James Franco is an actor, writer, director, visual artist…the list goes on. Most well known for his on-screen work, Franco has appeared in a number of major Hollywood films, including the Spider-Man trilogy, Pineapple Express, Eat Pray Love, Milk, for which he won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor, and 127 Hours, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead and an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor, among many other awards and nominations. He played James Dean in the critically acclaimed TV film James Dean, for which he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor, Allen Ginsberg in the independent film Howl, and he also starred as Daniel Desario in the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks. His most recent films are Your Highness and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which premiers on August 5, 2011. He hosted the 2011 Academy Awards with actress Anne Hathaway.
In 2010, Scribner published Franco’s short story collection Palo Alto: Stories. His paintings and installation work have been exhibited at galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin.
Franco earned a BA from UCLA, a MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and MFA degrees in fiction from Brooklyn College and Columbia University. He has studied poetry at Warren Wilson College and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at Yale University.
Franco is emphatic, determined, and unwilling to let anyone think they really ‘get’ him. He does what he wants and knows why he does it, no matter how much the rest of us keep wondering.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I told my mom that I wanted to be a ‘worker man,’ which was a construction worker, I guess. I liked to build things. And then I wanted to be a football player. My mom tried to break it to me gently that I was probably too small to play football, professionally. But she still gave me hope, she didn’t completely shut me down.
My mother is a children’s book author, so that was around. I remember that I wrote stuff when I was pretty young, like elementary school. There was a story called “Deep Down,” it was influenced by the comic, The Far Side, but I didn’t draw it. I drew at that time, but this wasn’t a comic. I don’t even know what it was….but I was writing young.
At one point in junior high, I read Cannery Row [by John Steinbeck] and I loved that character Ed Ricketts. He was a marine zoologist, so I wanted to do that. He kind of had the coolest set-up. In Monterrey, he lived on the water and would just go into the tide pools and stuff, and that was his job. That was a pretty cush job. I don’t know how many marine zoologists actually have it that good.
But it sounded good to you.
It was pretty romanticized. But I always— ‘cause my mom was a writer and my parents met in art school, they were painters— it [writing and art] was always kind of around. I think that all that stuff was always in the back of my head, even if I wasn’t actively pursuing it. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue it when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, was because of fear, I guess. When I was about sixteen – that was when I started reading seriously. But, well, I read a lot when I was younger, too. I read all the Oz books, all the Tolkien books.
Were you finding them at home, or were you going and seeking them out?
I was going and seeking that out. I guess I just loved fantasy. My dad introduced me to Tolkien and after that I was sort of off and running. I found a lot of stuff on my own.
When I was a little older, I guess eighth grade, my friend introduced me to Kerouac. Then we started reading all the Beats together. And then my dad gave me As I lay Dying, and then I read a lot of Faulkner, Hemingway, all that stuff.
At that age, when you were reading that stuff, did you have the sense that you wanted to write like that? Did you have a sense of what it meant to do that?
Yeah. I remember very clearly reading Heart of Darkness, and I don’t know why I thought this, but it’s like when somebody does something well, you think: “Oh, that’s easy!” I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m going to do this, I can do this. He’s telling a story, I can do that.”
And Conrad’s doing it in his second language!
There was a creative writing course at my high school and that was the first time I started writing stories, trying to write a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually, we wouldn’t read to the class like in writing school. But the teacher was reading it, so that was the first time I was really getting feedback.
So, yeah, I wanted to write. But I was actually doing more painting and drawing at the time.
Did you take art classes?
Yeah. Basically, I got into a lot of trouble when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, so I needed to change my patterns. I had to stop hanging out with certain people…
When you say you “had to,” was the change imposed on you by your parents or was it something you realized for yourself?
A combination. I was in trouble. I was still a minor, so I didn’t go to jail or anything, but I’d been caught many times doing stupid stuff. And I remember thinking, like— I think I even had a conversation with my dad asking, “What am I going to do with my time when I’m not out with my friends getting into trouble?!”
Like, “What do other people do with their time?”
Exactly! ‘Cause I didn’t like sports at that time. So that is when I got into the art classes. I would go every day after school, from 3.30 to 10 p.m., every day.
Wow. That’s a lot.
It was like forty hours a week. That was all classical life drawing.
At this point, did you have a sense that you wanted to pursue acting, or did that come out of left field?
I always liked acting, I always loved movies. I grew up near San Francisco, in Palo Alto, and when I got my license I would go with my girlfriend to San Francisco and see whatever plays we could at A.C.T. [American Conservatory Theater] and stuff like that. I was always drawn to that as well, it’s just that I was in Palo Alto and I just didn’t know how it was done. And I was also very scared, just to kind of break in and do it, you know?
When you say you were ‘scared,’ what do you mean?
It was Palo Alto, so nobody that I knew was pursuing it [acting] professionally. As far as actually doing it in movies or television, I guess I could have done my research or something, but there wasn’t even Internet at that point…I thought the kids in Stand by Me, were, like, born into it. I don’t think I even knew that there were auditions!
So, I just dreamed about that. I did some acting when I was in elementary school and junior high. In high school I didn’t act until my senior year, mainly because I was scared. Then my girlfriend of two years was an actress and there were several events. First, she was asked to do this one-act that this guy wrote and it was about a couple or something. The characters kissed in the one-act, and I was really upset that he had asked my girlfriend to do that play with him that he had written.
That he had written in the kiss on purpose.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. So I begged her not to do it, and she did it anyways— like she should’ve— but I think I was waiting for an excuse to just do it, and that propelled me to go to the acting teacher and tell him I wanted to be in his class. It was kind of like, “If you’re going to go do that, then I’m gonna do it too.” So I did, and I was a lead in the last two plays senior year. And then, in addition to that, I ran into a friend who had auditioned for some commercial and I was like, “Oh! That’s how it works?” He was like, “Yeah, it’s easy. You go and audition and if they like you, they cast you.”
Then I moved to L.A.
For college though. Not for acting initially, right?
Right. For UCLA. I was an English major. But then everyone was doing it in L.A, everyone was trying. And I was like, “Oh.” There was a guy in my dorm who was in that Cybill Shepherd show, Cybill. I was like, [cocks his head] “Wow.” It suddenly felt like it was possible. At least people were trying, so why shouldn’t I try?
So how did you begin to pursue it?
I auditioned for some of the drama classes [at UCLA], but, you know, there were drama majors, and they got all the acting classes. I was only eligible for special classes that weren’t even for actors; they were, like, for directors who needed some actors to work with— stuff like that. And I couldn’t even get cast in those.
It’s just like I wasn’t on the inside. At that moment I realized: Acting is where my passion is right now. Yeah, I’m in the English program right now and I really like literature, but I have all these fucking GE requirements and everything, and it just felt like, God, I’m not doing what I really want to do. And I couldn’t audition for the drama program until I was a junior, because I hadn’t done it as a freshman, and I just said, “Forget it, I’m not doing what I want here. I am going to go to acting school.”
So I eventually left UCLA, after like a year and a quarter, and went to acting school.
How did your parents feel about that?
They weren’t excited. I did have a conversation with my dad on a plane, I remember. They call me Ted, he said, “Ted, you’re being an idiot.” But, basically, they wanted me to make my own way if I was going to make that choice. They said, “We will pay for you if you go to UCLA, and if you don’t, you’ll have to take care of yourself.”
So, what did you do?
I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I had very little work experience. Someone said, “Well, are you too good to work at McDonald’s?” And so I said, “I guess not. I’m doing this because it’s what I really want to do, so I’ll work at McDonald’s, if that’s what it takes.” I went and they hired me.
What did you do at McDonald’s?
They rotate, although I mostly worked the cashier window at the drive-through— I could do that well.
You didn’t flip any burgers?
No! They didn’t put me anywhere near the burgers. Then, when I had to do the food window, I just got too confused and everything got backed up. Sometimes I worked the counter, but mostly the cashier window.
But first, actually when I left UCLA, I worked at the cafeteria at UCLA.
That must’ve been weird— working in the cafeteria but not being a student anymore.
It was weird, yeah. And then I worked at McDonald’s for two to three months. Then I got a Pizza Hut commercial with Elvis in it, like a computer generated Elvis. After that, I never had to have a side job again.
That’s pretty amazing. Did you have an agent already when you did that Pizza Hut commercial?
At acting school, there was a girl who had been working since she was young. After six months of school, she introduced me to her agent who didn’t take me, but that agent introduced me to a manager and he took me on and found me an agent. So, I was auditioning even though I was working at McDonald’s.
What was it like to see yourself in that Pizza Hut commercial?
I saw it once. I wasn’t the lead. It was Elvis, and I was one of a gang. We were, like, in this dirt parking lot, a gang of dudes. The main guy was like, “Have you heard the news?!” And we were like, “What?!” “Elvis is in Pizza Hut and he’s eating a deep dish pizza!” And we were like, “No way! Deep dish?!” Then it cuts to the Pizza Hut where the computer generated Elvis is eating the pizza and he’s, like, singing [sings nonsensically in a thick Elvis-voice]. You know… [Laughs.]
But it was a triumph.
Oh yeah. I got paid for acting, so.
From computer-generated Elvis to Freaks and Geeks— what’s the span of time we’re talking about?
So, lots of auditions. Just kind of the circuit. The process is: You go out, and the casting directors get to know you, so they know if there’s a certain role, and if they like you, they’ll bring you in for that. It was like hundreds of auditions, probably. Then I did this horrible show called Pacific Blue, I had a guest spot on that. It was bike cops on the beach— Baywatch on bikes.
Oh man, I remember that show.
I played this racer who was part of this horse steroid smuggling ring and all these racers were taking horse steroids or something, and then I get beat up. And then I got a guest spot on this show called The Profiler, about this FBI woman or police agent who has visions and can see crimes happening before they happen. I, like, robbed a jewelry store on that. Then I did a pilot for a show called 1973. It was the same year that That 70’s Show had their pilot. That show went and our show didn’t. Then, the next year, I auditioned for Freaks and Geeks and got it.
During this time on the auditions circuit, where were you living?
After my first year at UCLA, I spent the summer in L.A. really trying to start working as an actor. And, I really just slept on couches. It was a really weird summer. I was just sleeping on couches. And then I finally moved into a tiny apartment in Sherman Oaks, in the Valley, with two other actors. I slept on the couch for I think probably about two years.
That is a long time to be living on a couch.
Yeah. And then eventually one of them [the roommates] stopped acting and moved back to Michigan. The other one eventually moved out and at that point I could afford the whole place on my own. And then I got a nice car, finally. My grandmother had given me my grandfather’s old car, and I didn’t change the oil. I remember I was preparing for James Dean, and I was drag racing with my friend and the engine just froze because there was no oil. It was just done. So I got a nice car and I didn’t have garage parking at that apartment, and my manager was like, “You have to find a place where you can park your car.”
So you moved for your car.
Yeah, but I didn’t move that high up. I was still in the Valley, in an okay apartment building.
What did you eat?
It wasn’t pretty. Yeah…it wasn’t pretty. When I lived with those two guys…wow. They have these grocery stores in L.A. that are called something like “99 cent stores,” you can get a can of beans there for, like 99 cents, and a packet of pasta for 99 cents. That’s what I ate for a while.
Also, I had been a vegetarian when I was at UCLA because I was really into River Phoenix, and he was a vegetarian or he had been, so I became one for, like, a year. But when I was working at McDonald’s I was just so hungry, I guess, because I started eating the hamburgers [chuckles].
McDonald’s turned you back from a vegetarian to eating burgers— that’s a pretty good grade for McDonald’s. Or was it just desperation?
It was just, you know, I really had no money. I was just getting by to pay the rent off that salary, so if I was getting free food…
How do you look back on that time?
It’s fun to think about, and I got life experience, I was growing, but I was still pretty immature. And I was also…I always felt like my artistic development was slow, you know? I felt like all these other people had great taste, and knew what they liked. Other actors, other artists.
I remember when I was at UCLA, I was like, “Why do these other people get to be the art students?” ‘Cause I had wanted to go to art school too, but my parents didn’t want me to go. And the directing students too. Those were the people I was really resentful of. I was like, “Why do they get to direct the movies?” Or, one of the biggest intimidating things when I was a freshman at UCLA was, they didn’t have a creative writing major, but you could kind of specialize in creative writing. But [to do that] you had to be accepted into three creative writing classes, you had to apply every time. I remember being so intimidated by that. Thinking, “How am I ever going to get in this class?”
I think I just struggled with myself for a long time. I struggled with figuring out what I liked, and then figuring out that I could trust in that. Just trust in the artistic things I was drawn to and follow that. You know, whenever you get a little pull in a direction, to follow that. At first I was told a lot of things, and I just didn’t know to trust those instincts and impulses. I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t like a lot of the work that I was doing at that time.
I was part of projects like Freaks and Geeks and this James Dean thing that got a lot of positive response. But I still didn’t feel like…even though I worked so hard on those things— I did too much work on those things. Freaks and Geeks was loosely based on one of the creator’s childhood outside of Detroit. But no one would ever really know that! But I, like, flew to Michigan and went to his high school just to see it. I don’t know what that got me as an actor, but that was the kind of stuff I would do.
But, despite all that, I still felt like I wasn’t doing it. I was just kind of being told what to do.
Well, it’s tough to be assertive before you’re in a place where you have a lot of choices.
In acting, when you’re trying to build your career, you’ll get this kind of advice or feedback like, “Oh, that’s a good career move. You should do that, that’s a good career move.” Instead of, “Do that movie because you believe in it.” Or, “Oh yeah, I know you want to do that artistic drug-addict thing, but urgh, it’s a real career-killer,” or whatever.
A lot of voices telling you what to do.
And I had some voices telling me not to trust myself, basically. Once I got more opportunity, I ended up taking these movies that I just didn’t believe in. When you start out, you sort of take what you get. But then, you know, after a while, if you’re lucky, you can start choosing. And I was choosing movies that I didn’t believe in. I worked hard on them, but they weren’t movies I would go see if I wasn’t in them! And, after doing several of those, it was like a wake-up call. It was like, “Why am I doing this? I’m not doing stuff that I’m proud of, I’m having horrible experiences, this isn’t why I got into acting.”
A lot of things changed at that point. I stopped doing those kinds of movies, I went back to school for writing… I’d been doing certain artistic practices all along, but it was all in isolation. I never showed anybody my paintings, really. I never showed anybody my writing. And I just wanted to be around other people who were doing that.
So that’s when you went back to school.
I went back to UCLA and I got into all the writing classes. And I got to work with the head of the graduate art school, so it was like, “Ah!” Such a relief, being able to do those things that I’d been doing all along but, you know, alone. It was nice to be able to work with mentors, like Mona Simpson, or Russell Ferguson who ran the art program, people who I really looked up to. And getting really smart feedback on my work, and finally feeling like, “Oh!” To start developing.
You spoke before about that sense that you had at UCLA the first time around of not being on the inside, of wondering, “Why do they get to do that?” Do you think now that you are pursuing a number of different programs in different places, does it come from that early urge to be on the inside, to get to be a part of the group? Or what is it?
Well the desire to be on the inside is really just wanting to take those pursuits seriously. I actually just officially finished NYU today—
Yeah. I had my thesis review.
Yeah. I had directed films before I went to film school, but again, I was paying for them myself, I had some skilled people around me— cinematographers, editors— but I purposely didn’t hire a strong producer to guide me because I wanted to do it on my own. I felt like I had to compromise when I was acting in these films, so when I was going to direct I was going to do it on my own. But the downside was that I didn’t have somebody showing me the way, saying, “James, I know you want to pursue your own vision, but did you think about doing this thing, just as an option?” You know what I mean? Just to guide.
So, after the first time I made a NYU film, we had to show them to the faculty and get reviewed, and it was like…really such an amazing moment, because it was just like—
I get emotional about this because people were looking at me like, “You’re a director now.” You know what I mean? It’s a great moment of taking on a new identity. Because you know that you’ve put in a certain amount of work and it’s not just dreamland anymore.
The other side of it—pursuing a lot of programs— is because I know that these are great places to be. And all of my heroes are teaching. The fact is that most writers have to teach to support themselves, so that means the best writers are teaching at these institutions.
You have to go to the programs to hang out with them.
Jennifer Egan was writing without showing anyone her work for a long time and she told me doing that was like working in a kind of dangerous vacuum. Because what she found was that when she finally showed people what she had written, it was unreadable. She said she never wanted to go back to that vacuum again. That’s why she started seeking out people she trusted as readers.
Here’s what it is, too. I’ve been in a lot of MFA programs now— for art, film, writing, fiction writing, poetry— and, sometimes you’ll find a group who you really want to listen to. Usually, I mostly just want to listen to the teacher. But, the big thing about getting out of that vacuum is that when I was writing on my own, it’s like I let myself get away with stuff, or I judged my own work based on what I envisioned it being rather than what it really was. And as soon as you show somebody else your work, it looks different to you. You know what I mean?
As soon as you read it aloud to the class, you’re like, “Oh…” It’s the same thing with a painting. You work on it in your studio, and somebody else walks into the studio and it just looks different. It just looks different. You see it through their eyes. Steinbeck would read his work out loud to people. He would read it aloud to his wife or friends or whatever, and he wouldn’t want comments back, but I think it was just because he could hear it differently. And that is what the workshop can do.
You’ve reached a point in your life when you realize you want to go and do these things, and you’ve reached a point in your career when you can go and do all these things. But the flip side is that you can’t be anonymous, that people can’t lose the vision of James Franco the actor and just see James Franco the director, or the writer, or whatever it is you want to be seen as in that moment.
I’m fine with it. It’s just the way the situation is. There are some programs that I’m in that I just love. At Yale, my fellow students are superstars in their own right, so they don’t have any sense of hostility and it’s great. But, like, The New York Times is calling my professors and interviewing them about my performance in class! You know what I mean?
But it’s also fine because I’m happy with what I’m doing. I know that my intentions are pure. I’m going because I do want to take these things seriously. I mean, I probably could have gotten a book published without going to MFA programs, but I take this incredibly seriously.
It’s a little hard when I want to try something new or try something that is maybe going to fail, because if I do kind of fail or it doesn’t turn out quite like I want, it’s maybe a little more public than it would have been otherwise. But, I’m okay with it.
I’m okay with not being the best at everything I do. I’m just happy that I get to do it.
What did it feel like to see your story collection published?
I’m really happy with the book. [Pause.] It’s just weird because I’ve already had the big first moments, you know what I mean? I go to these big movie premiers…it’s different, but…[long pause] I kind of don’t care what people think, I guess. I’ve been working on it [the book] with some of my favorite writers: Amy Hempel and Gary Shteyngart, Ben [Marcus] read it, Mona [Simpson] read very, very early drafts, Michael Cunningham did a lot of work on it with me. People that I really respect like it, and that’s the best I can ask for.
And, frankly, I don’t think people are going to be seeing it with the clearest perspective because I am coming from the acting world.
Does the fact that you write and direct your own material now affect how you act in other people’s films?
Yes. It’s changed me a lot. Before, when all I had was acting, I had this need to do more. I couldn’t just play my role. Basically, I wanted to direct, you know? So, I was kind of going out of my bounds as an actor. Now that I realize what a director goes through, when I go and act in somebody else’s film, I just want to help that director accomplish his or her vision. I take my ego out of it.
I mean, with that kind of approach, I’m only going to do things that I believe in, that I have faith in. But once I do commit, then it’s not my show; I’m just trying to help somebody else. That was a big change for me about four or five years ago.
I read an interview with Miranda July a long time ago where she was asked what her medium was, was it film or was it writing? And she said something to the effect of: “I just have ideas, and I do whatever medium suits the idea. Right now it seems to be writing….” You’re in a similar position. Do you feel similarly?
It all kind of falls under Art with a capital ‘A.’ But each art form can do things that the others can’t, or do things in different ways. And, in the art world, artists are much more accepting of artists who practice many different forms. But when you are in the film world and go into the music world, or if you’re in the film world and go into the writing world, it’s just met with immediate skepticism. And it’s much more rigid. Unless you’re Tina Fey, and you write comedy and then you write a comedic book. Or, you’re an actor and you write a memoir— that’s okay.
But I just feel— like Miranda July— that there are different ideas, there are different subjects, there are different things I want to express. And I think that sometimes they should take one form over another. Or, I want to explore how the different forms merge. Like, I made these short films based on poems. So, I’m interested in crossovers, too.
For me, I am not happy being one thing. I think the different disciplines feed each other and make me look at each of them in different ways.
Any advice to young creatives, whether they’re sleeping on couches in L.A. or scribbling in basements in Brooklyn?
I guess just really do it. Some people learn well in school, some don’t. But it seems to me that most people that I respect have had a mentor of some sort, or some sort of exposure to a larger group involved in his or her area of interest. Go out and really try to engage with that, at least for a period of time.
There’s all kinds of advice, life experience and bla bla bla, but, it seems to me that if you want to make something new or interesting, then go and really engage with what is going on now. Either mix yourself up with it and go with the flow, or react against it, but just go and work on it in that sphere of intensity for a while. Whether it is school or artistic circles, or whatever.
The other great thing about the workshop is that everybody has to turn in their work. You can always show off at the bar. You can always show off in a seminar class. But as soon as you turn in your work it’s like, BOOM. Now you’re walking into the fire. So, I think it’s a very important and humbling rite of passage and usually pretty necessary. Sure there are exceptions, geniuses who come out of nowhere, but to me, that [the workshop] is the most controllable way to get involved and get serious about your work.
When you dropped out of college, your dad told you that you were doing the wrong thing. What does he think now?
Oh, he’s very supportive! [Laughs.] He’s gone back to art class. My mom acts with me now. My brother is an actor, and my other brother is an artist. Now they’re all artists! [Laughs.]
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photos courtesy of the artist