There’s nobody quite like James Franco. A matinee idol and sex symbol who straddles everything from huge blockbusters to his own high art projects, the prolific 36-year-old actor-writer-director is also an accomplished academic with five degrees—even if some believe several of those came far too easily.
Born and raised in Palo Alto, California, Franco first achieved recognition in the cult Paul Feig/Judd Apatow series Freaks and Geeks (1999). Always keen to tickle his funny bone, he would continue on with the Apatow-produced Pineapple Express, which started his teaming with actor-writer-director Seth Rogen and writer Evan Goldberg. They would go on to make last year’s gross-out comedy This is the End, where Franco allowed himself to be lampooned by his buddies in his supposed movie star pad.
“I don’t think I’m anything like I am in the movie,” Franco says of his pretentious movie star.
The trio’s upcoming movie, The Interview, has already created a stir, when North Korea issued a formal complaint to the United Nations over what it called an “undisguised sponsoring of terrorism” and “an act of war”. Rogen has been amused that his comedy about two not-so-intrepid celebrity journalists ordered by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un could create such a fuss. “In a way, it shows we might be onto something.”
After also starring in Disney’s US$200 million, 3D blockbuster Oz: The Great and Powerful, Franco is now on screens in the low budget indie movie, Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s adaptation of his 2010 collection of short stories set in the California city where he grew up. In a film that is ultimately more about style than story, we follow a cast headed by Emma Roberts (the talented and beautiful 23-year-old niece of Julia) and Jack Kilmer (the smouldering 19-year-old son of Val, who also plays a cameo) as a relatively naïve teenage pair whose desire to be together seems inevitably thwarted by the peer pressure from their more rebellious classmates. Franco plays the school’s handsome soccer coach, who flirts and crosses the line with Roberts’ April, which further complicates her feelings about Kilmer’s Teddy, and herself.
When writing the book about the place where you were born and raised, did you envision it becoming a movie?
I’ve been acting in movies for 17 years so automatically I thought about the movie version but I quickly realised that I didn’t want to do it myself. It would be too close to things I’d already done and I wanted someone else’s sensibility to work on it. Around that time I saw Gia’s photographs at a small show in LA and I contacted her and she showed me some videos and that was enough for me. I told her I’d written this book and that I thought she was the person to direct it. She loved it and wanted to do it so that started the two-to-three year process.
Gia has a diverse background and has worked on her cousin Sofia’s films. Still, was it a risk hiring a first-time director?
People come to directing movies from all different backgrounds. In Gia’s case, I didn’t articulate all the reasons to myself why I wanted her. It was very instinctual. But I knew that she literally grew up on film sets as a baby as her grandfather had her next to the monitor. If she ever needs any support, her family is going to be there to help guide her.
Did you balk at playing a sexual predator?
I didn’t want to be that teacher character. Gia was very shy about asking me, so she would consult me about different casting choices. Then finally she said, “I don’t want them, I want you. Would you do it?” And I said, “Of course”. In the story, I actually identify with the younger characters because they contain a lot of my own younger sensibilities and experiences.
Gia says she inserted the bit about the teacher being good looking, when in the book he isn’t so handsome.
The character I play is loosely based on some teachers I knew and heard stories about when I was at school. There was one guy I had in mind who was pretty good looking and was this teacher that everybody liked. That’s why the presentation of the character is complex because he’s not necessarily malicious; he’s not presented like a villain. He's fairly attractive and nice—it’s just that his actions are reprehensible. He’s the adult in the situation and he’s the one who should know the boundaries. He even probably lies to himself or justifies it to himself that his feelings are so genuine or great that it overrides the law.
You could just stick to being the good-looking leading man. Why do you want to play seedy characters like the gold-toothed guy in Spring Breakers, who is another predator of sorts? How do you marry these two things?
I do all kinds of roles. I think maybe because I’ve directed a fair amount of my own movies, I now look at roles in a different way. There are a lot of actors who are better looking than I am running from their looks. You can see them making choices that seem like they really want to prove that they’re not just a pretty face. I don’t mind playing a handsome guy if it’s right for the movie, and I don’t mind playing an ugly guy if it’s right for the movie. Because I’ve made movies as a director, I just want to satisfy what the movie and the story needs.
In your own movies you’ve gone from adapting William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and The Fury—soon to world premiere in Venice) to Cormac McCarthy (Child of God—on DVD August 20) to a biopic about Charles Bukowski.
Yes, they’re my literary icons. I’m working my way through them. In the same way I have heroes in the film world, these are writers I just love. These are the two worlds I walk in, literature and film. I found both by a mix of conscious effort and just by falling into it. I guess my voice as a director is to bring those two worlds together and to find what I hope are unique, contemporary filmic ways of capturing American literary classics.
You shot your sequences for Palo Alto after the wrap party. This hints at your crazy schedule. You’ve also been doing a PhD in English literature at Yale. How do you fit it all in? You seem to be good at multi-tasking.
Yes, but it’s not as difficult as it seems. For instance, when I was making Every Thing Will Be Fine with Wim Wenders in Montreal, we were shooting in 3D, which is very slow. So I had a lot of time and every day I literally read a book on set. Books for my exams, basically, American literature from the Revolution to the present. Though, I read anything and everything.
Wenders’ movie hasn’t surfaced yet. (Co-starring Rachel McAdams and Charlotte Gainsbourg, it follows Franco's troubled writer who hits a young child when driving.)
I’ve done a certain amount of work that I’m very proud of and I now look at my work in movies less as career building and more as an opportunity to work with people I admire. So who knows if this movie's going to be a huge commercial success? Maybe not. It’s a really slow movie but I get to work with Wim Wenders. I love his films, so I go and do it for that and I can turn myself over to him. I don’t have to worry about the reception because I’m doing it for the experience.
Why did you make Homefront? (Gary Fleder’s action flick is based on a Sylvester Stallone screenplay and stars Jason Statham who was keen to work with quality actors and liked that Franco was “unpredictable”.) The film went straight to DVD here.
(Laughs) An opportunity presented itself to me. Basically, here are the calculations. I was very grateful to this company Millennium because they paid for As I Lay Dying when no company would. When they asked me to do this movie with Jason Statham, I looked at the role, a character names Gator (growls), and I thought it could be fun. They weren’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars and it wasn’t a movie that had great artistic pretensions. It’s a movie that is there to entertain so they allowed me some latitude to try things, and if the character was a bit wacky, that was okay.
You played an outlandish character in Spring Breakers, too.
That was a little different because Harmony [Korine] is one of my favourite directors.
Spring Breakers bears similarities to Palo Alto, not the least because your character is preying on young women in both.
They both deal with young characters coming of age, exploring a bit of the dangerous side, though Spring Breakers does it in a much more forceful way. Here it’s a little more grounded.
Palo Alto is released in cinemas August 14. Watch the trailer below: