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 in The 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.