James Franco: On Balancing His Many Passions James Franco doesn't just spend his time acting in the movies. The star of Milk, Howl and 127 Hours is also an accomplished writer and graduate student. He explains how he juggles his many roles — and why he continues to take on new challenges.
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James Franco: On Balancing His Many Passions

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James Franco: On Balancing His Many Passions

James Franco: On Balancing His Many Passions

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our first guest, actor James Franco, has a big night a week from Sunday. He's co-hosting the Academy Awards ceremony, and he's nominated for Best Actor for his performance in the film "127 Hours."

But Franco is a guy who likes to stay busy. He played a young Allen Ginsberg in the recent film "Howl." He's been studying art, film and writing at places including Yale University and Rhode Island School of Design, and last fall, he published a collection of short stories.

Franco got his start on the TV series "Freaks and Geeks," he co-starred in Spiderman, starred with Seth Rogen in the comedy "Pineapple Express," and in the movie "Milk," he played Harvey Milk's boyfriend. "127 Hours," directed by Danny Boyle, who made "Slumdog Millionaire," is based on the true story of a hiker who is trapped for days after his arm is pinned under a boulder. In a gruesome sequence, the film shows how he amputates his own arm to free himself.

Terry spoke to James Franco in October.


So why did you want to put yourself through the kind of agony, mental agony, that you'd have to experience acting this role?

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): You know, I actually was very attracted to the challenge of doing a movie that, you know, involved being isolated for all that time. And it's, it was unique not only because I don't work with, you know, for most of the movie, I'm not working opposite other actors, but I'm in one spot.

And so it's not even like "Castaway," where he had that whole island to walk around on. Like, I'm in, I'm just in this canyon and I can't, you know, I can't move.

And on paper, and especially, you know, working on a project like this with Danny Boyle, it all sounds, you know, really great and, like, exciting, kind of new kind of filmmaking. But that doesn't necessarily translate into a movie that people want to go and watch.

And so - and I was aware of that, and Danny was certainly aware of that. And that was kind of the challenge that he wanted to take on, you know, and if you know his films, they're not slow films. They all have pace, they all have great energy. And he's very interested in making movies that are full of life.

I guess, you know, the making of the movie was really, you know, a case of Danny and I and the DPs and the writer and everyone, you know, really working together to make this very static situation into something incredibly dynamic. And I...

GROSS: Yeah, I've read reviews that say yes it's - he's pinned by this boulder, but it's really very entertaining.

Mr. FRANCO: It's a very unique film experience.

GROSS: Here's what I want to know. Like, what is it like to wake up every morning when you're shooting the film and say: What's ahead of me today - oh yes, pain? I endure a lot more pain.

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I didn't think I would go crazy. Danny kept warning me before we did it, he's like, yeah, James, you're going to go crazy. I think he wanted to prepare me. But yeah, he'd say yeah, James, I think you're going to go a little crazy in this canyon.

And he prepared for that in some ways. You know, we had a -it was an incredibly fast shoot. I worked six-day weeks. Danny worked seven-day weeks for two months because there were two DPs. And so Danny would just, you know, switch between the crews. And I think Danny designed it that way because he knew not only would I go a little crazy, the whole crew would go a little crazy just working under those conditions.

But on one hand, I had an incredible experience cause I was working with Danny Boyle, you know, and then these two incredible DPs, Anthony Don Mantle(ph) and Keekey Chadiak(ph). And so I was working with, you know, all these guys that I loved, and I had a great relationship with all of them.

But yeah, I was stuck in - you know, we shot a lot of it on a set, but the set was not like a normal set. You know, usually if you shoot on a stage, you build a set so that it can be taken apart so, you know, cameras can move in for different angles that, you know, you normally wouldn't get at a real location.

But they didn't build the set this way. They built it so that it couldn't come apart. And so, really, I was isolated every day in this set, and the way that it kind of worked, a lot of times it was easier to just stay in the set while they, you know, would change the camera setups.

And so, for the first month of shooting, I actually didn't even, I didn't see half of the crew. I just saw, like, I really just saw the DPs because they operated the cameras and then heard Danny's voice over this little speaker that they'd built into the wall of the canyon.

And it kind of did drive me a little crazy. I think one of the things that saved me was I was still in school at the time. And so I had all this reading I had to do for school. So I'd bring my books and stash them under the boulder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And between setups, I would read my books, and I think that helped me a little bit.

GROSS: So what's the difference between what you saw when you were cutting off your arm in the film and what is actually in the film, what you see when you see yourself in the film?

Mr. FRANCO: What do mean, like...?

GROSS: When you were doing the shoot, and you were amputating your arm, what's difference between what you saw on the set and what we see in the film?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, obviously I didn't really cut my arm off although, there were some scenes where, you know, the character tries - he makes many attempts to cut his arm off and do various things to get out.

And in some of the takes, Danny asked me to just kind of saw at my arm with a dull blade, like, you know, because that was the thing is, you know, Aron had a knife, but it was a dull because he had never used a knife before. He had never needed it before, and so he never even thought to sharpen it.

And so there were times when he attempted to saw his arm off with a dull blade. And Danny said: Well, why don't you just try and do it?

And so there were times when I was doing it on my own arm, and that led to, you know, some minor permanent damage because, you know, they built, you know, these great effects guys, they built this arm that had all the, you know, musculature inside and veins, you know, all the veins were in place and nerves. And so I really could just go at it.

And the way we shot it is, you know, we did like these 20-minute takes for -you know, and we did that throughout the movie. You know, we'd do these very, very long takes. And so and we did that for the amputation scene.

And so I was just cutting away, and, you know, the arm was going through. And I actually, Danny told me afterwards that the effects guy was saying to him, you know, whispering in Danny's ear, like, you know, he's not going to be able to make it all the way through. You know, there's certain things in there that are, you know, going to prevent him from cutting all the way through.

So but I actually did. I went all the way through, and I surprised him and everyone. And actually, the first time I went through the arm, I fell back and, you know, fell on my back, or my butt. And so I actually made it through. And I think part of that take is in the film.

GROSS: So is it horrifying to watch yourself actually amputate your arm onscreen?

Mr. FRANCO: I thought that I would have more trouble with it. I've actually recently just watched back a documentary that a friend of mine from NYU made about the filming process. She was there for the whole thing.

And she has this scene in it where I actually have just got into this, the part of, you know, the actual cutting. And I say to Danny: Gosh, I'm getting a little lightheaded. I think you're getting very genuine reactions because all this fake blood and, you know, this prosthetic arm is so real, it's making me lightheaded.

So I guess it was realistic enough, looked realistic enough that it was having - I was having psychosomatic reactions to it, and...

GROSS: When you were filming it.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, when we were actually filming it. And so, you know, in some screenings, people actually applaud at that moment. I've never experienced, like, anything like that in a movie, like in the middle of a movie, like, they're applauding.

And so it's a difficult thing to watch, but it's also something that I think people want to watch because you've gone down the road with this guy so far that you want him to get out.

GROSS: Right.

DAVIES: James Franco, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening to Terry's interview, recorded in October, with actor James Franco. Last year, he played a young Allen Ginsberg in the film "Howl," named after Ginsberg's first published poem. It was a groundbreaking work that evoked Walt Whitman but with the stories, language and rhythms of what became known as beat poetry.

Here's Franco from the opening of the film, playing Ginsberg reading the first lines of "Howl" in his first public reading at the Six Gallery.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Allen Ginsberg) I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high, sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities...

GROSS: That's James Franco, portraying Allen Ginsberg in the new film "Howl," and in that scene, he's reading an excerpt of "Howl." Well done.

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: I mean, there's no film here unless you can convincingly get Allen Ginsberg's cadences because so much of the film revolves around you reading the poem "Howl."

So, what was it about Allen Ginsberg's voice that really stuck out to you, that made you think, okay, this is what the voice is, this is what I built the voice around?

Mr. FRANCO: I guess, you know, he has a bit of a New Jersey accent. I guess that's what it is, or, you know, it's kind of an East Coast thing. And there is an alternation - he alternates between kind of great exuberance and I guess, you know, this kind of sympathetic tone, you know, depending on what section he's reading. And so I tried to find out how he'd be responding to each section and then, you know, deliver it accordingly.

GROSS: How familiar were you with Allen Ginsberg's poems before preparing to make the movie?

Mr. FRANCO: I was pretty familiar. I'd read a fair amount of them when I was younger. It seems that people of a certain age, you know, young people, especially young men, usually come across the Beats. And me and my friends, I and my friends certainly did, and so...

GROSS: What did it mean to you when you read them?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, it's funny. I'm actually in a class right now at Yale where we're - it's about the Beats and about, it's about literary coteries. So, it's about the Beats and about McSweeney's and Dave Eggers. So I'm re-reading all of those books that I read for the first time when I was in high school.

And I think what really struck me was how, you know, there were these young guys and they were, you know, looking for a new way of writing. Most of them had gone to Columbia or some other Ivy Leagues. And they had great teachers, but they were trying to break away from what they had learned in school and were looking for new ways.

And they really had no models. So they were just supporting each other and encouraging each other, and that's how they made it, or that's how they found these new ideas. And so, I think that was really inspiring for me as a young man and that idea of just the search and having, you know, artistic friends around that could support me, and maybe that would be enough.

GROSS: So your part in the movie alternates between reading the poem "Howl" and being interviewed, and we don't see your interviewer. You're there alone on screen, talking alone into a reel-to-reel tape machine as the interview is being recorded.

So, is this gathered from different transcripts of interviews, or is this based on one interview with Ginsberg?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, so I guess there was a lost interview that he gave to Time, I think back in the '60s. And Ginsberg had been in Tangiers, and they flew him out to Rome, and he gave this interview, and it was lost. They didn't - I guess it was too racy, and they didn't - they never published it.

And no transcripts exist, but Epstein and Friedman decided that they were going to use that idea for this interview, and it would be the lost interview. But the way that they created this interview was they compiled, you know, bits from interviews that Ginsberg had given his entire life.

Everything that I say in those interviews, you know, everything that is said in the courtroom scenes, all of those are based on, you know, things that people actually said.

GROSS: Okay, so I want to play an excerpt of the interview. And this is him talking about something that happened between him and his therapist that changed his life. So, here's my guest James Franco, in a scene from "Howl," in which he's being interviewed.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Ginsberg) In San Francisco, I had a year of psychotherapy with Dr. Hicks(ph). I was blocked; I couldn't write. I was still trying to act normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be heterosexual and that something was wrong with me.

And Dr. Hicks kept saying: What do you want to do? What is your heart's desire? So, finally I said: Well, what I'd really like to do is to just quit all this and get a small room with Peter and devote myself to my writing and contemplation and (BEEP) and smoking pot and doing whatever I wanted.

He said: Why don't you do it, then? Well, I mean, what'll happen if I grow old and I have pee stains in my underwear, and I'm living in some furnished room, and nobody loves me, and I'm white-haired, and I have no money, and breadcrumbs are falling on the floor? And he said: Ah, don't worry about that. You're very charming and lovable, and people will always love you.

What a relief to hear that. I very soon realized that it was all a fear trap, just illusory.

GROSS: James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in an excerpt of the new film "Howl." So we've talked a little bit about getting the voice for Allen Ginsberg. What did you to do try to look like him because you're not the first person who comes to mind when you think of what Allen Ginsberg looked like. And most of us, when we think of what Allen Ginsberg looked like, think of him in his later years, as opposed to when he was in his 20s, because he wasn't as visible then.

I mean, you got the glasses. You got his trademark glasses from the period.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, that was key. Well...

GROSS: Did that help, having the glasses?

Mr. FRANCO: It certainly helped. Well, I had a similar reaction when they asked me to do it. Actually, Gus Van Sant was the first person to bring the project to my attention.

I was in the middle of filming "Milk" with Gus. And Gus is an executive producer on "Howl," and he said - you know I knew Rob and Jeff because they had, you know, worked on the documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk," which, you know, we all watched to prepare for "Milk."

And so I knew who they were, and Gus said, you know, they have a movie about Allen Ginsberg, and they want you to play Allen. And I thought, really? Because, you know, like I said, I loved the Beats. I had been reading them since I was about 15. And I - ever since I got into acting, I always dreamed about, you know, doing a movie about the Beats. But I never thought that I would play Allen. I always thought, well, sure, I'll be Kerouac or Cassady. And - but I was being offered Allen.

And so I thought, well, will I be of service to this movie playing Allen? I mean, can I really do that? And so I did, you know, I went back and looked at some of the photographs of young Allen, and then I thought, well, it's not that far.

You know, young Allen, most people think, you know, when they think of Ginsberg, they think of the older Ginsberg, the heavier and balder and bearded Ginsberg. And that would've been a stretch. But the younger Ginsberg is actually kind of close to my build. We have similar, you know, coloring. And he had hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so, and by coincidence, I was hosting "Saturday Night Live" at the time, and they had just won an Emmy for makeup. So I brought in a picture of young Ginsberg. I brought it to the makeup department, and I said, hey, you guys, you know, make people look like other people all the time. How would you, if I was going to do a sketch on SNL about Ginsberg, how would you make me look like this?

And they said, well, actually, it's not that hard. You just kind of comb your hair over, and you definitely need the glasses. His ears stick out a little bit more than yours. So they kind of pushed my ears out. And it was like, oh, voila. It was almost enough.

And so I told Rob and Jeff about the ear thing. And so for half of the movie, we didn't have any prosthetic built at that time. So we just put, like, some weird Play-Dough behind my ears and stuck them out.

And that was kind of it. I mean, I had to get the mannerisms down, but the look was pretty good.

GROSS: You've been making these movies while studying at Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn College, now you're studying in two places, the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale. It's like the college version of extreme sports or something. Do you know what I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...doing like so many different colleges. How come so many?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, now I, you know, I kind of narrowed it down. It's not - the schedule isn't quite like that right now. But, yeah, the past two years, I was at a lot of places. And I guess I just thought, you know, yeah, I am a little -I have an addictive personality and when...

GROSS: Do you? Do you?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. I think I do. So if there's something I like, it's hard for me to, you know, say, to not engage with it fully and to the - I guess to the point of doing, you know, physical harm to myself or whatever, or mental harm.

But, on the other hand, I loved it and I was, you know, by going to all those places, I got to work with, you know, all of my favorite writers and, you know, I got to work with great filmmakers and, you know, do projects that I'm very, very, very proud of.

DAVIES: James Franco, speaking with Terry Gross last year. His film "Howl" is now out on DVD. A week from Sunday, Franco will be co-hosting the Academy Awards ceremony, where he'll be on hand to see if he wins the Best Actor award for his performance in the film "127 Hours." And he'll be back in the second half of our show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with actor James Franco. He's co-hosting the Oscar ceremony this year, and hes nominated for Best Actor for his performance in the film 127 Hours. Among his many roles, Franco has a recurring part on the ABC's soap opera "General Hospital. Here's a clip from the show where he plays a strange artist named Franco.

(Soundbite of ABC's "General Hospital")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) You cut your hair. You hurt yourself. Are you okay?

Unidentified Actress: (as character) What are you doing here?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) Well, I just came to deliver the last six roses. I see you put the other 60 in a vase. Nice display, very artistic.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) What do you want?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) I'm very fond of the number 66. I just like saying it, 66, sounds dirty.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) Why would you send these flowers to me?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) You and I spent some very special time together. I hope you haven't forgotten.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) No. Of course, not.

Mr. FRANCO: I told you, I think about you. I have. And I know that you want to be loyal to your boyfriend and I respect that. Loyalty is hard to come by these days. I just hope that our performance didnt damage your relationship.

GROSS: So I'm afraid we're going to run out of time soon and I want to be able to ask you about the time that you spent acting on "General Hospital...

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was such a surprise to everybody. You are such a good actor and I think a very serious actor, even though youve done comedies, youve done them really well...

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: ...so I consider that part of serious acting.

Mr. FRANCO: Right.

GROSS: And not to cast dispersions on soap operas, but it's just a different style, you know?

Mr. FRANCO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So why did you want to do an afternoon soap, and was it their idea or your idea to do this?

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, it was my idea. And, you know, I mean yeah, people can look, you know, often look down on soap operas as inferior kind of entertainment, but I was thinking in a different way at that point. I had just read this book by this guy name Carl Wilson, who has since become a friend of mine and he wrote this book about Celine Dion. And he, you know, wasnt a fan of Celine's, but he decided that he was going to investigate why. Why does he feel superior to Celine's music? And he didnt come to any definite conclusions but he figured out that well, Celine's music means something to some people and gives a lot of people, I dont know, strength, hope or whatever you get from music. But it's working for some people.

And so he decided to suspend his judgment and stop looking down on Celine just because she doesnt speak to him. And so that's kind of the mindset I was in at that time and I thought well, why not? Ill just try being on a soap opera.

And so my manager represents Steve Burton, who is one of the stars of "General Hospital." And so he had some connections to "General Hospital" and he called them up and said that I wanted to be on the show. And they were very excited to say the least and they called me up and they said, James, its so great that you want to be on this soap opera. What do you want to do? You can do whatever you like. So I said I wanted the character to be an artist and I wanted him to be crazy and that's what I told them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And I wanted their version of that. And they gave me the best - I mean they gave me more than I could've asked for. And...

GROSS: So tell me something that you learned from acting on an afternoon soap opera?

Mr. FRANCO: So yeah, so then there was just the pure experience of acting on a soap opera that was also extremely interesting. They have to, you know, you go through material a lot quicker on a soap opera, but not only that, I was still in school and so I had to act - I had to do even more material than they normally do in a single day because they would do all my material on one day a week. I guess they, it was on a Fridays and I guess they started calling it Franco Fridays because I'd fly in from New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I'd get on, I'd wake up at like 4:30, go to the airport, land in L.A. at about 10:30, go to the studio and then we'd work for like 12 to 14 hours until, you know, about two in the morning. And I would do about I guess 70 to 80 pages of material a day. And usually they only, if they get it, theyll only do one take. But that's not just - it's not just one take per setup. They have four cameras going. So that means one take per scene. So you just learn the lines, do it, boom, on to the next scene. So its a really, its kind of exhilarating if you get into the pace of it.

GROSS: Kind of like theater almost.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Like youre on live. Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: It's very close to how they would do the old like "Playhouse 90" or "Kraft Theatre"...

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. FRANCO: ...you know, television shows in a way.

GROSS: So just one more thing, do you have insomnia and do you use those hours to just keep working?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is your day longer than mine?

Mr. FRANCO: I dont have insomnia.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: As you can see on TMZ, I can sleep anywhere and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I really can sleep anywhere. Although now I'm much more wary about sleeping in public because I'm sure another picture of me will bring a lot of -of sleeping will bring a lot of money.

GROSS: It was a picture of you sleeping class, which is, I think, youre referring to?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. It's actually not class. It's a late night lecture - an optional lecture at the art school that I was not required to be at, so I wasnt, you know, sleeping in class or wasting my opportunity in class. I was at an optional thing, so I think I had every right to sleep in if I wanted to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: But I, yeah, I can sleep anywhere. I just have a lot to do so I tend not to sleep.

GROSS: James Franco, it's been great to talk with you again. Thanks so much.

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Actor James Franco speaking with Terry Gross in October. Francos co-hosting the Academy Awards presentation and he's nominated for Best Actor for his performance in the film 127 Hours.

Coming up, the director of The Kings Speech, which is nominated for a dozen Oscars.

This is FRESH AIR.

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