If you wonder: Why so many projects, media, graduate schools? Why this meta-Franco, serpent-eating-its-tail character, who so often plays/writes about himself? And, finally, is the guy gay or straight?
"Welcome to the club," says Seth Rogen, laughing. He came of age with Franco in Judd Apatow's short-lived, now-cult-favorite TV show Freaks and Geeks, and he directs Franco in June's This Is the End, in which the bulk of Apatow's stable (all playing themselves) descend on Franco's house as the world suddenly comes to an end. "I was having lunch yesterday in Langer's Deli, and a woman next to me was just bending this guy's ear about Franco: 'Actor, artist, poet, Ph.D., blah blah. It's so pre-ten-tious. And why doesn't he just come out of the clahset already?'"
Whatever the take on Franco, there's no questioning his effort. At UCLA, he took as many as 62 credits (not a typo) a quarter and graduated with a 3.5 GPA in two years . . .
"That's it!" says Franco, explaining the eureka moment in Paris. "I was a student abroad that summer. See, I'd gone back to study English, but I also always painted, so I'd added art-department classes." He'd begun working with the department chairman, Russell Ferguson, on a series of avant-garde videos that Franco intentionally did not appear in, hoping to keep Hollywood and his studies distinct.
In Paris, however, he began a long collaboration with a New York conceptual artist, Carter, who suggested a project along the lines of Rauschenberg erasing a de Kooning canvas: Franco would act in a feature-length performance but deliver only a small percentage of the dialogue on camera. They filmed Erased James Franco: 65 minutes of him alone in a room, reprising parts of his famous roles on a telephone. Franco does act throughout it, but the performances read flat, perforce: His "costars" on the other end of the line don't exist.
Franco loved it. "As soon as I embraced it"—his persona as an actor playing a role/person who, "like all of us, essentially play ourselves, to some extent"—he found that he could embrace everything. "It gave me this incredible energy."
That last word is odd from Franco, who phrases carefully and is decidedly not New Age. But energy is key to understanding this unusual man, who "fights sleep every night," considering it "a defeat." Often waking up on whatever couch he nodded off on, he runs his 19-hour, nonstop workdays on coffee. The Chateau waiter who took his "Cappuccino, please" clearly regarded it as an automatic reply more than as a drink order.
Franco looks neither as young as he usually plays nor as old as his résumé suggests. With the fledgling mustache and goatee he favors between roles, in jeans and a blue woolen cardigan I'll later learn is Gucci (Franco, who cleans up nice, has been the Face of Gucci since 2008), he looks professorial. The métier du jour, in fact, is his class at CalArts. One of five the New York–based actor taught in L.A. this fall, it has its very Francoesque premiere tonight: Tennessee Williams one-acts, performed, videotaped, and projected simultaneously on stage.
Energy also explains Franco's enormous identification with the indie director Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which opens in March. Too experimental for mainstream, too commercial for indie (mega-pop stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson play girls gone mega-wild on spring break in Florida), it features an almost-unrecognizable Franco as Alien, the cornrowed, densely tattooed, gold-grille-mouthed drug lord who springs the girls out of jail. Way out: In the first of several three-ways, Franco performs some very impressive deep throat on two of his character's pistols after the girls turn the tables on him and shove them in his mouth.
"I'd written that scene a year before, but it was just words on a page," Korine recalls. "The girls came up with the idea of sticking his guns in his mouth, and right away he said, 'I shouldn't be scared, I should be turned on.'"
It's not his first onscreen BJ: Franco also goes down on a truck driver in The Broken Tower, the NYU graduate thesis on the 1920s gay poet Hart Crane that he wrote and directed in 2011. (For the record, Franco is neither gay nor a dopehead, despite his High Times "Stoner of the Year" award for playing Seth Rogen's dealer in Pineapple Express in 2008. "There was lots of pot in a Spring Breakers strip-club scene," he says. "I don't even smoke cigarettes for roles anymore—I use herbal stuff—and after 20 hits on this 'blunt,' I fucking puked.")