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James Franco: Frankly Speaking
Interview by Alexander Dubois
 

James Franco, one of the hardest-working men in Hollywood, has recently gained widespread notoriety for his role as Harry Osborn in the blockbuster Spider-Man films. But his growing stature as a bankable and recognizable star predates Spider-Man. He starred in the critically acclaimed role of James Dean in the made-for-television film of the same name, winning a Golden Globe award in 2002. Robert De Niro recognized his talent as well when he handpicked Franco to play his son in the 2002 drama City by the Sea. You might also remember Franco from his early work in Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived 1999 television series (produced by Judd Apatow, writer/director of 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), or in more recent roles in Annapolis, Flyboys and Tristan & Isolde.
Youíll be seeing a lot more of Franco, whose body of work seems to grow by five or six films a yearóand thatís just as an actor! In addition to playing Sergeant Dan Carnelli in the new film, In the Valley of Elah, and his role in Apatowís upcoming 2008 release, The Pineapple Express (plus several other films in various stages of production), Franco is busy as a writer and director. And since that doesnít seem to occupy all his time, heís returned to school as a student as well.

Busy? Extremely. How does Franco find time for all this, and whatís the busy star up to these days? We talked about that and a lot more when we met Franco at the charming Chateau Marmont, a 1920s-era landmark in West Hollywood.

Tell me about In the Valley of Elah.
Elah is based on a true story about soldiers that fought in Iraq and, when they returned stateside, ended up murdering a fellow soldier and covering it up. When they told the murdered soldierís father, who is a veteran, that his son went AWOL, it didnít sound right. So he started to investigate and un-covered the real story.

So itís almost two stories: the fatherís search and the tale of the murder?
The father is a Vietnam veteran and the film contrasts his experience with the experience of these guys coming back from the new war. These kids get to the point where they kill their friend. It doesnít seem like these guys have much remorse.

What attracted you to this film?
Paul Haggis, the director, and I knew each other. He asked me if I would come and play this role. I love his stuff and Iím a huge fan of Million Dollar Baby and Crash, so there was no question. And it was a very interesting script.

What kind of preparation did you do for Elah?
I had done a lot of war movies so I already had that familiarity. On The Great Raid, based on the Bataan Death March in World War II, we did almost two weeks of boot camp. It was a great experience. When we were ready to shoot the movie, it was fantastic because everybody knew how to handle themselves as soldiers and there was a great unity like we were a military company. It made the process realistic and it was also a very efficient way to shoot the film. I also did Annapolis about the military academy and the naval academy, and Flyboys, based on World War I aviators.

Do you typically research your roles?
As an actor, you put a lot of work into a movieóor at least I do. I take my acting very seriously. For Flyboys, I trained for months to get my pilotís license, studied up on these guys, did everything. On Annapolis, I trained as a boxer for eight months. For Tristan & Isolde, I trained for eight months in sword fighting and horseback riding. When I played a homeless drug addict with De Niro in City by the Sea, I thought, ďWhy donít I see what that experience is like?Ē I stayed on the streets for a weekend with a friend of mine. We got dirty clothes, poured beer on ourselves and went out there without any money. We made a dollar in 12 hours and we were starving. So we ended up making a sign and stood on the off-ramp of Interstate 10 and made, like, 30 bucks. Later, we slept overnight in one of the missions downtown.

Being on the street when you donít know the ropes must be dangerous.
Yeah, but Iíll do all that I can to get really deep into the character. With a role like a drug addict or a soldier, I feel like I owe them the due diligence to get their portrayal right. On Elah, I read everything on the case and saw all the documentaries that I could.

Is it difficult to work with unprepared actors?
I try to not think about it. In some ways, itís not my problem, itís the directorís problem. And if itís a lazy actor, Iím not the only one who sees itóeverybody sees it. Youíve got to turn it off. If you have to work with this person, you do the best you can. But I havenít come across that a lot. Itís such a hard business to break into, when you get on a movie, people are usually enthusiastic and pretty happy to be there. And some of itís up to me. If I see a project and there are people involved that have bad reputations or I know might be a problem to work with, I just donít do the movie. Or I go into it knowing that itís going to be an issue.

You just finished shooting The Pineapple Express, a comedy written and produced by Judd Apatow. What was that like?
Iíd done Freaks and Geeks years ago, which was produced by Judd. I guess just because it was a TV show or because it was earlier on in Juddís process, we mainly stuck to the script. But since Juddís been doing movies, heís evolved his technique. Sometimes youíll do the scene and heíll throw out alternate lines like, ďTry this! Try that!Ē while itís still rolling. On most takes of The Pineapple Express, heíll just run the role out every take to see what comes. In that way, you get fresh stuff that feels real because the other actors arenít expecting what youíre going to say. Or youíll do one take that follows the script and then youíll just do another take and itís like, ďAlright, just run with it and see what happens.Ē Or heíll say, ďWhat have you got? Just show me what you got!Ē

So itís a fun process?
Fantastic process. If itís the right people, you know? When Judd and his people use improv-isation, theyíre really just trying to find the funniest possible interaction between these characters. Iím sure Iíll look really stupid in a lot of those takes but because I trusted Judd and the director, David Gordon Green, I didnít even care. I know in the end, theyíll just use the best stuff. It was a great environment because I felt safe. I havenít done a lot of comedy because I find most of the scripts to be just ridiculous. But the guys on The Pineapple Express are some of the best guys working in comedy so I thought it was a great opportunity.

Would improvisation work as well in a drama?
It would definitely work, but itís different. In a comedy, youíre looking for funny lines or the comedy in the situation; you just go off on tangents. In a drama, there are fewer places to go because youíre just looking for the essence of the scene. When Robert Altman used improvisation, he was looking for interesting human moments, not for jokes in the same way that we did on The Pineapple Express.

If a movie comes along thatís going to be big, but you donít like the project, is it tempting to move forward?
Iím at the point where I donít need to do any movie to support a standard of living. Iíve had enough experiences on movies where, for whatever reason, I didnít have a good experience. I was doing them for the right reasonsóI wasnít doing them for the moneyóbut I know what itís like to work on a movie and not be completely inspired. So I would never do a film because of the money.

How important is the director to a film you might consider working on?
From an actorís perspective, obviously itís preferable to work with somebody that has a great track record. You know that youíll probably be a part of something thatís going to be, at the very least, interesting. You go in as an actor, you do your research, you do your part, they do the shoot, and then youíre done. A film is a directorís medium. If you donít have a director that you trust, it can make you clam up. You donít want to try things that could look bad because youíre afraid that theyíre going to leave that in the cut. But if you have a director that you trust, youíre willing to try anything because you know that heís going to make it good. If you do something bad, oh well, itíll go away. Thatís why itís important to work with directors that you respect.
A bad final cut must be frustrating after working hard on a movie.
You go and do your part and then they edit it together. Itís possible that you see the final product and you donít really like it. Thatís why itís so weird about performances in filmsóa lot of that has to do with the editor and the director. When acting was my only focus, a lot of my happiness and feelings of self-worth were based on how well my movies were received or how well they did at the box office. I found myself getting a little depressed and thatís not a way to live.

How did you release the tension?
I decided to go back to school. It was something I could do on my own apart from movies. School has a different set of standards so it took a lot of pressure off. I still only want to do good movies and do the best work I can, but school allows me to take a step away from it.

What are you studying?
Iím doing a creative honors thesis. Iím given a year or so to work on a novel. So far itís going great and I love it! I write about four hours a day. Books have always been important to me and I missed being around people who love books and love writing. Itís great to go back and be immersed in that world.

Novel or screenplay: Which one do you prefer?
In general, I prefer reading books to scripts and I prefer writing books and fiction to writing screenplays. Thereís just something about the script format that I donít respond to like I do with novels.

Do you have other creative pursuits?
Iíve written screenplays and Iíve directed them. The second film I directed just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Itís called Good Time Max. I co-wrote that with this woman who actually was one of the head writers on the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. Iíve written quite a few screenplays with her.

in an ideal world, would you direct, act, write, or do some combination of the above?
Iím sure Iíll continue acting, hopefully, in projects that I love, and continue with directing. We just shot a test for a short, a Faulkner story called ďRed Leaves.Ē Itís a little more complicated than the other stuff Iíve directed. It takes place in the 1830s in Mississippi. A large portion of the story is actually a chase and Iíve never really done anything like that, so we went out into the woods near Valencia and shot a whole bunch of the sequences. When we actually do the shoot in Mississippi or Louisiana, Iíll be ready.

Is there enough of a market to justify this project?
Iím paying for the short, but itís not that dangerous of an investment. If I donít make money, itís not that big of a deal. Iím really doing it for the artistic thing.

It seems that projects youíre pursuing now are what you want to do and not necessarily whatís best for your career?
Well, I donít want to do things that are bad for my career.
Obviously, if youíre thinking short-term you wouldnít do ďRed Leaves.Ē
I guess I could be doing another project.
But it makes sense also with the things you want to do in the future.
Exactly. In some ways, the short furthers my career because itís something that I hope to do more of in the future. Usually people donít direct a feature and then go and do a short, but one of the reasons Iím doing this short is to help prepare me for that period and that level of material. Itís a Faulkner story so itís pretty dense. Iíve also got the rights to a Faulkner novel called Light in August, which is a very difficult novel to adapt. I hope to direct a feature of that afterward.

You were hoping to get the role of Peter Parker in Spider-Man, right?
I did this extensive test for Peter Parker where they must have spent thousands of dollars; probably more on it than Iíll spend on my short. I thought it went really well, but I had to wait six weeks until I got an answer.
Excruciating weeks.
Yeah. And, ultimately, Tobey [Maguire] got the lead role.

Were you disappointed?
Sure, of course, but Iím being honest when I say that Tobey is perfect for the role. I think heís done a great job. After he got the part, maybe a few days or a week later, Sam Raimi, the director, called me up and said, ďYou know, I really like you and I want you to be in the movie. Would you play this other role?Ē Nobody else had gone out for Harry Osborn; Sam just gave it to me, so I was happy. Harryís kind of the most emotionally troubled character in the movie. As an actor, thatís what you want.

Has the huge success of Spider-Man opened doors for you?
A lot of films are backed by foreign financiers and they often make their decisions based on whoís in it. They have each actorís foreign market worth calculated down to a number. Itís based on the movies theyíre in and how well those movies have done at the box office. So doing something like Spider-Man definitely helps.

You have a number on you?
Everybody does.

Have you seen it?
Nah.
But whatever it is, youíre pretty pleased with whatever that number might be.
Iím just saying, Spider-Man doesnít hurt.

Is there a type of role that you really go after?
My favorite performances are the early Jack Nicholson films like Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest, The Last Detail and Easy Rider. If I came across a role like one of those, I would just love it.

Which other actors do you admire?
Of course, all the actors from that generationóAl Pacino and De Niro, Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beattyóand then before them, the big three are James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. And then, from a different generation, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro. I also think Mark Ruffalo and Jeffrey Wright are fantastic.

What do you think of one-dimensional actors who make it big with exploitative-type films?
There are some people that are successful, and itís not based on nothing. They didnít get there just by luck. Theyíre doing something right, something that appeals to audiences on some level.


When you watch a movie, can you turn everything off, and just enjoy it like a normal moviegoer?
When I read a book I donít just read it for the story, you know what I mean? I read it for the writing, for what the writerís doing with the words. When I watch a movie, I donít watch it for just the story. I watch it for the way they tell the story and how the actors deliver their characters and all of that. But there will definitely be times when I say, ďI just want to go watch this movie and it might not be the deepest movie, but Iíll just enjoy it. Itíll be an escape.Ē But I donít want to do things just to kill time; I donít have enough time. I want to get something out of everything I do.
So every movie, good or bad, youíre taking something away from it.
Of course. Iím watching how they put everything together.

Given that, is watching a movie relaxing?
Itís funny, but Iím horrible about falling asleep in theaters. Sometimes itís just a chance to get extra sleep. So Iíll watch a movie and usually after the first five or ten minutes, Iíll know if Iím interested or not and if Iím not, I can usually just check-out and go to sleep.

Do you enjoy the Hollywood social life?
Eh, not much. I have some friends that run a couple of the smaller clubs and Iíll go out every once in awhile. But this past year Iíve been going to school and studying for finals and writing papers, and I made a couple of movies, so I really havenít had time.

How do you manage to do so many movies and go to school?
Well, I guess I have a lot of interests so wherever I can fit something in, Iíll do it. Iíve managed to combine some of the school and directing. Iím getting credit for school for this short even though itís not really a student film since Iíve got professionals working on it. But Iíve managed to work it out.

Has a movie ever influenced you to the point where it changed your life?
Itís not really the subject matter thatís hit me so hard so much as the people that Iíve worked with. Like working with Altman; I spent quite a bit of time with him. Just seeing how he lives his life, the creative world that he lives in and the people that he surrounds himself with has really inspired me to emulate that.

IN WHAT WAY?
He was in the middle of everything I find interesting. He was around great painters, great filmmakers and interesting actors. Itís inspiring for me to be around people who are interested in the things that Iím interested in. Itís one of the reasons I went back to school. I wasnít around very many writers, so school was a chance to be around people who took seriously what I was serious about.
The clichť of Hollywood, and I imagine itís somewhat true, is that actors donít tend to be too deep.
Well, acting is a profession that depends a lot on how someone looks. And so, itís hard not to think about how youíre looking all the time. You can start picking up these superficial habits and behavior. I guess itís just the nature of it. I donít really blame anybody for that. You go to the movies and people say, ďOh look, so-and-soís not looking so hot.Ē You know what I mean? Youíre up there on the screen.


Do you think about how you look when you go out in public?
I donít put on makeup or anything. I dress how I dress. Some of those actors canít walk out the door without the paparazzi in their face, so I donít know.
Being successful as an actor could be a curse.
Itís not like itís going to be a surprise though. Every actor knows that thatís a possibility. They know what the cost is.

Was acting your calling?
I didnít fall into acting. I really pursued it. When I was young, I found it was a great way to express myself when I hadnít found a lot of ways to do that. So I pursued it with all of my energy.

What are your favorite movies that youíve done?
I donít like most things Iíve done.

Really?
Yeah.

Is there any film that youíd say was your masterpiece?
Nah, I donít think so.

How about movies you havenít done but wish you did?
I love Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky. It was all about addiction. Darren would be a great person to work with. I wouldnít have been right for it but I love Amores Perros. Thereís also a French movie called Hate and another great French movie called Irreversible. There are some really dark scenes in it but the structure and the technical proficiency is amazing.
Just the same, I imagine youíre reasonably happy with your success so far.
Iím grateful for everything.
It sounds like you havenít gotten to where you want to go yet.
Itís nice to have work that you can look back on and say, ďOh yeah, that was good.Ē

And you donít have enough of that?
Yeah.

How do you feel about Spider-Man?
Iím happy with the work I did and itís a good role, but in a movie like that, you can only explore the characters so much. It wasnít a stepping stone to where I really want to go, but I really did enjoy the experience. Itís just that thereís more that I want to do.


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