James Franco Takes On His Toughest Role Yet: Being James Franco

Of course he would be playing the Wizard of Oz. Is there any other actor who manages to be at once culturally ubiquitous and utterly elusive? You'd be forgiven for assuming there's a private self hidden beneath the public projection. But pay no attention to the man behind the celebrity curtain. He's just another character in Franco's repertoire.

Clothing by Gucci.

Styling by Sarah Ellison at Streeters. Grooming by Jamal Hamadi for Hamadi Organics at starworksartists.com. Set design by Andy Henbest for Frank Reps. Production by Ruth Levy.

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.

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 . . .

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.")

A movie still of Alien waving his pistols is the author photo on the dust jacket for Strongest of the Litter, Franco's chapbook of poems. "Alien and that film are having their cake and eating it," he explains. "Engaging with pop culture, but also going deeper. Alien is what happens if we get all our wishes: unrestrained consumerism, ego, id, sex . . ."

"Most people can't get past that gag reflex at the back of the throat," I say.

"Guess I'm a natural," he says with a laugh. "It was my first time."

"So that wasn't you in Broken Tower?"

"Oh shit, you're right!" Franco's eyes light up. "It wasn't my first time."

"You're known for going the extra mile, but that was, what, a good eight inches?"

He gives me a get-real look. "That was a dildo." Then he turns that look back on himself, and I see the real James Franco: "If I'd had the guts, it woulda been real."

"Life for James is either an act of creation or he's sleeping," says Raimi, Oz's director, who's directed Franco on and off since Spider-Man in 2002. "It's not a façade. It's more like, without those things, he simply wouldn't know how to live."

I take his point as my in-box starts filling up after Franco and I part at the Chateau: PDFs of his writing, with hard copies of films and books later arriving by mail. It's a huge body of work, running the gamut from brilliant to unbearable, at times in the same piece. Franco, who remained in acting school long after he'd become a Hollywood star, is a student, and much of what he sends is not only student work but clearly intended as such: He takes critical theory and conceptual art seriously, and both can lead to some very dull art. What keeps you watching is this strangely constant vibrancy, which comes through in radically different pieces and media, regardless of the collaborator.

Among Franco's stronger poems are sonnets about films and actors he loves. In an e-mail, I propose we collaborate on a sonnet about three loves we share: A Place in the Sun and its stars, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Franco comes back with Let's do a six-sonnet series, 3 + 3. After I spend a day on an Elizabethan sonnet, six of his are in my e-mail the next morning, some quite confessional, mentioning the current bed partner he was rewatching the film with in his room at the Chateau.

A lightbulb goes off, and it hits me: Franco is a confessional poet. I rephrase some personal queries as opening quatrains of Petrarchan sonnets, a form that's distinctly "call-and-response." His responses are almost immediate:

From scripts and managers and packed soundstages
To empty canvases and blank pages.
These M.F.A.'s, James Franco, Yale, RISD:
In part to make those solitary arts less lonely?
You're right, I fight loneliness. I want an art posse.
I made friends at art school but also enemies
Mostly at Columbia where the students are brats
And they pay so much money they want results

Instantly, so how can you blame them for hating
A Hollywood boy who gets his book published
Right out the gate, and gets to do movies, and date
Whomever he damn well pleases, like a one ton Pink
Elephant in the room, whom everyone wants to shoot
But no one does, because they're all begging for peanuts.

"I know James very well in a professional sense," says Raimi, who spent a decade working with Franco before he finally got a personal sense of the actor behind the curtain while filming Oz in Detroit. "There's a scene where James opens a door, and he's supposed to be angry. I told James he didn't seem that angry, and he said, 'Oh, I'm plenty angry. I just don't want to show it.' It's like he has this secret, and it's mysterious, but you don't want to know it, because it's so alluring as a secret. That's part of his charisma, and maybe what he's playing with in all this other stuff."

So many masks are worn in Franco's works:
Do you worry that your own good looks
Will ghettoize your films, exhibits, books:
Make you a McClure till proven Ginsberg?
I was just in City Lights and noticed how handsome
McClure was in those old photos of the last Beat
Gathering in 1965. But I don't think of my own looks
In that way. I'm no longer trying to escape. I am me.

I accept what I am, on the inside and out. I love me.
But I also know that me is something other than me;
A figure that is created by forces outside me. That me
Is a me I can fuck with, and in that way I'm new, I step
Aside and rearrange the parts of the old me, the Spiderman-
Ginsberg-Pineapple-Freak into something else: the Fairy King.

Shirt from What Goes Around Comes Around

Styling by Sarah Ellison at Streeters. Grooming by Jamal Hamadi for Hamadi Organics at starworksartists.com. Set design by Andy Henbest for Frank Reps. Production by Ruth Levy.

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.

It's early afternoon but already a long day for him. Still answering/graffiti-ing questions, he's a bit somnolent in the limo, where I'm having trouble with my tape recorder, hitting PLAY instead of RECORD, his perfectly audible whispered voice from the museum filling the drive down Fifth Avenue. And I realize: That vibrancy I kept sensing in his books and films is exactly this, exactly what they can't teach in schools—a voice that's unmistakably his regardless of the current collaborator or medium. I've gone from asking why Franco does so many things and what they are exactly to wondering how does he fucking stay awake?

Sometimes he doesn't. "We were at the end of a 17-hour day on Oz," says Mila Kunis, who plays one of three witches Franco encounters, "doing this carriage scene, with real horses. The set was so long they couldn't turn the horses, so we'd just leave the set, circle, and reshoot. James just fell dead asleep after a take. I mean, nothing I could do would wake him up. We came around for a take, everybody saw, and they just kept the cameras rolling."

For a second, I think he's nodded off in the limo. In fact, a particular question has put him deep in thought: The cliché/bumper sticker "Success is a journey, not a destination" had plagued my mind while screening/reading his work. Googling it, I'd come across a sermon from an evangelical minister: "When God calls you to something, he is not always calling you to succeed. He's calling you to obey! The success is . . . up to Him; the obedience is up to you."

"I totally agree!" says Franco, his eyes lighting up. "All you have is what you work on and how hard you work on it. As far as the results or the reception, it's out of your hands. That's something I really had to come to understand."

The limo pulls up at Soho House, and Franco really wants to put it all together for me. But nothing's simple with him. "There is this thing Sean Penn told me once," he begins. "It's from some race-car movie. There's this Italian character, and the first thing he does when he gets in is he pulls off the rearview mirror and throws it out the window. The other guy goes, 'What are you doing?' And the first guy goes"—Franco's voice lowers—"'Where we're going, we don't need to look behind . . .'"

His voice returns to normal as he smiles at me to conclude the line. "'Ever.'"

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