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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.


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...

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