Celebrity magazines spend endless hours and pages punching the hype out of Hollywood. Stars? They’re just like us — normal. They eat fast food; walk their dogs; watch TV with their hands tucked in the waistbands of their sweatpants…
James Franco is, then, not normal. The actor, who got his big break on TV show Freaks and Geeks has, in many ways, lived up to the show’s title, leading a multifarious yet facinating life, whether he’s pursuing concurrent graduate degrees at Ivy League universities, engaging in bizarre social-media experiments or starring in satirical comedies that incur the wrath of totalitarian governments.
It didn’t start that way. After his film debut in rom-com Never Been Kissed (1999), a young Franco landed the eponymous role in TV film James Dean. But it was his starring role as Harry Osborn in Spider-Man that brought him squarely into the spotlight, a character he reprised for the rest of the trilogy. He chose further roles for their depth and angst: As an army veteran and male prostitute in Sonny (2002), the junkie son of Robert De Niro’s cop in City By the Sea (2002) and the titular doomed young lover in period epic Tristan & Isolde (2006).
2008 marked his reunion with Freaks and Geeks alum Seth Rogen and his return to comedy. His turn as a stoner on the run in Pineapple Express surprised audiences and earned him acting cred. And as he let loose on screen, he did in real life too. He worked with conceptual artist Carter on a video piece called Erased James Franco that involved him re-enacting mundane snippets from all his film roles, which inspired him to join the cast of General Hospital for a 20-episode arc, playing an alter-ego character, Franco, an act he considered performance art.
His scintillating 2010 performance as a hiker who had to amputate his arm to escape a fallen boulder in 127 Hours brought him an Oscar nomination; that year, he also presented short directorial efforts at film festivals, hosted his first solo multimedia art exhibition at the Clocktower gallery, published a collection of short stories and continued his studies at UCLA, going on to achieve an MFA from Columbia University.
In the ensuing years, he has ramped up his seemingly schizophrenic activities — graduating from short-story-writing to poetry, showing out-there work at galleries such as Gagosian and Moma PS1, teaching university courses, directing everything from documentaries to dance theatre performances, hosting the Oscars and releasing musical tracks with his band, Daddy. Critics often brand him a shock artist (the breadth of his interests certainly warrants the adjective), but Franco contends he’s only pursuing his interests. It’s why his social media persona may seem bizarre to celebrity gossipmongers — Franco utilises the medium almost as a social experiment or art form, rather than a tool to share actual happenings in his life.
Like any good actor, Franco could play normal if he wanted — but where’s the fun in that? “What am I living for,” he muses. “If it’s not to make something interesting out of my life?”
You’ve done a wide range of films. Do you have a strategy when picking what you do next?
Yes and no; you sort of feel it out and think: I have [The Interview] with Seth so maybe I won’t do another comedy right away. Or I have movies that I direct and I know they’re a little more on the artistic side, so I think I can do those and get away with doing them, if I balance them out with larger films. There’s a little bit of a balancing act, but it’s not like it’s a grand plan that’s laid out for years and years.
What are you working on next?
I just finished directing a movie called Zeroville. It’s based on a book by Steve Erickson about Hollywood in the 1970s. Our aim is to premiere it at Cannes in May or maybe Venice in September.
How is the experience different when you’re directing?
It’s very different. Going to film school and starting to direct my own movies really helped me as an actor. And having acted for almost two decades helps me as a director. When I direct, I’m more in control of some things. But it’s not so much about control or being a dictator, as it is being in the position to select what the movie will be, what the subject matter will be, who the people are that I’m going to collaborate with in all the departments, from the cinematography to the actors to the designers. Once I’ve made those choices as a director, I try to be as collaborative as possible. I want everybody to contribute. Because I have opportunities to direct my own films, as an actor, when I sign on to a project, it’s much easier to lend myself to it. When I only acted, I felt a little stifled creatively, because I didn’t get to initiate projects like I do now. Now that I have that, as an actor, I no longer need to be in control of those projects. I can help the director achieve his or her vision rather than serve my own.
Why do you think you’re drawn to so many types of creative mediums?
I believe in making the medium match the subject. It’s not really about conquering as many mediums as possible, as much as it is being versatile; I can express certain things in ways I think are best. I’ve loved all of the things I do since young. I got into literature seriously, [as well as] film, acting and art when I was in high school. These are all things I’ve loved for a long time.
What do you think you’re seeking to express through your artwork?
I’m very interested in identity and persona — what makes us who we are and how we define ourselves. A lot of the art I do addresses those issues.
Is identity important to you?
I have a specific lens that’s particular to what I’ve been trained to do. I’m used to putting on characters, looking into a character’s backstory to determine why he does certain things and that can be applied to people in their everyday lives. We all put on a uniform every day [and] we’re forced or urged to wear it. To look at one’s life as a set of choices than a set of things imposed on you, or a combination of both, is one way to look at who we are.
You’re also Gucci’s fashion ambassador. How does that fit in with the rest of what you do?
Six or seven years ago, [Gucci] asked me to be a part of their fragrance campaign. I’d never done anything in fashion before and I like Gucci, so I took a leap. After that first campaign, my relationship with them grew. They allow me to shoot videos for them [and they] support art projects I do…I made a documentary about [Creative Director] Frida [Giannini] and they really have become friends and collaborators in many ways. And it just keeps growing…
Has the relationship drawn you more into the fashion world?
Making that documentary was a way for me to understand the creative side of fashion. I was interested because it’s a specific type of creativity that results in a product people wear, helps define who they are and that’s a little different from what I do. Each project I work with them on gives me a better understanding and appreciation for the fashion world.
Do you express your true persona through social media?
No. It’s always felt frivolous to me; I have a silly attitude when I post things; I don’t take it that seriously. But it’s very serious because one of the main currencies of our age is attention. That number that says how many people are following me equates into money and a certain type of power. I have clients that Will (Franco’s manager) and I work with, where part of the deal is that I post on [social media]. I have something quantifiable on the bargaining table. On one hand it’s just fun. On the other, it’s an outlet and a distribution platform or promotional tool that is important to a lot of the people I work with.
Do you think of your life as a big creative installation?
That sometimes has the implication that there’s a level of fakeness. But [life] is a series of choices you make. It’s a creative act; every personality is something made. What am I living for, if not to make something interesting out of it? I don’t see any other reason to live.