No movie star has ever forged a career quite like that of James Franco, the multi-hyphenate who straddles commercial cinema, avant garde artwork and academia with a ferocious zest that makes most anyone else with an 18-hour day look like a slacker.
In a way, Franco is much more the magician in real life than he is in Disney’s $200 million 3D “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” At age 35, he manages the wizardry of doing so much by making it all seem so very natural.
“For me one of the most interesting things about my life is that I do get to do all these things,” Franco says of his five degrees — from UCLA, NYU, Columbia, Brooklyn College and the Rhode Island School of Design, his doctorate program at Yale (“I still have to take my orals and write my dissertation”) — alongside film work that finds him acting, producing, writing and directing in at least eight projects this year alone.
“The way they crossover in my life and the way I can go from one to the other is I think ‘That’s me!’ That’s what I do. That’s what my life has become. And I’m happy that that’s what it’s become.”
As he shuttles weekly across the continent teaching at NYU on Sundays and UCLA/USC on Mondays, there isn’t a back-up scenario here that would see him segue into teaching and leave films and acting behind.
“I’m teaching more than I’m going to class as a student, but I’m still enrolled in the residency writing program at North Carolina and I have not finished my Ph.D. program at Yale,” he says.
“The different endeavors fuel each other and inform each other. So right now I have no reason to choose one over the other. I don’t have any desire to give up anything up.
“In measured doses they’re all very enjoyable and satisfying.”
It all began, as he quickly acknowledges, with the 18-episode now-cult 1999 Judd Apatow series “Freaks and Geeks.”
“Before, I had only done a couple of guest spots on television. I did ‘The Profiler’ with Robert Davi and I did ‘Pacific Blue,’ which was ‘Baywatch’ on bikes. I had done some very, very small independent films, maybe only one. I think I got $500 for two or three months’ work every day. Oh, and I had done one other pilot.
“So until ‘Freaks and Geeks’ that was the first time I was on a regular set and I guess it was working with people of that caliber (not to say that Robert Davi wasn’t great) that helped shape me, that were focused on my character. In a sense it was a main character so I was on the inside of a group that was doing something special.
“Because that happened so early I think it had a huge influence on me. After ‘Freaks and Geeks’ Judd and Seth Rogen, all those guys, grew themselves. So the way we approached the material on ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is different from the way Judd works now with tons of improvisation, with keeping the cameras rolling and having more freedom and greater freedom in subject matter for humor. All those things were not possible on ‘Freaks and Geeks’ because of the tone we had to have.”
Today, while he seems busy, Franco insists he’s selective — “I do say no to a lot of things. I think a lot of people think I’m too busy with school so I don’t get a lot of things” — and that his choices revolve around an elemental approach.
“Film is a director’s medium. So first and foremost, I’m turned on by directors and that’s really going to be my main consideration: Who’s going to be my director or collaborator if I’m acting in the film?
“That holds true for a huge studio film like ‘Oz’ or an independent film. It’s not like I put on my studio film acting hat or my independent film acting hat when I go and do the different kinds of projects. What’s different is a studio film like ‘Oz’ has the money to create a fantasy world. So that’s a consideration.
“If I’m in discussions to do a movie like that I consider, ‘Oh, this is the only way that the land of Oz can be created in such a detailed, all encompassing way. This is definitely justified as a studio film.’
“If I do an independent film it usually means you can deal with material that is a little more dangerous, a little more complex. It doesn’t need to make back hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Then again it can be something simpler. Take Franco’s participation in “The Iceman,” a true tale of a notorious contract killer that screened last fall at Toronto, Venice and Telluride.
” ‘Iceman’ was literally one day of work. Director Ariel Vromen did ‘Iceman’ and I was very happy to work on it, I liked Ariel.
“But mainly the consideration there was Michael Shannon, who was the lead. Michael had acted in two of my student films, a short called ‘Herbert White’ and ‘The Broken Tower’ about Hart Crane. Basically I felt like I owed him. He’s just one of the best actors around, and to do that for me was just a huge gift. He basically asked me to be in ‘Iceman’ and I said yes because I was so indebted to him.”
Franco jumped aboard Gary Fleder’s “Homefront” where he plays a meth dealer terrorizing Jason Statham’s family.”It was an interesting project. It’s kind of a thriller movie that doesn’t have the deepest plot, but I was offered the role of the villain. It wasn’t that long of a commitment and I felt there would be something fun I could do with the part,” he says with a laugh of the pic, scripted by Sylvester Stallone.
Speaking of fun June’s “This Is the End” sees everyone — Rogen, Jason Segal, Emma Watson, Paul Rudd and Franco — play themselves, or at least an apocalyptic comedy version of themselves.
“Seth Rogen co-directed that, it’s the first feature he’s directed. That was shot in a way that was similar to how a lot of the Apatow movies were made: There’s a script, but once you’re on set, you’ll always get the gist of what’s written but then there’s room and time for improvisation. So the scenes develop on camera.”
As for how these kind of commercial choices fit with films like his Sundance/Berlin/Istanbul festival entry “Interior. Leather Bar” and his upcoming docs on “Saturday Night Life” and the House of Gucci, “I guess they fit in because I’m interested in a lot of different things. I went through the NYU Film program and part of the training was in documentary filmmaking,” he says.
“I have a strong team of documentary filmmakers. My main d.p. for the movies I direct, Christina Boros, comes from a documentary background; the editor Ian Olds comes from documentaries and he made some award-winning docs like ‘Kayak.’ I feel like we have a strong approach to documentary subjects. Then when we find something we’re interesting we find the time to make it.
“Also when I find a subject like ‘kink’ or ‘Gucci’ or ‘Saturday Night Live,’ we figure out a way to shoot them. Documentaries are really fun because it’s dealing with reality or real people that’s different than feature film and there’s something about that I really like. So those projects satisfy that interest.”
Franco was happy to headline a sleeper hit like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but for him it’s really somebody else’s success.
“That was fun and I was very happy for everyone involved in the movie,” he begins. “My choice to do that movie relates to what I said before. I heard they’re doing ‘Planet of the Apes.’ And like probably anybody, I was, ‘Oh really? That’ll be gimmicky, kitschy. Or maybe goofy.’
“Then I met with the director Rupert Wyatt and he told me that the Weta effects team was going to do all the effects and they were going to do it through performance capture like they’d done on ‘Lord of the Rings.’
“Here, I thought, was something cutting edge. Here are people using technology in a new way; at the core there will be something very new here. The key core relationship of the film will be between a human actor, played by myself, and a CG character that is made through performance capture and CG effects — and they’re trying to make it a believable relationship. That hadn’t been done to the extent before that they did it; there were certain details in the way they did it that were new. I thought this was cutting-edge. That was what pushed me to do the film.
“I was really happy with its success but when I act in a movie I usually feel like, because now I do believe it’s a director’s medium, I feel like I’m helping somebody else achieve his or her vision. I feel satisfaction.
“But there’s something a little bit less about that satisfaction. I feel like it’s not my movie; I’m part of somebody’s else’s movie and I’m happy I was. But I never feel it is my movie when I’m just acting in somebody’s else’s film.”
As to the planned “Apes” sequel, “I don’t think I’ll have a very big role in it simply because of where the storyline has gone. They don’t want me to talk about it much. They don’t tell me much either, which is kind of insulting. I know Andy’s involved and I’m happy for him.”
Franco can’t help but laugh when asked about protecting his “brand,” despite the oddball choices to parody himself on a daytime soap, mount art exhibits and publish poetry.
“I’ll look at risks whenever I do anything. Like, what’s the downside? It didn’t seem like the downside going into any of those things was big enough to stop me. When that attitude prevents me from doing something that I believe in, that’s when that approach to a career is detrimental. When you stop pursuing a career as a creative artistic person and you’re pursuing it just as a careerist or … a brand. When you’re not trying to be an artistic person. So I also wing it.”
Regarding his nearly perpetual motion, Franco does admit to actually taking a break to just rest.
“I sleep at night, like everyone. There are nights when I get very little sleep, when I have an early call or whatever, but I get six or seven hours. I push myself but somehow I manage to get some sleep.
“Right now I’m directing a film about writer Charles Bukowski’s childhood. We see him at age 6, age 12 and age 18. We’re calling it ‘Young Bukowski’ for now.”