Love him or hate him, James Franco is prolific.
The 35-year-old multi-hyphenate will appear in no less than ten films this year, in roles ranging from the titular wizard in Oz: The Great and Powerful to a meth kingpin named “Gator” in the gonzo action flick Homefront, out later this month. He stole the show as an exaggerated version of himself in the summer comedy This Is the End, and his riveting turn as a tattooed, fugazi crime lord in Spring Breakers is earning him a bit of Oscar buzz.
Franco also released a novel last month, Actor’s Anonymous, has curated numerous art installations, and was skewered in a highly rated Comedy Central Celebrity Roast.
Oh, and he also directed three films that were released this year, including the documentary Interior. Leather. Bar., the Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying, and the Sal Mineo biopic Sal, which was released on Nov. 1. The latter film is based on Michael Gregg Michaud’s biography, Sal Mineo: A Biography. It stars Val Lauren as Mineo, the actor who earned two Oscar nominations before age 20 for his roles in Rebel Without A Cause and Exodus, and who was one of the first major film stars to come out of the closet. Sal chronicles the last day in the life of the idol, who was stabbed to death at the age of 37.
As far as Sal goes, did you feel a kinship with Rebel Without A Cause after playing James Dean?
That’s certainly part of it. I played James Dean and have a big connection to him, but not in the way that a lot of people think—they think I think I’m James Dean or something, and I’m not 14 [years old]—but I think Dean and his legend and the legends behind the film are very vital and interesting. I did an art show [REBEL] about it at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and did an art piece about Natalie Wood called “The Death of Natalie Wood “ It was something I kept coming back to. And I felt like I owed Sal Mineo one.
And it’s based on Sal Mineo, a biography of the late actor by Michael Gregg Michaud.
I was reading it and wanted to adapt it, but felt like I needed a way in, or some sort of device to capture it. We made it over two years ago, and it looks like we’re copying Fruitvale Station, but we’re not! They shot it after we shot it, because we premiered it at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. But I felt the last day in his life contained everything I needed to say about who he was, and all the tragedy of an actor who had once been at the top of the A-list, with two Oscar nominations before he was 20, whose star had faded, but who was still working very hard at what he loved.
You do seem to be very fascinated with gay characters and capturing their inner struggle amid an inequitable society, whether it’s in Milk, or your films The Broken Tower and Sal. Where do you think this fascination stems from?
It’s not like it’s my mission to tell the stories of as many gay men as possible, although in some cases, I think it is the point. In Milk, the point is to show one of the great fighters for equal rights for the gay community, so I was happy to do that. With characters like Allen Ginsberg [in Howl], my love for him started with his work when I was a teenager. So his sexuality is secondary to me. It’s an important aspect of who he was and his character, but it wasn’t like, “Yes, I want to play another gay role,” it was more, “Yes, I’d love to play another one of my heroes.”
It’s also a huge step forward to even see humanistic portrayals of gay characters onscreen. Growing up, most of the gay characters I was privy to in films were of the camp variety, or in some bizarre cases, as killers like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. With the exception of Philadelphia, the early ‘90s was a very strange time for gay characters in mainstream cinema.
Yeah. Once I choose a subject, if that’s part of who they are and their character, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that. And of course I’m for equal rights and will do whatever I can do to help make that happen. But I feel like because I’ve done more gay characters, gay scenes, or gay projects than most straight actors, people see it as some sort of mission. It’s more of a case-by-case basis, and just trying to capture figures that I love. I guess that a lot of the figures that I love were gay.
I’m a big fan of Spring Breakers, and now the “Consider This Shit” Oscar campaign for your character, Alien, has kicked in. But I’ve got to ask: if Britney Spears is indeed the “songbird of our generation,” what’s your favorite Britney song?
It’s probably my favorite role, and favorite movie that I’ve ever done. There are some people that are so shortsighted and can’t see beyond the teen character surface of that movie to see what an innovative and amazing film it is. I’m unabashedly proud of that performance. I’m not running that Oscar campaign, A24 is, and they have to do it in a wacky way because some people don’t get it. The use of Britney Spears in the movie is a paradigm for the way the rest of the movie works. She’s a super pop-y singer, and is, in some ways, the “songbird of our generation”—or one of them. Some people would say that’s a horrible thing, but she’s also a great singer, and the use of her song in the movie is both earnest, where I think those characters actually are falling in love, in a way, but it’s also set against the backdrop of robberies. I actually have very little knowledge of Britney’s work though, and probably couldn’t name any songs for you!
You recently filmed an adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and I’m a big Faulkner fan. It was weird though, because I went to a bookstore and the cover of the book now features you and says, “Now A Movie Starring James Franco.”
I found it weird, and I’m aware that it has upset some people. I think it was on the cover of the Books section of The New York Times or something. Nobody told me that it was going to happen, and it’s not my doing. I don’t know who did it. If I had been asked, I like that photo, as far as photos go, but I don’t think it captures the spirit of the book in an image. On the other hand, the only reason that that cover is what it is is because the publisher wants to sell more Faulkner books. I don’t read movie reviews usually, but I read one review of the movie—A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. One of the things that he said that I liked was that my movies, As I Lay Dying, The Broken Tower, and Child of God, “makes his enthusiasm for these writers contagious.” I loved that. I’m a student of literature and I don’t want the love for literature to die, so in the same way, that’s really what the book covers are doing. Maybe As I Lay Dying wasn’t flying off the shelves and they wanted to sell more. It’s not a vanity piece for me.
I heard you’re adapting another Faulkner novel—my favorite—The Sound and the Fury.
I am, as crazy as that sounds. We just finished shooting it in Mississippi.
According to my most recent calculations, you’ve directed four films set to be released this year and starred in six others. When do you sleep?
I’m a robot.