James Franco: The Method Of 'Milk' James Franco stars in the biopic Milk as Scott Smith, the boyfriend of gay activist and politician Harvey Milk. In November, Franco talked with Terry Gross about his role in Milk and his career in acting.

James Franco: The Method Of 'Milk'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, James Franco, stars with Sean Penn in the movie, "Milk," which has just come out on DVD. 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. In this scene, Milk has just picked up Scott at a New York subway station. They're in bed together, talking, and Milk says he's still in the closet and that he's scared of losing his job.

(Soundbite of film, "Milk")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEAN PENN (Actor): (As Harvey Milk) Where are you from?

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): (As Scott Smith) Jackson, Mississippi.

Mr. PENN: (As Milk) This isn't Jackson. You can respond to just every strange man that picks you up on a subway platform, too dangerous.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Smith) Now you tell me.

Mr. PENN: (As Milk) New York police, they're the toughest. They're arrogant, and they're everywhere. I'll show you all the cruising spots, but you have to be careful, little Scotty (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Smith) (Unintelligible) or something?

Mr. PENN: (As Milk) No, this is just plain me.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Smith) And you're scared of the cops?

Mr. PENN: (As Milk) I'm just discrete. I know a lot of people. Basically, I could lose my job.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Smith) Oh, you're one of those. Oh, I think you need to find a new scene, new friends.

DAVIES: The pair soon moved to San Francisco, set up a camera shop in the Castro District and helped transform the neighborhood into the gay capital of the city. James 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 tele-movie about the iconic actor, and Franco starred with Seth Rogen in last summer's comedy, "Pineapple Express," the stoner action film, which is now also out on DVD.

Terry spoke with Franco last November, when "Milk" was in theaters.


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, I had no fear of playing this role.

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

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I read the script, so I knew what 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 was that there were more kissing scenes. And there was, like, a big love scene on, like, page five.

And you know, I was all prepared for the other kissing scenes, and then it's like well, Gus, what? 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so you might as well just get it out of the way so people can get beyond and, you know, really engage with the story. And I think he was right. I can tell you a little bit more about the kissing if you want.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

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. 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 with his DP, Harris Savides, and there was one piece where this couple was kissing, a young man and 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 'em. 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 that, yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: …so it would last 24 hours. So he asked Douglas, you know, how'd you get that kiss to look so real? It must have been just a couple you shot, right? And 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: But in - 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.

I don't think it's a minute in the film, but the takes were, like, at least a minute if not longer. And I don't think I've ever kissed anybody on camera for that long.

And 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 was 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. Like wow, I was thinking of Sean Penn in the beach, you know, in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," just like, hey dude, I saved Brooke Shields or whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And that's what I was thinking, and I'm, like, I cannot believe that I went from a kid watching that to this.

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 and that kind of thing? And 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, I don't think it would fly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so you just don't really rehearse kissing scenes, whether it's male or 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: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor James Franco.

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, really potent stuff called Pineapple Express, and let's just start with a clip.

Mr. FRANCO: That was a good voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: 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, 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 film, "Pineapple Express")

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

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

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

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

Mr. FRANCO: (As Silver) You shine shoes?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Denton) No, I'm a process server.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Silver) Process?

Mr. ROGEN: (As Denton) I, like, 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 Silver) Subpoena.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Denton) …like, disguises sometimes just to make them admit that they are themselves so I can serve them the papers.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Silver) Disguise.

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

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

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

Mr. FRANCO: (As Silver) You've got a great job where you don't do anything.

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

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Silver) That's true.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Denton) You didn't think of that.

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

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

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

Mr. ROGEN: (As Denton) No problem.

GROSS: You are so funny in this film. I mean, 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 an architect.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: Of some sort and build, what, 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 had 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 action for a comedy. I mean, they call it an action-comedy, but you know, there wasn't a huge budget, and there wasn't a lot of time to do them, and I just, I knew…

In the back of my mind, I'm thinking oh, man, we are going to get hurt. And the actors ended up doing, you know, we ended up 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 run 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. 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 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 - whatever. And then Seth, like, I think 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, you know, just based on the way things have been going, you know, I'm going to hit you in the right spot, but I think you're going to get hurt. And he's 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 the take that he actually got hit, and his eyes, like, do look, like really dilated or something.

But I think it was worth it just because we're not - one thing that can happen with stuntmen is they're very - you know, they're well-trained, you know, with fighting and movie-fighting, and so they look very slick when they're fighting. We don't necessarily look that slick, you know, and so the fights become comedic.

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

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor James Franco. He starred opposite Sean Penn in the movie, "Milk," which is now out on DVD.

GROSS: 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…

GROSS: Yeah, he was, yeah. 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 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 rollerblades 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 they just looked for actors that they really liked and not really people that would fit their script exactly.

So my character in the script didn't have a last name. He's just Daniel. And the description, I still have it, the original draft, it says: Daniel. He's Latino with Peter Frampton hair.

And so I'm not exactly that, but they just liked me, so they put me in that role, and then 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 guy well.

GROSS: Were the scripts and 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, I guess as much trouble as you 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.

GROSS: Okay, well let's stop for a moment. What did you shoplift?

Mr. FRANCO: Oh gosh, that was ridiculous. 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 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: We would go around to all the department stores, and they have, like, the tester bottles out on the counter. So it was, like, really easy to steal, and then we'd take them to school and keep them in our gym locker and sell them to people. And for a while, like, it was really hip to wear, like, Drakkar Noir and stuff like that. We could sell it.

GROSS: It sounds like a cologne-smuggling ring.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, and then one day, the assistant principal found out about it and, 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 my cologne stealing.

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, 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.

(Soundbite of television program, "Freaks and Geeks")

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

Mr. FRANCO: (As Daniel Desario) What?

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

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

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As 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 Desario) Okay, fine. Don't lie.

Ms. CARDELLINI: (As Weir) What?

Mr. FRANCO: (As 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 or expelled?

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

Mr. FRANCO: (As Desario) What do you think, I want to be terrible at school? 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 sixth grade, they told us when we got to junior high, we'd be either in Track 1, Track 2 or Track 3.

Track 1 is the smart kids, Track 2 is the normal kids, Track 3 is the dumb kids. And where 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 Weir) You are not dumb.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Desario) I just wanted 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 when you're trying to get their sympathy and get off the hook and not take responsibility for your actions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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

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, 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 there were kind of influencing it, or you know, I'd certainly seen all the Dean movies and "On the Waterfront," you know, 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: It was funny because in high school, you know, my dad works in Silicon Valley and like, is 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.

DAVIES: James Franco, speaking with Terry Gross. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. We are listening to Terry's interview with actor James Franco. He starred with Sean Penn in the movie "Milk" and with Seth Rogen in "Pineapple Express." Both films are now out on DVD.

GROSS: 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 - you've done a series for the Funny or Die Web site…

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

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

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's got like a send-up of acting classes and of the Method, and one of them is all about like James Dean and "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: 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 - 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. FRANCO: Just rub the jacket against your face.

Mr. DAVE FRANCO (Brother): I'm not going to - 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 - 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: (Unintelligible) 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 jacket.

Mr. D. FRANCO: Okay.

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

Mr. D. FRANCO: Okay.

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

Mr. D. FRANCO: Okay.

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

Mr. D. FRANCO: I'm sniffing.

Mr. J. FRANCO: Just what I thought. You don't know how to act.

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

Mr. J. FRANCO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's Davy, my younger brother. I went to UCLA, he went to USC, and he started acting a couple of years ago. And he's been doing pretty well.

GROSS: I think you're also in the Funny or Die videos that - 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 like him, no, that's too trivial, you can't use that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. J. FRANCO: I learned a lot of good things in my school. I've audited a lot of other schools, and I guess after a while I got a little tired of the acting school atmosphere. As an actor in the classroom, you're revealing so much, and teachers are, you know, they're 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? You know? And it's just like - what? Wow. And so I learned a lot of good things, but after a while it was too much.

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 - committing to incredible research for a film? Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. J. FRANCO: Oh, the moral, well, you know, I went into "Annapolis" as a young actor hoping that it would be "Raging Bull." Now, that sounds kind of ridiculous. But that's how I tried to apply myself. You know, I boxed 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, it'd be like a young "Raging Bull." But it wasn't.

I mean that wasn't the movie. I was - 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 the movie.

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

Mr. J. FRANCO: Yeah, it was great.

DAVIES: James Franco and Terry Gross recorded in November. Franco's films "Milk" and "Pineapple Express" are now out on DVD.

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