NEW YORK — For James Franco, it was almost the one that got away.
Four years ago, Franco was approached by Anna D. Shapiro, the Tony Award-winning director of August: Osage County, about appearing in a stage production of Of Mice And Men. The famously multi-tasking actor – who also directs, teaches and writes screenplays, short stories and poetry – couldn't squeeze it into his schedule, but was intrigued nonetheless.
Fast forward about a year and a half when Broadway producer David Binder, who had acquired the rights to the play, adapted by John Steinbeck from his classic novella, contacted Franco, with precisely the same idea.
"Anna wasn't involved at that point," Franco, 35, recalls, "but David showed me this article where she had been asked what her dream project was, and she said,Of Mice And Men. And it made perfect sense to have this great female director take on this male-heavy play that hadn't been on Broadway in years." (A 1974 revival featured Kevin Conway and James Earl Jones.)
So it seemed the stars were aligned for Franco's Broadway debut – but not all of them. After Franco signed on to play George, one of two itinerant farm workers chasing a dream of owning land in the Depression-era West, he and Shapiro began pondering the other roles. Two other well-known screen actors who had never appeared on the Main Stem came to mind: Irish Bridesmaids actor Chris O'Dowd for Lennie, George's well-meaning but tragically simple companion, and Gossip Girl alumna Leighton Meester for a character simply known as Curley's Wife, married to the contentious son of George and Lennie's employer.
"I said, 'Go for it,'" says Franco, from the first rows of the Longacre Theatre, where Mice is now in previews ahead of Wednesday's opening. "Sometimes I have good instincts about casting. And when you perform something like this, you need to feel the relationships on stage are real. You need to feel the blood pumping through them."
O'Dowd, 34, remembers reading the novella in school. "It travels well. Steinbeck was actually kind of big in Ireland; he wrote about universal themes." But when Franco describes Mice as "kind of a parable," his co-star responds, "It's an incredible piece of writing, but I don't know what we're supposed to learn, except that life is..." O'Dowd spits out an evocative adverb and adjective, neither of which can be printed here.
Franco smiles; he and O'Dowd clearly enjoy baiting each other, affectionately. "I think they learn that these people want to connect," Franco says. "Yet here they all are, in service of this greater thing that's pulling them apart."
Meester, 28, notes that "through this whole play, everyone is planning. You guys are planning to have a home, a future together. My character has a different dream. To the untrained eye, she may seem unsympathetic, but she's surrounded by men who treat her like an object, or a child. She just wants to be able to talk to someone."
Franco nods. "She wants nothing more than what everyone else in the play wants – to love and be loved."
O'Dowd regards them both, amused. "No, no, no. I want to pet rabbits," he says, speaking on Lennie's behalf. Curley's Wife "wants to be a Hollywood star," he notes, pointing in mock accusation at Meester.
"It's the same thing!" Franco insists.
"Yes – because it's unavailable," says Meester. It's this aspect, she adds, that gives Mice its stinging poignancy: "You get caught up in the dream. I do, even when I'm in the scene. You may know the ending, but you don't want it to come."
O'Dowd concedes the point. "I think that's why people have been so moved and devastated by the play," he says. "It's about that part of each of us, I think, that yearns for something better. There's something incredibly sad about wanting people to achieve, and seeing them fail. And knowing that they'll fail."
#ONTDteens, you don't have to be a legal adult to see Franco in this play