To many, James Franco boasts the most enviable—or is it annoying?—résumé in show business. Although only 33, he has spent the past few years wowing his fans and aggravating his critics by doing too much and doing much of it extremely well. Take just this past year or so: The offbeat, unpredictable star grabbed a best actor Oscar nomination for 127 Hours, in which he plays Aron Ralston, the stranded real-world mountaineer who amputated his own arm to save himself. He also played Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl and squeezed in supporting roles with Steve Carell and Tina Fey in Date Night, Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love and Natalie Portman in Your Highness. On TV he continued a recurring self-reflexive stint as a mysterious artist on the long-running soap General Hospital.
For most people that would be a rich, full year. But Franco also earned his MFA at Columbia University while simultaneously attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Yale and studying digital media at Rhode Island School of Design, and also, for good measure, became one of 20 students selected out of 400 applicants for the 2012 Ph.D. literature and creative writing program at the University of Houston. He published a book of interlaced tales of teen disaffection, Palo Alto. His conceptual art projects for major galleries and museums—in which his celebrity and public persona were as much context as subject—dovetailed with his well-known presence on Twitter. He also continued to direct films, including one about backstage life on Saturday Night Live, as well as the award- winning black-and-white The Feast of Stephen, in which a young dweeb gets beaten up for fantasizing about the bobbling private parts of naked young bucks playing pickup basketball. Then, atop TV interviews in which many noted his poise, smarts and trippy different drummer-ness, he baffled many viewers with his deadpan, too-cool co-hosting of the 2011 Oscars ceremony, actually tweeting during the show.
Is it any surprise the actor now openly wonders if he faces a backlash from even stalwart Franco-philes?
Few actors are the subject of as much fascination and speculation. Sure, he’s an undisputed talent, but is he also a showboat performance artist using acting and fame as his canvas? Is he a professional superstudent, capable of achieving an above-3.5 grade-point average while taking 62 credits a quarter and maintaining a red-hot movie career? Is he a dyed-in-the-wool artist and eccentric, or does he merely get off on playing weird? Is he straight, gay, bi, or is he too busy with lofty artistic pursuits to bother with worldly pleasure? Is he a true Renaissance man or a gifted, overachieving gadfly?
Franco grew up in Palo Alto, California, the first of three boys raised by Betsy, a children’s book author, and Douglas, who runs a nonprofit agency and a shipping container company. Talented in both painting and math but shy around girls, Franco interned briefly at Lockheed Martin. During high school, he not only starred in plays but also entangled himself in a series of infractions (including drinking, theft and tagging) that led to his being put on probation. He straightened up, improved his grades and entered UCLA as an English major but dropped out after his freshman year to pursue acting. His first big break was on the TV cult favorite Freaks and Geeks, followed by a much-talked-about performance as James Dean in a TV biopic. Then came Spider-Man—though Tobey Maguire beat him out for the lead role. Two sequels followed but so too did smaller, edgier movies such as An American Crime and The Dead Girl, as well as several uncredited roles inThe Green Hornet, Knocked Up and Nights in Rodanthe. He scored grand slams in Pineapple Express and Milk, and he’s a regular presence on the Funny or Die website, in videos that often feature his family members.
We sent Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello, who last interviewed Josh Brolin for Playboy, to meet with Franco in a studio in a historic building in Manhattan’s artsy Chelsea neighborhood. “Franco was a trip,” says Rebello. “He’s highly verbal, thoughtful, generous, unapologetically eccentric and apparently so comfortable in his own skin that he seems to welcome the chance to shed light on his utterly unique head space and unconventional behavior—but only some light, mind you. As serious and dedicated as he is about his art and his education, his jokester’s playfulness gives you the sense that he enjoys challenging people’s notions of celebrity, behavior and masculinity. A movie star who might morph into a fascinating director, he refuses to be tamed, categorized, boxed in or defined. That may turn out to be his greatest act of rebellion yet.”
PLAYBOY: In the past five years alone you’ve starred in numerous movies, including 127 Hours, Pineapple Express, Howl, Eat Pray Love *and *Milk, published a book as well as short fiction in major magazines, appeared in a recurring role on General Hospital, guest starred on 30 Rock, hosted the Oscars, directed short films and mounted big art projects at international museums and galleries. You also earned a B.A. in English from UCLA, got an MFA from Columbia, studied filmmaking at NYU, are now completing a doctorate in English at Yale and have been accepted into the literature and creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Houston. Isn’t this a bit much?
FRANCO: I don’t know, but the first short film I ever directed, years before I even went to film school at NYU, is about a boy who is introduced to the concept of his own mortality when his goldfish dies. He says to his parents, “I don’t want to die,” and though they say he shouldn’t worry because there’s plenty of time, they don’t really comfort him. So he thinks, I have to do everything now. He gets a neighbor girl to marry him, gets a job, starts a family. Although I’ve changed and relaxed a bit, my behavior shows I’ve thought along those lines for quite a while.
PLAYBOY: When it comes to your academic work, how do you react when journalists and bloggers accuse you of skating by on your fame?
FRANCO: It’s a great thing. When people heard I was in all these academic programs, the reaction for some person I don’t even know was to take a picture of me sleeping at Columbia. It wasn’t even in class; it was a 10 p.m. optional guest lecture. But people love to post that picture on the internet and criticize me for taking a spot away from somebody else who would really care about the lecture. People sleep in class at all my schools all the time and nobody posts their pictures.
PLAYBOY: Why is it a great thing to be dissed or underestimated?
*FRANCO: *Because if someone from Gawker or any of those blogs wants to say I’m “the superstudent” or “the stoner student,” it takes the edge off this public persona that others have created for me. I can just slip under the radar and do my work without being bothered. They will perceive you however they want to anyway.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever run into anyone who’s written smack about you?
FRANCO: People from these horrible blogs came to my book party for Palo Alto last year. Normally I don’t care, but it’s like your worst enemy showing up at your birthday party, like, “Why are you here? Get the fuck out of my party.” But it gave me a chance to see that a lot of the people writing for these blogs are just people my age who are in the same writing programs I was—or trying to get into those programs. So it was like, “Oh, so you’re just one of my classmates who doesn’t like me. That’s what this is all about?”
PLAYBOY: With so many classrooms to choose from, how do you get along with your classmates?
FRANCO: The scariest environment I’m engaged in is the English department at Yale. Everybody is there because they’re smart. It’s one thing to turn in a paper to your professor, who reads it in private, but when you have to read that paper in front of the whole class, that is terrifying and intimidating.
PLAYBOY: You strike lots of people as being cool, unconventional and mysterious. Do you ever think that not breaking a sweat while you’re furiously multitasking riles some people?
FRANCO: I’ve been perceived as this guy yelling, “Hey, look at me. I want attention.” I’m not going to school to get articles written about me. I’m just going to school. But the fact that I’m going to school or that someone takes a picture of me sleeping is like, “We’re gonna jump on that and criticize him for his antics.” What antics? I write. I make movies. I’m going to school. I hosted the Oscars. I take these projects seriously.
PLAYBOY: Some might question how seriously you took co-hosting the Oscars show with Anne Hathaway.
FRANCO: When they asked me to do it, I laughed and said, “How am I going to get out of this?” I had one of the best acting experiences working with [director] Danny Boyle on 127 Hours, and we made something great. The studio was making a push for my best actor nomination, and people had been talking about it. At the time I thought no one had won an Oscar the year they hosted the show—I learned later that David Niven had, about 50 years ago—and I thought my hosting the show would cut down my chances, take some of the pressure off and say to people, or at least to myself, “You’re not going to worry about this.” I had done a bit for the Oscars before with Seth Rogen that was a big hit. I felt confident I could do it. I mean, what are the host’s responsibilities? You have an opening monologue, maybe a bit or two in the middle of the show, and then the rest is just reading names. They knew I could rehearse only on weekends because of school, but how much do you have to rehearse? They told me they knew I wasn’t Chris Rock and that they had designed the show around me.
PLAYBOY: How did it go so wrong?
FRANCO: It’s hard to talk about because it’s like assigning blame—not a fun thing to do. For three or four weeks we shot the promos and the little film that played in the opening. In the last week, when we really started focusing on the script for the live show and did a run-through, I said to the producer, “I don’t know why you hired me, because you haven’t given me anything. I just don’t think this stuff’s going to be good.”
PLAYBOY: Many knocked you for appearing blasé, bored, out of it, having little chemistry with Anne Hathaway.
FRANCO: After the show everybody was so happy, and Bruce Cohen, the show’s producer, hugged me and said, “Steven Spielberg just told me it was the best Oscars ever!” As far as having low energy or seeming as though I wasn’t into it or was too cool for it, I thought, Okay, Anne is going the enthusiastic route. I’ve been trained as an actor to respond to circumstances, to the people I’m working with, and not to force anything. So I thought I would be the straight man and she could be the other, and that’s how I was trying to do those lines. I felt kind of trapped in that material. I felt, This is not my boat. I’m just a passenger, but I’m going down and there’s no way out.
PLAYBOY: Why did you tweet during the show?
FRANCO: As a way to say, “Whatever you’re seeing and hearing, those are other people’s words. I’m lifting the curtain and you can see a little bit of what’s going on.” It was cutting-edge. No host has ever done that—given you that kind of alternative glimpse. I was trying to do the best job I could. I didn’t try to sabotage the show. I didn’t get high. I went to the rehearsals I said I was going to. I played the lines as I thought they should be played.
PLAYBOY: Soon after the Oscars, you took your Twitter account private. Cause and effect?
FRANCO: Someone at an event asked, “Why is your Twitter account closed?” I said, “Yeah, it’s over. I’m not on it anymore,” and suddenly it became “James Franco declares social media is over.” Which is like saying nobody’s going to talk on the telephone anymore.
PLAYBOY: Was that actually a photo of your hand down the crotch of your jeans—and even possibly a glimpse of your junk—to which you allegedly tweeted a link to your 350,000-plus followers?
FRANCO: I couldn’t do Twitter the conventional way. I resisted the idea of posting comments, opinions; I felt they weren’t worth anything. I also felt that if I had something worth saying, I’d put it in an essay or a story, not on Twitter. So I thought Twitter was where I’d post cool photos and videos—a kind of collage, an outlet where I could just throw my scraps—and I posted some of a big art project I was doing. I knew people in the art community would see them as art, but they were perceived as something else.
PLAYBOY: Like maybe subliminal porn?
FRANCO: I thought, It’s my account; I can post anything I want here. But I had underage followers on Twitter. Don’t follow me or Lady Gaga if you’re underage. Some companies I work with reminded me that my image is now connected with their image and they were not happy.
*PLAYBOY: *You also seemed to have gotten into a post-Oscars Twitter skirmish with Bruce Vilanch, who was one of the writers for the Oscars show. All in all, then, have you tweeted your last public tweet?
FRANCO: Somebody writes or says something about you that can be upsetting, and your first reaction is to want to write back—and usually the first reaction is an angry one. I personally do not do my best thinking when I’m angry. Before Twitter, I always had that buffer period when I could actually think and decide, Is this worth it? You respond to someone and it immediately goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and becomes a big thing that people report. For me Twitter is a dangerous thing.
PLAYBOY: Vilanch was presumably one of many writers for the Oscars show who thought having you don Marilyn Monroe drag was a good idea.
FRANCO: I was so pissed about that I was deliberately going to fall onstage and hopefully my dress would fall off or something—they couldn’t blame that on me; I was in high heels. The plan had been that I was going to sing as Cher and then Cher was going to come out onstage; that got axed when Cher and the song from Burlesque weren’t nominated. I told them, “Look, this is the thing people are going to talk about, the images they will take away from the show.” I mean, think about it—Anne Hathaway sang a song about Hugh Jackman, who not only wasn’t nominated, I don’t think he even had a movie out last year. So whatever. I just didn’t want to fight anymore, even when they said, “You’ll come out as Marilyn Monroe. It’ll be funny.” Me in drag is not funny. Me in drag as Cher trying to sing like her is a thing. That didn’t happen, so then I just didn’t want to argue anymore. I was going with their program; I wanted to do the material they gave me, not be one of the many cooks doing the writing. There were a lot of cooks who shouldn’t have been cooking but were allowed to. There were some cooks my manager tried to bring in, like Judd Apatow, who wrote some very funny stuff that wasn’t used.
PLAYBOY: Asking a movie heartthrob to wear drag on the Oscars could be seen as something done for cheap laughs. But you’ve never shied away from playing gay or bisexual characters, in James Dean, Milk, Howl. Speculation about your sexuality has followed you for a long time. How did that start?
*FRANCO: *I had a close friend in school, and there were rumors that we were gay. Those rumors were started by—who knows?—people who were jealous, people who had been picked on, girls who had been picked on. So they started these rumors. I like it now that people said I was gay. It’s kind of cool.
PLAYBOY: What was it like for you in 2008 when Page Six of the New York Post ran a blind item about a hunky closeted gay actor who got nicknamed the Gay Rapist? You were among the actors most often guessed by Gawker readers.
FRANCO: That was the first time I experienced anything like that. It started when we got this call from two rag magazines that said, “This guy called and said he’s been dating James Franco for six months and just broke up with him because James beat him up, and he’s filed a police report.” My lawyer said, “Run that and we will sue because there has been no police report filed.” They didn’t run the stories. My lawyer looked up the Facebook page of the guy I’d supposedly been dating, and it turned out he’s actually a young lawyer himself. Anyway, I think his Facebook page mentioned me as his “dream date” or something. Well, if I’d been dating him for six months, why was I his dream date?
PLAYBOY: Did you know this guy?
FRANCO: No. When my lawyer called and asked about it , the guy freaked out and said, “Oh yeah, I heard about that too. So weird. I don’t know James.” It stopped the story. Then Gawker picked that up and did this “Gay Rapist” story that was so fucking offensive because I have friends who have been raped. They did a very classy online reader’s poll asking which actor who had a big movie out that summer had beaten up and raped his boyfriend and then paid him off so it wouldn’t go to court. The poll had me, Will Smith, Christian Bale and maybe Tom Cruise or some others, and the readers voted for me. Because it was just an innocent poll, they could report this.
PLAYBOY: Could you and your attorneys do anything?
FRANCO: My lawyer called them and said that it was completely untrue and to take it down. They said, “Well, we’re just reporting what the New York Post told us. If James wants to make a comment on our blog, we’re happy to report it.” It was a choice. Either let this thing build and become bigger and bigger, or just let it go and let them be the petty scumbags that they are. It was a shame that at the same time I became involved in this completely false and offensive story, I was in Milk, a movie I felt strongly about. Some more great rumors will be coming up.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
FRANCO: I have a film coming up that I directed about the poet Hart Crane, and I give a blow job in that movie.
PLAYBOY: After playing movie icon James Dean, a male prostitute in the 2002 movie Sonny, Harvey Milk’s activist lover in Milk, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl—let alone the exploration of masculinity in your book Palo Alto and the homoerotic imagery in your short movie The Feast of Stephen—is it fair to say you have a fascination with gay or bisexual characters?
FRANCO: “Straight” and “gay” are fairly recent phenomena. One of the things the great book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay World, 1890–1940 is about is the way those labels have changed behavior. Between World War I and World War II, straight guys could have sex with other guys and still be perceived as straight as long as they acted masculine. Whether you were considered a “fairy” or a “queer” back then wasn’t based on sexual acts so much as outward behavior. Into the 1950s, 1960s and so on, the straight and gay thing came up based on your sexual partner. Because of those labels, you do it once and you’re gay, so you get fewer guys who are kind of in the middle zone. It sounds as though I’m advocating for an ambiguous zone or something, but I’m just interested in the way perception changes behavior.
PLAYBOY: Although you’ve often invited dialogue and speculation about your screen image and your offscreen life, one area you’ve kept pretty quiet is your long-term relationship with actress Ahna O’Reilly.
*FRANCO: *It’s over. That lasted about four or five years. We’d been living together in L.A. and then came to New York to go to school for two years. Then I signed up for more school at Yale. I think that was it for her.
PLAYBOY: One last thing about the Oscars. You and this year’s best actress Oscar winner, Natalie Portman, are in the medieval stoner fantasy-adventure Your Highness, your first post–Oscars ceremony release. It was reamed by critics and at the box office. Was it backlash?
*FRANCO: *I didn’t write that movie. I was just doing my job. I think I’m fine in it. They knew there were problems with that movie a year ago. Just because it comes out after the Oscars, it’s like “Oh, here’s backlash.” Well, you have the year’s best actress Oscar winner in it, so wouldn’t that boost ticket sales? And people want to blame me for that? It’s just ridiculous. There’s this feeling about me like, “He’s doing too many things. Let’s get him.”
PLAYBOY: Will they “get you” for your new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the five-movie series that began in 1968 with Planet of the Apes?
*FRANCO: *Here’s my guess: Critics will be out to kill this movie and blame me for it just because they are out to kill me. Last year people were pretty nice. This is the year when people are going to have fun going after me. I don’t feel the same way about Rise of the Planet of the Apes *as I do about *127 Hours *or *Milk. It was a different kind of acting.
PLAYBOY: Was the movie fun to make?
FRANCO: Because I’m in the digital and media department at Rhode Island School of Design, it was fascinating for me to get to work with Weta Digital, the company that also did The Lord of the Rings *and *Avatar. I also got to work with Andy Serkis, who plays the ape Caesar and did a lot of motion capture. I never thought of this movie as an example of my creativity. I was an actor for hire. But people still have it out for me, so they’re going to go after the movie.
PLAYBOY: In Rise of the Planet of the Apes *you play a scientist who, in the name of Alzheimer’s research, genetically alters the ape that eventually leads a simian revolution against mankind. How is your movie different from the 2001 Tim Burton–directed *Planet of the Apes, let alone the original five *Apes *movies, which have a huge cult following?
FRANCO: They haven’t shown me the movie yet, so I don’t know what the result is. I did reshoots, and it sounds to me the final movie will be different from the screenplay, which had a lot of character development. The movie seems to be more action now. I went and did my job, and I’m supposed to be a scientist. I feel pretty confident that I did that.
PLAYBOY: Audiences liked the apes talking in the original Planet of the Apes movies, so how do you think the more realistic but silent apes will go over?
FRANCO: What strikes me, looking back at those movies now, is that they had really good actors, including Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, in these crazy masks, and they were having pretty interesting philosophical conversations about society, the ethics of interacting with other societies and mysterious cultures. It’s fun to see those kinds of conversations and issues. In the later movies it becomes about race and social upheaval, so the movies were kind of comments on current issues. The older movies can get away with that with their cult value. *Rise of the Planet of the Apes *is not a bunch of apes sitting around having philosophical discussions.
PLAYBOY: In 2009 you began what eventually turned out to be 44 appearances on the TV soap General Hospital. Were you fulfilling some longtime ambition?
FRANCO: Generally, people think actors start on soaps, and if they can, they move up the ladder. Early in my career I auditioned for soaps and didn’t get on them. Until going on General Hospital, I was like, “Of course I’m not going to go on a soap, that lower form of entertainment.” I don’t view it that way anymore; it’s all entertainment, just for different audiences. Some people like Celine Dion, some people like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or whatever.
PLAYBOY: And some like both. Whose idea was it for you to do General Hospital?
FRANCO: Theirs. All I said to them was that I wanted the character to be an artist and to be crazy. I got better material than I could ever have asked for. Yes, it was very soapy and a little cheesy, but because it was a soap opera, we were foregrounding the fact that we knew it was very soapy and a little cheesy. And the great thing is, the dialogue wasn’t that far from conversations you might have at a gallery opening.
PLAYBOY: Your character was named Franco, and the episodes made so many direct references to the career of James Franco that the whole thing felt like performance art.
FRANCO: I decided to do it not quite knowing what the impact would be, just thinking it would be exciting to turn myself over to a different kind of circumstance, a different kind of storytelling and do a different kind of acting. I thought people would be surprised, but there was a huge reaction. It was the same General Hospital, but because I was on it, people were suddenly watching it in a new way. It was like there was a rupture in everything. Because they called the character Franco, people were doubly aware. People watching might have been questioning, “What’s going on here? Is it an art thing? Is it a weird act? What is it?” I wanted to put a frame around the work. Part of the beauty of the project for me is that we weren’t making fun of soap opera fans or throwing a pie in the face of the art world. We were bringing them all together, and the network got tons of attention. The New York Times *was suddenly writing about *General Hospital.
PLAYBOY: ABC announced the cancellation of the long-running TV soaps One Life to Live *and *All My Children. How do you feel about rumors that General Hospital may face the same fate?
*FRANCO: *I’m upset, because I have some big plans. In June of last year the sets from the show were presented as sculptures that the character Franco ostensibly made for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and there we were at MOCA Pacific Design Center with soap fans and museum patrons, all watching the same thing. Being on the show got me thinking about how it could be developed further. I was going to art events and talking to artist friends, who said, “Wow, this is really cool.” I realized a lot of genuine contemporary artists would love that kind of platform and could appear on the show. I’ve wanted to do something even bigger that involves General Hospital, MOCA and ABC, so I hope we can still pull that off.
PLAYBOY: Your grandmother, whom you made famous in a video about why people shouldn’t be squeamish about seeing 127 Hours, owns a prominent art gallery. Your mother, who also played your character’s mother on General Hospital, is an editor and children’s book author. Your youngest brother, Dave, with whom you’ve done hilarious, self-referential videos on Funny or Die, is a fast-rising actor. Your younger brother, Tom, is an illustrator and sculptor. If you hadn’t turned out to be artistic and creative, might you have been banished from the family?
FRANCO: [Laughs] We’re all really close. Tom lives in Oakland, and we don’t see him as much. Davy’s the most social; he was homecoming king and was named best looking in the yearbook. I actually don’t see Davy as much anymore, but he lives in Los Angeles. We lived together. All my friends have become his friends, and we collaborate on projects.
PLAYBOY: What were you like growing up in Palo Alto, in the San Francisco Bay area?
FRANCO: Up until high school, I played soccer, baseball and basketball. I was never the best at those things. I tried to play sports my freshman year of high school, but I figured out that I didn’t like them.
PLAYBOY: What were your earliest jobs?
FRANCO: When I was 13 or 14 my dad got me a job working the counter at a coffee shop. It sucked. I read books when the place was empty and got let go when the assistant manager told the boss he’d found $2 in one of the aprons and said I was trying to steal. It turns out he had taken, like, $10,000. Later, when I wanted a car and my parents said they’d match whatever I could pay, I got a job driving carts at the Palo Alto Golf Course. I would read stuff like Naked Lunch in the cart, and they let me go when they caught me reading the sequel to A Separate Peace. Another summer I got a job with a friend on his father’s construction crew, but we just got high every day.
PLAYBOY: Your father now runs a nonprofit and a shipping container business. Did he try to steer you toward a practical career?
FRANCO: I was good in math, and I think my father was overjoyed when I was given an internship at Lockheed Martin. But that experience showed me I never wanted to work in that environment.
PLAYBOY: You’ve spoken in the past about having sold your junior high school classmates sample bottles of cologne stolen from department stores. Sometimes you’d urinate in the bottles and give them away just before a big dance to guys you didn’t like. What’s the extent of the trouble you got into as a kid?
*FRANCO: *I was arrested for a lot of petty crimes. It added up. I was a ward of the court and was put on probation. Finally, I’d had enough chances, but they gave me one final chance, and fortunately I didn’t get into any trouble after that. Otherwise I guess it could have been like Lindsay Lohan, when she’s on probation and then she’s accused of stealing a necklace, and it’s a kind of small thing that becomes a big thing. It’s like probation doesn’t end.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of Lohan, in 2007 gossip writers reported that your alleged refusal to accept her gift of an expensive watch and ignoring her at a post–Golden Globes party sent her off to Wonderland Center days later.
FRANCO: I bought a house that had belonged to the film director Bob Rafelson, across the street from the Chateau Marmont, right behind where the old Marlboro Man billboard used to be. Somebody after Rafelson had remodeled some of the rooms into weird shapes, so while I was remodeling, I stayed at the Chateau, where Lindsay had been living a few years. We became friends, but there was no romantic connection. I don’t think I broke her heart. I don’t think her going to rehab had anything to do with feelings she might or might not have had.
PLAYBOY: Getting back to your high school days, when did sex enter the picture?
FRANCO: When I was about 12 my mom left one of those puberty development books for me to find on the table, like, “Oh, what’s this doing here?” When I was in seventh grade some eighth-grade friends showed me my first porno—a weird one. I haven’t seen anything like it since. The woman put her head in a toilet bowl. More friends started finding their parents’ pornos or whatever, and we’d watch them together.
PLAYBOY: Was the porn watching for guys only?
FRANCO: There would be these weird get-togethers with a group of guys and a group of girls, but there was no penetration or anything, just fondling. You wouldn’t even kiss, really, just fool around for a while and then switch. It was all straight. And that developed into Truth or Dare parties where people started kissing.
PLAYBOY: When did you lose your virginity?
FRANCO: In high school with my girlfriend. I think girls liked me, but I was awkward, shy and emotionally immature, so I didn’t have a ton of girlfriends. I had short-term relationships and always got dumped, I think because I was too slow for them.
PLAYBOY: Who was your girlfriend?
FRANCO: Her name was Jasmine. We went out freshman year and then I blew it. She kind of got over me, but we got back together at the beginning of junior year and dated for two years. She was my first real relationship.
PLAYBOY: What did you want to be back then?
FRANCO: I really wanted to go to art school and be an artist. I’d been doing a lot of painting. My grandmother and my uncle deal in Japanese art, and when I was 15 or 16 my grandparents took me to Japan, and I visited the artists my grandmother represents. I had been reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, and they were always going to exotic places. I kept thinking I was stuck in Palo Alto and needed to experience the world. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think I was also watching too much Beverly Hills 90210. Dylan [Luke Perry’s character] had seen the world and was a surfer, so I thought I had to go to Hawaii. Despite my being a juvenile delinquent to a certain extent, my mother and father gave me that gift. They were figuring out how to be parents in some ways. Of course I was on probation, so my mom actually had to come to Hawaii with me and my girlfriend.
PLAYBOY: Did your parents support your wanting to be an artist?
FRANCO: They gave me a lot, but when my dad found out I was going to 40 hours of art classes a week at one point, he tried to cut that down. I wanted to go to Rhode Island School of Design, but they said they weren’t going to pay for art school, so I didn’t even apply. But my brother Tom got to go to art school.
PLAYBOY: How did acting come into the picture?
*FRANCO: *Jasmine was an actress and took it very seriously. This guy had asked her to do a romantic one-act, and I felt he was making a play for her. It came out as anger because he was doing something romantic with my girlfriend. What probably got to me was the fact that he was doing something artistic and I wasn’t.
PLAYBOY: How did that lead you to acting?
*FRANCO: *I’d always loved movies and I’d done some acting in junior high, but in high school all the insecurities came out. I was too scared to pursue any of my interests in a serious way. When Jasmine did that play, it was like the excuse I’d been waiting for. Somehow in my brain I computed that I would show her by joining the acting class. I got the leads in the last two plays of my senior year.
*PLAYBOY: *Did you want to go to drama school?
FRANCO: By then it was too late for me to apply to drama schools, but I was accepted to UCLA in 1996. I dropped out and went to an acting school, got a manager after six months and went out for tons of TV pilots, which is when they tell you things like “You blink too much” or, as they told Adrien Brody, “Get a nose job.” It’s horrible.
PLAYBOY: Was there a TV show or movie you really wanted?
FRANCO: There was a role I didn’t get that I’ve made a part of Rebel, the piece I’ve done with some really gifted artists for this year’s Venice Biennale. I had a small part in this bad little 2002 C-movie, Deuces Wild. I auditioned but didn’t get the role that Brad Renfro eventually got. That was the most devastated I’ve ever been. I didn’t think he was right for the role. He was in bad shape at that point, but he got cast because he was a name. Martin Scorsese was executive producer. Everybody thought it was going to be the next Mean Streets and that Brad’s role was going to be like De Niro’s in that movie. Anyway, we’re doing this whole piece about Brad for the Biennale, and this is a part of it I want to show you. [lowers his shirt sleeve] I carved BRAD into my shoulder with a switchblade.
FRANCO: Heath Ledger died a week after Brad, and I feel Brad has been forgotten already. They didn’t even mention his death at the Oscars that year. Now, about 10 years after Deuces Wild, I realize that the other roles I didn’t do or didn’t get don’t matter. I auditioned for the Coen brothers for the role Josh Brolin did in No Country for Old Men. I’m happy they made a good movie, and it would have been nice to be in it, but there’s no one role, you know?
PLAYBOY: Participating in the Venice Biennale is by invitation only and a big deal. What are the specifics of your project?
FRANCO: It’s a huge project I’m incredibly honored and proud to be presenting. It’s based on Rebel Without a Cause, and some of the best contemporary artists alive—Paul McCarthy, Douglas Gordon, Ed Ruscha, Aaron Young, Damon McCarthy and Harmony Korine—worked on different sections. I wanted Robert Pattinson to be in the project, but when Harmony contacted him and told him the concept, Rob said, “I don’t get the point,” so that was that.
PLAYBOY: Is it true you wanted to do a Twilight movie?
FRANCO: I had my agent tell [director] Bill Condon that I’d be happy to do anything in Breaking Dawn, but that was because it was supposed to be part of a multimedia project at Yale. I was working with a Yale undergraduate who had written an autobiographical play about putting on a theatrical production of Twilight in which I was a character. So I was interested in Twilight because I was going to be part of that play. I thought what a great connection it would be if I were also involved with the real Twilight.
PLAYBOY: You’ve spoken in the past about having been unhappy with your work, especially five or six years ago when you were doing such movies as Annapolis, Tristan + Isolde and The Great Raid. Has your satisfaction level changed, especially since Milk and 127 Hours?
FRANCO: I always felt I was on the outside, looking for the people doing the good stuff, but they weren’t letting me in. Now I feel I’m getting to work with all my heroes, like Gus Van Sant on Milk and Danny Boyle on 127 Hours, and at this point I can say yes, I’ve done work I’m proud of. But even though I have great pride in those movies, the pride goes only so far. I was still just the actor. I didn’t write or direct them or come up with the story. My hope is that as I continue to act and direct, people will see the work is all connected.
PLAYBOY: In your life and work you tend to make unpredictable choices, like turning up uncredited in Knocked Up and in smaller roles in Date Night, In the Valley of Elah and Nights in Rodanthe.
FRANCO: I don’t do things for any other reason than that they interest me or let me work with people I like. I’m getting ready to play Robert Mapplethorpe—a pretty thin guy—so this summer I’ve started working out.
PLAYBOY: The movie projects you may direct include Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. More immediately, though, one project you’re set to tackle after playing Robert Mapplethorpe is a movie you’ve written about Sal Mineo, who co-starred in Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. Both the Mapplethorpe and Mineo projects center on complex, significant artists who also happen to be gay.
FRANCO: I’m working very hard on Oz: The Great and Powerful with Sam Raimi. That’s my next project, but I’m not the one who will make or break that movie. On the side, I’m doing these smaller projects that my heart and soul are in, doing them for the budget that they should be done because they’re not going to attract large audiences. I feel I have a moment right now when I can point to different things I think are interesting, things that maybe haven’t been understood by the greater public.
PLAYBOY: Having already accomplished so much at the age of 33, what’s left for you to do?
*FRANCO: *I don’t know if lightning will strike me after this interview, but if it all went away, I really wouldn’t have cause to complain, because I’ve been given more than my share. I’ve fulfilled most of my dreams. I’ll start teaching next year, but there are a lot of other ways I can give back, and I hope to do more of that. I feel I’ve been given a lot of gifts, and I believe that when you’re given something, you need to give back, as cheesy as that sounds.