There’s more to the movie star’s varied artistic and academic pursuits than you might think. For one thing, not letting the Internet define him
Author Dana Vachon Illustration Hellovon
This month, James Franco’s latest big-screen directorial effort—an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God—hits theaters in the U.S. For those who didn’t realize the actor was more than just a movie star, Franco’s extracurricular activities don’t stop at directing. The star of Spider-Man and 127 Hours (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination) has become something of a 21st-century Renaissance man. After reaching the heights of Hollywood more than 10 years ago, Franco has gone on to become—in no particular order of importance—a published author, a college professor, a Master of Fine Arts several times over, an art gallery curator, an Academy Awards co-host and a soap opera star (those last two perhaps as a private satire and a personal art project, respectively).
Ahead of the release of his new film, Franco talked to Hemispheres about his multiple pursuits and whether they were part of an elaborate scheme to avoid the perils of stardom in the digital age.
Hemispheres: So, I’ve been reading the Marilyn Monroe diaries. She was incredible at sculpting her persona, but she ultimately became trapped inside that persona, because the public was unwilling to let her be anything else. What’s fascinating about you is that, through all these endeavors—movie star, poet, academic, social media prankster and so on—you’ve managed to play the matador against the charging bull of the mass mind. We’ve seen the hive of the Internet destroy careers and then give 800 grand to a bus driver who’s been bullied on YouTube—which can be a very threatening thing to a professional celebrity. But you’re a crowd sculptor. This was what your defense of Shia LaBeouf’s erratic behavior (which included showing up at a film premiere with a bag over his head that read, “I Am Not Famous Anymore”) was about: In the op-ed you published in The New York Times earlier this year, you said celebrities have to reclaim their images. Otherwise, they’ll die in their image.
James Franco: With the Shia thing, I think I was just trying to identify some of the pressures that he was struggling against. I was trying to delineate how certain dynamics are working nowadays between a public figure and his image.
Hemispheres: For Shia, it was jarring because it was such a sudden and abrupt shift. But you’re constantly playing with your own image in the public’s mind. You recently made headlines for posting a seminude selfie on Instagram and then deleting it less than an hour later, which created a mass response. You’re deliberately playing with the crowd.
Franco: Let’s look at the history of movies. For a long time it was very insular, and the studios were these walled places, and they then projected these movies around the world, and millions of people would watch them, but they were all kind of within the citadel of Hollywood, or at least produced there. And now, if we just look at movies, we can see this kind of democratization of everything that has to do with movies, with outlets on YouTube or Instagram. It’s bad for the old model to try to hold on to that. And so for me, with any work of art there’s a little triangle of artist, work of art and audience. There’s different emphasis on each of those things with each work, and so I am just very interested in work that engages with the audience. I find it has more energy if it’s emphasizing the connection between artist and audience.
Hemispheres: But Anne Hathaway, your co-host for the Oscars a few years ago, is very dedicated to the idea, be it right or wrong, of a single Anne Hathaway existing in the cultural space. When something personal leaks out onto the Internet about Anne Hathaway, it’s a big deal for Anne Hathaway. Which is why it was fascinating to have you and her hosting the Academy Awards together. For you, it was “James Franco the Oscar host,” in quotations, perhaps being run by the real James Franco, who might be attempting some greater art project, with a real Anne Hathaway as an unwitting player.
Franco: Yeah, but I wish you didn’t use her as an example.
Hemispheres: OK, I’ve got a better one. Last summer you appeared in the film This Is the End (in which Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and other famous actors play exaggerated versions of themselves), and there’s a scene in which “James Franco” confesses to having been intimate with Lindsay Lohan one night after she mistook him for Jake Gyllenhaal. Then, in real life, after rumors of you two had already been circulating and while the film was in theaters, what appeared to be Lohan’s list of past lovers was leaked onto the Internet, and you were on it. I thought, “In what reality/non-reality was that scene actually written?” It seemed a very conscious choice to treat the violated privacy of your own movie-star self as material.
Franco: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who wrote and directed This Is the End) told me that at one point or another all of the actors had said, “Oh gosh. I don’t want to say that” or “I don’t want to do that.” Except for me. I was willing to do whatever. And I think it just comes down to: I have an understanding of my public persona as something that is both connected to me and not of my creation. Everybody else uses my persona to sell their magazines, to sell their movies, to gossip about, and that’s fine. That’s just the nature of it. My personality is content for a lot of things. So I just said, “Why can’t I also use that as material for my own work?” and “Why can’t I manipulate that for my own purposes?” And that’s just the move I made, and so it’s allowed me to just say, “You know what, if people think that silly story about pretending to be Jake Gyllenhaal is true, so be it. And if they can see that I’m playing that persona, that’s great too.” But I don’t really care what they think.
Hemispheres: It’s odd and yet maybe not so odd that your latest film, Child of God, which you acted in and directed, is about an antisocial outcast. “Antisocial” is kind of putting it mildly. It’s about a psychopathic killer. Is there a relationship between this film and our discussion up until this point?
Franco: It’s easy for people to take the subject of this movie and just run with it and say, “James is a sicko!” But in art, or a movie, such subject matter becomes a lens through which you can view more universal things. On its surface it’s a grisly subject, but it was a way to explore two main themes: extreme loneliness and intimacy. What goes on between two people, and what happens when someone is so socially inept that they can’t be intimate with another living person? But it’s a way to examine all relationships. When you’re in a relationship, you project your idea of the other person onto them. If you have someone with zero agency, like a dead person, then the one live person is creating both sides of the relationship.
Hemispheres: It’s an adaptation of a book by Cormac McCarthy—one of our greatest living novelists. Did you get to work with McCarthy on it?
Franco: He did not work on the adaptation, but I did talk to him when we were in the middle of shooting. I said, “Cormac, um, you know, people are gonna ask me why I wanted to make a movie about this subject, so I’ll ask you, why did you write a book about this subject?” And he said—I think this is a direct quote—“I don’t know, James, probably for some dumb@#$ reason.” So then I pressed him further and Cormac said, “You know, James, there’s people like that among us in this world.” He’s learned, I guess, just to not really talk about his work.
Dana Vachon has written for Vanity Fair and The New York Times. He would love to know why Cormac McCarthy wrote Child of God.
Films Franco has directed (including shorts)
Albums Franco has recorded
Copies ofFranco’s 2010 short story collection, Palo Alto, sold as of April 2013
“General Hospital” episodes in which Franco’s character, “Franco,” appears