Did you always want to make movies?
I started making movies when I was in fifth grade. I made movies all through middle school and high school. We had a series of shorts called Fools TV. We made Fools TV 1 and then Fools TV 3: The Search for Part 2. We did something called Stand By Me: Part 2, where the dead kid comes alive, follows those boys back home and murders them. Everything was about drugs and killing people.
You actually went to film school at University of North Carolina School of the Arts with David Gordon Green, who directed Pineapple Express, Your Highness and Eastbound & Down, and Jody Hill, who wrote and directed Eastbound & Down and your new HBO show, Vice Principals.
We all wrote and worked on stuff together at school. When we got to L.A., we tried to maintain that. We would go to our day jobs and at night work on scripts together. After being out there for a few months, David got his second film, All the Real Girls. We were all planning to work on it, and then the financing fell apart. That was startling, because we felt like there was this momentum. Like, fuck, even a guy like David, who got written about in Time magazine, can lose funding for a movie? That was the wake-up call. Everyone was sort of realigning. I was couch surfing. Me and my girlfriend broke up, and I was depressed and didn’t know whether I wanted to stay in L.A. or go back to Virginia. I ended up going to Virginia for a little bit and substitute teaching and writing. I thought, I don’t need to live in L.A. to write a script. Maybe I just need to get my arsenal filled up and then I’ll go back, you know?
Holy shit, you were a substitute teacher? Your character on Eastbound & Down is a substitute teacher, and Vice Principals is set in a high school.
I was coming up with ideas for that stuff when I was subbing. A lot of times I felt really embarrassed about being a substitute teacher. I felt like I was still the same age as those kids. I was only a few years older than they were, but I always felt like I had to let them know I was on the level, like I wasn’t a regular teacher and shit. [laughs]
Then you and Jody made The Foot Fist Way. I can see the roots of Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers and your character in Your Highness in Fred Simmons, your Foot Fist character.
We were sort of writing a love letter and also mocking these Southern men who’d tried to shape our minds when we were kids. But as we got into it, we realized it’s funny to tell a story about somebody who sees the world differently and to figure out a way to make people sort of see it his way by the end. Me and Jody wanted to do something in that tone again but where we could have more time. We knew we were just scratching the surface.
Why do you think that approach works in Eastbound & Down but not in Your Highness? It’s similar but maybe doesn’t work the same way.
You don’t think so, James? [laughs] In Eastbound, Kenny was so dark it was shocking to people, but I think it was also intriguing. And really, it’s the character April. The fact that something in Kenny is good enough to want her keeps you invested in him to see if he figures it out. I feel like we got a bad shake on Your Highness. We got you and Natalie Portman in this silly movie that was made for, like, 13-year-olds, and I think it just had a target on it.
I wonder if my and Natalie’s involvement distorted what it was originally intended to be, because in the early version my character was pretty minor.
He had his arms chopped off; that’s why my character had to go on the quest. Then we thought the movie was really about these two brothers, so we changed it. We were still going to chop your arms off, but the studio was like, “There’s no way you’re putting James Franco in this movie and have him have no arms.” [laughs]
We’re in Australia now working on Alien: Covenant. Is doing drama different from comedy? You told me you felt like you were doing an awards-show spoof.
I feel like I’m hosting the MTV Movie Awards and I’ve done a reel of all the cool movies and put myself in them. [laughs] Honestly, I feel dramatic stuff is easier. I just have to say what’s on this fuckin’ script and make it believable. I don’t have to have 30 other jokes under my belt. I remember being nervous to do As I Lay Dying. All the actors were murmuring to themselves, going through lines. It looks like you’re tripping with people and everyone’s in their own world on bad mushrooms. I feel self-conscious about striking up a conversation. I don’t know what everyone’s process is—do they want to talk, or should we be talking as our characters? I don’t know. How do I talk to everybody? [laughs]