James Franco is bouncing back from his panned performance hosting the Oscars, writes Vicky Roach
JAMES Franco – actor, producer, author, screenwriter, artist and PhD student – refuses to be defined by the scathing reviews he got for his on-stage performance at this year’s Academy Awards.
‘‘ I really could not care less about what people think of me as the Oscars host,’’ says the 33-year-old New Yorker with the sort of defiant edge in his voice that suggests the almost universal drubbing did, in fact, get under his skin. Until Franco agreed to play straight man to Anne Hathaway’s 100-kilowatt smile in front of a billion viewers in February – a performance so oddly flat that some observers accused him of being stoned – he was having a dream run. After a decade in which he struggled to find his acting niche, the man formerly known as Spider-Man’s sidekick hadn’t put a foot wrong since his scene-stealing performance as a greasy-haired dope-dealer in Pineapple Express ( 2008), an outrageously silly stoner comedy that had the paradoxical effect of making people take him seriously.
‘‘ It was part of a whole paradigm shift, an attitude shift, a karmic shift,’’ he says, acknowledging that previously he had been difficult to work with.
‘‘ I had a horrible approach to acting. Part of it was because I wanted to direct but ( that meant) I was overstepping my boundaries as an actor.
‘‘ When I made the decision to just do my part as an actor, I was able to get along with people. I am sure that had something to do with the opportunities that came up. I was suddenly a lot easier to work with.’’
After Pineapple Express, plum job offers started rolling in. Franco landed key supporting roles in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the Steve Carell-Tina Fey comedy Date Night and opposite Julia Roberts in the romantic travelogue Eat Pray Love.
He further reinvented himself with a recurring role as a serial killer on TV soap General Hospital.
Then came Franco’s compelling characterisation of Aron Ralston, the trapped mountain climber who sawed off his own arm to survive, in 127 Hours, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
The 2011 Oscars should have been his night. Instead, it marked an abrupt fall from grace, with critics slamming his performance as ‘‘ unwatchable’’ and worse.
‘‘ It’s a weird, complicating situation that I feel doesn’t deserve much comment,’’ Franco says, taking a deep breath.
Part of him would prefer not to give the subject more oxygen. But another part, the perfectionist, is clearly still smarting.
‘‘ I went to all the rehearsals they asked me to. I did everything they asked. I was not the writer. I was not the producer. If people did not like the show, you cannot pin it on my having low energy.
‘‘ I was trained, when you are working with another comedic actor, that somebody has to be the straight man. You cannot both be the big person. I was delivering those lines in the best way I knew how.’’
In the past six years, Franco has juggled an increasingly busy acting schedule with studies at the University of California Los Angeles, Columbia University and New York University. Ironically, his career took the direction he had always wanted it to after he decided to go back to school to satisfy some of his other creative ambitions.
Now working on a PhD in English, he has also written, directed and starred in two films during that time – The Broken Tower, a biography of American poet Hart Crane, who committed suicide at 32, and Sal, based on the story of murdered ’ 50s actor Sal Mineo ( Rebel Without a Cause), which will screen at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
In his ‘‘ spare’’ time, Franco also teaches at two universities.
‘‘ As cheesy as it might sound, I feel like I have it good and I just want to give something back,’’ he says.
It’s hardly surprising someone as driven as Franco is frustrated by the fact he failed to nail a seemingly lightweight gig as the Oscars host.
But the intensity of his response also holds clues to the man he was before he decided to lighten up.
As does his explanation for signing up for Rise of the Planet of the Apes ( pictured), his first event film franchise since Spider-Man.
‘‘ They are making more and more of these huge event films in this way, with these kind of effects, so I thought why not just embrace it and consider it as a new kind of acting experience,’’ he says.
‘‘ And I thought if I am not going to fight it, and actually try and learn about it, why not work with the people who are best at it.’’
Those people include Peter Jackson’s Weta FX team, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie ( Lord of the Rings, King Kong, The Hobbit) and Andy Serkis, an actor who has mastered the art of motion capture.
Franco plays straight man to a scientifically engineered primate in the hotly anticipated prequel, which the actor describes as ‘‘ a combination of King Kong and Kramer Vs Kramer’’.
‘‘ Working off of Andy Serkis in those scenes was fabulous because he is so good at chimp-like behaviour that I could lose myself in the imaginary circumstances. It was like working opposite a real chimp but a chimp with incredible acting talent.’’
Next, Franco is to be reunited with Spider-Man director Sam Raimi on Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.
Five months after the Oscars, his misstep is gaining a sense of proportion.
‘‘ I don’t think it will be a stain on my career,’’ he says. ‘‘ I think it’ll be something I look back to and think: ‘ Wow, that was pretty crazy’.’’
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Now showing at Village Cinemas