Franco

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.

GQ (Australia) - - WATCH -

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...

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