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.