one day off. Clambering out of the gully, he would drive 250 miles to the airport and fly across country to New York, changing planes in Los Angeles, to attend a fiction-writing class at Columbia University. At the end of class he would fly back to Los Angeles, catnap in the terminal from 1am to 5.30am, then fly to Utah and drive 250 miles to arrive back on set in time to drop down the gully and jam his arm back under a boulder.
“I knew that if I wanted to go back to school I was going to have to fight for it,” Franco tells me. “Nobody in my life was very excited about the idea [of me studying] because it meant doing crazy things like that. But if you want to do anything in life, any creative endeavour, you have to carve out the time and the energy to do it.”
Carving out time is a battle Franco wages daily, multitasking, filling every moment with something meaningful. He never takes time off. “My job is what I love. I don’t need an escape from it.”
As I watch Franco during the day, I notice he hardly ever walks anywhere. He runs to the bathroom, literally. “Where’s Franco?” is the refrain muttered into walkie talkies by Disney officials throughout the day. The ubiquitous Franco often proves strangely elusive.
Now, sitting here in front of me in a white T-shirt, brown suede jacket, worn-out jeans and black cracked leather boots, he isn’t still for a second. As he talks – in a loud booming voice which carries down the hotel corridors – he hunches over the table with a pen, scribbling on a yellow Post-it notepad which is stained with a blotch of coffee that has sunk through to the bottom page. He rapidly draws a distorted frame around each mark, arrows turning, weird figures dancing, then rips the note off and places it to one side. A tottering edifice of weird scrawls starts building up. I catch sight of one note. At the top it reads “Krust”.
Does this mean anything? With Franco, it’s hard to tell. He rarely does anything meaningless, at least not to him. I ask him. “Oh, sorry,” he says, as though he has only just noticed the pen in his hand. “They’re just doodles.”
His friend, the comic actor Seth Rogen, who starred with Franco in Freaks and Geeks, said recently that Franco had mellowed a lot. “Right,” says Franco, when I ask him if this is true. “Seth taught me one of those big lessons – he said ‘I will never act in a movie that I wouldn’t go see if I wasn’t in it’. It was a very simple principle, but it was something that I didn’t follow early in my career.”
After early impressive roles – notable was his portrayal of James Dean in a television film that won him a Golden Globe — he took on a series of duds. “The movies weren’t inherently bad,” he says. “It’s just that I wasn’t working with people who were in line with me creatively… I thought I needed to do those kinds of roles to have a career.”
In fact, some of the movies were inherently bad – among them Sonny, a 2002 movie panned by critics, in which he plays a male prostitute; Camille (2007), an idiotic “dramedy” with Sienna Miller. Even Tristan & Isolde (2006) – Franco spent months perfecting his skills as a horseman and swordsman, only to see most of those scenes cut – was dismissed as lacklustre.
Today, it’s clear he sees himself as a modern incarnation of the Renaissance Man. “It’s not new at all that term, the Renaissance Man. It’s something in the art world that’s very accepted, you see contemporary artists working in all kinds of mediums: sculpture, video, painting, performance. But I guess because I come from the commercial film world or maybe popular culture, when I do it, it is baffling to people.”
His output veers between ridiculous stunts and hit-or-miss attempts at serious literature/art. He was widely ridiculed for a poem he wrote to celebrate Obama’s second inauguration, not least because the poem was more about himself than Obama. “I might have to stumble a little bit more in public than others,” says Franco of the criticism, “but that’s fine, I don’t mind, I’ve developed a thick skin. I’m not afraid of embarrassment any more.”
Much of what Franco does is dismissed as pretentious. Does he care? “If I care, what should I do? Stop? Just because a critic thinks I shouldn’t be dabbling in an area when in fact I’ve done all the work that any established artist or novelist has done? To me that’s a coward’s way out.”
Stirring the mushroom noodle soup which his assistant has just put in front of him, he talks about the “culture of hate and snarkiness” on the internet. Yet, just before meeting him, I had watched a spoof video that Franco put out recently, a cruel but funny parody of Justin Bieber’s hit song Boyfriend, in which Franco writhes around with the actress Ashley Benson, his co-star in the thriller Spring Breakers. Bieber reportedly wasn’t happy. Isn’t Franco being a bit hypocritical?
“To me that wasn’t a criticism of Bieber as such, it was just having fun and reflecting a bit of pop culture. The thing is, when I do something like that, the response is very positive, people say ‘He did Bieber, that’s genius’, but if I do something that has the slightest bit of pretension or inclination towards something deeper, people just go crazy. It drives them cr-aaaaaaaa-zy that an actor would dare write a poem or a book or make a piece of art.”
Does he mind people thinking that he is crazy? He frowns, looking genuinely puzzled. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. It comes from people who aren’t taking the time to look at what I’m doing – which is fine – but to me it’s a surface response from the sort of person who isn’t going to try to understand anything.”
The teaching, he says, is what fulfils him the most. “It allows me to take my focus off of myself,” he says. Although I wonder. I find out later that the young female videographers present at the beginning of the interview are actually Franco’s students, who have turned out on a sunny Sunday afternoon to film their teacher. I wonder whose idea that was? I would hazard a guess that the focal point of their weekend homework assignment is none other than the great man himself. Essays due next week under suggested heading of, oh I don’t know, maybe “James Franco the Great and Powerful”?
‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ is released tomorrow
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With many months to go before James Franco hits the big screen in Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful, a promotional campaign has apparently begun in Italy.
The James Franco Forever fan site has posted an Italian ad for the film that shows Franco as the Wizard of Oz -- with a top hat, slightly anguished expression and hot air balloon in the background.
PHOTOS: Images From 'Francophrenia (or, Don't Kill Me, I Know Where The Baby Is)
Oz: The Great and Powerful is an origin story about the wizard who runs the Emerald City -- and is far less powerful than its residents, and Dorothy for that matter, are led to believe. In Raimi's prequel to the L. Frank Baum classic, the would-be Oz is a young illusionist with a grandiose attitude who is forced to flee a traveling circus. His hot air balloon is swept up by a tornado to the land of Oz, which is overseen by magical wicked witches.
The movie, slated for release on March 8, 2013, co-stars Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff and Abigail Breslin.
Franco, who recently premiered his experimental film Francophrenia at the Tribeca Film Festival, took over the role after Robert Downey Jr. dropped out and Johnny Depp passed on the part.