James of all trades
In The Deuce, the eight-episode HBO original drama series about 42nd Street, the sex capital of New York City in the ’70s, James Franco not only co-produces but also plays twins (above) and directs two episodes, while teaching in a film class in the Big A
NEW YORK City — Is there anything that James Franco could not, would not, do?
“I couldn’t imagine myself not filling every minute of my life with something,” Hollywood’s busiest body confessed to a group of international journalists last week. He writes, acts, teaches film and, in The Deuce, the HBO original eightepisode drama series (airing Mondays at 9 a.m.), James doesn’t only co-produce but also plays twins and directs himself in two episodes (the third and the seventh).
Created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, with Marc Henry Johnson as co-producer, The Deuce was the nickname of the 42nd Street, the seedy Manhattan block (inhabited by pimps, hookers, hustlers and corrupt cops) that was shut down years ago. Simon is known for, among other projects, The Wire, the 2002-2008 TV series about the Baltimore drug scene viewed from the eyes of drug dealers.
With the same intensity that he imbues his every performance with (think 127 Hours, SpiderMan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, etc.), James plays twin brothers (based on real people) Vincent Martino and Frankie Martino, the former a barman who finds himself at the center of the city’s sex trade after he attracts the interest of a well-connected mob player, and the latter a freewheeling, free-spirited guy who gets by on his brother’s support.
In the cast is Maggie Gyllenhaal (more on her in a future issue), also a co-producer who plays Candy, an independent prostitute who refuses to work under any of the multitude of street pimps. Conversations talked to James at the HBO office in Times Square, two blocks away from the now “clean and safe” 42nd Street which used to be the “un-safest” place in the city. Excerpts: What did you find fascinating about the ’70s New York?
“Well, I was born in 1978 but when I was coming up as an actor, most of my favorite movies were from the ’70s. I think it was the golden age of American film. In particular, I love movies that were shot around New York, such as those by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Wolf of Wall Street, etc.) and William Friedkin (The
French Connection, Cruising, etc.).
“So when I was doing Of Mice and Men on Broadway three and a half years ago, and I met David Simon, I told him, ‘I’m
your biggest fan; I love The Wire. Is there anything you have on the pipeline that we can do?’ I kept that at the back of my mind. I hadn’t done much television at that time and I was looking forward to doing one. I read this book called Difficult Men which was about all the show runners of this new… third, I guess…golden age of television, and I really got turned on by the idea of doing television again.” What got you excited about the drama series?
“I really love directing. I got excited about the prospect of being an actor and director. And I am also a co-producer on the series. I love all aspects of film, and television, and what I’ve really come to enjoy most about the process is when you are the director, you get to collaborate with a lot of people. To be able to be in the mix with people like the two Davids…Simon and Pelecanos…was kind of a dream come true. It’s not about the power, especially on a series like this, but the fact that the writers give you freedom to play within their world.” And what impressed you most about the series?
“You know, David (Simon) has got absolutely zero interest in pornography for pornography’s sake. His interest in porn is like exposing political corruption. And that’s exactly how he presented the material to me three and a half years ago. He said, ‘I got this show. Everybody would expect me to put a lot of sex in it but I’m not gonna give it to them.’
“And I thought he’s not gonna be able to help but show the street-level of this kind of thing; he’s got to show the greyness. The danger is that you don’t show enough and not give the full impression of what the lifestyle of the people in it was. But David did with The Deuce what he did with The Wire in which
he showed both sides of the drug war. So he showed the two sides of the misogynistic world that was 42nd Street.” Are the twins you are playing still alive?
“They are both dead. But Marc Henry Johnson, besides being the producer, was also the location manager and he was able to find one of the twins and make him tell a lot of stories from that era as they walked around the block for more than three hours. The guy passed away a few months before the series began filming.” How challenging was it playing
two characters and directing at the same time?
“It was awesome playing the twin brothers Vincent and Frankie. I would say that the Harvey Keitel character in Mean Streets and at the same time, play the Robert de Niro character in the same movie. The twins are opposites. One is responsible and the other can’t get his life together.
“When I called David after reading the book, I said, ‘I want to do this but I also want to direct an episode.’ He said, ‘Wow, you are playing twins and you’ve got a lot on your plate. Let’s see how
you do it. I will leave a directing slot open and if you prove yourself, then…’ I didn’t know how he thought I fared but I ended up directing two episodes.” What was the hard part, if any, of playing twins?
“I guess it’s in the third episode (airing next Monday, Sept. 25) in which the twins have the most scenes interacting with each other in the whole season. I was doing triple duties. When you do scenes with both twins, you have to shoot them twice essentially. When you’re on a TV set, you keep on watching that clock and I had to
bust my ass. One moment I was Vincent and the next moment I was Frankie, and the whole time I was directing myself doing the two characters. It felt like doing multiple choreography.”
You are one of a kind, a “James of all trades,” acting and directing and writing and teaching at the same time. How do you do it without missing a beat?
“After finishing The Deuce shoot in October last year, things didn’t end there. On my days off, I was teaching in a film class here in New York and busy with weird projects I was producing. I have since changed my ways. I have a new approach where I do fewer things and dig deeper into them. I felt that I couldn’t go through life without filling every minute of my life with something. Maybe that worked for the first 20 years of my career but I realized that it had diminishing returns after a while.” What would you consider your most daring performance?
“My most daring performance? Hmmm…I don’t know.
Uh. I guess, well, I don’t really consider it daring but I remember the time I was doing Milk but that wasn’t as big deal, especially since Brokeback Mountain had just only recently come out. People were asking me if I want to do a gay role. And other people were advising me against it, so…”
(Milk, the 1972 movie, is inspired by Harvey Milk and his lover Scott Smith who leave New York for San Francisco with Milk determined to accomplish something meaningful in his life. In the city’s Castro District, Milk opens a camera shop and helps transform the area into a mecca for gays and lesbians. In 1977, Milk became the nation’s first openly gay man elected to a public office, winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Sean Pean plays Milk and James plays Smith.)
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