James Franco on how his hard work to be more than just a Hollywood heartthrob has truly paid off
The Oscar-nominated actor, who’s also written a short story collection and directed and produced several films, can next be seen on the big screen as a bad boy tech billionaire in Why Him? opposite Bryan Cranston
James Franco likes to go where no other creative type has gone before. Sure he’s a Hollywood star and at 38 remains a heartthrob, yet he’s also prepared to cross every boundary, bend all the genders, play nasty and look downright ugly as he takes on his pantheon of eccentrics.
When it comes to acting, Franco says the old formula of one for me, one for them, doesn’t quite work, because he does enjoy making studio movies, which include his stoner comedies with Seth Rogen like Pineapple Express , This Is the End and The Interview, in which the pair controversially played two very silly American journalists enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“For me the Hollywood comedies are as important as the movies I direct, like In Dubious Battle,” he says of his recent John Steinbeck adaptation about a fruit pickers’ strike in the 1930s. “I have high hopes for my new studio comedy Why Him?”
Ever since he played Alien, a grille-toothed and heavily tattooed rapper/drug dealer in Harmony Korine’s 2012 indie hit, Spring Breakers , Franco has been riffing on the character. Now in Why Him?, he becomes an adversary of the most popular drug dealer of them all, Walter White – er, I mean Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad .
Again covered in tattoos, Franco’s Laird Mayhew, despite looking like a drug dealer, is actually a Silicon Valley billionaire who has made his money from creating video games. He’s from a hip new order and for Cranston’s fuddy-duddy Ned Fleming, he’s a little horrifying: Laird is dating his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch).
After first glimpsing a naked Laird while talking to his daughter on Skype, Ned grudgingly agrees to spend the holidays with his family at Laird’s lavish Palo Alto estate. When Laird announces that he plans to propose to Stephanie, Ned has five days to stop him.
What could have been a formulaic holiday offering – of course, Laird is ultimately shown to have a heart of gold – becomes an entertaining adversarial clash between two of Hollywood’s most adventurous actors.
“After Breaking Bad, I think people had forgotten how Bryan is this great comedic actor – as that’s what he did for years and years,” Franco says of the former Malcolm in the Middle star. “When we were filming Why Him?, Bryan said to me, ‘This is the most fun I’ve had in a decade.’ So I found him to be a strong comedic and improvisational partner like Seth, in his own way. He could fly with anything.”
That was allowed on a big studio movie? “Yes. Initially I wasn’t sure but the writer-director John Hamburg came up that way,” he says of the I Love You Man director, who significantly wrote the adversarial macho comedies Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. “So we improvised in almost every scene.”
Playing with identity may be one of Franco’s pet pursuits, but he wasn’t about to get any tattoos for real. “I’ve often thought about getting them, but I’ve seen actors in the make-up trailer having them covered every day. I do have little carvings in my arms that are not apparent,” he says.
Now Franco is making up for his own misspent youth, when he was in trouble with the law and spent time in juvenile hall; the experiences inspired his collection of short stories, Palo Alto, named after the Californian city where he grew up, and the basis for a film by Gia Coppola.
Still, he admits his intense productivity has its drawbacks. “It makes it difficult to have romantic relationships or to raise a family at this time, but I at least have worked things out so that most of the people I work with are my closest friends.”
After bonding with Selena Gomez on Spring Breakers, Franco enlisted the pop diva for In Dubious Battle. “I knew Selena was a great actress and I had an instinct she’d be perfect as a young mother. At one point our screenwriter Matt Rager thought we shouldn’t include a scene from the book, but I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Selena Gomez giving birth in a film? That’s cinema gold.’”
Franco also became fast friends with Cranston, after they were cast in Why Him?. “It took eight months for the film to go ahead and I asked Bryan to play Sheriff in In Dubious Battle, and then I directed The Masterpiece and he did that too. I asked if he would play himself, and he actually plays a version of himself from the early 2000s, so it’s Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle. It just speaks to his love of cinema that he supports his fellow artists.”
Franco also enlisted up-and-comer Deutch for The Masterpiece, a comedic behind-the-scenes look at the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, considered by many to be the worst movie of all time. He says it also marks his most significant pairing with brother Dave, who not only looks like him but sounds like him.
The younger brother, who got his break in 21 Jump Street, also plays Montgomery Clift in his brother’s previous directing effort, the yet-to-be-released Zeroville, where the elder Franco sports a tattoo of Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on his bald head.
“I’m sure Dave looked up to me when we were young but I don’t know actually,” Franco says. “I was like the troubled firstborn and he was the third son. To me, it always seemed like he was the easy-go-lucky kind of guy, who was voted best looking in the yearbook and just had it made from the beginning.”
Even so, there’s now no stopping his big brother, who directs movies, creates his own art, and writes and teaches film. Does he survive on five hours’ sleep a night? “A bit more than that,” says Franco with his mischievous grin, adding it helps that he doesn’t drink or smoke.
“I’m finally at the point where I’m able to do what I really want to do and work with people I respect and admire. That to me is what makes life sweet. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Some people take holidays to have fun; I like to work. Basically my work time is my fun time.”
After the success of the mini-series 11.22.63, based on the Stephen King novel, where his character went back in time to try and prevent John F. Kennedy’s murder, Franco is again venturing into television with HBO’s The Deuce, created and written by The Wire’s David Simon and set among the porn and prostitution of New York during the 1970s and ’80s.
The actor also plays a small role as the captain of the colony ship Covenant in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, due in May. Strangely he’s not an alien. Or is he? You never know with James Franco.
Why Him? opens on January 5
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