Legends: James Franco

By and
Photography Mikael Jansson

Published May 3, 2012

With the 75th anniversary of the iconic sunglasses manufacturer, Ray-Ban underway, INTERVIEW celebrates the NEVER HIDE moments of a few influential leaders in art, fashion, music and film. We’ve met quite a few characters over the decades, but here are some of our favorite interviewees and icons, artists who never shied away from marching to the beat of their own drum. Here we talk to James Franco:

James Franco doesn’t have a lot of down time. Between writing, directing, producing and starring in various films (and the occasional daytime soap-opera), adding to his collection of post-graduate degrees, and, of course, maintaining his James Dean-inspired style, we’re not sure how Franco finds time to sleep, eat or brush his teeth.  But an iconic career has always been the plan for the colorful Palo Alto, CA native. Initially discouraged by his parents from attending art school, Franco tried to tread a more conventional path and enrolled at UCLA to get his BA in English. This, however, did not last long.

Franco left college for Robert Carnegie’s Playhouse West and was quickly cast as Daniel Desario on the cult 1999 TV Show, Freaks and Geeks (you know, that show created by Paul Weiss, directed by Judd Apatow and featuring a young Seth Rogan and Jason Segal). From there, Franco was cast as James Dean in the TV biopic—cementing the comparison between the two—then 2002’s Spiderman, which revived the superhero movie genre. The rest of Franco’s story—his role as Scott Smith in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, improvised comedy parts such as Pineapple Express, Oscar hosting gig, and current documentary Francophrenia—so we’ll not bore you with the details. We shall, however, revisit some of our favorite moments in Franco’s rise in an attempt to solve the modern mystery—what motivates Franco and his myriad projects:

February 2003—At this point Franco’s still seems like a pretty normal guy. Sure, he’s mid-way through a very successful superhero franchise and is being interviewed by people like Nicolas Cage for Interview, but he hasn’t yet gone back to UCLA to complete his BA. He’s just another run-of-the-mill really, really good looking, college dropout actor.

NICOLAS CAGE: When did you first discover James Dean?

FRANCO: I was aware of him in high school.  He still seemed so alive.  He was so relevant to us, as teenagers.  Then, when I started taking acting seriously, I looked at him more from a student’s perspective.

NICOLAS CAGE: Describe a scenario where you wake up in the morning and you decide you’re not going to act, paint, or anything. You’re just going to relax. How would you do it?

JAMES FRANCO: Never. It’s impossibility. I don’t even like to sleep—I feel as if there’s too much to do.

February 2006—Franco will soon be back at UCLA. For now, he’s trying his hand at big-budget leading men such as Tristan in Tristan & Isolde. Here Franco talks to his former on-screen father, Willem Dafoe, about acting:

WILLAM DAFOE: You seem to inhabit roles really well. What do you find you need to get started?

JAMES FRANCO: I want to make the performance as realistic as possible, unless there’s some strange requirement. Now most of the time that means research, because it’s something like boxing or sword-fighting or doing an accent or playing a pilot.

DAFOE: The cool part of being an actor, right?

FRANCO: Yeah, I got my pilots license, and I got to see what boxing is like and all that stuff. Taking those steps is what gives me the confidence to say, “Okay. I can play this role,” as well as the confidence to fall on my face.  But I also feel like there are some roles that don’t need that.

DAFOE: Baby you are my son! [both laugh] I’m agreeing with you.

FRANCO: When I was starting out, doing guest spots on TV, and even commercials, I would go in with a whole crazy wardrobe and some terrible accent.  Obviously I was doing too much.  If you bring to much flavor to it, it’s absurd.  There’s something to just being spontaneous.

October 2008—Francophrenia (the phenomenon, not the film) is spreading and James is beginning to diversify his film and educational pursuits. Step one—landing himself a plum part in a Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Franco and his director discuss other iconic figure pop-culture figures River Phoenix, Andy Warhol and Zac Efron; and improvisation:

JAMES FRANCO: You were going to do a movie with River [Phoenix] about Andy Warhol, right?

GUS VAN SANT: 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.

JAMES FRANCO: The first piece of art 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.

FRANCO: 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.”

VAN SANT: So we haven’t talked about Zac yet.

FRANCO: What is Zac?

VAN SANT: Zac Efron.

FRANCO: Oh. Well, yeah, we can talk about Zac.

VAN SANT: Where did you see him?

FRANCO: 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 [2006] 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.

VAN SANT: Yeah. The pizza guy. He never had time.

FRANCO: 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.

VAN SANT: Yeah. He is really nice. We should all do a Judd Apatow movie. You and Zac and me.

FRANCO: Yeah. You should do a movie that Judd produces, and we’ll do it with Zac. What do you think?

VAN SANT: Keep your eyes open for it.

FRANCO: What kind of movie do you think it could be?

VAN SANT: I’ll have to think about that one.

FRANCO: If you have an idea and it’s like me and Zac playing basketball or delivering pizzas or whatever, I’m in.

VAN SANT: So the lines that were written in the script for Pineapple Express-were they basically what we were seeing on the screen?

FRANCO: Oh, no.

GUS VAN SANT: So in that movie, you’re improvising a stoner as well as just pretending there’s wind in your eyes.

FRANCO : 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 [Rogan] 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.

FRANCO: Freaks and Geeks was TV, so there were lines you had to say. There was a little improvisation, but nothing like what Judd [Apatow] 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]

April 2012the present day. The apex of Francophrenia? We have no idea. It’s hard to imagine Franco becoming more intriguing to the public. Here, we ask Franco about his most recent experiment, Francophrenia

MICHELLE LHOOQ: People might say that you’re pulling a Joaquin Phoenix with this, except Joaquin took his performative madness even further by bringing it on Letterman. Did you ever think about extending your act beyond General Hospital?

JAMES FRANCO: I think the impulses that have pushed me to do the projects I’ve done for the last five years are maybe similar to what inspired Joaquin to make that mockumentary.  In the early part of that movie, he has this little speech, “I hate being an actor, they dress you and put on your makeup and you just feel like a little baby.” And I think that’s something a lot of actors feel. You work really hard to make it, and maybe you get some acclaim, but then you realize there are certain limitations as an actor. Generally you don’t initiate the projects—they’re designed and you’re inserted. Your material is edited by somebody. You feel a lack of power over your work.