James Franco, From 'Freaks' To 'Milk' Initially known for his role on the short-lived but critically acclaimed TV series Freaks and Geeks, the actor stars alongside Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's newest film.
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James Franco, From 'Freaks' To 'Milk'

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James Franco, From 'Freaks' To 'Milk'

James Franco, From 'Freaks' To 'Milk'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, James Franco, stars with Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk." Penn plays Harvey Milk, who became the first gay man elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977. Before completing his first year in office, he was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White.

James Franco plays Milk's lover, Scott Smith. Together, they moved to San Francisco, set up a camera shop in the Castro, and helped transform the neighborhood into the gay capital of the city. Franco co-starred in the short lived but terrific TV series "Freaks and Geeks." After playing the rebellious high-school heartthrob in that series, he played the ultimate rebellious heartthrob, James Dean, in a telemovie about the iconic actor. In "Spiderman," Franco played Peter Parker's best friend and the son of Spiderman's enemy, Green Goblin. Franco starred with Seth Rogen in last summer's comedy "Pineapple Express," a stoner film meets action film. In a cameo in the film "Knocked Up," and a series for the website Funny or Die, Franco has mocked his own image. We started our interview talking about "Milk."

James Franco, welcome to Fresh Air. The characters in the movie, for the most part, are real people that existed. And for some of the characters, like Harvey Milk, there's a lot of archival footage and documentation so that Sean Penn could base his performance on that. But as far as I know, the person you play, Scott Smith, wasn't nearly as well documented. I mean, the screenwriter of the movie said that there was very little in terms of film footage and things like that for you to base your performance on. So, what did you do to create the character? Did you talk with people who knew him?

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): Yeah. When I heard that Gus was doing the movie, I didn't really know anything about Harvey Milk, which I found shocking and sad because I grew up in the Bay Area, in Palo Alto, 45 minutes away from San Francisco. And I heard Gus was doing the movie, and I started doing some research and found out what, you know, an important story this was.

And as far as, like, the research, you know, there's some great sources on Harvey Milk in the time, Randy Shilts' book "The Mayor of Castro Street" and the Oscar-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk." And like you said, Scott isn't - doesn't play a huge part in either of those. In the documentary, you know, he shows up for about five seconds. I think Harvey and Scott are at the Gay Pride Parade, and they kiss, and that's it. So, I, you know, I couldn't build a character on that either.

And so, it was really a matter of just talking to a lot of people that had worked with Harvey and Scott and were friends with Scott. And I went to Rob Epstein, the director of "The Times of Harvey Milk," and I asked him if he had any extra footage that didn't make it into his documentary. And so, he had a pre-interview with Scott Smith from 30, like, 28 years ago on a film reel, and he found that in some old vault for me and transferred it to DVD. And so, I could finally really hear what Scott sounded like and, you know, see how he moved and everything. So, I had the - and then, I had the outside and the inside.

GROSS: Are we past the point where I have to ask if it's risky to play a gay character and if that could adversely affect your career?

Mr. FRANCO: I don't know. I mean, yeah, it certainly seems like, you know, times have changed. I think as far as straight actors playing gay roles, "Brokeback Mountain" was a big breakthrough. I'm pretty sure when they were casting that movie that I think the story is, like, you know, 10 to 15 other actors turned it down. I don't know if that's true or not. But after that movie, I think some of the hesitancy of straight actors to, you know, play gay roles has been dissipated.

But you know, that's not even the reason I took it on. I just, you know, I've been the biggest fan of Gus Van Sant forever, you know, even before I started acting. I would just watch "My Own Private Idaho," you know, repeatedly just in high school. And then when I did start acting, you know, sometimes people ask you, like, what's the one role that you wish you could have played? And I think it would probably have been River Phoenix's role in that movie. And so to play, you know, a gay character in a Gus Van Sant movie sounded like, you know, a fantastic thing to me. So, I had no fear of playing this role.

GROSS: Did Gus Van Sant want to get assurances from you that you'd be OK kissing Sean Penn in scenes?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I read the script, so I knew it was coming. So, I guess one thing that happened was that after I agreed to do the script, there was a rewrite, and I read the rewrite, and one of the changes were that there were more kissing scenes, and there was like, you know, a big love scene on, like, page five. And you know, I was all prepared for the other scenes, the kissing scenes, but I said, well, Gus, well, you're adding more, what's going on? And he was very smart, and he said, you know, Sean Penn is going to be playing a gay character, and you're playing - you know, you're both straight actors playing gay characters. And in the back of people's minds, they're probably going to be thinking like, all right, when is Sean going to kiss a dude? And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: You might as well just get it out of the way, so people can get beyond it and, you know, really engage with the story. And I think he was right.

GROSS: Yes, this is sort of interesting...

Mr. FRANCO: I could tell you a little bit more about the kissing if you want...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead, yeah, yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: The funny thing is right before we started filming in San Francisco, there was a show at the SF MoMA of this artist, Douglas Gordon, a great artist. He does everything, but some of his best pieces are his video pieces, and this was - it was called, like, Everything Up Until Now. And it was all of his video pieces in one room. And so, Gus went his DP, Harris Savides, and there was one piece where this couple is kissing, a young man and a young woman were kissing on the street, and I think it lasted about three minutes.

And Gus told me the story later. He turned to Harris, and he said, wow, look at that kiss. It's so natural. It looks so real. You know, that's what we need for the movie, you know? We don't want movie kisses; we want our actors to look real when they're kissing. How do you think Douglas did that? And Harris said, like, well, you know, they're probably really kissing. It's just a couple that he saw kissing and shot them. And that night, Gus had dinner with Douglas Gordon. They both - I guess they knew each other. They both had done "Psycho" pieces, you know? Gus remade the movie, and Douglas has this piece called "24 Hour Psycho" where he slowed "Psycho" down...

GROSS: Oh, right, right. I read about it. Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: So, it would last 24 hours.

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. FRANCO: And so, he asked Douglas, you know, how did you get that kiss to look so real? It must have been just a couple you shot, right? And then Douglas said no, no. I hired two actors who didn't know each other, and I had them kiss for 12 hours. And then, I took the best three minutes to put in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: So, Gus told me the story, and he said, so, yeah, you and Sean, huh? And I - and I knew he was kind of kidding, but not exactly, because the Douglas Gordon piece actually, like, inspired this shot in the movie that hadn't been in the script where Sean and I are just on the sidewalk like kissing for, like, at least a full minute. The shot - I don't think it's a minute in the film, but we - the takes were, like, at least a minute, if not longer. And that - I don't think I've ever kissed anybody on camera for that long.

In addition to that, there were, like, 300 people out on Castro Street behind the camera just watching. And it was, you know, the first kiss that was filmed in the movie. So, it felt like there is a lot of pressure on that kiss, and I think - you know, you can kind of just make your mind blank for about 30 seconds. But you know, after that, I really think I thought, well, here I am kissing Spicoli. I was just thinking - that's really what I thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Like, wow - I was thinking of Sean Penn in the beach, you know, in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And just like, hey, dude, you know, I saved Brooke Shields or whatever. And that's what I was thinking, and like, I cannot believe that I went from a kid watching that to this. And...

GROSS: Well, Sean Penn is such, like, the method actor. Did you both, like, talk through the scene before doing it? And did he prepare for it differently than you prepared for it?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I mean, you don't really prepare for a kissing scene. I don't - I mean, I've never - I've been asked that a lot, like, did you and Sean do preparation? Like, and I'm thinking, if you think about it, like, if I said to one of my female co-stars in another movie, like, hey, why don't we go rehearse this love scene in my hotel room a bit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I don't think it would fly. And so, you just don't really rehearse kissing scenes whether it's male or the female. And there's not really much to talk about, you know? You kind of both know how to kiss, you assume, and you just do it. I guess if - I think Sean took some breath mints, and you just do it.

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. He stars opposite Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Franco, and he co-stars in the new movie, "Milk," in which Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, the first out-of-the-closet gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Now, you're going to college now in addition to making movies. You're getting your graduate degree...

Mr. FRANCO: Yes...

GROSS: From Columbia, in what? Writing, is it?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I'm going to several schools. So, yes, I am going to Columbia for the MFA Fiction Writing Program, and then, I'm studying directing at the NYU Tisch Grad School. And then - I'm also taking fiction writing at Brooklyn College.

GROSS: Wow. That's a lot of work. You know, I think a lot of people who have reached your stature as an actor would say, well, I don't have to go to graduate school. I'm already doing it, so why should I go to school? So, let me ask you why you are going to school since you already have a very successful career. A lot of people drop out when they've reached, you know, the point you're at as opposed to going to school, three schools no less.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. I did leave school when I started acting. I mean, I wasn't successful, but I moved to L.A. from Palo Alto to go to UCLA, and I left after a year because I was not in the theater program. My parents didn't let me apply. And once I got to L.A., I wanted to act, and they wouldn't let me audition for the theater program until I was a junior. And I just, you know, that seemed like a lifetime away. And so, I left school and went to acting school in North Hollywood, and I acted for eight years. And then after awhile, you know, for a lot of reasons acting wasn't completely satisfying. I was very grateful, you know, that I had a career and I could support myself as an actor, but I just needed something more.

I went back to school to write, and I guess, based on my experiences with acting, you know, I went to acting school for like eight years, and for me, hard work just seemed to pay off. And so I thought, I - if I wanted to be serious about writing, then I should be around other writers. And you know, some people - like, there's a romantic notion, like, well, if you want to be a writer, just write. But I don't know - I don't know if this is true, but I had a professor at UCLA who just wrote a book on this very thing, and I think it turns out that, like - I could be wrong, but I think something like 90 percent of authors that are fiction authors that are being published today went through MFA programs. So, I don't know, but it certainly does a lot for me to be in school.

GROSS: On "Saturday Night Live," when you hosted, you did an opening monologue about how your dream - just like any other student at Columbia - anyway, it was very funny because of course, you're not. But I'm thinking...

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I said I was living in the dorms. I don't live in the dorm.

GROSS: No. I couldn't imagine you living in the dorms. But I'm thinking how self-conscious I would be if I were in your shoes, because once you're famous and you're sitting in a class with a bunch of other people, I would imagine people are either waiting for you to be incredibly brilliant or to make a fool of yourself and show, well, you're not all that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, like, what kind of, like, peculiar pressures do you feel are on you as a student now?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, for the most part, it's actually pretty great. I - you know, the writing programs, and to a certain extent, the film program, they're run in a workshop fashion. And so, the group becomes pretty intimate, and people get to know me, and I like to think that they forget about me as an actor. I don't know. They certainly don't really bring it up. And I get the feeling, like, at the film school if I - if I ever bring up any movie that I've acted in, like, don't - you know, nobody wants to hear about it really.

And I guess when I was at UCLA, I felt a lot of pressure to work hard because I, you know, I was going back to undergrad, and so I was older than most of the people there. And so, I didn't want anybody to think that I was like sliding by. And so, I took a lot of extra courses. I mean, I was taking classes that I was very interested in with professors that I was very interested in working with, but I - like, the cap on the number of units that a student can take in a quarter is 19 and in that last quarter, I took 62 units.

GROSS: Oh, geez.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And you know, most - it was mostly because it was just, like, my last quarter and there were so many teachers I wanted to be in class with. But I'm sure part of it was just, like...

GROSS: Showing off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I didn't want anybody - I didn't want - no, I know I'm showing off now. It's kind of ridiculous.

GROSS: No, no, no. I'm kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: OK. I did break the record. I'm a little proud of that. I broke the record for the number of units in a class. But I didn't want anyone to think that I was, like - you know, I had it easy or something.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor James Franco, and he's now co-starring in the new movie "Milk." This summer, you starred in "Pineapple Express," which I just thought was a wonderful film. And you starred in it with Seth Rogen, and you're, like, the real stoner in the movie. Well, you both are, but you're the person who, like, sells the marijuana.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, I'm the dealer, yes.

GROSS: You're the dealer, and you're selling, like, potent stuff, called Pineapple Express. And let's just start with a clip.

Mr. FRANCO: That was a good voice right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Let's just start with a clip from the film. And this is from early in the movie. Seth Rogen is a process server; his job is to hand-deliver legal papers to people.

Mr. FRANCO: Right.

GROSS: And, you're the dealer. So, he shows up at your door one day to buy some marijuana from you, and he's on his way to, like, serving a subpoena. So, he's wearing a suit, and you're surprised to see him that dressed up. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Pineapple Express")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) What's up with the suit?

Mr. SETH ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Well, I'm a process server, so I have to wear a suit.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Wow. You're a servant, like a butler, a chauffeur?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) No. No. What? No. I'm not, like - no, I'm a...

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Shine shoes?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) I'm a process server. I like...

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) In process.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) I work for a company that's, like, hired by lawyers to, like, hand out legal documents, like subpoenas to people who don't want them. So, I've got to wear...

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Subpoenas.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Like, disguises sometimes just to make them admit that they're themselves so I can served them the papers.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Disguise?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Kind of, I guess. It's a hell of a job.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) That's cool, man.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Like, a day-to-day basis, it's fine...

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Got a great job where you don't do anything.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) That's what I say.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) I wish I had that.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Are you kidding? You - you do have the easiest job on Earth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Yeah, yeah, that's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) You didn't think of that, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) I do have a good job.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) Yeah, you do nothing.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Saul Silver) Thanks, man.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Dale Denton) No problem.

GROSS: You are so funny in this film. I mean, you're so - you're so kind of, like, sweet and dumb at the same time. And there's some incredible...

Mr. FRANCO: But I have high aspirations. I want to be a - I want to be an architect.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: Of some sort and build off-ramps, highway off-ramps and septic tanks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you have some great moments of physical comedy in it. You take a lot of physical abuse in this movie.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, yeah. As far as the physical abuse, you know, I had a feeling going into the movie that there would be some injuries just because, you know, I've been on, like, the "Spiderman" movies that, you know, have very big budgets. I think "Spiderman 3" had one of the biggest budgets ever, and you take a lot of time to do those action scenes. Like, you know, we take a month or more to do one action scene in "Spiderman." On "Pineapple Express," you know, I'm reading the script and there's like a lot of - a lot of action for a comedy. I mean, they call it an action-comedy. But there's, you know, there wasn't a lot of - there wasn't a huge budget, and there wasn't a lot of time to do them.

And I just knew in the back of my mind, I was thinking, oh, man, we are going to get hurt. And the actors ended up doing - you know, we ended doing a lot of our own stunts. And you know, I - I don't know - ran into a tree. There's that scene where we're running through the woods and I ran into a tree. Well, I actually ran into the tree. But not only that, there was a pad on the tree that I guess was supposed to protect me, but it was screwed in with exposed washers in each corner. And so, I not only hit the tree, I hit, like, a washer. So, I had, like, a - and the reason I knew I hit the washer is that the cut was crescent-shaped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so - and you know, it was kind of I guess my fault, but you know, the guy - ah, whatever. But - and then Seth, like, I think he sprained his finger. He had to go to the hospital for his finger. There's a scene where I hit Danny over the head with a bong, and yeah, it was a breakaway bong. But by that point - I mean, I even warned Danny McBride. I was like, look, Violet(ph), you know, just based on the way things have been going, I - you know, I'm going to hit you in the right spot, but I think you're going to get hurt. And he was like, do it, do it!

And I guess because it was, you know, weighted with water or something, sure enough, like, as soon as I hit him, you look at him in the scene because it's - it's the take that he actually got hit, and his eyes are like, dude, look like really dilated or something. But I think it was worth it just because we're not - one thing you - that can happen with stuntmen is they're very, you know, they're well-trained at - you know, with fighting and movie fighting, and so they look very slick when they're fighting. We don't necessarily look that sleek, you know? And so, the fights become comedic.

GROSS: James Franco will be back in the second half of the show. He's now starring opposite Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk," about Harvey Milk. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Toni Morrison's new novel, "A Mercy," and we continue our conversation with actor James Franco and talk about his role on "Freaks and Geeks" and his own adventures in high school.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with James Franco. He stars opposite Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk," about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S. Franco also starred in the TV high-school series "Freaks and Geeks," played James Dean in the telemovie about the iconic actor, played the son of Spiderman's enemy Green Goblin, and was the stoner drug dealer in last summer's comedy, "Pineapple Express."

Seth Rogen, who you starred with in "Pineapple Express," is someone you met in your first big role, which was in the series "Freaks and Geeks," the sadly short-lived series "Freaks and Geeks," which was set in high school. And that's where you also met Paul Feig and Judd Apatow. How did you get the part in "Freaks and Geeks"? Were you still in high school or just out of high school?

Mr. FRANCO: No. Seth, I think, was still in high school. I don't think - I don't think...

GROSS: Yeah, he was.

Mr. FRANCO: He finished high school.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: It - right. Exactly, he dropped out, I think.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, he's one of the smartest dropouts I've ever met. I was a little older. I was I think 20 when I auditioned, and I - you know, I'd done little things here and there. I think I did, like, "Pacific Blue," which was like "Baywatch" on, like, bikes and roller blades and stuff like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And you know, little bits here and there. And they just did a huge casting call. I think they met a lot of young actors, and they were really smart. They, you know, they had a script for the pilot, but I think that they just looked for actors that they really liked and not really people that would fit their script exactly. So, my character in this script didn't have a last name, just Daniel. And the description - I still have it, the original draft - it says Daniel - he's Latino with Peter Frampton hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so, I'm not exactly that, and - but they just liked me. And so, they put me in that role and when the show got picked up, they changed the name to Daniel Desario, so I guess I became Italian. And then they, you know, they kind of wrote the characters around the actors, although I wasn't exactly like Daniel in high school, but I guess they thought I could play that very well.

GROSS: Were the scripts in the storylines at all like your high-school experiences growing up in Palo Alto?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, to a certain extent. I got in a lot of trouble; I mean, it was silly trouble, guess as much as trouble as you can get in, in Palo Alto.

GROSS: For what?

Mr. FRANCO: I got arrested for graffiti. I got arrested - a lot of, like, underage drinking, drunk in public, shoplifting, you know, your various, like, suburban arrests, I guess. And...

GROSS: Let's stop for a moment. What did you shoplift?

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, gosh, that was ridiculous. I don't know - for some reason when I was in junior high school, my friends and I had, like, a cologne-stealing ring.

GROSS: Cologne?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, yeah, I guess - I didn't even really wear it, but it's kind of, I guess, it's ironic. I just did the Gucci cologne ad, and I was the cologne thief in junior high. We would go around to all the department stores and they have, like, the tester bottles out on a counter, so it was, like, really easy to steal. And then we'd take them to the school and keep them in our gym locker and sell them to people. And for a while, it was really hip to wear, like, Drakkar Noir and stuff like that. We could sell it.

GROSS: It was a cologne-smuggling ring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, and then one day, the assistant principal found out about it and then, like, went into the locker room and busted our lockers open with a crowbar, and we were caught. And actually, I think I was on vacation or something. I don't know why I was gone from school, but I was in Hawaii. And he had called the police, and they thought I had, like, jumped the city or whatever and bailed out of town to get away from, you know, my cologne stealing.

GROSS: So, you were telling us you were getting in trouble, and these are some examples of the things that got you in trouble.

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: What kind of circle were you in, in high school?

Mr. FRANCO: I tried to be an athlete. I played a lot of soccer when I was younger, but as soon as I got to high school I was on the football team for about a minute, and it just was not my thing and I quit. So, I got into, like - I don't know what we were, I guess, just the troublemaking crowd. But I guess, you know, a couple of my friends were really into literature. That's when I really started reading seriously. So, that's when I started reading "On the Road" and Ginsberg and Burroughs and all the Beats. And then, when I got into a certain amount of trouble, I knew I had to stop.

I mean, I was, like, a ward of the court after a while. You know, it was past probation. It was like I didn't belong to my parents. So, I guess if I jaywalked I would go to a juvenile hall or something. So, I had to change my ways, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to play sports or anything. I had to occupy my time with something, so that's when I really started painting. So, every day after school, I'd go to this art league and either do portraiture or draw naked models from, like, 3:30 to 10 everyday.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a scene from "Freaks and Geeks." The series is set in a high school. And there's a girl in "Freaks and Geeks" who has a real crush on you, and she's very smart, and you're not a good student. And in this episode, she's tutoring you for a math test.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: And what you do is that you steal a copy of the test so that you have the answers in advance.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you want her to help you cover up. And so, you're kind of explaining to her how she has to help you do this, and she kind of realizes that you're playing her and we'll pick it up from there.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of TV show "Freaks and Geeks")

Ms. LINDA CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) You're manipulating me.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) What?

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) You're manipulating me.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) No, I'm not.

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) Yes, you are. And you know, it's really hard to say no to you, but I have to. I'm sorry. I can't go in there and lie. I'm not going to.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) OK, fine. Don't lie.

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) What?

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) No, let's go in there, we'll tell them what we did. What's the difference? You'll get a nice slap on the wrist, and I'll get, what, suspended, expelled?

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) That is not fair, Daniel.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) What do you think, I want to be terrible at school? Do you think I like it? I wish I was as smart as you. I wish it all came easy to me, but it doesn't. You know, when I was in 6th grade, they told us when we got to junior high it would be either track one, track two or track three. Track one is the smart kids. Track two is the normal kids. Track three is the dumb kids. And what do you think I got? How do you think it feels to be told you're dumb when you're 11 years old?

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As Lindsay Weir) You are not dumb.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) I just wanted them to prove them wrong, just once.

GROSS: That's actually a really funny scene, because we learn later that this is, like, the speech you give to people...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: When you're trying to get their sympathy and get off the hook and not take responsibility for your actions.

Mr. FRANCO: Right, right. It's all acting, yeah.

GROSS: It's all acting. And really, I thought that that scene was, like, your character kind of borrowing from James Dean, who you later played in a made-for-TV movie, and Marlon Brando in the "I coulda been a contender" scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Right, right, right, right.

GROSS: Did you think of it that way when you were playing this?

Mr. FRANCO: Not really. I guess, I - even before I played James Dean, I, you know, I did love his work, and you know, I'd study it and Brando, certainly, and Cliff, those were like the big three. So, maybe they were kind of influencing it, or I'd certainly seen all the Dean movies, like "On the Waterfront," probably 50 times each by that point. But I don't know. I think I was just, I don't know, drawing on my inner dumb guy. It's weird. I play a lot of dumb guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And what's funny is in high school, my, you know, my dad works in Silicon Valley, and is, like, a math freak, so he actually, like, rammed math down my throat. So, I tested out of math. I didn't have to take it in college because of all the work my dad did, and thank God, I haven't studied it since high school.

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. He's now starring opposite Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. He stars opposite Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk." He also starred in the TV series "Freaks and Geeks," played James Dean in a telemovie about the actor, played the son of Spiderman's enemy, Green Goblin, and was the stoner and dealer in the comedy "Pineapple Express." One of the things you've done over the years is a lot of really funny sketches and scenes in other people's movies in which you mock yourself or you mock serious acting, and you've done a series for the Funny or Die website...

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: Of sketches called "Acting with James Franco," in which you give acting tips to your younger brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's kind of like a send-up of acting classes and of the Method. And one of them is all about, like, James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," and you go through a scene with your brother that's a reenactment of a scene from "Rebel Without a Cause." Describe the scene that you're reenacting in this.

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, yeah. There's a scene in "Rebel" where James Dean gives Sal Mineo his jacket, and you know, back in the '50s, I guess, you couldn't be explicit about gay characters. And so, it's not that subtle, but I think Sal's character is kind of in love with Dean's character. And so, when Sal takes the jacket, I guess he kind of, like, sniffs it or, like, rubs it on his face or something, like, adoringly. And so, the joke was that I was going to, you know, make my brother perform that exact action.

GROSS: You're bullying him...

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Into adoring you. And so, I just want to hear - play that scene from your Funny or Die video.

(Soundbite of "Funny or Die" online video)

Mr. J. FRANCO: Just rub the jacket against your face and smell it.

Mr. DAVY FRANCO: Why would I want to smell the jacket and rub it against my face?

Mr. J. FRANCO: Because that's what he did, because he's in love with James Dean.

Mr. D. FRANCO: That's, I mean, it's typical, man. You give me the worst characters again, and you get to be James Dean, of course. Of course, you get to be James Dean.

Mr. J. FRANCO: Of course, of course, I get to be James Dean. Who else is going to be James Dean?

Mr. D. FRANCO: You're such a good actor you can play him, and I'll play James Dean.

Mr. J. FRANCO: You can't play James Dean. I'm James Dean. Actors sniff jackets.

Mr. D. FRANCO: OK. Go on.

Mr. J. FRANCO: Actors act. Actors sniff jackets if they need to sniff jackets. Marlon Brando sniffed jackets.

Mr. D. FRANCO: OK.

Mr. J. FRANCO: He sniffed pants. He did.

Mr. D. FRANCO: OK.

Mr. J. FRANCO: You're a "Rebel Without a Cause"? What's your cause? Not sniffing jackets? Sniff it.

Mr. D. FRANCO: You sniff it.

Mr. J. FRANCO: You sniff it.

Mr. D. FRANCO: No.

Mr. J. FRANCO: Just what I thought.

Mr. D. FRANCO: OK.

Mr. J. FRANCO: You don't know how to act.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think that's so funny. Is he really your younger brother, the person who's doing the...

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's Davy, my younger brother. We were - I went to UCLA. He went to USC, and he started acting a couple of years ago, and he's been doing pretty well. If I ever taught acting, I like to think I'd be a little bit nicer of a teacher.

GROSS: I think you're also, in the Funny or Die videos, "James Franco on Acting," you're kind of sending up acting school and acting pretensions. Like, there's one in which you're teaching your brother how to cry and how to, like, use an emotion from within. And every time he comes up with an emotion, you're telling him, no, that's too trivial. You can't use that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It's so, kind of, clueless and insulting. It's really funny. Were there a lot of acting pretensions that bothered you when you were in acting school?

Mr. FRANCO: I learned a lot of good things in my school. I've audited at a lot of other schools, and I guess, after awhile, I got a little tired of the acting school atmosphere, where it's really tricky, because as an actor in the classroom, you know, you're revealing so much. And teachers are - you know, they're not just critiquing like a painting or a piece of work. It's, like - it's you and it's your emotions that they're working with. And so, it becomes a very weird kind of intimate space.

And there's some, like, acting schools - thank goodness, not the one I was at - but you know, they'll ask things, like, in front of the whole class, like, have you ever had an abortion? And it's just, like, what? Wow! And so it becomes so strange and almost - even despite themselves sometimes, teachers become these gurus just because actors have revealed so much to them, and I'd like - you know, I used to think, like, oh, you know, it's not going to happen to me. I've got my own life. But you go in there and you work, you know, year after year with these people, and you can't help but become really engrossed in that world. And so, I got a little scared of that after awhile. I just - I wanted to be out. I learned a lot of good things but after awhile, it was too much.

GROSS: Did you study the Method?

Mr. FRANCO: Not exactly. The Method, I guess, according to Strasberg, is something kind of different than what we learned, but it seems like when people say, do you - are you a Method actor? They are implying, do you behave as your character when the camera is not rolling? And I guess I did, kind of, on James Dean or something, but it doesn't really help me if people, like, would come up to me and say, hey, James Dean. You know, it doesn't do anything for me to, like, talk about my life as if I'm James Dean to other people when we're not rolling. I more just kind of keep to myself if it's a serious role and just try and kind of, I don't know, stay focused, but not really display that I'm, you know, the character all the time.

GROSS: You were talking like you're not the kind of Method actor who has to stay in character even when you're not on camera. In fact, you know, I've heard that when you're on the set, you sometimes are reading a novel. And I'm wondering if that kind of is a voyage into a completely different story and emotional space that can be distracting, like, if it's sometimes good and sometimes bad to immerse yourself in another story like that.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, I do read a lot on the set. In the last couple of years, a lot of it was just homework.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FRANCO: I mean, I shot "Spiderman 3" and "Pineapple" and "Milk" all while I was at UCLA. So, that was just homework I needed to get done. I mean, if it's a very intense scene or, you know, demands a lot of focus, I mean, I'm not going to sit down and read a book. But you know, movies have long setup periods, and some longer than others. I mean, I would go to "Spiderman 3" and, you know, be there 12 hours, and probably work, like, be actually on camera for, like, a minute, you know, total, you know, in a day. And so, that's just a lot of time for - to do whatever, so rather than, you know, catch up on watching "The Hills" or whatever you could do on your trailer, I just read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, I read that you do so much research for films, that, for instance, for the movie "Flyboys," you earned your pilot's license; for the movie "Annapolis," you did eight months of boxing training; and for the movie, "Tristan and Isolde," you studied sword fighting for eight months. And all these movies were flops.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, what's the moral of the story in terms of, like, committing to incredible research for a film? Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, the moral, well, you know, I went into "Annapolis" as a young actor hoping that it would be "Raging Bull."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Now, that sounds kind of ridiculous, but that's how I tried to apply myself.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: You know, I'd box every day for eight months. I would, you know, spar with pros. I mean, you know, they went very, very easy on me and actually like, you know, hurt me sometimes when they weren't going so easy. But you know, I worked as hard as I could with the intention of making, you know, a movie with, you know - and the best is that, oh, yeah, I'd be like a young "Raging Bull." But it wasn't. I mean, that wasn't the movie. I was ridiculous in thinking that it would be something like that. It was a completely different kind of story.

And, so, no matter how hard I worked, I could have boxed for five years, it was never going to be that. And so I guess now, it's just - it's a matter of being really clear about what kind of movie I'm getting into. And you know, I still work really hard, but I like to think I'm a little smarter about at least the type of movie I'm getting into. And if, you know, if it turns out to be a failure, at least, you know, a box-office failure, at least I start movies with people that I believe in, and people with visions, you know, that I believe in. And so, if it doesn't, kind of, come together in the right way, at least I was doing it because I believed in the person and in the movie.

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

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, it was great.

GROSS: James Franco stars opposite Sean Penn in the new movie "Milk." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Toni Morrison's new novel, "A Mercy." This is Fresh Air.

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