Prestige Hong Kong, March 2015
A Life Less Ordinary
The endlessly curious JAMES FRANCO talks a little about film and a lot about what else makes him tick
Celebrity magazines spend endless hours and pages punching the hype out of Hollywood. Stars? They’re just like us — normal. They eat fast food; walk their dogs; watch TV with their hands tucked in the waistbands of their sweatpants…
James Franco is, then, not normal. The actor, who got his big break on TV show Freaks and Geeks has, in many ways, lived up to the show’s title, leading a multifarious yet fascinating life, whether he’s pursuing concurrent graduate degrees at Ivy League universities, engaging in bizarre social-media experiments or starring in satirical comedies that incur the wrath of totalitarian governments.
It didn’t start that way. After his film debut in rom-com Never Been Kissed (1999), a young Franco landed the eponymous role in TV film James Dean. But it was his starring role as Harry Osborn in Spider-Man that brought him squarely into the spotlight, a character he reprised for the rest of the trilogy. He chose further roles for their depth and angst: As an army veteran and male prostitute in Sonny (2002), the junkie son of Robert De Niro’s cop in City By the Sea (2002) and the titular doomed young lover in period epic Tristan & Isolde (2006).
2008 marked his reunion with Freaks and Geeks alum Seth Rogen and his return to comedy. His turn as a stoner on the run in Pineapple Express surprised audiences and earned him acting cred. And as he let loose on screen, he did in real life too. He worked with conceptual artist Carter on a video piece called Erased James Franco that involved him re-enacting mundane snippets from all his film roles, which inspired him to join the cast of General Hospital for a 20-episode arc, playing an alter-ego character, Franco, an act he considered performance art.
His scintillating 2010 performance as a hiker who had to amputate his arm to escape a fallen boulder in 127 Hours brought him an Oscar nomination; that year, he also presented short directorial efforts at film festivals, hosted his first solo multimedia art exhibition at the Clocktower gallery, published a collection of short stories and continued his studies at UCLA, going on to achieve an MFA from Columbia University.
In the ensuing years, he has ramped up his seemingly schizophrenic activities — graduating from short-story-writing to poetry, showing out-there work at galleries such as Gagosian and Moma PS1, teaching university courses, directing everything from documentaries to dance theatre performances, hosting the Oscars and releasing musical tracks with his band, Daddy. Critics often brand him a shock artist (the breadth of his interests certainly warrants the adjective), but Franco contends he’s only pursuing his interests. It’s why his social media persona may seem bizarre to celebrity gossipmongers — Franco utilises the medium almost as a social experiment or art form, rather than a tool to share actual happenings in his life.
Like any good actor, Franco could play normal if he wanted — but where’s the fun in that? “What am I living for,” he muses. “If it’s not to make something interesting out of my life?”
YOU SEEM TO WORK WITH THE SAME SET OF PEOPLE QUITE FREQUENTLY, LIKE SETH ROGEN IN THE INTERVIEW. DO YOU THINK IT BOOSTS YOUR CREATIVE JUICES?
I’ve known Seth since we did Freaks and Geeks. He was 16 years old, so I’ve known him for a long time, and because of that we’re very comfortable with each other. I think we understand how to work with each other and I think he has incredible ideas when it comes to comedy. I don’t really like to do comedies unless it’s with him. That’s the big thing I learned from Pineapple Express, that you can make movies with your friends, and have fun making them, and still make good movies.
BESIDES COMEDY, YOU’VE DONE A PRETTY WIDE RANGE OF FILMS. DO YOU HAVE A STRATEGY WHEN IT COMES TO PICKING WHAT YOU DO NEXT?
Yes and no. You sort of feel it out. And think, well, I have [The Interview] with Seth so then I think, maybe I won’t do another comedy right away. Or I have movies that I direct and I know that they’re a little more on the artistic side, so I think, well, I can do those and I can get away with doing them if I balance them out with larger films. There’s a little bit of a balancing act, but it’s not like it’s a grand plan that’s laid out for years and years.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A SCRIPT?
There are a lot of components that go along with the music of something seeming right. If it’s a good director then you think, well, I’m very director-driven, but is the material something that I think he or she would be good to direct? And then, is the role I’m being asked to play one that I can really nail? I think about all those things.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NEXT, FILM WISE?
I just finished directing a movie called Zeroville. It’s based on a book by Steve Erickson about Hollywood in the ’70s. Our aim is to premier it at Cannes in May or maybe Venice in probably September.
HOW IS THE EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT FOR YOU WHEN YOU’RE DIRECTING?
It’s very different. Going to film school and starting to direct my own movies really helped me as an actor. And having acted for almost two decades I think helps me as a director. When I direct, I’m more in control of some things, but it’s really not so much about the control or being a dictator as it is being in the position to select what the movie will be, what the subject matter will be, who the people are that I’m going to collaborate with in all the departments, from the cinematography to the actors to the designers. And then, once I’ve made those choices as a director, I really try to be as collaborative as possible. I want everybody to contribute, everyone to feel that they’re adding something to it rather than following orders.
But because I now have these opportunities to direct my own films, as an actor, when I sign on to a project it’s much easier to lend myself to the project. When I only acted I felt a little stifled creatively, because I didn’t get to initiate the projects like I do now when I’m a director. But now that I have that as part of my professional life, as an actor I no longer need to be in control of those projects. I can serve the project, I can help the director achieve his or her vision rather than serve my own vision.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE PEOPLE THAT YOU HAVEN’T WORKED WITH YET BUT WOULD LIKE TO?
There are lots of people: Paul Thomas Anderson I think is one of the best around. Spike Jonze is great. David O’ Russell.
WHICH OF THE CHARACTERS THAT YOU’VE PLAYED ARE THE MOST LIKE YOURSELF?
I played Allen Ginsberg [in Howl] – not that I’m exactly like him, but he is someone that devoted himself and his life to art and poetry and teaching, and I care about all of those things very much.
THOSE ARE AREAS THAT YOU’VE EXPLORED QUITE A LOT, IN FACT. WHY DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DRAWN TO SO MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF CREATIVE MEDIUMS?
I believe in making the medium match the subject. And so it’s not really about conquering as many mediums as possible as much as it’s being versatile so that I can express certain things in ways I think are the best. And I’ve loved all of the things I do since I was young. I got into literature seriously when I was in high school, I got into film and acting when I was in high school. I got into art when I was in high school. So these are all things I’ve loved for a very long time.
WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE SEEKING TO EXPRESS THROUGH YOUR ARTWORK?
I guess what any artist is doing, or most artists are doing, is a way to reflect on our times, on how we live. I’m very interested in identity and persona, and what makes us who we are. How we define ourselves. And I think a lot of the art I do addresses those issues.
DO YOU THINK THAT, AS AN ACTOR AND A CELEBRITY, QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY ARE PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Yeah. I have a specific lens or screen that’s particular to what I’ve been trained to do – as in act. So I’m used to putting on characters, looking into a character’s backstory to determine why he does certain things, and you know that can be applied to people in their everyday lives. I mean, we all put on a uniform every day. We don’t have to dress in a particular way, but we do. Or even if we’re in a situation like going to boarding school or something where there’s a fixed uniform, that’s part of one’s character. You’re forced to or urged to wear this uniform. And so to look at one’s life or one’s personality as a set of choices rather than a set of things imposed on you, or a combination of both, but all as character traits, is one way to look at who we are. And so it’s my particular lens, just because I’m an actor.
HOW ABOUT IN A MORE GENERAL CREATIVE SENSE – WHO DO YOU LISTEN TO, WHAT DO YOU READ, WHO DO YOU COLLECT?
There is this band called Youth Lagoon I really like. Right now, I’m reading a few books; I just finished the new biography of Tennessee Williams called Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh; it’s very good. I read a few things at the same time because I read books with different people. So with my assistant I’m reading a book called Death in California. I’m reading a book called The Hunters by James Salter, and then a book called Laurel Canyon about all of the musicians who lived there in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I used to collect a lot of art, but my old accountant made me sell it all when I went back to school. But I had some great art. I had a great Ed Ruscha, I had a couple of Richard Princes, I had Mike Kelley, I had early Andy Warhol, I had Francesca Woodman, I had tons of those, beautiful. But I sold them all.
YOU’VE STUDIED QUITE A BIT. WHY?
There was a point in my life where I was on the outside of [being a] successful actor. I had a career, I was in some big movies – movies that were critical hits – but I was just not completely satisfied. I think I wanted to do more than act. I had these other interests I’d been pursuing in secret. I didn’t really show anybody my writing, or I directed a couple of really small movies. I realised later, in hindsight, I was doing it in a very shy way. I was insecure about myself as a director, so I wouldn’t really ask people or actors that I really respected to be in my things because I just thought that I wasn’t good enough to ask them.
And so I knew that I wanted something more in my life and that I wanted to pursue these other things in a very serious way. I’d left school, and I figured I could go back to school, and study all the things I wanted to take seriously. And I got a little addicted to it. I found that graduate school in particular was a great place for me to learn. It’s not for everybody, but I really thrived there. I went to schools with some of my favourite writers; I had incredible teachers. Because going back to school meant acting in fewer movies, I just decided that it was my time to really study whatever I wanted to study. So I piled a lot on my plate. But I didn’t have to have a day job like a lot of my fellow students, fortunately, so I could handle more school than most of the people I was with.
ARE YOU STILL PURSUING THAT?
I have one degree to finish. A PhD at Yale, but it’s just because it takes a long time to get that degree.
AND YOU’RE ALSO A FASHION AMBASSADOR, THANKS TO GUCCI. HOW DOES THAT FIT IN WITH THE REST OF WHAT YOU DO?
Six or seven years ago [Gucci] asked me to be a part of their fragrance campaign. And I’d never really done anything in fashion before and I like Gucci, so at that time I took a leap. And very quickly after that first campaign, my relationship with them grew and became much more than a model for hire. They allow me to shoot videos for them, they support art projects I do … I made a documentary about [erstwhile Gucci Creative Director] Frida [Giannini] and they really have become friends and collaborators in many, many, many ways. And it just keeps growing; we keep talking about more things to do.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE RELATIONSHIP HAS DRAWN YOU MORE INTO THE FASHION WORLD?
Just making that documentary was a way for me to really understand the creative side of fashion. I was really interested because it’s a specific type of creativity that results in a product that people wear, that helps them define who they are, and that’s a little different from what I do as an actor or as a director or as a writer. And so that was really fascinating, and each project and each year I work with them gives me a better understanding and more appreciation for the fashion world.
AND OBVIOUSLY THAT TIES BACK IN TO WHAT YOU WERE SAYING ABOUT UNIFORM AND IDENTITY.
Yeah, you know Gucci is kind of the high end of fashion, so it’s a very rarefied level of design. But that’s interesting, that’s where the most interesting kinds of design happen, whether it’s in fashion or art or whatever. It has that component that works in a different way than a performance for an audience, where the audience is now wearing the object, is now putting it on, is now making it a part of themselves. In a way, it’s helping them express something about themselves rather than sitting impassively taking something in – they are actively engaging in the thing, with the creative product, and that’s great. That’s art.
SOCIAL MEDIA HAS ALWAYS BEEN A BIG PART OF THE CONVERSATION ABOUT YOU. DO YOU THINK THAT YOU EXPRESS YOUR TRUE PERSON THROUGH THESE CHANNELS?
No. It’s always felt frivolous to me, meaning I think I have a silly attitude, generally speaking, when I post things. I don’t take it that seriously. On the other hand, it is very serious because one of the main currencies of our age is attention, and so that little number that says how many people are following me actually equates into money, and a certain type of power, and I have studios asking me to post things on my Instagram.
I have different clients that [my manager] Will and I work with where part of the deal is that I post on [social media], so now I have something that is quantifiable and is something that is put on the bargaining table. So on the one hand it’s, to me, just a fun, kind of silly thing. On the other hand I also know that it is very serious and it’s an outlet, and it’s a distribution platform, or a promotional tool that is very important to a lot of the people that I work with.
PEOPLE DO TAKE IT QUITE SERIOUSLY. IT’S INSIGHT INTO YOUR LIFE THAT THE PAPARAZZI DOESN’T GET – SPEAKING OF WHICH, HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THEM?
I actually don’t have a huge problem with it. I don’t know why, I just hope they keep staying away. But I think generally speaking I don’t bring in that much money and that’s why they don’t try and get photos of me. Photos of me walking around New York or at school are just not as valuable as Jennifer Lawrence in her workout gear.
DO YOU EVER THINK OF YOUR LIFE AS KIND OF A BIG CREATIVE INSTALLATION?
That kind of question sometimes has the implication that there’s something artificial with something that I am doing or that there’s a level of fakeness or something. But if you look at life like we were talking about earlier, it’s a series of choices that you make and reactions that you have to what’s presented to you. Then every life is a creative act, and every personality is something that is made. What am I living for, if it’s not to make something interesting out of my life? I don’t see any other reason to live.