James Franco: Keeping it Real

Like his role models James Dean and, Marlon Brando, James Franco doesn't want to reveal too much. But that doesn't mean the actor who appeared in Spider-Man and will next be seen opposite Robert De Niro in City by the Sea doesn't let a few things slip out.

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My first glimpse of James Franco is at a photo studio in Culver City, where he slouches in a chair across the wide empty loft space between us. From that distance, one can understand why director Mark Rydell cast him to play James Dean in a TNT biopic. Franco has the look down, from the wavy brown hair to the squinty eyes to the sensuous pout and wry off-center smile.

Franco's day is almost done. After the photo shoot he gets to talk to me, and then go home for a good night's rest before flying off to Australia to begin shooting his next picture, The Great Raid, based on a true story about the rescue of American WWII soldiers held captive in the Philippines. It's been a busy time for the young actor, ever since he nailed playing James Dean last year (and went on to win a Golden Globe award for his efforts). He followed that with a small part in Deuces Wild, then a bigger role in the wildly successful Spider-Man, where he got to play Tobey Maguire's best friend and the son of the Green Goblin (played by Willem Dafoe). Dafoe may have met his death, but Franco will appear in the sequel ("We signed contracts," he says). Now, Franco has two more films coming out: City by the Sea, in which he stars as the troubled son of cop Robert De Niro, and Sonny, Nicolas Cage's directorial debut in which Franco plays a male prostitute.

I know very little about Franco from reading previous articles about him because he never seems to open up. He left his home in Palo Alto when he was 18 to attend UCLA. After a year, Franco dropped out to join Robert Carnegie's training ground Playhouse West, study with a few painters and pursue acting. ("Painting is wonderful because it's so private," says Franco. "You're not beholden to a director or a producer. But acting has been really saving to me. It's so expressive and free.")

While on his journey to immerse himself in as many liberal arts as possible, Franco landed a few acting jobs. He worked on the TV miniseries To Serve and Protect, did an episode of "Profiler" and got cast in the high school drama TV series "Freaks and Geeks," which earned wonderful reviews but was canceled in less than a year. However, the series did bring Franco enough exposure to get him an audition for the James Dean movie.

The work has brought Franco some level of fame, but he isn't ready to give in to prying reporters just yet. If he has learned anything from James Dean, it's not just to "keep it real," as Dean told Dennis Hopper, who passed the advice on to Franco, but to keep the details to himself. To keep it abstract, not specific.

When I ask Franco what it was like working on Spider-Man and what role has challenged him the most in his career, he simply responds with a "Nah, nah," and turns his face sideways. "Nah, don't ask. Nah, I don't know," he offers. But, of course, he does know. This is all an act. His interview persona.

"As an actor it's probably not to one's benefit to be overexposed," he says. "If you want to play different parts, you don't want to reveal too much of your personal life. It's defining." "This is going to be some interview," I say.

Thankfully, I already know a couple of things about Franco: he has a writing partner with whom he's written several scripts, and he likes to read--he appeared at his first Movieline interview clutching James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

"Yeah," Franco admits, "I've read most of Joyce."

"Including Ulysses?" I ask.

"Yeah, and I read Finnegans Wake. Or at least some of it."

I also know he's an admirer of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. When I mention that I've interviewed all three of them, he wants to know what Jack's like. I tell him about the Picasso in Nicholson's living room, and about the ashtray full of chopped money, which is his contribution to the art in the room.

Franco is all ears--he's listening, he's laughing, he's saying "wow." "I love Nicholson," he says. "I loved The Last Detail, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Five Easy Pieces, that one he did with Warren Beatty, that Mike Nichols movie, trying to get the girl's money [The Fortune]. They're all fantastic. He's still good. I heard his new one, About Schmidt, is fantastic."

Franco knows that I've spent time with both Marlon Brando and Truman Capote, and he wants to know what Brando thought of Capote. "Hated him, right?"

I tell him that's a long story, and if I relay it, it'll eat into our time and he'll wind up leaving without answering my questions. Instead, I ask him if he always had confidence in himself as an actor.

"Yes," he says. "It's hard enough. Rejection's hard. Fighting for something is hard when everybody else is not supportive. Especially in an artistic field where it's a lot of yourself that's being rejected, it's not just a numbers report. It's you they're saying no to."

"How much rejection did you receive early on?"

"I went on maybe hundreds of auditions that I didn't get. My motto is: I work hard, whether or not it goes well. I try to stay away from a vengeance mentality. Just do my work and move on. The theater's been helpful in that. If it doesn't work out in the big professional world, I always have the theater to satisfy whatever acting needs I have."

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