A life in constant motion

By James Mottram Time of article published Jan 5, 2011

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For an actor who has always shied away from the spotlight, James Franco is in danger of becoming ubiquitous. In the next two months, he has two films out, as well as a collection of short stories.

He’s nominated in one major awards ceremony and will host another. If you miss him on the cover of GQ, who proclaim him Man of the Year, you can catch him as the new face of Gucci.

All of which seems strange for a 32-year-old actor who shrank from Hollywood after playing Peter Parker’s pal Harry in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.

Four years ago, Franco went back to school, enrolling in literature and creative-writing courses at UCLA a decade after he’d dropped out there. He enjoyed it so much, he moved to New York and took on four courses – two in fiction writing, one in poetry, one in filmmaking – in as many colleges. He’s now at Yale studying for a PhD in English and film studies.

“For me, school is very grounding. It’s a way of studying other artists, writers and film-makers, and getting away from stuff like this,” he says.

As any Franco follower will know, last year he enjoyed a brief stint on US soap General Hospital, playing an obnoxious artist named, wait for it, Franco. This year, he will host the Oscars with Anne Hathaway in what may be his grandest performance piece yet. To be fair, Franco has a talent for comedy, as his stoner in Pineapple Express and his low-rent criminal in Date Night have shown.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how the insular interviewee will follow in the footsteps of comics such as Billy Crystal and Chris Rock.

Given he’s up for a Golden Globe for his role in Danny Boyle’s new film 127 Hours, there’s also a chance he could be one of the five Best Actor Oscar nominees.

The last time that happened was in 1987, when Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan was co-hosting the show and lost out to Woody Allen in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Franco says he was surprised when Oscars producer Bruce Cohen called. He initially refused but then reconsidered. As he told Entertainment Weekly, he doesn’t even care if he bombs.

“I’m happy to take the criticism. Even if it’s The Worst Oscars Ever, I don’t care.”

Franco is no stranger to bad reviews, certainly when it comes to his fiction writing.

When his story Just Before the Black was published in Esquire, one writer tweeted: “Franco makes Ethan Hawke seem like Herman Melville.” A little cruel, perhaps, but such is the fate of any actor who dares to turn his hand to fiction.

His new book Palo Alto is a collection of short stories.

Taking its name from the northern California university town where he grew up, each story is set there, driven by a series of interconnected teenage narrators, most of whom are alienated, lonely and unable to face their impulses and emotions.

The LA Times called it “the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detail, but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance”.

Violence is frequent and shocking. Chinatown in Three Parts details the degradation of a half-Vietnamese girl whose new boyfriend rapes her with some root vegetables during an orgy, before pimping her out.

Yet this should be no surprise to anyone who’s seen Franco’s short film The Feast of Stephen, which features a fantasy scene where teenage boys gang-rape another boy.

Perhaps because he’s soon to be seen as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, in a film that deals with the obscenity trial around the Beat poet’s most famous work, Franco seems embarrassed to talk about his literary achievements, even with his colleagues. As Boyle notes: “I spent all this time working with him and he never told me he’d written this book.”

Then again, their time on 127 Hours was intense. Franco plays the real-life climber Aron Ralston who in 2003 got trapped in a Utah canyon for five days after a rock fell on his arm. With no way of being rescued, he finds it within himself to sever his limb with a blunt penknife.

With minor characters only seen at the beginning and end, Franco is forced to hold the screen on his own for more than an hour.

Franco admits he went a little stir-crazy, being on the same studio set, locked into one position for more than four weeks.

“I didn’t think I would but I did. A friend of mine from NYU came out and made a documentary and we recently watched what she put together.

“There’s a part in it where Danny is asking me how I’m doing. And I’m like: ‘I think I lost it yesterday.’ When I look back, it was an amazing experience. But that documentary showed me it was taking a toll, going into this space, day after day. And the nature of the material was so intense.”

But there’s a masochistic streak to Franco. In 2002 he went all Method. He starred opposite Robert De Niro in City by the Sea, playing a drug addict by hanging out with users and sleeping rough.

“It was like this whole other world,” he recalls. “I gave myself no money, so I had to beg. I made signs on the freeway and got money that way. In New York, I met up with some people who showed me how to sleep with cardboard boxes.”

As an adolescent, Franco was an obedient prodigy, even interning at Lockheed Martin. But although his parents had met at Stanford University, art was as important as academia in the Franco family.

While acting came later, the process became frustrating. “When all I had was acting, despite telling myself it’s the wrong kind of thinking, I would define myself by the movies I did,” he says.

“If the movie did well, I’d feel happy and if it didn’t, I’d get upset. It was driving me crazy, trying to somehow control the final product as an actor. So I had to come to an understanding that my job as an actor was to help a director achieve his or her vision, and that’s it.”

Certainly, this explains why Franco has become a multimedia multi-tasker. But he now seems to be enjoying acting. Soon you’ll see him in his first post-Spider-Man blockbuster, the Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise of the Apes. Franco will also appear in the medieval comedy Your Highness.

Of course, the surge of activity has prompted some critics to ask if he is “for real”.

Maybe he’ll slow down or burn out. But to quote his character in General Hospital: “I’m not like everyone else – remember that.” – The Independent

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