In “I Am Michael,” the controversial new drama that premieres on Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, James Franco plays former gay rights activist Michael Glatze, who in 2007 renounced his homosexuality and turned to Christianity. Glatze was profiled in a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, which caught Gus Van Sant’s eye. He shared the material with Franco, and it took four years to secure financing to get the story on the big screen.
Franco attended a special Variety dinner at Sundance in honor of “I Am Michael,” where he talked about the project over salad and chicken. The film’s first-time director, Justin Kelly, occasionally chimed in.
After you read the article, why did you think Michael’s life would make a good movie?
It’s like a lot of projects, where in the beginning, there’s an idea that’s interesting to me, but I don’t quite know how it’ll be fleshed out. I liked the reverse take on this story. I didn’t think I would be the one to develop it. I thought there would be other voices, who knew this world better. So that led Gus and I to look for some people, and Gus suggested Justin. One of the reasons Gus liked Justin, in addition to the short film he had directed, was Justin has been in San Francisco for 10 years. He knew the scene really well.
Did you always know you’d play Michael?
I didn’t, until Justin’s script started coming in. I saw it and said, “It’s so good. If Justin wants me, I should definitely do it.”
How did you prepare?
I really depended on Justin for that. As far as Michael’s attitude, Justin was good about putting together various videos from throughout Michael’s life and transformation. I could see him. In some ways, he’s similar and in other ways, he’s very different.
It just seemed early on he was aware of himself as a young gay man. It was almost as if later, he willed himself to forget all that. His personality became a lot more rigid, based on how he behaved in the videos.
Did he become less flamboyant?
Yeah. When Justin went to meet him and asked about his sister, Michael said to Justin, “Why? Are you interested in her?” It’s almost like this willful blindness. My first guess is that if Justin is doing this movie, he’s probably gay. That Michael would be blind to that, I don’t know — it said a lot to me.
Justin: He said to me, “I know that Gus is gay. I don’t know about James, and I don’t want to make you identify as everything.” I said, “If you don’t want me to identify as anything, I’m not going to identify as anything.” He knew what I meant. I was being a bitch, because he was being a bitch.
James, did you meet Michael before shooting?
I didn’t really have much interaction with him before. I had one Skype conversation. I just felt like with this role, I had the videos of him. It’s not like I had to match his behavior perfectly, as I did with James Dean or Alan Ginsberg, because they were such public figures. What I wanted to get was an authentic connection to his experiences and emotions. I didn’t think I would get anything from talking to him, because if he was still in his Christian anti-gay mode, I don’t need to hear any more of that.
So you’ve never met him in person?
We saw him yesterday. He was a delight. I wouldn’t give full credit to the movie, but I think the movie has helped him release some of these extreme views that basically gays are sinners. And that it’s helped him heal a little bit and maybe showed him that just because he doesn’t want to identify as gay doesn’t mean he has to completely destroy or condemn everything about gay lifestyles.
Did he like the film?
Yeah, he loved it. His words for me were, “I want to thank you. You’re a good actor.”
There’s a buzzed-about threesome in the film between you, Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver.
I knew Justin wasn’t going to take it too far. You play it too safe, and it’s just lame. So I went as far as I could before Justin said cut.
Justin: I always keep saying, there’s a great moment when James licks Charlie’s armpit.
James: I can’t even remember what happened. I think I was going for it more than they were.
During the Sony hack, did you ever regret making “The Interview?”
What was it like to go through that?
It was really out of my hands. It was a situation where there was nothing for me to do to. As soon as they called the press off, and the movie was pulled from theaters, there was nothing to do. They weren’t looking to me to make any decisions. It was just sitting around and staying quiet. That said, there was this pressure. There was so much attention on it — attention on a level you never expected. It was a shock to my system, and I got sick. But I was never scared for my safety or anything.