Playback: James Franco on ‘The Disaster Artist’ and the Benefit of Being Too Prolific

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Oscar-nominated actor James Franco has been busy these last several years. Almost obsessively so. But he’s shifted down lately and, according to him, focused on depth over breadth. The result has been an acclaimed dual performance in (and directing duties on) David Simon’s HBO series “The Deuce,” and the new film “The Disaster Artist,” in which he stars as filmmaker and actor Tommy Wiseau during the making of his infamous 2004 film “The Room.” But Franco wasn’t initially part of the sprawling community dedicated to turning out and celebrating the passion (and hilarity) of an artist swinging for the fences.

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“I really came late to the game,” he says. “It just didn’t penetrate my consciousness. Some of my friends — I wasn’t friends with Jonah Hill back then but him and Paul Rudd and Michael Cera, it was a really hardcore early group that would go to the Sunset 5 and watch this thing. I’m probably the only dude that came to ‘The Room’ through a book.”

Indeed, with Greg Sestero’s making-of volume “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” as Franco’s entry point, he ended up with a much different and empathetic understanding of Wiseau’s somewhat quixotic undertaking.

“I understood how much heart was behind it, how hard these dudes tried,” he says. “I truly think the secret sauce to ‘The Room’ is Tommy’s passion and the fact that this was an incredibly personal film to him. Whatever he says now and however he’s rewritten the history, this is Tommy’s heart and soul out for everyone to see on screen. I probably have a better relationship to this whole thing because I did start with the book and I did know these things. Before Tommy made ‘The Room,’ what’s told in the book, he was possibly suicidal and would leave messages on Greg Sestero’s machine saying, ‘I don’t want to live anymore, but I believe in God.’ Really sad things. And the next thing Greg knew, Tommy showed up with this script. And if Tommy hadn’t made ‘The Room,’ he may be dead. So having come to the story through the book and knowing the backstory, I think maybe ‘The Room’ is a very deep kind of experience for me.”

He chafes slightly at the notion of discussing how prolific he has been over the past decade, probably because it’s something that comes up so much. But with more than 50 acting credits over that stretch and having directed dozens of features and shorts along the way, it’s difficult not to drill down into that a bit.

“I’ve been looking back on that a lot and going, ‘Why was I doing that?’ I was generally just doing things I was interested in,” he says. “At some point maybe eight or 10 years ago I just flipped this switch and said, ‘You know what? Maybe this is the only life I have. I don’t want to follow any sort of tacit understanding of what a career looks like in this business so I’ll just try a lot of things.’ I tried to take them as seriously as possible. I went to school and tried to not just be a moonlighter. And I think the good of that period of just doing way too much is I got a lot of experience. I had learned early in my career, just from working so hard at acting and having that pay off, that you do have to go through a certain amount of paces. You’ve got to work at it.”

For more, including talk about Franco’s love for the Coen brothers (who he recently collaborated with on Netflix’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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