Gawkerproof in gray Adidas, jeans, a baseball cap, and a cardigan, carrying a vintage copy of the environmentalist Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us, Franco the eternal student is plugged into the audio headset of the Met's Warhol show. It's clear to me why he chose this place to meet up again: The energy here, of the paintings, photos, films, sculptures, and installations of Warhol and the 60-odd artists he inspired, is très Franco: a blurring of high art and pop culture, the pure and the commercial, serious/screwball, private/public, gay/straight, etc.
That energy is often difficult to distinguish from the buzz of museumgoers, and this morning, four days after Christmas, the Met is full to capacity. Franco—whose affect changes from room to room, and who can variously read like a patron, the show's 61st exhibit, or some combination of the two—is probably the quietest, most ascetic-seeming person in here.
Until we get to a suite of rooms toward the end of the show. The selection of artists and work, the audio-headset narration by John Waters, the placards, and Franco, now quite animated, all speak to variations on queer theory, a school of critical theory spun off of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. "One of my professors at Yale, Michael Warner—one of the big reasons I went to Yale, really," he says, explaining the fascination, "had been a 19th-century-literature scholar. But as soon as he brought his queer life into that world, it gave him this energy and a realization: It wasn't about being gay but about being different. And that gave me a feeling of enormous permission."
Franco's collaborated with a few of the artists whose works hang in this room. Others evoke work of his, both done (he reprised a series of Cindy Sherman photos in drag) and undone: Franco hates working out, he tells me, but brought a trainer to the Oz set to slim down not for the reportedly $200 million film but to play Robert Mapplethorpe, an independent project that's since been shelved.
The Met seems like the place to finally get my interview done. A half-foot of snow has fallen since the museum opened, however, and even the café in the sparsely visited American-artist wing I'd picked out is packed. We settle on a bench in a relatively empty room on the second floor, and I turn on my recorder.
Two questions in, "Ahem"s from a guard have us whispering, which Franco can do and remain audible but I can't. I hand him the "questionnaire," and he uses the Rachel Carson book to balance it on his lap, removing the felt-tips and styluses marking his place. He's apparently halfway through: Each page up to that point is covered in graffiti. In Franco's reprobate adolescence, the subject of his 2011 short-story collection, Palo Alto, "a big graffiti phase" led to one of several run-ins with the law. And his first taste of collaboration: "My friends and I had a group we called I.A.K., which stood for 'I am king.' We would write poetry or little sayings that we liked and then sign it with the group moniker."
Franco, who hates the workaholic-weirdo part of his image, is happy to have a recent answer to the question Can you remember a single two-hour period of doing nothing? "Christmas!" he says. "Opening presents back home in Palo Alto."
Korine calls Franco's relentless cross-pollination of life, work, media, gender, etc., "the wormhole"—the place where one collaborates with Franco: "It's like putting a bunch of chemicals in a beaker and seeing what happens."
Another lightbulb goes off, and I tell Franco to take a pen to my questions. He starts to graffiti them, drawing names like JAMES DEAN, BRANDO, ED RUSCHA. Then cartoonlike drawings and captions: Of Lester, protagonist of his/Cormac McCarthy's Child of God; JONAH HILL, whom he's starring with in a film. Of TVs and six block-letter HBOS, over a question about why appear on General Hospital when television is making serious art. He seems to open up as he draws and writes, the multimedia-ness of it giving focus enough, for example, to a simple "I wish I could call New York home"—his first and only admission of the wear that all these jobs and 19-hour nonstop days must take on a body.
Until he gets to questions about his private life. "I gotta roll," Franco says. He invites me to join the ride to his next meeting, at Soho House in the meatpacking district.