James Franco: On Balancing His Many Passions

James Franco and Aaron Tveit i i

hide captionAaron Tveit and James Franco star as Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg

JoJo Whilden/Oscilloscope Laboratories
James Franco and Aaron Tveit

Aaron Tveit and James Franco star as Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg

JoJo Whilden/Oscilloscope Laboratories

This interview was originally broadcast on October 5, 2010. James Franco is nominated for an Academy Award for his role in 127 Hours. He will also be co-hosting the Academy Awards Ceremony with actress Anne Hathaway.

It's hard to categorize James Franco.

The star of such films as Spider-Man and Milk is also an accomplished painter and writer — and a graduate student currently enrolled in both Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The frenetic pace suits Franco, who tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he has an "addictive personality."

"If there's something I like," he explains, "it's hard for me to not engage with it fully."

Franco's acting career started in the late 1990s, when he played Daniel Desario on the short-lived but critically acclaimed TV series Freaks and Geeks. Shortly thereafter, he played Peter Parker's buddy Harry Osborn in the first film of the Spider-Man trilogy alongside his real-life friend Tobey Maguire, only to transform into one of the hero's nemeses in the blockbuster's two sequels.

Then there were roles in films including Tristan & Isolde, Pineapple Express and Milk, where he portrayed Scott Smith, the boyfriend of San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk, who was murdered in 1978.

In his latest film Howl, Franco again portrays a real-life person — this time the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The non-linear film traces Ginsberg's life during the 1940s and 1950s and reenacts Ginberg's 1955 debut performance of his famous poem Howl. Franco says that he was excited to immerse himself in the beatnik culture of the 1950s.

"I loved the Beats and I had been reading them since I was about 15, and ever since I got into acting I always dreamed about doing a movie about the Beats," he explains. "But I never thought that I would play Allen. I always thought I would play [Jack] Kerouac or [Neal] Cassady."

Palo Alto by James Franco
Palo Alto: Stories
By James Franco
Hardcover, 208 pages
Scribner
List Price: $24
Read an Excerpt

Even after he was offered the part of Ginsberg, Franco says, he still had lingering doubts about the role.

"I thought 'Hmm. Will I be of service to this movie playing Allen? Can I really do that?'" he says. "So I went back and looked at some of the photographs of young Allen and then watched Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy, which was made in 1959. ... Most people, when they think of Ginsberg, they think of the older Ginsberg, the heavier and balder and bearded Ginsberg. And that would have been a stretch. But the younger Ginsberg is actually close to my build and we have similar coloring. And he had hair."

Franco scheduled his time on Howl's set around his class schedule. In the past few years, he's attended graduate school at Columbia University, New York University, Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College — and currently takes classes at Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Several of the stories he wrote in fiction classes at Columbia and Brooklyn College will be released in his upcoming collection Palo Alto: Stories.

Franco has also appeared on the sitcom 30 Rock and regularly appears in short features on the website Funny or Die. In late 2009, he joined the cast of General Hospital, playing an artist named Franco.

"I had to do even more material than they do in a single day because they would do all of my material on one day a week," he says. "I'd fly in from New York, land in L.A. about 10:30 and then we'd work about 12 or 14 hours, until about 2 a.m. And I would do about 70 to 80 pages of material a day. Usually, if they get it, they'll only do one take. ... It's kind of exhilarating if you get into the pace of it."


Interview Highlights

On Allen Ginsberg's voice

"He has a bit of a New Jersey accent or kind of an East Coast thing. And there is an alternation between great exuberance and this kind of sympathetic tone, depending on what section [of "Howl"] he's reading. So I tried to find out how he'd be responding to each section and deliver it accordingly."

On the movie Howl

"I guess there was a lost interview that [Ginsberg] gave to Time magazine I think back in the 60s. 'Ginsberg had been in Tangiers and they flew him out to Rome and he gave this interview, and it was lost; it was too racy and they never published it. So there's this lost interview and no transcripts exist but [the filmmakers] decided they were going to use that idea for this interview [in this film.] But the way that they created this interview was they compiled bits from interviews that Ginsberg had given his entire life. So everything that I say in that interview, everything that I say in the courtroom, is based on things people actually said."

On acting while taking classes

"I have an addictive personality, so if there's something I like, it's hard for me to not engage with it fully, and to the point of doing physical harm to myself or mental harm. But on the other hand, I loved it. And by going to all of those [universities] I got to work with all of my favorite writers, and I got to work with great filmmakers and do projects that I'm very, very proud of."

On his time on General Hospital

"I'd been discussing the idea [of doing a soap] with this artist named Carter. He's a friend of mine, and I collaborate on different projects with him. We were going to do a movie called Maladies that he was going to direct and I was going to star in, and I was going to play a character who was formerly on a soap opera. And that got us talking about, what if I actually was on a soap opera? Wouldn't that be interesting? People would be surprised. Nobody would expect it. And also, it's a different kind of entertainment and acting and yeah, people often look down on soap operas as kind of inferior entertainment. But I was thinking in a different way at that point.

I had just read this book by Carl Wilson ... about Celine Dion. And he wasn't a fan of Celine but he decided he was going to investigate why. Why does he feel superior to Celine's music? And he didn't come to any definite conclusions, but he figured out that Celine's music means something to some people and gives a lot of people strength, hope — whatever you get from music. So he decided to suspend his judgment and stop looking down on Celine just because she doesn't speak to him. So that's kind of the mindset I was in at that time."

Excerpt: 'Palo Alto: Stories'

Palo Alto by James Franco
Palo Alto: Stories
By James Franco
Hardcover, 208 pages
Scribner
List Price: $24

When I got to high school I didn't have friends. My best friend moved away, and I wasn't popular. I didn't go to parties. I got drunk only once, at a wedding. I puked behind a gazebo. I was with my cousin Jamie, who is gay. He goes to high school in Menlo Park, which is a five-minute drive. He is my only friend. He smokes menthol cigarettes.

After school I would go home. Me and Mom and Tim would watch Roseanne at the dinner table because Dad wasn't there to say no.

Then Dad would come home and we would study. A lot of times my math tests were on Thursdays, so my dad and I would study extra long on Wednesdays, and I would miss Beverly Hills 90210. I never taped it.

I did so well in math class that I got this internship for the summer at Lockheed Martin. They make missiles and satellites. I was the only girl out of ten students who got selected.

My dad was very excited.

He said, "Marissa, one day you and I will work together."

That summer, between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked for a Swedish guy named Jan, pronounced Yan. My job was to watch old film reels of the moon. There were hundreds. I worked in a cold, windowless basement. The reels would run from one spool to another on this old machine that looked like a tank. I was supposed to record blemishes and splices in the film. Sometimes the moon was full; sometimes it would get a little more full as I watched. Sometimes the film was scratched so badly it skipped, or it broke. I was in the basement forty hours a week. I watched so many moons.

It got so boring, I stopped looking for splices. Instead, I drew pictures on computer paper that I pulled from the recycling bin. Jan was never around, so I drew a lot. I drew rainbows, and people, and cities, and guns, and people getting shot and bleeding, and people having sex. When I got tired I just drew doodles. I tried to draw portraits of people I knew. My family always looked ridiculous, but funny because the pictures resembled them, but not enough. Then I drew all these things from my childhood, like Hello Kitty and Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony. I drew my brother's G.I. Joes. I made the My Little Ponys kill the G.I. Joes.

I drew hundreds of pictures and they were all bad. I wasn't good at drawing. It was also a little sad to draw so much because I could see everything that was inside me. I had drawn everything I could think of. All that was inside me was a bunch of toys, and TV shows, and my family. My life was boring. I only had one kiss, and it was with my gay cousin, Jamie.

One day, Jan came down to the basement. He saw all my little drawings. He didn't say much. He picked them up and looked at them. He looked at every picture that was there. When he finished with each, he put it onto a neat pile.

He was tall and restrained, with clean, fading blond hair, combed back, with a slight wave in the front. He had a plain gold wedding band. As he looked at the pictures, I tried to imagine what he did for fun, but I couldn't. He put the last picture down on the neat stack and looked at me.

"How is Mr. Moon?" he asked. In his accent his words came out short and clean. There was a hint of warmth, but it was contained.

"I found a few scratches today," I said.

"Good," he said, and left. I didn't draw any more that day. I looked at the moon.

The next day I was back in the basement. It was almost lunchtime, and Jan came in.

"Come here," he said, and turned and walked out. I followed him down the hall and outside. We crossed the parking lot, me following him. The surface of the blacktop was melting where they had put tar to fill in the cracks. There were no trees in the parking lot and the sun was pushing hard. I followed the back of Jan's light yellow shirt and tan slacks over to his truck. It was an old, faded mustard-colored pickup that said TOYOTA in white on the back.

When I got to the truck, he was messing around with something in the stake bed. He put the back part that said TOYOTA down. On top of this, he laid out a big, black portfolio.

He opened it and there were drawings inside.

"Look," he said. He stepped back, and I looked. He said, "These are mine."

They were good. They were mostly portraits. There were a bunch of portraits of a pretty woman's face, all the same woman. He was a lot better than I was.

"That's Greta, my wife," he said. "She was not my wife then, when I made them. She became my wife."

"She's very beautiful," I said. She was. Prettier than me.

"I did these when I was at school," he said. "I wanted to be artist. But it was no good. It is no good to be artist. I practiced every day, eight hours a day. Then I could draw like Michelangelo. Then what? There is already Michelangelo. I realized there was nothing more to do. In science, there is always more to learn. Always more."

I didn't look at him; I looked at his pictures. I felt very lonely. I pictured him and his wife, alone at a long table, eating some bland Swedish food, not talking. The only sounds were from the utensils hitting the plates, and the squish of their gentle chewing.

"So," he said. "You see." He reached over me and shut the portfolio to punctuate the "You see," but I didn't know what to see. Then I looked at him. He stood there and looked at me. We were so awkward.

"Okay," he said finally. "See you."

"See you," I said.

From "Lockheed," a story in Palo Alto: Stories by James Franco. Copyright James Franco and Scribner 2010. Reprinted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved

  • Books Featured In This Story

    Palo Alto
    Palo Alto

    Stories

    by James Franco

    Hardcover, 197 pages | purchase

    close

    Purchase Featured Books

    • Palo Alto
    • Stories
    • James Franco

    Comments

     

    Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

    Support comes from: