June 2002 By Philip Berk
James Franco, who won a Golden Globe for playing James Dean in the tv movie biography, is no flash in the pan.
He’s the genuine article.
After that auspicious debut, he’s been much in demand, playing Spider-Man’s best friend, Robert De Niro and Frances McDormand’s son in City Across the bay, and a male prostitute in Nicolas Cage’s Sonny.
Next up is John Dahl’s Great Race and after that Robert Altman’s The Company.
Not a bad record.
But what distinguishes James is not just his good looks — and he has that in abundance — it’s his sincerity and his dedication to his artistic aspirations.
Which means not just acting but painting as well.
The oldest of three boys, he comes from an artistic family.
“My parents were Stanford grads. My father did his post graduate work at Harvard. They were both art majors. My mother now writes children’s book and my father works in Silicone Valley. My one brother is a sculptor, having graduated from Santa Cruz, and the younger one is still in high school.”
James’s girl friend just happens to be actress Marla Sokoloff, best known as the law office receptionist on The Practice. When her home was “invaded” by MTV for their show Cribs, his paintings were prominently displayed on her walls.
What happened then, I ask him.
“I guess my art career kind of took off in a small way. The rock group Third Eye Blind saw them, and so I made them a painting. And then Melissa Joan Hart, the Teenage Witch, sponsored some art show to which I donated a couple of paintings . She bought one, and Sharon Stone’s sister bought one; so Sharon became a fan and helped me hook up with a gallery in San Francisco and of course Nic bought one.”
By Nic he means his Sonny director Nicolas Cage.
What was it like working with a first time director?
“He’s fantastic. He did everything right. We were given free range to do what we wanted. It was just a chance to push the limits, and it ended up being one of the best times I’ve ever had on film.”
The movie’s subject matter is quite controversial.
Did he have any qualms about doing it?
“It’s based on a true story about a male prostitute who was initiated into that life by his family at a very young age. It’s kind of heartbreaking because he realizes it’s not a normal way of life and wants to do other things but doesn’t really know anything else.
“I was eager to play the role because the writer had filled me in on his past; he was a boy who grew up in Dallas Texas, whose family was involved in brothels, who at age nine was taught by prostitutes how to deal with women, and when he came of age was expected to join the family business. When he went to public school, he had a hard time trying to relate to anyone. The other kids were just finding out about girls and there he was having to pretend he was a virgin.”
To play a male prostitute James admits he did a lot of research, vicariously.
“It’s a world totally foreign to me. But I discovered there is this underbelly out there.”
What exactly did he do?
“I checked out the newspapers. I’d call people up and pretend I wanted their services. And when they came over I’d just say, ‘Can we talk.’ and I’d pay them. When I was in San Francisco — that’s where my family lives — I discovered that there’s a huge community there. A lot of them classify themselves as healers. And then when we filmed in New Orleans, I was living right in the French Quarter, and I quickly found out that is where a lot of sex workers operate. At first I didn’t want to tell them we were doing a movie I just said I was writing a book, but they weren’t very talkative. Until I told them we were doing a movie and then everybody wanted to talk.”
Was he ever scared?
“Usually when I research a role it does get a little crazy, but nothing bad happened, although there was one time when a couple of guys were going out on a date and they took me so I could see how it all went down. In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘If we get busted, this will be hard to explain.”
With all the movies he’s made, one after the other, how does he find time for his art?
“It’s a little harder because I do big pieces. Especially when I was in Australia for half a year when I was filming The Great Raid. An Artist has to keep practicing.”
What type of art interests him?
“I come from a classical painting background. I started doing it in high school and at an art league which I would go till 10 o’clock at night, every day. Then I won a scholarship to attend a summer high school program at Cal Arts (here in Southern California) where their emphasis is on abstract and free form; so they kind of broke me out of the classical mode. Before that I used to do a lot of classical life capturing the human figure, but after breaking off from that, I’m now into a naive kind of comic book, graffiti-esque type of style. I find that freeing and more expressive.”
What medium does he use?
“I use acrylic, acrylic paints for the base and then I’ll go with oil sticks or sometimes spray-paint pens.”
What does he hang on his walls?
“I don’t have much. I have a picture of Einstein, and I have one floral of Jack Nicholson’s face. But nothing of my own.”
His girl friend, however, makes up for it.
How long have they been together?
Any plans for marriage?
“No, no plans. She’s only 21, and in this day and age that’s pretty young to be married. But we’re very happy.”
With two careers, is there any competition?
“No. no. No competition, especially because she’s a musician and her music has been taking off. She’s been signed to Madonna’s record company so she’s heavily into music now. And I’m doing my acting. It is a little hard to be away from each other especially for the half year when I was in the furthest part of the world. That was a little hard, but other than that everything is great.”
Does his resemblance to James Dean bother him?
“I’m flattered when people say that.”
Do they have much in common?
“I think we’re very different in our private lives. He seemed to be a very troubled soul, and he brought recklessness to his private life. He was very creative but became self destructive. I am not. I don’t race my cars or my motorcycle. I don’t have a need to defy death to prove myself.”
Obviously he was committed to art, so when did he first realize he wanted to be an actor?
“I was always interested in it, but because I was scared of failing I didn’t try it until my last year of high school when I was part of a theatre group. Our teacher was into crazier fare than the usual high school stuff. My first plays were The Idiot by Dostoevsky and Woyzeck by George Buchner. After graduation I was accepted at UCLA. I wanted to major in theatre arts but my parents opposed it. I wanted to audition, but they wouldn’t let me. So I left UCLA and attended an acting school called Playhouse West in North Hollywood, where Jeff Goldblum is one of the teachers. I supported myself by working at McDonald’s because my parents wouldn’t help me out. Later I went back to UCLA not as a student but to work in the cafeteria. About that time I started getting jobs. I got a commercial which paid me more than I earned for three months working in the cafeteria. After that I did some pilots that didn’t make it, a miniseries that wasn’t sold, and eventually Freaks and Geeks that got me some notice.”
Are his parents still disappointed that he didn’t graduate?
“No, no. They’re very supportive now. It was all about parental concern and worry because there are so many struggling actors and the idea of throwing away one’s education was a scary thing for them.”
Art was always been his passion. So why didn’t he pursue it?
“It’s true I’ve been painting all my life. And it was my passion long before acting. But when I came out here I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a painter or an actor. But because this is the place for movies, acting sort of took off, but I continue to paint and always will.”
Could he make a living as an artist?
“I used to give my paintings away to everyone. If it wasn’t for Marla, I’d still be doing that!”
AND A YEAR LATER
James Franco has reason to be despondent.
In Spider-Man 2, he’s overshadowed by his youthful costars, and even Dr. Octavius the villain gets more screen time.
He claims to have spoken to (director) Sam Raimi about doing the next one (due out in 2008) but unlike Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, he hasn’t signed on yet.
All of which makes him a dull boy.
Arriving for his less important press conference, he’s pale and somewhat subdued.
A year ago he was in love, working non stop on important movies, pleased with his modest success both as an actor and as a painter?
So is he still living with Marla? I ask him.
“No,” he blushes.
By Marla, of course, I am referring to Marla Sokoloff, who played the secretary in The Practice. They met four years ago on the set of Whatever It Takes.
They were together for years and seemed destined for each other.
Registering both shock and disappointed, I ask him if he’s happy now that he’s alone?
“Yeah, fairly happy, yeah!”
Does he live alone?
“I am living alone. Everything is okay.”
Does he have someone in his life now?
“Yes I do?”
Is she an actress?
“She is, but I won’t say who.”
Obviously she’s a member of the small theatre company that has taken over his life, but more about that later.
I tell him I’ve replaced Marla as his art dealer, and he’s confused.
(Her Crips appearance on MTV, where his paintings were prominently displayed on her walls, opened doors for him and impressed clients like Sharon Stone and Third Eye Blind.)
A day earlier when I interviewed Kirsten Dunst, she talked about her interest in buying fine art.
When I asked her if she had bought any of James Franco’s paintings, snidely she responded, “Who? James Franco!!!”
Of course I didn’t tell James that.
How come she didn’t know he was an artist? I ask him.
“I guess she has a lot of other things on her plate.”
Didn’t they spend a lot of time together on the set?
“Not really on the second one. We only had two scenes together, one at the big party near the end and the other at the birthday party at the beginning. I mean, we get along. She’s nice.”
How about Tobey, are they close?
Laughingly, he responds, “We’re not extremely close — I think we get along great. He’s a great guy, and he’s been supportive of me. I do little plays over at my theatre Playhouse West, and he comes out and sees the plays. I see him around town. I’ve seen him at boxing matches and things like that. I love him. He’s great. He’s great to work with, and he’s great to be around.“
His character could play an important role in the next film. Has he discussed that with Sam Raimi?
“Yeah I guess the movie suggests some things. At the end there are expectations, but I am not really supposed to talk about it. I really don’t know a whole lot about the third one. Sam and I met once to discuss what will happen, but they don’t want to me talking about what’s going to happen. I think people will be surprised.”
Now that Spider-Man is finally “unmasked,” where will that take his character?
“It’s a tricky situation for Harry especially since his whole life has been centered around his father. His whole mission in life is to gain his father’s acceptance. Everything he does is centered around that. He goes after Mary Jane to please his father. And when his father no longer likes her, he throws her away. His father loves Peter, and Harry is hurt by that. In the second film he’s still trying to please the ghost of his father. No matter how much success he achieves, his father will never be there to appreciate it. The only way he can find peace is to avenge his father’s death, and now that he knows Peter is Spider-Man it could throw him into a tailspin.”
He seems a little crazy at the end of the film?
“I think he is a little crazy, and that’s why I think he could come up with his own mad ideas about how to fix things.”
A year ago his future seemed secure. He was working with directors like John Dahl and Robert Altman.
Unfortunately those films either went unnoticed or are still sitting on a shelf.
I express surprise with his involvement with a small theatre group.
Isn’t he still passionate about his art?
“Whatever I do as a painter is satisfying, but the main thing in my life is acting. That’s where I have had the most success, and for me that’s the key to everything. I still enjoy painting. That’s something I do for myself, but I don’t have a tremendous need to succeed in the art world the way I do as an actor.”
Does he still paint?
“I do, but I don’t pursue art like I pursue acting. I f I sell a piece it’s okay. If I don’t it’s fine.”
How did he get involved with this theatre group?
“I’ve been writing plays, and then we put them up at the theatre. I just finished directing two low budget films based on the plays we did there. One is called The Ape, and the other is Fool’s Gold. We finished that one a week ago.”
How did that turn out?
“I enjoyed doing it, the directing was fun. We’ll see where it goes.”
Who acted in it?
“I did and people from my theatre. I wrote the plays with my partner Merriweather Williams, who was the head writer on Sponge Bob Squarepants. We write the plays together, turned them in films, and used the actors who were in our plays.”
Was it shot digitally?
“No, we had a professional director of photography, a guy named Dave Klein who did the Kevin Smith comedies, Clerks and Chasing Amy. And we used his editor Scott Moser as well.”
Who put up the money?
“That was the nice thing. I financed the movies; so there was no pressure from anyone.”
Wasn’t it Mel Brooks who said, “Never put your own money into your show!”
Last time we spoke he was off the Australia to film John Dahl’s The Great Raid. Whatever happened to that?
“It’s a good movie. It tests in the 80’s (out of a 100) every time. It’s been a while in the editing room.”
So what’s holding it up?
“I don’t know. It’s between John and the producers.”
Is it unreleasable?
“No, it’s good. People love it. I think it’ll come out next February.”
His parents weren’t happy when he switched his college major from fine arts to drama, and in fact they refused to pay his tuition fee at UCLA.
Eventually he dropped out.
Do they still think he should complete his education?
“I don’t think so. They’re very happy for me now. In fact they’re here for the premiere tonight. I don’t think they’d want me to go back to school. At the time they were concerned because such a small percentage of actors can support themselves, but now I think they’re assured that I can, yeah.”
Did he have any input in the clothes he wears in Spider-Man 2?
“Yes I did. I felt that because Harry is a rich guy, he should wear the best suits and the flashiest kind of things.”
And what is he wearing now?
Did he pay for it, or was it a gift?
Somewhat embarrassed he admits, “This one was free.”
Growing up, was he a fan of Spider-Man comics?
“Not when I was a kid, but in high school when I was training to be an artist, there were art leagues I’d attend from 4 to 10 p.m. most week nights, and one of my teachers had studied with Steve Ditko, who drew the original Spider-Man comic books. He recommended we look at those drawings of the human figure, and that was my first exposure. I was about sixteen at the time. Of course after I got the role, I read 100, 120 of the comics.”
How is he handling fame?
“I wouldn’t say I’m famous, but it is a little easier to get a table at a restaurant, although I don’t go out that much.”
What aspect of fame has surprised him?
“I’m always a little shocked to discover how much people love films. No matter what walk of life they’re from, I mean scientists, educators, whatever. they know who you are or what you do.”
For the record, his family affectionately calls him Teddy — they have since he was a little boy — because his middle name is Edward.
His next movie is for Disney; it’s called Annapolis. He has another one sitting on a shelf, Tristan & Isolde, which he shot a year ago in the Czech Republic.