Franco speak­ing

James Franco is bounc­ing back from his panned per­for­mance host­ing the Os­cars, writes Vicky Roach

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Movies -

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

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