A quick Google search of the name James Franco reveals, unsurprisingly, pictures of Franco as James Dean, whom he played in a 2001 television movie, as well as some pictures of him looking intensely handsome like James Dean and some pictures of him just looking intensely handsome because that’s how James Franco looks when he has his picture taken. There are also the attendant interviews and message boards and discussion groups and rumor pits. But the search also reveals videos. Funny videos. There’s a clip of Franco reenacting a scene from The Hills with actress Mila Kunis. There’s a clip with the title “Acting With James Franco,” in which he forces his younger brother Dave to play Sal Mineo to his Dean in a scene from Rebel Without a Cause . There’s even a clip of Franco weeping over his mother Betsy’s handling of the death of his childhood pet, an incontinent cat named Toby. (There is also a clip of his mother’s rebuttal—”Have you ever heard of toxoplasmosis?”)
For his part, the 30-year-old Franco, who grew up outside San Francisco in Palo Alto, California, has adopted the time-honored actorly practice of seeking out opportunities that play against type—and this year, he appears to have found two such roles. There is, of course, his recent turn as Chong to Seth Rogen’s Cheech in the surprise stoner-comedy hit Pineapple Express, which reunited him with Rogen and producer Judd Apatow, both of whom he worked with on the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks. And then there is his role in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, a film about the life of openly gay San Francisco city supervisor and activist Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), whose assassination in 1978 rendered him a symbol for the cause of gay rights in America. (Franco plays Milk’s campaign manager and longtime lover, Scott Smith; the movie is set for release on November 26, one day before the 30th anniversary of Milk’s killing.)
Sandwiched between Pineapple Express and Milk is an appearance this month alongside Richard Gere and Diane Lane in George C. Wolfe’s Nights in Rodanthe. Franco also recently moved from Los Angeles to New York City to pursue his M.F.A. in writing at Columbia University. So who is the real James Franco? An existential handwringer? A joker? A smoker? A midnight toker? Maybe we’ll never know. But calling from his home in Portland, Oregon, Franco’s Milk director, Van Sant, gives us a glimpse.
GUS VAN SANT: How are you doing?
JAMES FRANCO: Pretty good. I’m in New York, which is weird.
JF: I don’t know. It feels like I just saw you, but now I’m in New York, and we’re talking on the phone.
GVS: Where are you staying?
JF: At the Bowery Hotel, which is actually really cool. It has a great interior and everything. I’m moving here, so I have an apartment, but it’s not furnished yet. It’s pretty coincidental, but I think the B-52s used to own the building it’s in.
GVS: Oh, really?
JF: Yeah. It’s funny because in my apartment in Los Angeles, I lived under this woman-your friend-who is a costume designer from Idaho. You would visit her, and you guys would all sing the song “Private Idaho” by the B-52s, which is where the title of your movie [My Own Private Idaho, 1991] came from. You know, one of my favorite Interview interviews was you and River Phoenix. But I guess he was interviewing you.
GVS: Yeah. I remember transcribing that one myself.
JF: Oh, really?
GVS: Yeah. River recorded it, but I transcribed it.
JF: You were going to do a movie with River about Andy Warhol, right?
GVS: Yeah. River kind of looked like Andy in his younger days. But that project never really went forward. I wanted to set it at Serendipity, the restaurant where all of the art directors and advertising guys and gallery people went.
Did you ever see Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke? That’s what happens if you really smoke weed and make a movie. James Franco
JF: The first piece of art that I ever bought—when I could afford it—was a Warhol sketch from the period when he was just getting out of doing commercial work and more into art. It’s a sketch of a young guy’s face. I guess the gallery that I bought it from thought I would like it because the young guy kind of looked like James Dean. I don’t know. But I liked it because it was unusual for Warhol. It was kind of before the silk screens or anything that is really recognizable-it’s almost like a fashion drawing, but it’s a portrait.
GVS: Yeah, he did a lot of that in that period. I was kind of all set to do the Warhol movie at one time—I even had a financing party. Maybe I’ll go back to that someday.
JF: Milk was in the works for a long time, too, right?
GVS: Yeah. And when something takes a long time to happen and you’re thinking about it over and over, by the time you do it, all that history becomes part of it.
JF: Now, am I correct in thinking that you always wanted Sean Penn?
GVS: I did offer the role of Harvey Milk to Sean—in ’98, I think it was. I thought maybe I could get it going if I got stars connected to it, so I was trying to get Sean Penn to play Harvey Milk, and Tom Cruise to play Dan White [the former city supervisor who assassinated Milk]. But I was kind of a bad producer. I thought because they weren’t calling me, they didn’t really want to do it. But that’s not really the way it works.
JF: And was there any response from Tom Cruise?
GVS: I talked to him on the phone. He was shooting the [Stanley] Kubrick movie Eyes Wide Shut . At the same time, I flew down to L.A. and had a meeting with Sean. It was just at a weird time in Sean’s life where . . . [splashing noise] My dog just jumped into the pool. Could you hear that?
GVS: He is something . . . Anyhow, Sean was going through a period where he was just about to move to San Francisco and he was having a difficult time with his family, so I really needed to be calling him and not, like, hoping that he would call back. At one point, I wanted River to play Cleve Jones [an associate of Milk’s who conceived of the AIDS quilt].
JF: Oh, really?
GVS: Yeah. In ’93, I guess it was. We actually moved to San Francisco to edit Even Cowgirls Get the Blues  so that I could just be there. I was living in Cleve’s house and I was sort of thinking about different things. River and I would talk, you know, like once a week or so, and I kept telling him, “I’ve got this role for you. It’s Cleve Jones.” He wasn’t as into the Cleve Jones idea as he was the Warhol. It wasn’t really the starring role. That was probably what it was—that it wasn’t Harvey Milk.
JF: Did you have anybody in mind for my character, Scott Smith, way back when?
GVS: No. I was just trying to get Harvey Milk and Dan White. Once we got those parts cast, we would get things going.
JF: I actually wanted to ask you about the real Scott Smith, because when you first started working on Milk, he was still alive, right? [Smith died in 1995.]
GVS: Yeah, he was.
JF: It was surprisingly hard to find material on him. Even in Randy Shilts’s book The Mayor of Castro Street or any of the books on that period, they’ll kind of mention him here and there but not give anything substantial about what he was like. Finally, I went to Rob Epstein, who made the documentary on Harvey Milk that Scott’s in [The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984] for, like, two seconds, and I asked him if he had any material. Rob had done a pre-interview with Scott for the documentary, so finally I got to hear how he talked and see how he behaved.
GVS: Scott had a Mississippi accent.
JF: Yeah. Slight. He had a little twang. The interview was done something like two years after Harvey was killed. When I played James Dean, I talked to some of his old friends and everybody had a different take on him, and I felt something similar about trying to find out about Scott and his relationship with Harvey. Obviously Harvey was assassinated, and so his life just stopped abruptly. But his relationship with Scott didn’t end . . . They were not necessarily a couple when Harvey died, but when something like that happens there are all these loose ends. And with somebody like Harvey who is so important, it’s like keeping his memory alive then becomes a major part of a lot of people’s lives. It’s hard when you’re doing a film based on a true story to really figure out what all those relationships were.
I remember we were all sitting around on the set of Milk and I said, ‘I saw High School Musical.’ I said it like I had never sounded so interested in anything before.James Franco
GVS: Yeah, definitely. Harvey’s relationship with Scott was his most established relationship. When Harvey died, it was as if Scott just said, “Okay, well, I was basically the main boyfriend.” So Scott took over the responsibility of being the Widow Milk. He called himself the Widow Milk.
JF: Did Scott come up with that?
GVS: Yeah, I think he came up with that.
JF: I know that you’re supposed to be interviewing me, but I’m going to interview you a little bit. When River interviewed you, he would ask you questions about how you felt when you were filming a particular scene and stuff like that.
GVS: He would ask really specific questions like “What’s your favorite color?”
JF: Didn’t he have a list of questions at the end?
GVS: He had some kind of list.
JF: He had some weird questions. He actually asked you one about the scene where the barn falls on the road in My Own Private Idaho. That was an important image to you when you were painting.
GVS: It was a house. I used to do paintings of this house—I mean, it was sort of toward the end of my painting career. It was a house that had a red roof and it was crashing, not on a road, but into the ground. Then there was this collage I made of objects floating above the road. There was a stewardess and a viola and a pilot—you know, I was cutting them out of these advertisements.
JF: Well, you went back to painting, and one of my prize possessions now is a painting that you made and gave to me. I guess there was a book of paintings or drawings [Federico] Fellini did that you said were based on his dreams?
GVS: Yeah, yeah.
JF: And that’s kind of how you got back to painting?
GVS: Well, I just recently got that book. What got me back into painting was that Philip Glass had written to me, asking if I wanted him to do the score for a film, but the letter was lost. It was sent to the wrong address, and so the letter was really six months too late. I was planning to write him back, but it had been so long that I felt like I needed to make something to give him as an offering to apologize, so I was making these paintings. I haven’t made his painting yet.
JF: So I got Philip Glass’s painting . . . [laughs]
GVS: Well, I made a bunch of them, and I never gave him one. But I can make them really fast.
JF: You know, the first time that we met was, like, five years before we even met for Milk. I’m pretty sure it was when you came and saw the play that I co-wrote called The Ape.
JF: When we were doing one of the costume fittings for Milk, you brought it up. You were like, “I remember going to see The Ape. What happened to that?” And I was like, “Well, I did make it into a movie . . .” You still haven’t seen the movie.
GVS: No, I haven’t seen it. The play was a comedy, though. You fell and stuff like that. It was physical comedy.
JF: There was physical comedy-it was basically a guy in an ape mask. But it was very obvious that it was an ape mask, and that’s what I liked about it. I had bought this wacky ape mask for something else, and I thought, “Wow, this mask is kind of scary but also kind of funny. We could write a whole play around this mask.” The jaw actually moved.
GVS: You did another play about picking up girls with certain—
JF: [laughs] Yeah, well, there were two one-acts, and so it was The Ape and—
GVS: You didn’t like that other one?
JF: We wrote the other one, too—me and my writing partner at the time, Merriwether Williams. He wrote for SpongeBob SquarePants. The other play was called Fool’s Gold. It was kind of inspired by stories that I had heard at acting school, but then there was also this guy I worked with named Max Martini . . . We worked together on this movie, and he had been, like, Brad Pitt’s roommate. I don’t know if they had been to acting school together, but he was like, “Yeah, man, I just went to acting school to pick up girls, and we knew which scenes to do”—like the romantic scenes. He said, “You’ve got to always use Fool for Love by Sam Shepard.” But I don’t know-it has a great title, but it’s not that romantic a play. It’s actually kind of incestuous-these people who are in love find out that they’re brother and sister . . . So we used that in our play, but I know better scenes if you’re really -going to try and pick up a girl.
JF: Well, I’m bad with the names of the things, but there’s a horrible one that starts out almost like a rape scene. I think Farrah Fawcett did the movie version of it [Extremities, 1986]—it’s a scene where the woman turns on her attacker.
When we were doing Freaks and Geeks, I didn’t quite understand how movies and TV worked, and I would improvise even if the camera wasn’t on me . . . So I was improvising a little bit back then, but not in a productive way. James Franco
GVS: Right. I saw that onstage. She puts him in the fireplace.
JF: I know some guys who use that one. But I remember reading an interview with Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, and I guess they were all roommates back when they were in acting school, and they were like, “Yeah, we just went for the girls.” It seemed every actor said, “Oh, yeah. I just went to acting school to meet girls.” Even the greats were doing it. So I was like, “All right, maybe we can write a play about two guys who do that.” We made a movie out of that one, too. I directed it, but it was so . . . I don’t know. It turned out badly. I’ll never show it to anybody.
GVS: You filmed it?
JF: Yeah, we filmed it. It was hard to adapt.
GVS: So I have some questions for you on this piece of paper.
JF: What’s my favorite color?
GVS: No. Actually, what I have written down is “Zac-slash-romance.”
GVS: And it says “stoner-slash-wind in hair.”
JF: Oh, it’s wind in your eyes.
GVS: It’s wind in your eyes? That’s how you made yourself look stoned in Pineapple Express?
JF: [laughs] Because I don’t . . . I just played a stoner in Pineapple Express, and I don’t really smoke weed anymore, so everyone says, “Oh, you looked really high in the movie. How did you do that?” And I say, “Oh, I just pretend the wind is in my eyes.”
GVS: You have to use certain words like dude. You say dude . . .
JF: I don’t know how much I say dude in Pineapple Express. I probably say it once or twice. I’m sure I say man. I certainly say bro.
GVS: So the lines that were written in the script for Pineapple Express—were they basically what we were seeing on the screen?
JF: Oh, no.
GVS: So in that movie, you’re improvising a stoner as well as just pretending there’s wind in your eyes.
JF: Yeah, well, I don’t actually use the wind in my eyes-I just rub my eyes a bit and talk slowly or something. When Seth and me were doing interviews for the movie, everybody would ask us if we were smoking real weed when we were filming. And basically we’d say, “Did you ever see Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke? That’s what happens if you really smoke weed and make a movie. You get two guys and no plot and it’s basically like, ‘Yeah! Let’s drive a van made of weed!’ ” And that’s pretty much the movie.
GVS: But when you’re working with these guys like Seth and Judd Apatow-some of them do stand-up comedy, right?
JF: I mean, it’s in their backgrounds.
GVS: I used to work for a comedian.
JF: You did?
I had bought this wacky ape mask for something else, and I thought, ‘Wow, this mask is kind of scary but also kind of funny. We could write a whole play around this mask.’ The jaw actually moved. James Franco
GVS: Yeah. Actually, that’s how I got my start. His name is Kenny Shapiro and I was his assistant for about three years. He made The Groove Tube , which later inspired parts of Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels had worked with Ken, and Ken had sort of pitched that same concept of skit humor for this late-night show. Chevy Chase was in The Groove Tube-he was a friend of Shapiro’s. So I worked for Ken, but I was not a funny person. I couldn’t tell a joke or anything like that-I was just surrounded by these comedians.
JF: Well, I have to say that I think Drugstore Cowboy  is hilarious.
GVS: I mean, there’s funniness, but it’s not like a showbiz comedy.
JF: No, but Matt Dillon is pretty damn funny in that. Like, the hat on the bed . . .
GVS: But there’s an interesting element to the Judd Apatow world in that it’s sort of a mixture of comedians and noncomedians in the same films. On Pineapple Express you were working with a lot of the same people you’d worked with on Freaks and Geeks, right? Was the kind of improvisation you did similar?
JF: Yeah, but Freaks and Geeks was TV, so there were lines you had to say. There was a little improvisation, but nothing like what Judd and those guys do in their movies now. I think I would try and improvise more than anybody on that show. When we were doing Freaks and Geeks, I didn’t quite understand how movies and TV worked, and I would improvise even if the camera wasn’t on me. I thought I was helping the other actors by keeping them on their toes, but nobody appreciated it when I would trip them up. So I was improvising a little bit back then, but not in a productive way. [laughs]
GVS: So we haven’t talked about Zac yet.
JF: What is Zac?
GVS: Zac Efron.
JF: Oh. Well, yeah, we can talk about Zac.
GVS: Where did you see him?
JF: I met him for the first time backstage at the MTV Movie Awards. Lucas Grabeel, who is in Milk, is also in High School Musical  with Zac Efron, and so we had been talking about High School Musical a lot. I hadn’t seen it, but my girlfriend was a big fan of the movie-I don’t know why. She was like, “You’ve got to watch it.” And I was like, “All right, I’ll watch it because Lucas is in it.” So I watched it, and I guess I could kind of see the appeal. Some of the songs are kind of catchy. There’s one where Zac is playing basketball, but it’s also like a musical number . . . I don’t know. [laughs] I remember we were all sitting around on the set of Milk and I said, “I saw High School Musical.” I said it like I had never sounded so interested in anything before. Then I think you said that you had tried to get Zac for a small role in Milk.
GVS: Yeah. The pizza guy. He never had time.
JF: Right. So then when I saw him at the MTV Movie Awards, I was like, “Hey, man. Good to meet you, Zac. I really like the movie, and I just worked with Gus, and he tried to get you in his movie.” And Zac was like, “Yeah, yeah. It just didn’t work out.” And I was like, “Well, you should really do a movie with Gus. I think it would be a good contrast to your other stuff.” He’s like, “Yeah, maybe.” And then I was walking away to go back to my seat, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We should do it together, man.” And he, like, gave me a high five. He was really the nicest guy.
GVS: Yeah. He is really nice. We should all do a Judd Apatow movie. You and Zac and me.
JF: Yeah. You should do a movie that Judd produces, and we’ll do it with Zac. What do you think?
GVS: Keep your eyes open for it.
JF: What kind of movie do you think it could be?
GVS: I’ll have to think about that one.
JF: If you have an idea and it’s like me and Zac playing basketball or delivering pizzas or whatever, I’m in.