Film & TV

The Image, The Artist, The Ego: Three Portraits of James Franco

Film & TV

The Image, The Artist, The Ego: Three Portraits of James Franco

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“Do you think that I come off as not humble?” James Franco asks, curious to know how he’s perceived, or at least how I perceive him. We’re sitting across from one another on a pair of doughy, black leather couches in a Santa Monica photo studio, part of a strip mall lined with ticky-tacky art galleries. His mouth may be smiling but his heavy, flinty eyes, even from beneath the shadow of his baseball cap, are clearly not. He looks handsome but tired. Of course he’s tired. He’s James Franco, and the only thing everyone seems to agree on when it comes to James Franco is that the man has no use for repose. The Telegraph says he “barely sleeps.” New York magazine is pretty sure he considers it a “waste of time.” Franco himself, in an interview with Details earlier this year, went so far as to call it “defeat.” The 34-year-old Palo Alto native’s aversion to rest has been so regularly reported that the one time he was caught dozing off, during an after-hours seminar at Columbia University, it became a full-blown news story.

Franco’s ego is intrinsically linked to his studied insomnia. There’s simply no time for nightly eight-hour nonsense when you’re trying not only to learn, but to master, every form of creative expression known to man. He is considered many things by many people—an Oscar-nominated actor, an art world darling, a sex-obsessed filmmaker, and a leading voice of the Rx Generation—but who is the person behind the tired eyes? What follows are three portraits of the artist as a young anomaly.


“He’s not what I think people perceive him to be.” –Mila Kunis

Few actors know Franco as well as Mila Kunis. The two met in 2008 while costarring in a reality TV–skewering online skit directed by Judd Apatow (the czar of sophomoric humor who gave Franco his big break on NBC’s Freaks and Geeks almost a decade earlier). In the five years since, Franco and Kunis have filmed as many projects together, including Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful and Paul Haggis’ upcoming relationship drama The Third Person. “James is unpindownable because he refuses to pin himself to any one thing,” she says. That much is obvious even from a cursory scan of the disparate group of Francophiles who make up his coterie: A-list actors, stoner comedians, gender-thrashing performance artists, poet laureates, teen-pop idols, art powerhouses, punk legends, vanguard filmmakers, fashion designers, Old Hollywood royalty, celebrity train-wrecks, pillars of academia, and college coeds. It seems inconceivable now that much of his early career as an actor was spent trying to convince those same crowds that he was more than the sum of his symmetrical parts.

The oldest of three kids raised in an artistic family (middle brother Tom is a painter and youngest brother Dave also has a career in show business), Franco toiled in middling teen comedies (Whatever It Takes, Never Been Kissed) until earning critical recognition—and a Golden Globe—for his turn in 2001’s TV movie James Dean, in which he played the icon of teenage disillusionment. The success of that film led Franco to roles that would emphasize his biceps over his ability to carry a scene. In 2006 alone, he played a fighter pilot (Flyboys), a naval officer (Annapolis), and the medieval equivalent of a star-crossed Romeo (Tristan + Isolde). “I don’t know if I ever tried to break away from being considered a heartthrob,” says Franco, who has been one of Gucci’s celebrity ambassadors since 2008. “I actually think there are times when a role calls for you to look your best. It was more that I was doing movies I didn’t believe in,” he says of that period in his life.

It was around that time that Franco became seduced by art and academia, and the freedom they afforded him. Six years later, countless publications devote barrels of ink to understanding, defining, or deriding the actor-writer-director-artist-musician-activist-model-poet-journalist-curator-blogger-teacher-student-celebrity—a man whose hyphenations have become so bombastic that it’s gotten increasingly difficult to take his endeavors seriously. To date, Franco has graduated from UCLA (where he reenrolled after dropping out a decade earlier to pursue acting), and studied in five graduate programs: Columbia and Brooklyn College for fiction, New York University for film, Warren Wilson for poetry, and Rhode Island School of Design for digital arts. He’s now working toward a Ph.D. in creative writing at Yale, while also teaching five classes at various schools across the country. No wonder New York magazine, in their 2010 cover story on the actor, asked, “Is James Franco For Real?”

Maybe it’s the many hats he wears that led Disney to cast Franco as the eponymous character of Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz that pulls back the curtain on the Emerald City’s mysterious ruler. “I guess the studio just has to give everything to Johnny Depp,” Franco says laughing. “But Johnny was already busy with The Lone Ranger so they came to me. And in many ways, there are parallels between what Oz did and what I do as a creative person.” The film re-teams Franco with his Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, but if the collaboration reveals Oz as an enterprising, small-time magician, it also serves to muddy Franco’s more recent role as an experimental filmmaker and Ivy League aesthete. “I’m very director-driven and I obviously love working with Sam,” he says of his decision to return to the world of blockbuster moviemaking. “At first I had the same concerns I had when making Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Another Apes movie? But because it was a new visual take on Oz created by the best people in the industry—paired with the fact that my character was written as a slightly irreverent, flawed hero—it allowed me to take the piss out of it just a little bit.”

As much as Franco loves to take the piss out of his creative projects, the public loves to take the piss out of him. In fact, he’s become something of an obsession for those who chronicle every move of the man with the million-dollar grin. The intensity of his following, one assumes, would inflate anyone’s ego to the size of a wrecking ball, but Kunis insists otherwise. “I think people would be surprised by what a calm and decent person he is,” she says. “I don’t want to get too personal but he’s very humble. People know that he’s well-educated and that he’s well-read, but they might not know that he’s also a really good guy.”


“The most interesting stuff is in the abstraction, in the randomness and the jaggedness of the reality.” –Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine had been trying to track down Franco for years. Although Franco was a fan of the Korine-scripted Kids in high school, the two only met in person at artist Dan Colen’s New York Gagosian Gallery opening in the fall of 2010. Korine, the virtuoso of vice behind films like Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, and Trash Humpers, admired Franco’s work. In his own words, he’d seen Franco “in that movie where he rips his arm off. And the TV thing about the freaks. And the one where he acts with the monkeys.”

For his new cumming-of-age odyssey, Spring Breakers, Korine wrote the part of the cornrowed, grill-toothed, Riff Raff-esque Floridian rapper Alien—“a collision of gangster and mystic,” says the filmmaker—with Franco in mind. In the film, Alien bails out the four main characters (played by Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Harmony’s wife Rachel Korine) after they run into a spate of legal trouble during an especially orgiastic spring break. “I needed James’ character to be really authentic,” Korine says. “The voice, the accent, the mannerisms, the swagger, the cadences—it all needed to be legit.” During the year leading up to the film’s production, Korine sent Franco hundreds of reference photographs, videos, and audio files—anything that tonally or “psychologically” connected to Alien and his environs. “He loves scouring the Internet and finding the craziest stuff on there,” Franco says of Korine. “I guess he was into college debauchery at the time.”