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Prolific, controversial, funny, fearless … Actor James Franco has it all. By Helen Barlow.

James Franco driven by love of hard work and movies

Oscar-nominated actor James Franco.
Credit: RABBITBANDINI PRODUCTIONS

Few people working in cinema, in any era, have been as productive as James Franco. Certainly German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of his idols, made 40 feature films in less than 15 years, before he died of an overdose aged 37. But Franco, who doesn’t drink or smoke and turns 37 on Sunday, thrives under pressure. 

Franco rose to fame playing another of his idols, James Dean, who was a mere 24 when he died in a car crash. With his half-cocked head and irresistible smile, young Franco bore an uncanny resemblance to the rebellious icon. His profile then grew with Sam Raimi-directed blockbusters (three Spider-Man movies and Oz the Great and Powerful) and crass comedies with pal Seth Rogen. In 2011 he was nominated for an Oscar for his turn in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and co-hosted the ceremony with Anne Hathaway that year. He also directs his own independent movies, writes novels and poetry, mounts art exhibitions and teaches graduate courses in filmmaking, often straddling the east and west coasts of the United States on a weekly basis.

Opting for less commercial movies of late, at festivals this year alone he has appeared in an array of films. There was True Story, a dark drama where he plays a real-life murderer alongside his good buddy Jonah Hill (Sundance Film Festival), Yosemite which, like Palo Alto, was based on his short stories inspired by his upbringing (Slamdance), and I Am Michael, where he gives one of his best performances as a real-life gay activist-turned-heterosexual and born-again Christian (Sundance and Berlin). He also starred alongside Nicole Kidman in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (Berlin), and played in Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine (Berlin), Wild Horses directed by Robert Duvall (South by Southwest) and The Adderall Diaries, a true-crime thriller that will soon have its world premiere at Tribeca.

Franco’s directing efforts include two uninspired William Faulkner adaptations, As I Lay Dying (2013) and The Sound and the Fury (2014), and a soon-to-be-released adaptation of Steve Erickson’s 2007 novel Zeroville. (For his on-screen role he sported a bald tattooed head, a bushy moustache and gained considerable weight.) Now he’s filming In Dubious Battle in Atlanta with a big-name cast that includes Duvall, Josh Hutcherson, Bryan Cranston and Selena Gomez, his co-star in 2012’s Spring Breakers, for which he received a slew of awards for his turn as a grille-toothed rapper. With such a cast In Dubious Battle might even make it to Australian cinemas.

“Now is the time when I am able to get these kinds of movies made,” explains Franco in Berlin. “I’m finally at the point where I’m able to do what I really want to do and work with people I respect and admire. That to me is what makes life sweet. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Some people take holidays to have fun; I like to work. It’s difficult for me to have relationships or raise a family at this time, but I have worked some things out in a way that all the people I work with are my closest friends. Basically my work time is often my fun time.”

The cast of In Dubious Battle also includes his regular collaborators, ex-girlfriend Ahna O’Reilly and his New York flatmate Scott Haze, with whom he has also been romantically linked. Well, by those who cannot see past the constant parody and cross-gender play that he indulges on social media, which includes taking selfies of himself in bed. Another frequent accomplice in Franco’s online antics is the burly Rogen, whom he met on Judd Apatow’s hit 1999 television series Freaks and Geeks, and who has been his co-star and instigator of the comedies Pineapple Express, This Is the End and The Interview.

In November 2013, over three one-hour lunchbreaks during The Interview shoot, they spoofed Kanye West’s Bound 2 music video, which featured a topless Kim Kardashian. In their version, a shirtless Rogen faced an unusually macho Franco on a motorcycle. Months later the pair Variety calls “Hollywood’s goofiest power couple” parodied West and Kardashian again with a fake Vogue cover. Within an hour of Franco posting it to his Facebook page, it received almost 150,000 likes. That night Franco appeared on Broadway in Of Mice and Men while a play he directed was running downtown.

Next, as part of their promotion for The Interview, Franco and Rogen appeared in a segment of the Discovery Channel’s survivalist reality show Naked and Afraid.

“You’re supposed to be a hot Australian survivalist!” Franco moans upon seeing the naked Rogen. It’s probably the funniest thing they’ve done. It’s certainly funnier than the film they were promoting, where they played two very silly American journalists planning to assassinate North Korea’s beloved leader Kim Jong-un. The North Koreans were not pleased.

Did Franco feel endangered during this time? “No, not really. I mean, I took all the photos off my computer – just in case anybody hacked,” he jokes. “I was told to watch my accounts, so I did that.”

Sony probably had the last laugh as The Interview, which was made for $US44 million, became the studio’s highest-grossing online release, earning more than $40 million in rentals, and $11 million at the box office.

Unrelenting drive

Franco’s unrelenting drive can be traced to his early years growing up in Palo Alto, California. Even at age four when a family friend died and his mother tried to explain the concept of death, he complained he wasn’t going anywhere as he had “too much to do”. During his first two years in high school he was in trouble with the law, committing minor offences involving graffiti and stealing and crashing cars. Once he channelled what he calls his “teen angst” into acting, playing the lead in school plays, he found his place in the world.

“I didn’t socialise; I didn’t talk to anybody,” he recalls. “Everybody would be having parties and I just refused to go because I had too much work to do or whatever.”

Franco grew up in a liberal environment as the eldest son of Betsy and Doug Franco, who met at Stanford University. His dad, who died in 2011 at age 63, was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur of Portuguese and Swedish descent who encouraged James to pursue his strong talent for mathematics. Instead, James followed the artistic path of his similarly productive mother, who is Jewish.

“I’m Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, but I wasn’t raised Jewish,” he says. “My mum is the most supportive, easygoing person around. She’s also a teacher of the young, she’s had three boys [his brothers are artist Tom and actor Dave] and she writes children’s literature, she works in schools and she directs plays for teenagers.” Betsy also portrayed James’s mum on the soap opera General Hospital.

After a year of study at UCLA, which he undertook to please his parents, Franco dropped out to pursue his Hollywood dream. He waited only two years before Apatow cast him in Freaks and Geeks, which led to the 2001 James Dean telemovie. Robert De Niro soon suggested Franco be cast to play his junkie son in City by the Sea, a box-office disappointment, and after auditioning for Peter Parker in Spider-Man, Franco ended up playing the second-fiddle role of Harry Osborn. When his subsequent mediocre movies Flyboys, Annapolis and Tristan + Isolde flopped, he realised something had to change.

In 2008, Franco returned to tertiary study, enrolling in four graduate programs – three for writing and one for filmmaking. While seemingly giving Hollywood the snub, it was like a bolt of lightning to his career, which took off. He also completed some of his university courses in record time and is still a PhD student at Yale.

Suddenly Franco was offered work by his favourite directors, including Gus Van Sant. In Van Sant’s Milk, he played the long-term partner of Sean Penn’s murdered San Franciscan gay rights activist and politician, Harvey Milk. He would reunite with Apatow and Rogen on Pineapple Express and would be Academy Award-nominated for his portrayal of real-life adventurer Aron Ralston, who amputates his own arm in order to survive a boulder fall in a Utah canyon, in 127 Hours.

“I’d been working in film for nine or 10 years as an actor and I wasn’t happy,” Franco confides. “I wasn’t trying to do my job, I was trying to do other people’s jobs, [and] to an extent the director’s job. That was wrong of me, because I was making things difficult for everybody. So now when I sign on to a movie I am going to help the director tell the story. On the other hand, I feel the need to develop my own vision, which is why I direct.”

Michael Glatze’s story, which first appeared as an article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis in The New York Times Magazine and was brought to Franco’s attention by Van Sant, became a passion project. He signed up as star and producer of I Am Michael.

“Benoit had interviewed me when I’d played Allen Ginsberg in Howl, so I pursued it as a project I could also produce. Once Gus introduced me to [director] Justin Kelly, who had been an assistant editor on Milk, I realised it would be a great way to examine all the issues that I’m interested in: identity and what makes us who we are.”

While avoiding the topic of religion in his own life – “It’s complicated,” he says – Franco admits he respects “all religions and all kinds of sexual orientations”.

The latter is borne out by his appearance in drag on the cover of Candy, “the first transversal style magazine” in the US, by his art shows, including one project where he wandered around the Louvre with a penis on his nose, and by his willingness to champion movies with LGBT themes. Interior. Leather Bar., which imagines the scenes edited from William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising, starring Al Pacino, was a 2013 hour-long odyssey Franco co-directed with Travis Mathews, a champion of depicting male sexuality on screen. When Mathews’ previous movie, I Want Your Love, was banned by the Australian censor from screening at Sydney’s 2013 Mardi Gras Film Festival, Franco was up in arms and on the phone to the Australian media.

“My point was that in film, especially in mainstream film, sex is really kept out of it compared to violence,” notes Franco. “What has resulted is a generally unsophisticated presentation of sex in film. Sex is such a huge part of our lives so it’s really a disservice to us as viewers and to our culture to not be able to present it at least in America, and I guess Australia, in all its complexity. Banning it at an adult film festival is just insane when you can just go on the internet and in seconds watch the same thing.”

Wim Wenders calls Franco “fearless”. Up-and-coming American actor Dane DeHaan (Lawless) is another fan. The 29-year-old, who by chance has followed in Franco’s footsteps by playing Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and playing James Dean in Anton Corbijn’s Australian co-production Life, was quizzed by Franco for Interview magazine last year.

“James is a manic creator; it’s unbelievable what he does,” DeHaan says. “He was on Broadway in Of Mice and Men and he was flying to LA to teach a class at UCLA and doing my interview and painting a portrait of me before he went back on a plane to New York. I would never be able to do that. I would drop dead!”

Does Franco still only get five hours’ sleep a night? “A bit more than that,” he responds with his beguiling smile. He says he is good at napping, and can have an hour’s shut-eye almost anywhere.

It’s his passion that propels him, notes Trin Thomsen, the head of programming at Mix, a Copenhagen LGBT Film Festival, who in 2013 was a student in Franco’s graduate class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“Whether he’s acting or directing or writing, James really believes in what he’s doing,” she says. “He’s just expressing himself and that’s amazing to witness. I took a course called Exit Strategies about how to make it in the business after you’ve finished university, and he was incredibly helpful.”

Franco injects his own money into his courses to ensure his students come out having made a film.

“It’s just what I love the most,” he says. “Some people love cars, some people love boats, I love movies. I also love being in that pure creative environment, as opposed to the business. Teaching is a way for me to take the focus off myself. I’m grateful for my life; I’ve been given a lot of opportunities and a lot of great experiences. So it feels good to be able to provide opportunities to other people.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2015 as "Franco's reign". Subscribe here.

Helen Barlow
is a Paris-based film writer.