It might surprise you to learn that until now, James Franco has never written a novel. The notorious multi-tasker has scribbled his byline on several screenplays, countless term papers and articles, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. But Actors Anonymous marks the first time Franco, the mercurial star of films like 127 Hours and This Is the End, has stretched one narrative from cover to cover. The fractured story details the lives of several actors and their wannabe counterparts as they struggle toward fame or deal with the toxic fallout of celebrity. It’s a thoroughly weird and experimental piece of literature: gritty and gut-churning—there are segments that resemble excerpts from a self-help book for aspiring actors; blowjobs are performed in the bathroom of a dingy McDonald’s; and a James Franco doppelgänger angrily annotates his own celebrity profile in Sass magazine. Like its author, the book is ambitious, rebellious, and tough to pin down. While on location in Canada starring in and directing an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (from a script he wrote, of course) Franco found time to talk about Actors Anonymous with two of his friskiest feline fans.
JAMES FRANCO: What is up, little kitties? Nice to talk to you.
UNI and CHLOE: Why hello there, James. Actors Anonymous seems to equate the desire to be in movies with harmful or addictive impulses, like drinking yourself into a ditch, or smoking crack with tranny prostitutes. Is acting a disease?
No, my little kitties, acting isn’t a disease. I used the recovery format of the book as a way to talk about acting as a way of being and thinking. This approach allowed me to look at acting as something more than the profession, and more as a greater phenomenon or way of being that we all practice to certain degrees. I suppose the approach turns acting into a response to life, and a way to we deal with the world and each other. But I don’t think of acting as something that needs to be “fixed” or “cured,” it’s just a way to examine human behavior. And kitty behavior.
Part of the lesson of Actors Anonymous is that real life is basically a performance. If we think too long about this our poor kitten brains start smoking. But we get it, we really do: Sometimes we spend an afternoon pretending to be lesbian tigers, or furry airplanes, or inanimate boulders perched on the plush peaks of Mount Laundry. But does this depress you, James, the whole ‘personality is an act, life is acting’ scenario? Or is it liberating somehow, in the sense that you can be whoever or whatever you want to be, reinvented every day?
It’s very liberating, my little kitties. Just think about yourselves. You’re pretending to be hipster kitties from Brooklyn. What a great act! We’re supposed to believe that your little kitty paws typed out these questions for me—it’s great! These little kitty personas you’ve created allow us to conduct this interview in a fun way. It’s not as if acting is a bad thing. In fact, acting and creating personas sometimes allow us to get to the best things in life and allow us to live the lives we want to live. I actually think the opposite approach to life is more depressing and constricting, the idea that you are who you are, that you are born a certain way, in a certain time and place. That idea imposes a personality on you rather than allowing you to create the person you want to be. You could just be some weird hipsters in Bed-Stuy, but now, because of your act, you’re fun, awesome little kitties!
One chapter of the novel is a meta-fictional “article” from a fake magazine named Sass, annotated by an unnamed actor who seems pretty close to you, James. The story that unfolds is about an editor who tries to convince the actor to appear naked for a photo shoot; the actor responds with a very impressive stream of vitriol, delivered through footnotes. We’ve got two questions for you: Would you say that you’re ‘full of rage’, James? And secondly, how often are total strangers asking you to remove your clothing on camera?
I’m not very angry. That chapter isn’t necessarily real. This is a book of fiction that flirts with my own persona and other kinds of personas. In my life outside of the book, some people ask me to get naked for projects and I don’t really have a problem with it. My problem is with people who ask me to do a job one way, and then change it after we already made an agreement. You can understand, little kitties. What if you were asked to do a Friskies commercial and then you showed up, and they only wanted to photograph your little kitty buttholes? Gross, right? Especially because little kitties don’t wipe.
The cold, borderline sociopathy of some of the novel’s actor characters brought Jerzy Kosinski to mind, especially a book like Cockpit. Do you have any feelings about the late Polish writer?
I love, love, love Kosinski. He’s a great writer of character, and brings the fabulous into everyday reality in a seamless way. I’ve wanted to do a Kosinski film for a while now, The Painted Bird or otherwise.
In Actors Anonymous, one character has a gig in which he plays an ape. You’ve got some ape-related experience yourself, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes to the deceptively dramatic-sounding The Ape. How would you get into the mindset of an animal role? Specifically, how might you get into the mindset of a cat for a role?
There is a long tradition of using animals as models for character behavior. I think schools from UCLA to RADA in London use this method. To play a kitty like you, I guess I would go hang in Brooklyn, watch Season three of Girls , go to a Rob Pruitt art opening, smoke some pot (fake pot, I don’t smoke), and chill with my musician kitty friends. Sound good?
Naysayers might say, “Hey, you starry-eyed kittens wouldn’t care about this novel if it wasn’t written by James Franco.” And in a way they might be right. How important is your name, your biography, your identity, and your fame, to the experience of reading Actors Anonymous?
This book is about me and it isn’t about me. This isn’t a memoir or anything like that, but it does depend on my experience as an actor. This book embraces my role in the movie world and the literary world. In my first book, Palo Alto, I didn’t include any of my acting life in the stories, because I thought I needed to keep the spheres separate so that people would look at me as a writer. But now, I see no need to keep my different interests separate. This book is very aware of my place as an actor—I’m not trying to hide that. And because of that, my place as an actor might lend some energy to the stories in the book.
Last time we counted, you have 23 MFAs and 14 PhDs, in subjects ranging from Creative (Un)Fiction to Nuclear Thermophysics. You’ve studied in every country except Rwanda. You once successfully cloned yourself in order to attend a Slavoj Zizek lecture at Columbia while simultaneously teaching a class on David Mamet’s vulgar eroticism to an English 101 class at an NYU satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. What lessons can you impart to the kittens of today about multi-tasking?
Haha, kitty jokes, funny. No, sadly you kitties can’t count and have been reading shitty blogs about my activities. I just work on the things I love and with the people I respect.
And should we go to grad school?
I loved grad school, but it’s not for everyone. This is a big topic. Grad school is expensive, but it can be worth it. You get to be around people who are serious about the subjects you are passionate about, and for me that was very important. But some people learn better outside of school.
In some ways, Actors Anonymous is a cheeky cautionary tale about the libidinal powers of ‘the Actor,’ who may or may not be James Franco, but who is capable of coaxing armies of women into his bed with the slightest of efforts. How can we defend our female kitten dignity against tomcats like “you”?
Weird that you read it that way. I don’t really think that’s the message I was going for. I do think there is still a patriarchal hierarchy in the film business, but I don’t think it’s isolated to the film business—it’s pretty universal. If you want to protect yourself against Tomcats, don’t hang out with douchebags.
The novel feels like a litter box with endless rooms, all of them in varying states of cleanliness. There’s really no proper beginning or end to it. How did you conceive the metaphorical shape of Actors Anonymous?
It came together with my editor Ed Park. Some of the sections were inspired by David Markson, some by David Shields, some by Dennis Johnson, some by Mark Danielewski. And thanks for the kitty litter comparison; some of these questions smell like my own kitties’ little kittie poos.
If Actors Anonymous were an animal, what animal would it be?
A cat, duh.
“The Evening Interviews” is an ongoing series of conversations with the 21st century’s most exciting writers and artists, conducted by Uni and Chloe Zola Volcano, two kittens who live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. These interviews are edited and organized by their friend and helpmeet, Scott Indrisek. The cats blog regularly about contemporary fiction at Shit My Cats Read.