Chance to work with Van Sant is enough for actor

“I’m probably a little obsessed with Gus Van Sant,” admits James Franco, in explaining how he finally came to work with the “Milk” director, after years of attempts. “I used to watch ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ and ‘My Own Private Idaho’ obsessively. Even before I became an actor.”

Franco first met the director when Van Sant made an appearance at the actor’s writing and directorial debut, stage play “The Ape.”

“For me, that was the highlight of the whole run, that Gus had come to see the play,” Franco recalls.

They met again when the director was casting “Last Days,” though the part in question eventually went to Lukas Haas.

Then, while Franco was spending a summer in London studying William Blake, he got word that the director was finally gearing up to shoot his long-delayed Harvey Milk bio.

“I sent him an email and said, basically, that I would do whatever he wanted in this movie,” Franco recalls.

“Going into it, with Gus and Sean Penn and everyone involved, I just thought, ‘I don’t care if this movie turns out to be the biggest piece of shit, because at least I’d get to work with all my favorite people.’”

The part Van Sant allocated Franco may have looked simple on paper — as Scott Smith, Franco is essentially charged with playing the supportive spouse to Penn’s Harvey Milk during his early attempts to enter politics. Franco even gets the film’s funniest line.

Yet a closer look at the role reveals a number of unique challenges, as Franco was forced to subtly limn Scott’s maturation from goofy, frizzy-haired stoner to serious, mustachioed activist, with most of that maturation occurring offscreen. Not to mention the added weight of playing an actual person about whom little is known.

“If it doesn’t interfere with the arc of the movie, I like to be as accurate as I can to an historical character, even if, in this case, most people wouldn’t know if I was being accurate or not. Except for his friends and people who knew him, most people don’t know much about Scott, even what he looked like, what he sounded like.”

This forced Franco to do some digging.

“I took a look at Rob Epstein’s documentary (“The Times of Harvey Milk”), and there’s only like five seconds of Scott in there. So I went and asked Rob if he had any unused footage, and he went to the archives and eventually dug up this old film reel of an interview with Scott, and he transferred that to DVD for me. That was like a gold mine.”

Favorite film this year

“I loved ‘The Dark Knight,’ ‘Paranoid Park’ and ‘Mr. Lonely.’ Did ’4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ come out this year? I’m obsessed with that movie.”

Best advice

“Hopefully I think about acting differently now that I’ve had some sort of experience as director. How it’s so much easier when everyone’s working with you. It’s not like I didn’t work with directors before, but sometimes I feel like earlier I had been coming to movies with too much of my own agenda. Not that an actor shouldn’t have ideas, but they shouldn’t be so calcified before you get to the set.”

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