James Franco: Keeping it Real
Prior to Spider-Man, James Franco was a relative unknown. He was familiar to fans of the short-live sitcom, Freaks and Geeks, but Franco was hardly a household name. Playing Harry Osborne didn’t make Franco a star, but it opened doors. In this interview from the September 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Franco was figuring out how to deal with his newfound fame.
My first glimpse of James Franco is at a photo studio in Culver City, where he slouches in a chair across the wide empty loft space between us. From that distance, one can understand why director Mark Rydell cast him to play James Dean in a TNT biopic. Franco has the look down, from the wavy brown hair to the squinty eyes to the sensuous pout and wry off-center smile.
Franco’s day is almost done. After the photo shoot he gets to talk to me, and then go home for a good night’s rest before flying off to Australia to begin shooting his next picture, The Great Raid, based on a true story about the rescue of American WWII soldiers held captive in the Philippines. It’s been a busy time for the young actor, ever since he nailed playing James Dean last year (and went on to win a Golden Globe award for his efforts). He followed that with a small part in Deuces Wild, then a bigger role in the wildly successful Spider-Man, where he got to play Tobey Maguire’s best friend and the son of the Green Goblin (played by Willem Dafoe). Dafoe may have met his death, but Franco will appear in the sequel (“We signed contracts,” he says). Now, Franco has two more films coming out: City by the Sea, in which he stars as the troubled son of cop Robert De Niro, and Sonny, Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut in which Franco plays a male prostitute.
I know very little about Franco from reading previous articles about him because he never seems to open up. He left his home in Palo Alto when he was 18 to attend UCLA. After a year, Franco dropped out to join Robert Carnegie’s training ground Playhouse West, study with a few painters and pursue acting. (“Painting is wonderful because it’s so private,” says Franco. “You’re not beholden to a director or a producer. But acting has been really saving to me. It’s so expressive and free.”)
While on his journey to immerse himself in as many liberal arts as possible, Franco landed a few acting jobs. He worked on the TV miniseries To Serve and Protect, did an episode of “Profiler” and got cast in the high school drama TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” which earned wonderful reviews but was canceled in less than a year. However, the series did bring Franco enough exposure to get him an audition for the James Dean movie.
The work has brought Franco some level of fame, but he isn’t ready to give in to prying reporters just yet. If he has learned anything from James Dean, it’s not just to “keep it real,” as Dean told Dennis Hopper, who passed the advice on to Franco, but to keep the details to himself. To keep it abstract, not specific.
When I ask Franco what it was like working on Spider-Man and what role has challenged him the most in his career, he simply responds with a “Nah, nah,” and turns his face sideways. “Nah, don’t ask. Nah, I don’t know,” he offers. But, of course, he does know. This is all an act. His interview persona.
“As an actor it’s probably not to one’s benefit to be overexposed,” he says. “If you want to play different parts, you don’t want to reveal too much of your personal life. It’s defining.” “This is going to be some interview,” I say.
Thankfully, I already know a couple of things about Franco: he has a writing partner with whom he’s written several scripts, and he likes to read–he appeared at his first Movieline interview clutching James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
“Yeah,” Franco admits, “I’ve read most of Joyce.”
“Including Ulysses?” I ask.
“Yeah, and I read Finnegans Wake. Or at least some of it.”
I also know he’s an admirer of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. When I mention that I’ve interviewed all three of them, he wants to know what Jack’s like. I tell him about the Picasso in Nicholson’s living room, and about the ashtray full of chopped money, which is his contribution to the art in the room.
Franco is all ears–he’s listening, he’s laughing, he’s saying “wow.” “I love Nicholson,” he says. “I loved The Last Detail, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, that one he did with Warren Beatty, that Mike Nichols movie, trying to get the girl’s money [The Fortune]. They’re all fantastic. He’s still good. I heard his new one, About Schmidt, is fantastic.”
Franco knows that I’ve spent time with both Marlon Brando and Truman Capote, and he wants to know what Brando thought of Capote. “Hated him, right?”
I tell him that’s a long story, and if I relay it, it’ll eat into our time and he’ll wind up leaving without answering my questions. Instead, I ask him if he always had confidence in himself as an actor.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s hard enough. Rejection’s hard. Fighting for something is hard when everybody else is not supportive. Especially in an artistic field where it’s a lot of yourself that’s being rejected, it’s not just a numbers report. It’s you they’re saying no to.”
“How much rejection did you receive early on?”
“I went on maybe hundreds of auditions that I didn’t get. My motto is: I work hard, whether or not it goes well. I try to stay away from a vengeance mentality. Just do my work and move on. The theater’s been helpful in that. If it doesn’t work out in the big professional world, I always have the theater to satisfy whatever acting needs I have.”
After Spider-Man, there must have been a ton of scripts coming his way, and he must be at the point where he can pick and choose. “Recently I’ve been offered a lot of movies, but I’ve turned a lot down. I’m not against commercial movies, but I want something of substance.”
I ask him if he thinks Spider-Man was a film of substance. I’m not being facetious, I’m just curious how he defines substance. “It was in its own way,” he says. “The director and the actors certainly have substance. It’s not the deepest movie, but there’s something that resonates. It’s one of the American myths. Every comic book was spawned out of Superman. [Michael Chabon’s] novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier & Clay shows how everything was and is the alter ego. There are so many elements of Superman in almost every superhero. Spider-Man comes out of that: he’s the masked superhero, he has an alter ego that is not as dashing as his superhero persona. And the Green Goblin is in many ways similar to The Joker [in Batman], the half-mad cackling villain.”
Unlike most biomovies, James Dean was a film of substance. Franco’s portrayal of the late actor was full of originality, sensitivity and little tics that made his Dean unique. Franco ripped down that heartthrob image and went deeper, exposing a disturbed, scarred young man. It was clear that Franco was diving off the deep end with his performance. It must have felt scary. “It was very scary,” says Franco. “Nobody was pushing me into it–in fact, most people asked me what I was doing. I knew it was a responsibility and that I’d be under heavy scrutiny.”
Franco says what convinced him to take the challenging assignment in the first place was that Mark Rydell was directing. “He knew the time and the themes,” he says. “Many of his previous movies had the theme of contending father and son, troubled relations, so he understood that. He gave me safety, and never questioned my trying to be in character all the time. Dean was like this live nerve, he could bring so much of his own feelings to the part. I tried to emulate that dedication.”
That dedication led Franco to isolate himself for four months from his friends, family and girlfriend, Maria Sokoloff (whom he met three years ago on the teen flick Whatever It Takes), under the advice of his acting teacher, Robert Carnegie.
“Dean was a very emotionally isolated person,” says Franco. “He lost his mother, his father turned him away, he was pretty lonely after that. I’ve always had a very supportive family and group of friends, so I just wanted to approximate what Dean was going through emotionally. I wanted to feel what it was like not to have that. It was hard, especially between Maria and I. After it was over she could appreciate it.”
Is he considering tying the knot and starting a family with Maria, who currently plays a secretary on “The Practice”? “Nah,” Franco says with a turn of his head.
Have women been throwing themselves at him since Spider-Man came out? “It hasn’t happened,” he insists. “Though people do recognize me more often now.”
Who among his peers does he admire? “Benicio Del Toro, Jeffrey Wright. I really like Paul Bettany, who played the imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind. When I was a kid, I loved Balthazar Getty in Lord of the Flies.”
What was his experience like on City by the Sea, in which Robert De Niro plays his father? “Before my audition with De Niro, I couldn’t sleep all night,” Franco says. “But, surprisingly, he was the most mild-mannered and quiet guy that I’d met in a while. So the audition was easy and not intimidating. On the set, I would go every day to watch him work, because he’s a hero of mine. He was very reserved. So I became comfortable being around him. Though there were a couple of times when we were acting together and I’d think to myself, ‘Wow, it’s De Niro!'”
Franco is so open and relaxed now I forget about his “Nah”s in the beginning of the interview. But then I realize we’re getting close to the end of our allotted time. “What time is it?” Franco asks.
My watch says 7:25. “Just past seven,” I say. He only wanted to talk until seven. Hell, if he doesn’t want to wear a watch, why should I be exact?
“I’ve got to go,” he says. He lives in the Valley. Maria and her cats are waiting for him.
“What time’s your flight tomorrow?”
“11:45 at night.”
“Oh, so you have a few more minutes to talk. Let me ask you about Sonny. Were you Nicolas Cage’s first choice?”
“No, he wanted Mark Ruffalo.”
“You play a gay prostitute–how much of a stretch was that?”
“But he’s a hustler?”
“Yeah, he’s a prostitute.”
“Is he hired by men or women?”
“Most people who solicit prostitutes are men. So most male prostitutes, if they’re not gay, at least have gay relations.”
“So that’s the character you play?”
“In this movie I’m one of the rare prostitutes who is male and services women.”
“So you’re like Joe Buck, Jon Voight’s character in Midnight Cowboy?”
“I’m like a more successful Joe Buck. And it’s based on a true story, so it’s not like we’re living in fantasy land.”
“How did you study to get into character?”
“Meeting with male prostitutes in New Orleans. I went out on my own and met with them. We’d talk in restaurants and bars.”
“And you’d pay them for their time?”
“What did they charge, like between $50 and $200?”
“Were you a good tipper?”
“We just talked!”
“How was Cage as a first-time director?”
“Great. He was kind of similar to Mark Rydell, both have acted, so they understood that. They didn’t compromise me as an actor for the sake of the movie. Nic is darker, with a more eccentric sensibility. We were in tune creatively. He would let me do anything I wanted.”
Franco thanks me for the interview and says goodbye. When I get in my car and drive a half-mile away from the studio, I see a sleek blue luxury car with a splattering of white bird shit along the front fender and hood. The car pulls up next to me. It’s Franco, talking on a cell phone. He looks over. I wave, he smiles. Then he honks, and we both open our windows. “Hey, don’t write about my car,” he says with that off-center smile.
“You got it,” I say, as he turns left and I go straight. Far be it for me to blow his mystique.