James Franco is a class apart

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Old 27-Jan-2011
James Franco is a class apart

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James Franco is exhausted. He got up at six this morning to catch a train from New York to Connecticut to attend a class at Yale, where he is studying for a PhD in English. Class over, he filmed a cameo appearance in a short student film, then got back on the train to New York for a meeting with one of his professors at NYU, where he is also enrolled, and squeezed in a visit to the doctor's before jumping in a cab to the James Hotel in SoHo, where there's a party in celebration of his first collection of short stories, Palo Alto. That's after he has sat down for an interview with me. Phew!

"He finds it a little difficult to understand that it's just a party," his assistant, Dana Morgan, tells me as she pours a Diet Coke from the minibar. A former classmate of Franco's at UCLA, Morgan manages his minute-to-minute existence: she makes sure he wakes up, gets dressed and eats, puts him on the right train, tells him what's waiting for him at the other end.

"He always wants to know, "What's it for?" It's not for anything. It's just a party for your book." The door opens and in walks Franco, wearing a grey check shirt, jeans and beaten-up trainers. He shakes my hand then drops to the couch, limbs in all directions, and stares at me, glassy eyed. "Busy day?" I ask. "All my days are busy," he replies. "Is this for 127 Hours?" He is referring to the new Danny Boyle film in which he stars, although he is also appearing in Howl, playing the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. "Yes. But we could also talk about Howl. Or your book of short stories." He nods, as if only half hearing what I'm saying.

There is a weird atmosphere in the room. At first I put it down to Franco's tiredness. He answers my questions at length but a little abstractedly, all the while maintaining almost hypnotic levels of eye contact, tilting his head back until he is staring at me down the chiselled planes of his face. I half expect a maniacal laugh to escape his lips, as it did when he played the Green Goblin in Spiderman 3. "The video diaries [in 127 Hours] were set up in a way that in diegetic terms he's addressing his family," he is saying, "so it's almost like a first-person experience, but without breaking the fourth wall." Suddenly, he stops. "Excuse me," he asks, "but was my hand wet when you shook it? …I'm sitting here, talking, and all I'm thinking about is, ‘I just gave the guy a wet handshake'." Franco cracks a grin that seems to stretch from ear to ear. It utterly transforms his face. The ice has been broken. He is always a little weird on first meeting strangers, I later find out. The director Danny Boyle, who cast Franco in 127 Hours on the strength of his performance as an addict in Pineapple Express, says, "When we first met him, we thought he was stoned. I remember speaking to a casting director at Fox and she said, "Don't be put off by that. He does that to keep you at a distance at the beginning, so that he can suss you out."

You think he's sleeping, but in fact he's hyperactive. He never rests. In fact Franco doesn't have any addictions, and barely sleeps, just a few hours a night, surviving on catnaps throughout the day. The rest of the time he powers through projects like an Olympian: art projects, film projects, book projects, poetry projects, TV projects. At 32, Franco would seem to have only two gears, catatonic or hyperactive. "He kind of surfs into scenes, on a wave of relaxation," Boyle says of Franco's acting in 127 Hours, in which he plays Aron Ralston, the climber who fell down a ravine in the Utah desert and remained there for five days, his arm trapped beneath a boulder, until he thought to sever his own arm with a blunt penknife.

What this meant in practice was lots of very long takes, shot in the exact same spot in Utah where Ralston was trapped in April 2003. "I was worried about his sanity," Boyle recalls. "He spent five weeks in that gully, every day, six days of the week, 9am to 9pm, with breaks for the lavatory. He dealt with it by reading Proust and academic textbooks He got through them at a staggering pace. I think it helped keep him sane."

On the seventh day, Franco would get on a plane to Los Angeles, and from there take the red eye to New York so that he could attend his fiction-writing workshop at Columbia. After commenting on his fellow students' short stories, he would jump in a car, fly back to LA, grab some sleep in the terminal from 1am to 5.30am, then catch a flight to Salt Lake City, arriving on set in time to stick his hand beneath the boulder and start filming again. It wasn't quite enough for Columbia, which still docked him points for two missed classes.

"They didn't understand what it meant to make a movie," Franco says. "That wasn't good enough for them! They made me drop a couple of classes so I have to make it up. Which I'm doing, I'm doing. I'm working it out." A note of trepidation breaks the surface of his oceanic calm. Even by the standards of megastar self-improvement drives - the telethons and flying lessons, the rock bands, relief efforts and French poetry binges - the sheer extent of Franco's extracurricular activity is astonishing. Until recently he was enrolled in four graduate-school programmes, one at Columbia for creative writing, another at Brooklyn College forfiction, a part-time poetry programme at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and NYU for film-making.

Last year he also found the time to guest-star in the daytime soap General Hospital, appearing as a dashing but possibly murderous multi-media artist named ‘Franco' who belted out lines such as ‘Don't live by rules or boundaries' and ‘Since when is performance art a crime?' before making out with the nearest actress. He then wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal arguing for the aesthetic legitimacy of soaps, and turned his appearance in the show into a video installation entitled Soap at MOCA at the Pacific Design Centre in Los Angeles, in which Franco examined the implications of Franco playing Franco. And we haven't even touched on his short films or design work.

"He's turned his celebrity into a form of performance art," Boyle says. "While we were shooting the film, he would sometimes ask me, ‘What do you want him to do?' I would say, ‘What do you mean?' He would say, ‘What do you want from him in this scene?', ‘You mean your character?', ‘No, no. Franco. What do you want from Franco?' - he was talking about himself in the third person. I said, ‘Well, I think he should be more emotional.' And he said, ‘Oh, I can get him to do that.' And then he'd do the scene and he'd be amazing. He turned on this extraordinary performance. He really does hold himself like a tool, to be used by the director for the benefit of the story."

All of which raises an interesting set of questions about the nexus of art, performance and celebrity that Franco seems intent on occupying, namely: what is he on? CanI have some? At what point does referringto yourself in the third person cease to bea comment on your own fame and resumeits traditional function as a sign that you are a few fries short of a Happy Meal? Is all this activity a comment on his own fame, or merely facilitated by it?

When Franco exhibited his art work in Paris, earlier this year, one of the faculty members at NYU stormed out, muttering expletives. On the other hand, talk to any of his tutors and they will tell you the same story: he is a dedicated student who racks up extra credit and keeps taking classes after the course is over. "His work was very strong," says Sam Lipsyte, the associate director of undergraduate creative writing at Columbia, who was on the committee that admitted Franco. "He was getting in no matter what his name was. The fact was, his name meant nothing to some members of the committee; his stardom had to be explained."

Franco's Palo Alto short stories, about teenagers driving too fast or getting beaten up, are actually pretty good. Reviewers have gone on about mindless, heartless, nihilistic youth, but in truth his characters have a much sweeter temper than that, their delinquency percolating up from some perceived rejection or hurt, in a manner reminiscent of the king of adolescent vulnerability, James Dean, whom Franco played in a made-for-TV-biopic in 2001, a performance for which he won a Golden Globe. "Dean is in my system," Franco says. "There are a lot of parallels there. I mean, thank goodness I'm still alive."

Growing up in Palo Alto, California, where his father worked as a maths lecturer, Franco was always a driven child, the kind who would build huge structures using every brick in the playroom. As a teenager he had frequent brushes with the law, for graffiti and shoplifting, among others. "I think a lot of the trouble I got into was because I was running," he says. "I didn't know how to focus my energy, because I was scared of failure, whatever that is."

He fell in love with acting after attending drama class and landing the lead in the school play. He remembers thinking, "Why not devote myself to that? Why don't I just give it my all? Now or never."

In 1997, against his parents' wishes, he dropped out of UCLA, and within a few years he had his break on Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived television comedy show that launched the careers of Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal. Franco was often to be found reading Joyce or Dostoevsky between lighting set-ups.

They used to sneak up on him, and snatch whatever book he was reading to see if the pages were turned. These were, by Franco's own admission, the ‘Years of Taking Himself Too Seriously', brooding in his trailer, sometimes driving his fellow actors to distraction with the method-like intensity he brought to eating a banana, or arguing with directors over which T-shirt he should wear. "He's changed a lot," says Kirsten Dunst, who appeared with Franco in all three Spiderman movies. "Before, he'd kind of brood in his trailer and read. He took himself super-seriously."

Often it was for nothing parts. He obtained a real pilot's licence for his role in the forgettable Second World War drama Flyboys. He spent eight months learning insane horseriding tricks - somersault mounts, leaps from one horse to another - for Tristan & Isolde, only to find his big battle scene had been cut. It was a depressing time. "I would see him and he'd say, ‘I've got a knee injury from my broadsword training'," Seth Rogan remembers. "He was always so committed to stuff he didn't like. I remember having conversations with him about why he was doing some of the stuff he was doing. I think the agencies saw, ‘Ooh, we've got a young handsome actor dude. Let's put him in a bunch of action movies and he'll be Tom Cruise in ten years.' This was before the fat funny guy had taken over. That was what people were going for. I think he was pressed into it."

So Franco abandoned what he calls his "young leading man in bad movies" career and re-enrolled at UCLA in 2006 to study literature and creative writing, bringing to it much the same ferocity with which he had once brandished broadswords atop bareback horses.

He completed the three-year course in only two years. "Nobody could accuse you of dabbling," I say, half-jokingly. "I guess I didn't want to be perceived as the actor who is just dabbling, just taking a class," he says. "I'm actually taking it extremely seriously. It's a weird thing that's happened because my school life now has turned into something else where it's got this focus on it, almost as if it was this other performance, or a side of my career. Originally it was because it was a safe and private placeI could go to and focus on things that I love."

The irony is that the moment he quit Hollywood, and stopped trying to control his acting career, it took off. He was hilarious in Pineapple Express opposite Seth Rogen, following this up with a small part as Sean Penn's partner in Milk, Gus Van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk, and was a revelation: loose, fond, goofy, as relaxed as a cat in sunlight.

"It seemed this fire was relit within him," Rogen recalls. "He was enjoying himself so much. Because that's how we always saw him.If anything, we always thought it was weird he was off playing some addict or something like that. I think when he went off to school, it gave him permission not to take it so seriously, and when you approach it like that you start doing a lot better stuff than when the weight of the world is on every acting choice you make. He's mellowed out a lot."

According to Franco, Rogen gave him the piece of advice that unlocked everything. "It seems like of course you should work this way, but I didn't understand this: ‘Don't act in any movie you wouldn't ordinarily go to see on your own if you weren't in it.' Now I don't necessarily always follow that advice. Sometimes there's an actor I want to work with, or a director I want to work with. On Eat Pray Love I got to work with Julia Roberts for a week. Why not have that experience?"

Thanks to the Spiderman films, Franco finds himself in an enviable position, with enough money not to have to work again, which means he can cherry-pick his roles and work with choice collaborators such as Danny Boyle, devoting the time he would usually lose to pay-cheque parts to pursuing his other interests.

"He uses his extra-curricular stuff to keep the whole Hollywood thing at a distance," Boyle says.

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