James Franco Doesn't Limit Himself To Just Acting

Actor James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in the new movie Howl. Franco is a prolific reader, writes short stories and poetry. He also models, paints and plays a character named Franco on the soap opera "General Hospital." And in his free time, he's pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The actor James Franco is setting a new standard for what it means to be eclectic in Hollywood. In his latest film, "Howl," Franco slips into the character of Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg.

(Soundbite of movie "Howl")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) What is the Beat generation?

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): (as Allen Ginsberg) There is no Beat generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published.

WERTHEIMER: As Jesse Baker reports, being a movie star is only one of the passions James Franco pursues obsessively.

JESSE BAKER: James Franco has a hard time defining exactly what he does for a living.

Mr. FRANCO: I still get paid the most for acting. But the past four or five years I've been putting a lot more energy into other parts of my life.

BAKER: Not just a few other parts of his life; he's writing short stories and reinventing poems.

Mr. FRANCO: You know, poems usually aren't turned into films, but I've done that a few times now.

BAKER: He's modeling.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Gucci by Gucci.

BAKER: He's playing a guy named Franco on the soap opera "General Hospital."

(Soundbite of TV show "General Hospital")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) So many women, so little time.

BAKER: He's calling that performance art. Oh yeah, he's also painting and setting up art exhibits on both coasts, and just in time for Oscar season, he's starring in Danny Boyle's next big thing after "Slumdog Millionaire."

(Soundbite of movie "127 Hours")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Aron Ralston) And the guidebook says that the route's through here, but I know a better way.

BAKER: It's called "127 Hours." It's a true story about a hiker who gets trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah.

Franco's multifaceted artistic endeavors have become a running joke, even for the actor himself.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. FRANCO: Could you bring out the bin?

BAKER: This is his opening monologue from "Saturday Night Live" last December.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. FRANCO: This bin is filled with idea slips that people give me throughout the year when I ask them for career advice. Every year I pick a few idea slips and then do whatever they say.

BAKER: It would not be entirely shocking if James Franco did indeed take his career advice from a giant suggestion box. But the truth is, he's either a dabbling dilettante, an artist still searching for his medium, or James Franco is a freak, which seems kind of appropriate. He got his start on TV in 1999 playing a high school freak.

(Soundbite of TV show "Freaks and Geeks")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Daniel Desario) Oh man. You want to hear something lame and stuff? You know that Molly Hatchet shirt I was wearing the other day, you know, the one with the executioner guy holding that bloody ax?

BAKER: Writer and director Judd Apatow cast James Franco for the Fox TV series "Freaks and Geeks." He says on the set Franco had a million crazy ideas. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: "Freaks and Geeks" was distributed by NBC, not Fox.]

Mr. JUDD APATOW (Writer-Director): If we were shooting a scene, he would say, I think I'm eating sunflower seeds in this scene. Or in another scene, he wants to eat a Snowball, those giant disgusting Hostess cakes. So we'd say, James, so every single take you're going to eat an entire Snowball 'cause we might do this like 20 times? Yeah, yeah, I want to eat a Snowball, want to eat a Snowball.

BAKER: Hostess cakes aside, Apatow says Franco was the only actor who asked to shadow the show's director and who then spent a week watching an episode be cut together. His fellow cast members, however, suspected he might be a bit of a poser.

Mr. APATOW: In between takes, he would read "Moby Dick" and no one knew if he was actually reading it or if it was just some sort of showing off.

BAKER: James Franco went from reading Melville to studying obscure philosophers as an undergrad at UCLA. Professor Ken Reinhard had Franco in 2008 in a senior seminar on political theology.

Professor KEN REINHARD (UCLA): He wanted to know all about these very, very recent, hot theorists, people like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou.

BAKER: After graduating from UCLA with a degree in English, in true Franco fashion, the actor enrolled in four Master's programs and this fall he starts work on a Ph.D. at Yale.

Mr. FRANCO: You know, I've always been interested in art, literature, film and acting. So I guess in the past four years, you know, I thought why not just pursue them all seriously, see how - if they can all come together and how.

BAKER: Aligning his passion is exactly what his latest project, "Howl," does. In the film, Franco's portrait of Allen Ginsberg is a case study of a poet Franco says he's admired since he was a teenager. This is the poet himself.

Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): I'm with you in Rockland where there are 25,000 mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale.

BAKER: Franco mirrors Ginsberg so closely. Listen...

(Soundbite of movie "Howl")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Ginsberg) I'm with you in Rockland, where there are 25,000 mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale.

BAKER: Franco's wide-ranging artistic quest for enlightenment has severely confounded his fans. Is he an artist who moonlights as a movie star? Is he a scholar, a poet? Is he just confused? What are we supposed to make of this guy? Again, director Judd Apatow...

Mr. APATOW: Someone who does all of this, it's very easy to look for the crack. What's wrong with him? What is he doing? There's got to be something demented in all of this.

BAKER: We don't want to know what's going on inside James Franco's head, Apatow says, because what if James Franco is just a nice guy with more on his mind than a seven-figure paycheck?

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

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Correction Oct. 15, 2010

We mistakenly reported that the television series Freaks and Geeks was distributed by Fox. Freaks and Geeks was distributed by NBC.

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