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.