AFTER TWO DECADES AS AN ACTOR, AUTHOR, ARTIST, ACADEMIC, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER AND POET, THE 39-YEAR-OLD IS FINALLY READY TO WORK ON HIS BIGGEST PROJECT TO DATE. HIMSELF.
It’s just gone 4pm in Los Angeles and the 39-year-old is doing what he does these days, which is getting a smoothie. Something with cacao. Earlier today he was playing tennis and before that, he hit the gym. We’re here to talk work, but when we speak to him, Franco hasn’t acted in more than six months. “To somebody like Daniel Day-lewis, that sounds like nothing,” he laughs. “But for me, that’s an eternity.” Weird. But weird is what Franco does. It’s his stock-in-trade. For the best part of two decades, he has built an image as one of Hollywood’s most baffling, complex figures. Few actors have redefined success, rebuffed stereotypes and frankly, made us wonder just what the fuck they’re up to, quite like Franco. He’s a chameleon. An artist in a movie star’s body. An intellectual or faux intellectual or maybe a genius. A guy who juggles teaching at two different universities with studying a PHD of his own. The straight guy who responded to gay rumours by trying to appear as gay as humanly possible. A walking, talking performance artwork. The heart-throb who would be worth his Hollywood pay cheque if all he did was turn up on set and deliver that trademark smile. Small wonder he was chosen as the face of new ‘Coach Man’ fragrance. But more than anything else, the thing most people know about Franco is that he’s tirelessly, relentlessly productive. A whirlwind of creative energy, whose output is so extensive, it makes you feel exhausted just trying to keep track of it all – much less actually attempting any of it. Franco has some 17 projects scheduled for this year alone. These include a film adaptation of a novel that he also wrote himself, Actors Anonymous, which follows the highs and lows of young actors in Hollywood, and HBO TV series The Deuce, about the ’70s porn industry in New York, in which he plays two characters – a pair of twins. He also directs two of the eight episodes. “I felt like now was my chance to do all these weird projects I had been thinking about, so I might as well strike while the iron’s hot,” he says. “I was shooting The Deuce in New York. The sun’s shining, I’d just got off work and I was walking across town to go teach. And I remember thinking ‘Wow, my life is great. And it’s great because I’m working so much and I’m doing everything that I want to do’.” On our shoot, Franco is everything you’d want from a Hollywood star. Funny, engaging, charming. He’s also seriously ripped; his body showing barely even a hint of any fat. But in truth, this is our second attempt at this interview. The first one did not go according to plan – Franco and the interviewer did not exactly hit it off. “I was not trying to be difficult at all,” he explains. “There was just some weird energy going on. I really wanted to have a great interview and I was just trying to be really honest.” Shit happens. But it will later become clear why this is so important. Franco does not want this to be a typical interview. He’s not interested in talking about how he prepared for an upcoming role or what his co-stars were like to work with. He has a confession to make. Because in November last year, everything we thought we knew about James Franco changed. The guy we were so used to seeing with a million projects on the go, began to realise he couldn’t do it anymore. He’d had enough. “I really had a moment of crisis,” he says. “I hit a wall.” And this new Franco, that’s who we’re here to meet.
IT’S HARD TO KNOW WHICH JAMES FRANCO TO EXPECT, BUT IT’S FAIR TO SAY THIS IS NOT THE ONE WE HAD IN MIND.
Franco grew up in Palo Alto, a wellto-do city in San Francisco’s Bay Area. His mother, Betsy, is a novelist and sometimes actor, and his father, Douglas, ran a tech company that secured shipping containers, until he passed away in 2011. Franco has two younger brothers – 32-year-old Dave, who you probably know and 36-yearold Tom, who you probably don’t. Franco was a smart kid, good at maths, but he was awkward and unsure in his skin. “I got in a lot of trouble when I was a teenager, “he says. “I didn’t know how to interact with people. I felt different. But partying was the answer. It made me feel OK, like I could be among other people.” He had a few run-ins with the law early on. Minor things – underage drinking and graffiti, stealing from department stores – but enough to realise he had to straighten himself out. “I couldn’t hang out with my friends anymore because I’d always get in trouble with them,” he says. “So there I was – alone again, an outsider, not able to fit in the world. That’s when I started acting.” Franco had found his home. He started taking classes at the renowned Playhouse West acting school and supported himself with a late-night shift at Mcdonald’s, where he practised accents on customers. He landed a Pizza Hut commercial and a handful of small TV roles. Then in 1999 he got his first big break when Judd Apatow cast him in cult TV series Freaks and Geeks alongside Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. From there, he scored a role as James Dean in a TV biopic, and as Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn, in Spider-man. He played Robert De Niro’s junkie son in City by the Sea, and then came Spider-man 2. Suddenly, his career was taking off. The offers kept pouring in: as Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Oscar-winner Milk and Allen Ginsberg in Howl; he was cast as Julia Roberts’ love interest in literary blockbuster Eat Pray Love and then delivered perhaps his most acclaimed performance to date, as hapless adventurer Aron Ralston in 127 Hours, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He didn’t win, but he didn’t care. He had to keep moving. Franco took on more work. He was holding art exhibitions of video work and teaching acting classes at UCLA and NYU. He enrolled in a PHD course to study English at Yale University. He wrote a book of short stories, a collection of poetry and that novel, Actors Anonymous. He was directing projects and producing others. He appeared as artist-cum-serial killer, Franco, in soap opera General Hospital, whose 20 episodes he filmed in just three days. He starred in The Interview, the film about the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, which led to a minor international crisis and the notorious Sony email hack. He hosted the Oscars. He appeared as unhinged porn producer Joe in King Cobra, his latest gay role on screen. More movies. More side-projects, always more and more. And that’s how we ended up here, in 2017, with 17 projects in the can and a few more on the way. It is everything you might imagine a movie star’s career could be. Enough fame to have a name for yourself, but the freedom to pick and choose the jobs you want. Hollywood has always been a tricky game, but Franco’s career seemed to prove that if you play your cards right you really can do it all and have it all. But Franco recently discovered another truth to Hollywood. Something they don’t tell you when you’re enjoying the parties and fancy hotel rooms. The carameltopped almond lattes, delivered just so. The private planes and premieres and all the other trimmings that come with being a movie star. Franco found that it might offer you a life of unimaginable fame and fortune, but Hollywood is not your friend. And it will eat you alive.
Last year was a big year. Not just for Franco, but for many people. On the morning of November 8, the American public went to the polls, most expecting to end the night with Hillary Clinton delivering a victory speech. The story is old news now, but things did not go according to plan. You can’t help but feel that watching Trump win – especially after a campaign in which he’d railed against people like Franco, branding Hollywood a town of ‘elites’ and ‘snowflakes’ – must have hit hard. “I feel like it’s not a total coincidence that I hit my own personal wall at the time that I did – last November,” says Franco. “I think a lot of people have been questioning their lives lately in the States and what they’re doing, how they’re living.” And there’s no denying the way Franco was living was crazy, whichever way you look at it. The stories of his multitasking are the stuff of legend. Co-stars remarking how he would sit down to work on side-projects between takes. There’s a lot of downtime on set, so he’d pass the time reading Ulysses or working on a novel. That’s what Franco told interviewers, anyway. That’s what he told himself. “He’s making use of every single moment,” Why Him? director John Hamburg told Rolling Stone last year. “The other day he was in hair and make-up, typing on a laptop. I said, ‘What are you doing, writing a novel?’ He said, ‘Yep’. And he actually was!” Of course he was. He’s James Franco. But he began to realise that the more he worked, the more he felt there was something missing. That, while acting had made him feel safe all those years ago as a shy teen, the feelings of isolation had never really gone away. He’d just learnt to hide them. “It was a gradual thing,” he says, looking back. “I hadn’t been in a relationship in a long time and was, like, realising how much I was running from feelings and people. And how much of my identity was wrapped up in work. “I knew who I was on a movie set. But take me away from that and it’s like, oh shit, I have to interact with people outside of the dynamics of a movie set? That’s really scary. “But as soon as I took a step back and stopped working, it was like, holy shit. All the feelings flooded in and it was like this is what I was running from. This is what I was using work to hide from. This is why I had to occupy myself every minute of the day, 24 hours a day. Because I was running, running from emotions and being vulnerable and being around people. Being myself.”
Franco says it freely now: he was a workaholic. But part of the reason he didn’t realise it sooner is that no one ever really thought it was a problem. All of the projects and side projects were just Franco being Franco. That’s just what he did – until he reached a point where he couldn’t keep it up any longer. “The thing about work addiction is our culture supports it,” he says. “We reward hard work and success. But it can really mask addictive, escapist behaviour. “I’ve never done heroin in my life, but I imagine if you get off heroin, people talk about facing reality, all these feelings coming back. Whether you know it or not, you want to bury them with the drug. And when you’re turning to things outside yourself to fill yourself, there’s never going to be enough. “I’m still just dealing with all of it, but with addiction, a lot of it comes down to ego. And in Hollywood that might even be more dangerous because the mirror that reflects your ego back is like 100 miles wide in Hollywood.” There’s also the fact that being busy was not just what Franco did – it was who he was. More than just a guy who did a million different things, that was his persona. People expected him to live up to it. It was all part of the Franco mythology he’d gradually built up over the last 20 years. “Every interview I gave, people would tell me, ‘You’re known for doing all these things, are you a workaholic?’ And what I would hear was, ‘That means you work really hard. You work harder than anybody’. “But in fact, being a workaholic means you’re addicted to something. And what’s underneath addiction? It’s about hiding from fear, from pain, it’s doing something to make yourself feel better. That’s exactly what I was doing and I had to really adjust my relationship to work. It’s really hard. I’m sure, like anything you’re addicted to, letting that go is difficult because it’s a coping mechanism to make you feel good.” But there was another side to Franco’s persona. There was also the kooky guy who’d post weird Instagram selfies, or pen op-eds in the New York Times defending Shia Labeouf’s creative prowess. There was James Franco, the actor, but there was also James Franco, the walking performance art project. And what about the gay rumours? The is-he, isn’the guessing game that Franco fuelled with his movie choices, an interview in which he said he was “gay up until the point of intercourse” and a book of poetry called Straight James / Gay James, released last year. “There was also a part of me that embraced that public persona who was just whacky and hard to pin down,” he admits. “So I had something to do with it. But that persona also rose around me – it wasn’t as if I could just do that all by myself. “What I told myself at the time was that this public persona is an entity that is me and that is not me. And I wanted to have fun with it. But now that I’ve taken a step back, I’m only engaging with projects that I really care about. I’m not on social media, I’m not doing things just to try them. You won’t find me hosting the Oscars on a whim.” You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Franco turns 40 next year. It’s a moment that made him realise that two decades in the movie industry is a long time; he’d be lucky to have two more. “I’m at that point where I realise how valuable time is,” he says. “I think that I’ll be happier if I spend it doing things that I really love instead of spreading myself so thinly, doing a lot of things that I kind of care about, but not with my whole heart. “What I’m really conscious of is that I realise what a great life I have, so I’m truly trying to be grateful. Forty is a big milestone, but I feel like I went through my own version of a midlife crisis – so I don’t think I’ll hit another one at 40.” Franco’s last serious relationship was with Ahna O’reilley, best know for her role in The Help. They split in 2011, after five years together. “She broke up with me,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “There were lots of reasons. But one was that I was so busy.” That was six years ago. Is he looking to settle down? “I’ll say this,” he says, choosing his words carefully for the first time. “I was a person that was incapable of settling down with anyone because I was so self-consumed before. I was incapable of sharing my heart with anyone. I was so scared to be vulnerable that I made myself busy every minute of the day, so I had an excuse. But I didn’t realise until it started to hurt enough.”
There’s a podcast Franco has been listening to recently. It’s about stars from the golden age of Hollywood, the good old days. But it made Franco see that many of their stories have a common thread beyond the fame and money and glamour. “All my heroes, from Elizabeth Taylor to Montgomery Clift to Humphrey Bogart – there is just so much wreckage in their lives,” says Franco. “They were looking for romance to save them or for work to save them, and as their careers faded – as everyone’s inevitably does – they just became wrecks. Alcoholics, drug addicts. Story after story. “It made me realise I need to find some other way to feel OK with myself outside of my work. I still love my work, but it can’t be this thing I turn to for happiness. When I made my happiness contingent on how I was doing professionally, inevitably there are ebbs and flows in every career and when things weren’t going well, I felt like shit. “Then I have to act out in other ways to make myself feel better. And when you’re turning to things outside yourself to fill yourself, there’s never going to be enough – you’ve got to do more and more things to escape.” Franco has teamed up with brother Dave to form their own production company, Ramona Films. Their first feature, The Disaster Artist, is about the making of The Room, widely recognised as the best worst movie of all time. It’s due out later this year. They are also developing a film called Zola, the true story of a stripper who was lured into a sex-trafficking ring and ends up live-tweeting from captivity. Granted, this might sound like a project tailor-made for the whacky Franco of old, but he’s quick to point out he’s changed his perspective. “I have a whole new approach. I have slowed down,” he says. “I thought that I was making my work better by overworking, but after a while you realise there’s no more oil in the car. You’re running on fumes, and you will burn out if you keep going at this pace. In 2013, Franco agreed to appear in Comedy Central’s Roast of James Franco, as the likes of Seth Rogen...