James Franco is trying to remember why he was in Paris that summer, five, six years ago. He's spent the past few minutes explaining, without pause, how it all came together for him there, a kind of eureka moment, and he started to become this A-list actor/eternal grad student/writer/avant-garde artist-filmmaker/soap-opera regular James Franco character that everyone appears to be so confused by. Now, if he could just remember why he was in Paris.
"I thought I was going to have to learn French because . . . Damn, why did I think I had to learn French?"
Franco has this stonerlike way of zoning out, then talking in Faulkner-length paragraphs. They take you places, then other places, and times—his native Palo Alto, Hollywood, New York, New Haven (where he's currently working on his Ph.D. in English at Yale). And at this moment, to Paris, in what I'm construing was 2008. In this pause, the first since we sat down for coffee an hour ago, Franco looks up at nearby tables in the Restaurant at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, where everyone's suddenly busy pretending he's not there, and I look down at my five pages of questions for him, sitting where they were when we first shook hands. A half-hour from now, when we agree to meet up again at the Warhol show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (his idea) and perhaps write a poem together (mine), they're still sitting there.
Music in video courtesy of The Diamond Light
Franco is about to re-enter the mass consciousness, with six films slated to open in 2013, including Sam Raimi's prequel to The Wizard of Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful. I've been boning up on him—no easy task: The places and times of Franco's life at 34 are so much more far-flung and numerous than you might imagine. But the thrust of my five-page "questionnaire," as he calls it, is reducible to a simple question: Is this a serious post-Warhol actor/meta-celebrity or just another actor gaming his celebrity? And in either case, what is Franco trying to do?
As I'll learn, it's exactly the question he has been trying to answer. Because he's been puzzling his own way through it since that summer in Paris . . .
And because nothing is simple with Franco. In 2006, with five feature films (three with leading roles) set to debut, Franco re-enrolled in UCLA at age 28, a decade after he'd dropped out to study at Playhouse West, L.A.'s Method-acting mecca. He'd leapt to stardom in the 2001 TNT biopic James Dean, his performance not only capturing Dean's unique pain and intensity but also revealing the young actor's own. It netted him a Golden Globe, fans named Sean Penn and Robert De Niro (who had Franco cast as his son in 2002's City by the Sea), the recurring role of Harry Osborn in Raimi's multi-billion-dollar Spider-Man franchise . . .
And a hard-earned rep for being the next brilliant, obsessive, difficult young Method actor. No one would accuse Franco of laziness: A compulsive reader (he consumed all 14 of the L. Frank Baum Oz novels by age 11), he was way intense, devoting months to learning how to box, ride horses, or swordfight to get into some of his characters, earning a pilot's license, coming close to male prostitution, and becoming genuinely homeless for other roles. He'd try lines and scenes the way he saw them and then start reading between setups and takes: Joyce, Eliot, Spinoza, Dostoevsky, Hobbes, Pynchon . . .
"But I'd become incredibly frustrated," he tells me, "staying in the lines of my job description as an actor. I was making it hard, not only on everyone else, but on myself as well." In the six years since he quit being a movie star, enrolled in UCLA, and majored in English, he has
• done M.F.A. work in five graduate schools: Columbia and Brooklyn College for fiction, NYU for film, Warren Wilson for poetry, and Rhode Island School of Design for digital arts
• published a half-dozen books
• exhibited in about as many museums and galleries
• appeared or collaborated on a dozen gay-themed projects, including appearances in drag, leading to great confusion about his sexuality
• taught in a widening number of universities, graduate programs, and acting schools
• written and/or directed numerous conceptual-art features and short films, as well as advertisements and a music video
• kept up the day job—indies, bit parts, cameos, and pseudo-cameos online and on TV (including Franco, the dashing and possibly homicidal conceptual artist on General Hospital)
• ascended to largely A-list roles: As Sean Penn's lover in Milk and as Julia Roberts' in Eat Pray Love. As the climber who escapes certain death in a Best Actor Oscar–nominated turn in 127 Hours and as the geneticist who dooms mankind in Rise of the Planet of the Apes . . .