For the past decade, actor James Franco has built a career based on huge talent, killer looks and enigmatic charm. Now is clearly his time, as the buzz on Milk—the Harvey Milk biopic in which he stars opposite Sean Penn, under the direction of Gus Van Sant—follows his summer smash, Pineapple Express. But Franco wants more: this year, he’s enrolled in two graduate schools while continuing to conquer Hollywood. For a smarter approach to life and art, Franco’s got an academy or two he’d like to thank.
James Franco steps into a dimly lit, speakeasy-style restaurant in TriBeCa, his face stricken with apology. “My last class was running way over and I couldn’t get a cab,” he says, a knapsack slung over his black leather jacket, his dark wavy hair tousled, his features flecked with sweat and dust after a long day spent shooting a film for a class at New York University, where he is working toward a master’s degree in film direction.
Then he smiles a winning smile, big and toothy. There’s an easygoing charm about Franco today that contrasts with some of the complex, charismatic men he has portrayed over the years, from James Dean (in a 2001 biopic which propelled his career out of the land of TV fare like Freaks and Geeks) to the impetuous, stringy-haired pot dealer of Pineapple Express, to his solid supporting work in the upcoming Milk, with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in California, and Franco as Scott Smith, Milk’s longtime lover. In person, with a five o’clock shadow giving him longer sideburns and a hint of a mustache, it’s clear that Franco has more on his mind at the moment than looking camera-ready at all times. In addition to his graduate courses at NYU, he’s also simultaneously pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. “Going back to school has been life-changing and lifesaving,” he says, taking a banquette seat, placing his knapsack by his side and leaving his black leather jacket on. He leans forward, hovering over a lit votive candle as jazzy music plays in the background. “I wasn’t on the point of suicide,” he says, “but I wasn’t satisfied.”
But how, exactly, can being a handsome leading man, with the Spider-Man franchise thrown in for good measure, trigger existential despair? Isn’t it the actors who don’t get any work who feel this way? For Franco, who comes from a brainy family—both his parents attended Stanford and his dad, a Silicon Valley executive, graduated from Harvard Business School—the Hollywood lifestyle just wasn’t enough.
“Movies have their own rewards for an actor,” he says, his voice a kind of tough gym-teacher rasp, familiar to those who know him by his villainous Spider-Man character, the vengeful rich boy Harry Osborn. In person, Franco uses the rasp to humorous, gregarious advantage. “You can feel satisfaction for doing a movie that you believe in, or with critical praise, or good box office,” he says. “As an actor, you can tell yourself that your self-worth isn’t measured by how your last movie did at the box office. But I found when acting was all I had, inevitably I would be emotionally affected by how well a movie did.”
“School offered a way to focus on something that had a new criteria for success, and its own rewards,” he continues. “It’s the reward of knowledge and learning things that I’m interested in. What it does is release me from pressure that I put on myself, where everything has to be perfect. Now I go into a project and I turn myself over to the director’s vision. And if a performance doesn’t come out exactly as I wanted because I’m not in complete control, that’s fine. Since I’ve taken this appraoch, I haven’t had a performance that I’ve hated.”
When it comes to performances that he hated, or even just disliked, Franco can be blisteringly, but hilariously, harsh on himself. When he’s told that a BlackBook fashion assistant declared Franco her favorite actor, and his 2006 epic Tristan + Isolde her favorite movie, Franco groans and puts his head on the table.
“Wow, I feel bad for her,” he jokes. “She probably hasn’t seen too many movies.”
What about the film, in which Franco plays the titular Tristan, a medieval English warrior, lit like a Caravaggio, doesn’t he like?
“It’s okay,” he says, with reservation, as if evaluating a used car. “It was shot well. And there are good performances. But it just felt, to me, that the movie wasn’t doing anything fresh. You’ve seen that character before.”
Next, I tell him, while searching for the highlights of his 36-plus film career, I consulted my local video store clerk, asking him what his favorite James Franco films are.
“And he’s like… None.”
“He recommended Fly Boy,” I say.
“Flyboys… it’s plural… Fly Boy would be like In Living Color.”
Shot in 2006, Flyboys showed Franco in full-on Tom Cruise, Top Gun mode. Playing a noble World War II fighter pilot, Franco gave the kind of performance that in another era might have placed him in the ranks of matinee idols. But, as with Tristan + Isolde, and a naval academy film, Annapolis, completing his 2006 trifecta, mainstream success wasn’t meant to be for him—yet. “I went into Flyboys hoping it would be Gladiator,” he says. “I did a lot of work for those films—five to eight months of preparation for each one.”
So much for epics. It took a stoner flick, this summer’s runaway box office hit Pineapple Express, to catapult Franco’s career to the next level. “I find it ironic that I did a lot of serious movies that I worked hard on, and now I’m getting the most response to the movie where I roll a cross joint,” he says about his reunion with Judd Apatow, the director who gave him his first big break by casting him as Danny Desario, the popular high school hunk in the television series Freaks and Geeks. As Franco puts it, the low-key, playful atmosphere Apatow created on set dovetailed with his own more carefree approach to filmmaking once his graduate studies got underway. “The m.o. on that set was to have fun.”
One of the things that makes Franco so good as an actor is his fluid changeability, and this catch-me-if-you-can quality is what keeps audiences eager for the next surprise. Watching him on film, at first glance he might just be typical Abercrombie, but there’s something deeper going on with Franco, something in his eyes, something mesmerizing and just a little bit lethal that both raises him up to the realm of the gods and connects him to the real world, giving his looks traction. In person, there are even more contradictions at play. He’s jovial, chatty and congenially self-effacing, but in a flash he can take on the visceral urgency of his Spider-Man villain, or hint at the volatility of the hustler he played in Nicolas Cage’s 2002 directorial debut, Sonny. In a matter of seconds, something flickers across Franco’s features that suggests he’s got a powerful alter ego coexisting with, and perhaps protecting, his inner friendly guy.
He refers to this other, less breezy side when talking about his life, pre-and post-Pineapple Express and Milk. “I think I’m hopefully a much easier guy to be around with on set now,” he says, “just because a) I think I’m more communicative and b) It doesn’t always have to be doom, gloom and pain every second of the shoot.”
Franco is justifiably proud of his work in Milk, a project that teamed him up with one of his all-time favorite actors, Sean Penn, and director Gus Van Sant, whose 1991 film My Own Private Idaho inspired Franco to become an actor. “On the most basic level,” Franco says, “River Phoenix’s performance was incredible. And Gus brought in so many elements to that film, from Shakespeare to George Eliot.”
With his hair lightened and curled for this 1970s-era story, his frame outfitted in jeans and a series of flannel shirts, Franco as Scott Smith, Milk’s long-time lover, brings tenderness to the scenes between Scott and Harvey. He breathes life into what could have been a two-dimensional character, making the performance look effortless. “Whenever Harvey went out and failed at something,” Franco says, “Scott would be there to support him. That was the main function of the character in the film—to provide support.”
On choosing Franco to play Scott Smith, Gus Van Sant says: “We wanted a romantic couple, and James seemed a perfect combination with Sean. I had seen James’ plays, met him a few times. He was also really interested in the part.” As for any similarities between Phoenix and Franco, Van Sant says, “There is a physical resemblance, I think, but they have very different approaches. River was not schooled, but could be great. James has a little more practical study going on.”
Penn and Franco had known each other for years, their friendship beginning when Penn called after witnessing Franco’s breakthrough, Golden Globe-winning performance in the 2001 James Dean biopic. Penn had written a script and had a part he thought would be great for the young star. “It was a world-weary kind of character,” Franco recalls, adding that the film has yet to be made, but it’s still on Penn’s wish list. “After we wrapped Milk,” Franco says, “Sean said to me, ‘We’re definitely doing that other movie, but I’m sorry to say that I’m going to have to break up with you now.’”
Gay themes have appeared in Franco’s work before, most notably in The Ape. Franco wrote, directed and starred in the likeably raw 2005 film about a young writer who leaves his wife and baby to set up shop in a Hoboken apartment for three months where he can presumably work on his novel, but ends up contending with a talking ape in the room. The ape has much to say about the main character’s hidden life, his motivation for moving out: “You’re gay. This writing thing is just a front. This place is supposed to be your bang-fest bungalow, your delicatessen of dick.” The ape then taunts the Franco character by singing a Judy Garland song from Meet Me In St. Louis.
“The ape stands for his id, his sexuality—and also, his ultra-masculine side,” explains Franco. “The ape is a projection of Harry’s insecurities about his masculinity. So when the ape says things like that, I hope it’s not coming off like the filmmaker is homophobic. It’s the character dealing with his inner self. I’m not trying to say that that’s me. I’m just trying to address the issue.”
Going from this depiction of internalized homophobia in The Ape to playing Scott Smith in Milk, did Franco receive any new insights about what it might be like to be gay, or in a gay relationship? Franco responds: “As soon as I got out of high school, I was like, I don’t care if anybody’s gay. It doesn’t matter. Doing Milk, I don’t know if it broadened my mind at all. I like to think that I was as open as I could be at that point.”
Franco is continuing to explore themes of conflicting sexual identity in a short film he’s currently directing at NYU, inspired in part by an Anthony Hecht poem about the darker side of locker room horseplay called “The Feast of Stephen.” Poetry is a medium that has fascinated Franco since childhood (his mother, Betsy Franco, is a published poet and children’s book writer). At UCLA, Franco took poetry workshops, and developed a style of writing that he says involves combining fragments of existing texts, like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, with his own poetry “for unusual effects,” he says, “and as a kind of response to the previous text.” It’s also the form of expression he turned to after learning about Heath Ledger’s death.
“I was in between classes, waiting in line at a café,” Franco recalls. “Somebody wrote me that Heath had died, and it really upset me. It was weird, because it seemed like a lot of incredible people died in the past year—Sir Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack. Brad Renfro died the week before Heath and I’d worked with him twice. It was really adding up. So I wrote something about it, that I actually read at the Hammer Museum in LA… ” he says, his voice trailing off. “Whatever… ” He looks embarrassed for a moment, and then explains: “I’m so shy about talking about it, because in print, it sounds like ‘Oh, James Franco likes poetry!’ ”
The education of James Franco, and the actor’s road to discipline, focus and achievement began, he says, with a streak of delinquency. Growing up the oldest of three boys in Palo Alto, California, Franco’s early friendships consisted of bonding with a neighbor over his subscription to Fan magazine. “There were cheesy shots of actors in it, and my friend had them all over his wall, like Christian Slater in Gleaming the Cube. I had posters up of Justine Bateman in Satisfaction, the cast of Stand by Me and the Lost Boys poster—I got that even before I saw the movie. I thought it was the coolest thing.” This led to a skateboarding phase (“which was a little cooler”), and then a period in high school of hell-raising. “I had to stop hanging out with a certain group of people, because I got in so much trouble with them,” Franco says. “For some reason, I was like a magnet for the police. I would get caught for the stupidest things… wandering around drunk, stuff like that. They weren’t the worst people in the world, it was just that I was really dumb when I was around them,” says Franco, who these days orders black espresso rather than happy hour cocktails, even when taking meetings at a chic TriBeCa bar.
Former Fan magazine reader Franco now regularly appears on the cover of glossies, but the persona he projects in a photo shoot and his real-life personality seem so different. Does he have any secret narcissistic tendencies? “When I was in sixth or seventh grade,” he offers, “I remember thinking that I wanted to be really buff, and work out a ton. That seemed really attractive to me. And now, I fucking hate to work out. I hate spending time on anything physical like that.” Anything else? Franco pauses, thinks for a moment and says: “In the morning, I throw some kind of gunk in my hair. The product is by Jamal Hamadi, the guy who cuts my hair.”
What designers is he wearing today? At this, Franco sets his spoon down with a determined clink. “Here’s the problem with these questions,” he says. “I don’t mind them, but when I answer them, it sounds like it’s what I want to talk about. Like, Yeah, I’m wearing my Gucci jacket. And you know what I put in my hair today? I put in some Hamadi goo! That’s what I like to talk about in an interview! You know what I mean?” But then Franco good-naturedly reveals the elements of his style: John Varvatos black boots. Acne jeans. A plaid shirt of indeterminate origin. And American Apparel underwear. “I have quite a few colors,” he says, pulling out his shirt to reveal the waistband. “It’s so easy.”
Hopefuls on either side of the gender divide should be advised that Franco is taken. He refers to a girlfriend whose birthday he dashed off to celebrate after his BlackBook cover shoot. “We went to see a play, Boeing-Boeing, which was funny, and I took her to dinner.” Did he meet her at NYU? Is she a fellow student? “She’s an actress, and she lives in L.A.,” Franco says, not encouraging this line of inquiry. (Over the last three years, he has been photographed at premieres with actress Ahna O’Reilly.)
Franco will, however, mention a thirtieth birthday party that she organized for him. “It was a ‘This is Your Life, James’ party. I walked in thinking we were about to have dinner, and the bar was filled with UCLA professors, everyone from my hometown, all my high school friends, everyone I’d done movies with, Tobey [Maguire], the cast of Milk.”
In a convenient tying together of his current preoccupations and pursuits, James Franco will spend his winter holiday starring in Howl, as Allen Ginsberg, the gay beat poet. He’ll also play an alt-rock singer in a movie called Sympathy for Delicious, directed by Mark Ruffalo. After the month-and-a-half long break, his studies will resume uninterrupted, as they have for the past three years. “I have faith that my school and acting schedules will work out,” Franco says. So, what’s at the end of this paper chase? A PhD? “Yes,” says Franco, adding that teaching is something he’d like to do in the future. “It sounds more appealing to teach creative writing students than a general composition class,” he says. “I like the idea of teaching people who I know are interested in a subject, and not because it’s a general education requirement. I want students who want to be there.”
The bill arrives, but the restaurant doesn’t take credit cards, and Franco offers to pay. “Let me give you some cash,” he says, and without a lot of fanfare hands over a twenty. Out on the street, he lights a cigarette, and we walk a few blocks together. Suddenly, he darts over to two young women standing outside the bar holding unlit cigarettes, and offers them a light. A breeze keeps blowing out the flame. Franco keeps flicking the Bic, until he hands one of the young women the lighter and tells her to keep it. The excited gleam in her eyes reveals that she knows who he is, but is keeping cool. Franco seems exhilarated by this brief moment of romantic urban poetry. He may have sucked face with Sean Penn in the past few months, but he hasn’t lost his winning touch with the ladies.