In the basement of a crumbling old mansion in Los Angeles, two women dressed in 19th-century garb are beating each other senseless. One wears a white blouse with lace detailing; the other, a black frock and a gloppy stripe of blood down her face. They brawl in a stone-walled chamber, as gamblers in waistcoats and top hats cheer them on, like Downton Abbey gone Fight Club. In a makeshift dressing room directly above them, James Franco hears the ruckus through the floorboards and smiles as a young woman combs pomade into his hair. He thumbs the enormous handlebar mustache riding his upper lip. “This is fake,” he says. “So I’m sorry if it’s making me talk funny.”
It’s the end of the first week of production on a film called The Mad Whale, made by a group of grad students; Franco, their professor, is about to act in a scene. “They’re in a class of mine at UCLA – I mean USC,” Franco says. He teaches at both universities and got confused for a moment. “It’s a total filmmaking class: In the fall, the writing students come up with a concept, and in the spring, I take over and we shoot it.” The premise of The Mad Whale, which Franco credits himself with devising, is that a doctor at a 19th-century mental institution mounts an all-female stage production of Moby-Dick, using the inmates as cast members. “I liked the framing device of the institution, because we wouldn’t need the same production budget that actually doing Moby Dick would require,” Franco says, “and because the idea of having inmates putting on a play opens up all sorts of unconventional casting possibilities, and you get all this crazy shit outside of the play.”
The Mad Whale is an unmistakably shoestring production. Franco persuaded Camilla Belle and Summer Phoenix to star as asylum inmates, essentially as favors to him; family and friends of the production are helping out as extras. There’s no armada of climate-controlled Star Waggons out front; no brigade of PA’s. In other words, this isn’t at all the kind of set where you’d expect to find a world-famous movie star – except that James Franco isn’t like other movie stars. He’s acted in smash comedies and action blockbusters, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Pineapple Express and the Spider-Man trilogy; and buzzed-about indies, like Spring Breakers and Milk; he won a Golden Globe for a 2001 James Dean TV biopic, and scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his star turn in 127 Hours.
But Franco’s an idiosyncratic and indefatigable polymath, too – or, depending on your level of skepticism, a hyperactive dilettante – who’s spent the past decade hopscotching between a bewildering array of pursuits. Not just teaching, but taking graduate-level courses in filmmaking and literature; publishing his own fiction and poems with, among other people, Don DeLillo’s editor; collaborating with performance-art icon Marina Abramovic and mounting exhibitions of his own art, including a close-up video of urinating penises and defecating assholes; guest starring on General Hospital and headlining Of Mice and Men on Broadway; founding a rock band called Daddy; directing his own passion projects based on Faulkner novels and the lives of obscure homosexual character actors. Add to these dizzying bullet points approximately a zillion other improbable career choices, and you could make the case that Franco, 37, is the most productive man in pop culture.
His most prominent project at the moment is a critically acclaimed Hulu miniseries called 11.22.63, produced by J.J. Abrams and based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, in which Franco plays a time-traveler tasked with stopping the John F. Kennedy assassination. It’s one of the best things he’s done in years, and a reminder that – all his multihyphenate activities notwithstanding – he remains one of the most gifted, compulsively watchable actors of his generation.
Right now, it’s time to act. Franco leaves for wardrobe and dons a paisley vest and peak-lapel overcoat. He plays a wealthy theater impresario called Fry, with just two lines in this scene, 14 words in all. Yet from the moment the fists start flying, Franco is the most transfixing thing onscreen – he radiates Fry’s arrogance, impatience and power with little more than some tiny shakes of the head and quick, disdainful glances. At one point during filming, Franco musters a squinty-eyed, narcotized grin – warm and wry at once – that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever seen him act. This smile is one of Franco’s most versatile weapons: It can communicate disarming sweetness, a threat of feral menace or Buddha-like bliss. The director David Gordon Green recalls that, while shooting Franco in Pineapple Express, “I asked him about the smile: ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘Sometimes I’m imagining a fan blowing hot air on me. And sometimes I imagine it’s a blast of bus exhaust.'” Tonight Franco busts out the smile in take after take. Each time, the huddle of students watching in one room over titters with delight.
Forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, the scene is done. People exchange high-fives and backslaps. Breaking from a scrum of students and extras who want to take pictures with him, Franco spots me and smiles the smile, his fake mustache now gleaming in the low basement light. “Fun, huh?”
It’s hard to name an acting career that’s unfolded quite as mystifyingly as James Franco’s. He made his name young, on the revered cult sitcom Freaks and Geeks, acting opposite Seth Rogen, who would become a friend and frequent collaborator. He was tipped as a next big thing for playing James Dean, and a prestige-picture trajectory soon suggested itself: He played Robert De Niro’s son in City by the Sea, then Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk, then the stranded outdoorsman Aron Ralston in 127 Hours – rising to the enormous challenge of being the only face onscreen for almost the entire movie. Franco could have continued in this manner: maybe become Martin Scorsese’s late-career muse, mumbled some profound nothings in a Terrence Malick epic, racked up more statuettes. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Franco’s CV exploded into a protean flurry of genre-agnostic work: highbrow and lowbrow, experimental and broad, widely seen and effectively ignored. If there was a logic guiding these seemingly chaotic choices, it was legible only to him. Discussing this, Franco paraphrases a joke that Jonah Hill told at Comedy Central’s Roast of James Franco”My model, in a way, is ‘One for them, five for me.'”
At 8:30 a.m. the day after the mansion shoot, Franco arrives at the Fox lot, in Century City, to work on one of the 15-odd projects currently listed for 2016 release on his IMDb page. This one, due in December, is a Christmas comedy co-starring Bryan Cranston titled Why Him? The director, John Hamburg, has an impressive studio-comedy pedigree: He co-wrote Zoolander and Meet the Parents and directed I Love You, Man. “It’s definitely one for them,” Franco says of the job, “but it’s awesome – I get to work with Bryan Cranston, and it’s actually turning out to be pretty funny.”
An actress who worked on a 2012 movie with Franco says that when it comes to Franco, it”isn’t whether or not he’s legit. He’s legit. It’s whether or not he’s insane.”
The scene at hand is Number 63, and it involves another brawl – this one between Franco, playing a brash young tech mogul, and Cranston, whose daughter Franco wants to marry. “It’s a bit like Meet the Parents,” Franco explains. “My character wants Bryan’s blessing, but Bryan hates me and won’t give it.” Tensions between the two finally explode into slapstick violence – a punch to the kidneys, a “chicken-beak fist” karate move and, in the ridiculous phrasing of a French-accented estate manager played by Keegan-Michael Key, “evasive parkour!”
Among dramatic leading men on the Hollywood A list, Franco’s comedy chops are unique: He’s fantastic playing a heightened version of himself in This Is the End, engrossingly nuts in The Interview and goofily transcendent as an emotionally vulnerable weed dealer in Pineapple Express. “There’s an 11-year-old that’s still in him, playing make-believe and having a great time,” says Green. “I think he’s a very eccentric guy who was asked to be really handsome for a long time; to present himself as something he wasn’t. Once we invited the weirdo to the party, it was liberating for him.” Seth Rogen says, “On paper, he’s the douchiest human being on the planet, but as soon as you meet him, he’s very disarming. He’s almost embarrassed by what you assume he’s like. I think that’s why audiences like him, because he’s weird and he does all this stuff that’s so fascinating and bizarre, but onscreen he seems like your silly friend you hang out with, who’d pull his pants down to make you laugh. And he is that guy!”
The Cranston fight in Why Him? involves a ton of choreography performed by stunt doubles, which translates to a ton of sitting around for Franco. Since he hates wasting time, the result is an absurd tableau: As the stuntmen scuffle right in front of him, he sits cross-legged in a canvas folding chair, calmly sips coffee and reads not one but two different paperbacks at once – a Jackson Pollock biography and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Franco takes in several pages from one, then switches to the other, paying no mind to the cacophony mere feet away. “On comedies, usually everybody’s fucking around between takes, but that’s not James’ process,” Hamburg says. “He’s making use of every single moment. The other day he was in hair and makeup, typing on a laptop. I said, ‘What are you doing, writing a novel?’ He said, ‘Yep.’ And he actually was!”
In all my conversations with Franco, he seemed locked in – fully present to what I was saying, pressing me for clarification and nuance even when it was small talk. Other collaborators attest to his powers of concentration amid the feverish multitasking. David Simon, of The Wire, cast Franco in a forthcoming HBO series called The Deuce, about the New York porn industry in the Seventies and Eighties, in which he plays twin brothers. “I was a bit nervous about his focus,” Simon says. “I talked to people who told me, ‘Great actor, but God help you if he loses interest or gets preoccupied with something that fascinates him more.’ Other producers and directors would praise the talent in one breath and then tell you a story about him falling asleep between camera setups with some annotated copy of a Faulkner novel in his lap. But then he came to work, and he had both of his characters surrounded. He didn’t let slip a line or a gesture.”
By the late 2000s, Franco had earned or was pursuing multiple arts degrees; gossip blogs and tabloids circulated a cellphone shot of him dozing mid-lecture and passed along tales of him ditching classes, painting him as a pseudo-intellectual and fraud. Green counters this, recalling that while shooting the 2011 stoner-fantasy comedy Your Highness – by which point Franco had added a Yale literature Ph.D. to his list of goals – “he’d fly out on a Friday to take a test, then fly back the next day, listening to taped lectures in the makeup chair in the morning.”
A prominent actress who worked on a 2012 movie with Franco says that, despite her initial dubiousness, she grew accustomed to the sight of “James on set at 5 a.m., writing essays.” She tells me that the real question when it comes to Franco “isn’t whether or not he’s legit. He’s legit. It’s whether or not he’s insane.”
James Franco traces his drive to his childhood. He grew up in Palo Alto, California, the son of a children’s-book-author mom and a dad who worked in telecommunications. “My parents met in an art class at Stanford, but my dad graduated as a math major, then he went into business,” Franco recalls. (He has two younger brothers – Tom, an artist living in Berkeley, and Dave, a rising movie star in his own right.) “My father taught me difficult math at an early age. I was in the, like, top AP calculus class when I was a junior. I tested out of all the math classes in college. I think I get a lot from my dad, because he worked in Silicon Valley, but he always had these side projects. He would do math problems that would take years to figure out. And he’d do these weird science experiments in our backyard; they were like alchemy, in a way – he had this theory that there was gold running through the rivers, and if he figured out how to collect it, he could put it together. He never figured it out, but I remember all these little Tupperware buckets of river water in our backyard, with strainers in them, and they were his experiments. We weren’t allowed to talk about it back then, but he died” – of a heart attack, in 2011 – “so now I can.”
Franco musters a wistful sort of grin. “He would do all these things, and I can see myself in that – that need to do a lot.” Franco had what he’s characterized as a period of angsty, adolescent rebellion (doing graffiti, crashing at least one car), but he remains close to his family today – casting Dave in projects, making regular trips to the Bay Area to see his mother and Tom.
Franco began performing in plays toward the end of high school, and after a year studying English at UCLA, he dropped out to pursue an acting career full time. He had a research-intensive methodology from the jump: “After we did the pilot for Freaks and Geeks, I was sitting in my office one day,” recalls Paul Feig, “and I get a call. It’s Franco, and he’s at my old high school, in Michigan, doing research! On my community, on my school. He puts one of my old teachers on the phone. How often do you meet someone that dedicated?” For the little-seen World War I action-drama Flyboys, he went so far as to earn a pilot’s license. (“Then, because of insurance, I couldn’t actually fly the plane,” he says, still sounding bummed.)
By Franco’s own telling, though, he wasn’t always the most enjoyable guy to share a set with. During Freaks, it often irked him when he wasn’t the center of attention in a scene – so he’d do eye-catching stuff in the background. He could be difficult in other ways: “I’d been trained in acting school to think that there were no actors’ directors anymore,” he tells me. “That the Elia Kazans and Billy Wilders and John Fords were gone, and nobody understood acting anymore. I was taught that you have to fight for your performance. So if a director didn’t like what I was doing, or asked me to do it differently, I rebelled, and the director would be unhappy, I’d be unhappy, and neither of us got what we wanted.”
“I was on General Hospital at the same time I was nominated for an Oscar, and I realized there are things you can do on a soap that you can’t do anywhere else.”
Pineapple Express in 2008 was a turning point. “What I’d been doing before wasn’t working,” he says. “It was making the people I work with miserable, it was making me miserable. I realized, ‘OK, I’m gonna go with the flow. These are people that I trust, they’re the funniest people around, and I’m only gonna be better if I just go with what they’re doing.’ And then I realized that’s how I should do everything.” Rogen praises Franco’s willingness to give himself over to a performance: “He just dives in headfirst. There’s a line in Pineapple Express where he goes, ‘It’s like God’s vagina,’ after smelling some weed. We’d done a take, and I was talking behind the monitors, like, ‘It would be funny if I said, “It smells like God’s vagina,” but that’s probably too far.’ Unbeknownst to me, James overheard that, and he just said it in the next take. And that’s one of the biggest jokes in the movie. It’s the quintessential Franco move: There will be something we’re joking around about, and he’ll actually do it.”
This connects to a winningly sly sense in which, even when Franco is in a dramatic role, he doesn’t always play it 100 percent straight – he brings a subtle wryness and winking fun to such jobs, tweaking the broodingly intense, Brando-esque model of Great Acting with a faint but palpable spirit of postmodern prankishness. At times he can seem like a movie star operating within quotation marks of his own making. Franco says he thrills to material that invites such meta-level playfulness, pointing to 11.22.63, where his time-traveling protagonist assumes a new identity in the Sixties: “He’s playing a role,” Franco says of his character. “He’s essentially doing what I’d have to do if I was just doing a straight period piece – behave a certain way to fit in. I loved that, because this outsider character becomes a commentator on the period. He stops and notices all the things that are now peculiar to our eyes from that time. It takes some of the piss, some of the earnestness, out of that world – and it makes it plain more entertaining.”
Watch the trailer to Franco’s latest show, Hulu’s 11.22.63.
Despite Franco’s feverish devotion to passion projects, none of his art exhibits, works of fiction or directorial attempts have yet been a resounding success critically, much less commercially. He says that the latter, at least, doesn’t bother him: “I know that if I direct an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, about a necrophiliac” – as he did a few years ago – “a lot of people aren’t going to see it. But it’s a fucking dream of mine.” Danny Boyle, who directed him in 127 Hours, says, “He doesn’t want to limit himself – you know that saying, ‘The genius is in the choices’? That’s not how he thinks. It’s ‘You choose – watch what you want and see what you think.'”
When I ask Franco whether he could ever imagine devoting several years to a single project, he shakes his head. “The problem with doing a movie every two or three years is (A) you don’t get to work as much, and I love working, and (B) so much pressure is then put on that project.” He says he rejects “the tacit hierarchies and rules about the kinds of projects that build a great career. Like, I was on General Hospital at the same time I was nominated for an Oscar, and I realized there are things you can do on a soap that you can’t do anywhere else.”
Chief among Franco’s artistic preoccupations is homosexuality, which he’s explored in project after project, such as a biopic he directed and starred in of Hart Crane, the tortured gay 1920s-era poet, or a 2013 film – called Interior. Leather Bar. – inspired by William Friedkin’s movie Cruising, about a killer preying on the gay underground of 1970s Manhattan. “When I was studying at NYU, I took classes in critical studies, and one of my favorites was on queer cinema,” Franco says, explaining his fascination with queer art. “We’ve told the straight, heteronormative stories ad nauseam by now, in our movies, our shows, our commercials – everywhere. I think it’s healthy to make work that disrupts and questions that, and shows alternative narratives. That’s what an artist should do.
Unsurprisingly, Franco’s own sexuality has become the object of rumor. Last spring, he clarified things somewhat, writing in a magazine article, “I’m gay in my art and straight in my life,” adding coyly, “I’m also gay in my life up to the point of intercourse.” But the line separating art from life can grow porous, as on Franco’s Instagram, where he’s posted numerous homoerotic shots of himself – bare-chested in an exercise room, his arm slung around an oiled-up actor in bikini briefs, or looking buff while getting his nipples shaved in a hotel room. Franco tells me he’s approached Instagram, at times, as “a way of finding out what boundaries are and pressing buttons.”
Gossip about his sexuality took a nasty turn in 2008, when Gawker began a series of posts, riffing on a Page Six blind item, postulating that Franco had sexually assaulted a man; the posts repeatedly referred to Franco as a “Gay Rapist.” (The posts’ author has since disavowed them.) “Gawker picked it up, and other sites picked it up, and we said, ‘You know, you should take it down,'” Franco recalls, shifting his weight a bit uncomfortably at the memory. “And Gawker said, ‘Well, if you have a response, we’re happy to print it.’ It felt like, if I do a lawsuit, it’s just gonna give it more attention.” So instead, Franco deviated fascinatingly from the standard celebrity-PR playbook: He posted faux-paparazzi pictures on Instagram featuring him making out with some blurry-faced hunk, and started developing a film project with an artist friend, the working title of which was GR – for gay rapist – in an attempt “to use this false accusation as material,” Franco says. (GR was eventually abandoned, but it did partially inspire his head-spinning General Hospital character, an artist named Franco who may or may not have been a murderer.)
“He doesn’t want to limit himself – you know that saying, ‘The genius is in the choices’? That’s not how he thinks. It’s ‘You choose – watch what you want and see what you think.'”—127 Hours director Danny Boyle
In this way, Franco protected his privacy by making an elaborate, anarchic pantomime of sacrificing it. Then, as now, little is known about Franco’s private life. He had a girlfriend for “four or five years” – actress Ahna O’Reilly – but “she broke up with me,” Franco says. “There were a lot of reasons, but one was that I was so busy. She was living here, and I moved to New York to go to school, did two years of school, then signed up for more school and she was just like, ‘Dude.’ I realized that, at least right now, it’s hard for me to be in a relationship. I can’t devote the time it deserves – especially with someone like her. She was my love. So for a while I avoided relationships like that.” I ask him if this is a coded way of saying that he has a lot of fun casual sex instead. “Nooo … I don’t want to say that,” he replies. “I just haven’t had that sort of live-in relationship in a long time.”
Franco has said that one upside of the sexuality rumors surrounding him was that they functioned, counterintuitively, as a “shield.” He reiterates this now: “One of the nice things about all that speculation” about whether or not he’s gay, he says, eager to change the subject, “is that it’s a smokescreen” – a means, of sorts, for him to hide out in plain sight.
Franco owns a mini-compound in Silver Lake, but he’s living out of a downtown hotel for now. “There are too many distractions at my place,” he says. (Franco’s home reportedly doubles as a makeshift production office, occasional shooting location and crash pad for assorted friends and collaborators.) Late one night, after he’d finished on the Why Him? set, I meet him for dinner in his hotel’s lobby restaurant. Franco has said he’s been drug-free since high school, which was when he last smoked pot; caffeine, instead, is his vice, and he settles down at our table with his own steaming thermos and then orders an Americano for good measure.
He says the hotel gave him a discount because he’s staying here for four months while he attends to various jobs. In addition to novel-writing, class-teaching and movie-shooting, he’s been painting in his room – he recently completed a series of hummingbird portraits, he says, and started making canvases based on old school yearbooks. Which is to say that, even in his room, after a day of work, the guy just works more. Of Franco’s allergy to idle downtime, Rogen says, “I’ll go to the beach and fuck off for the weekend and do nothing. I’ll watch a season of Boardwalk Empire for a whole day. He doesn’t do that. He never does that. He’ll be like, ‘Come on, Seth, get your shit together.'”
When I tell Franco that it seems he has a constitutional aversion to kicking it, he laughingly says, “I kick it sometimes…” and notes, for instance, that he likes catching movies at the Cinefamily, an art-house theater on Fairfax. When he does party, it’s memorable: Evan Goldberg, Rogen’s creative partner, recalls that on Halloween 2013, during the making of The Interview in Vancouver, Franco ventured out on the town, distributed disposable cameras, then “danced for four hours at a club, wearing this weird Carnival mask the whole time, so no one could tell who he was.” (Of The Interview, which depicted the killing of Kim Jong-un, and which had its theatrical release canceled in the wake of the Sony data hack and perceived threats of North Korean retaliation, Franco says, “I truly believe it’s an amazing comedy, and people can’t really see it for what it is because of everything that surrounded it.”) But occasional masked-nights-out notwithstanding, Franco’s favorite form of socializing is clearly collaboration. Rogen says, “James would rather make a movie with me than go to Hawaii with me for a week.”
Of all the projects Franco’s juggling right now, the one he’s got the highest hopes for is The Disaster Artist, which he directed and thinks might satisfy his outré obsessions and make some money at the box office, too. “It’s the perfect sweet spot of something artistically interesting to me that could also be kind of commercial,” he says. It dramatizes the making of The Room, a bizarre 2003 cult film that has become a staple of the so-bad-it’s-good midnight-movie circuit. Franco stars as Tommy Wiseau, the film’s quixotic, oddball auteur; Dave Franco and Rogen are in it too, reportedly along with Alison Brie, Zac Efron and Kate Upton. “It isn’t about the making of the worst movie ever – it’s about people chasing the American dream,” says Goldberg, whose production company with Rogen, Point Grey, is making the film. Franco says, “It’s the blending of my two worlds.”
It seems like Franco’s hitting a certain stride – that, in 2016, all his restless experimentation will yield some truly memorable work. He says the positive reception to 11.22.63 has been heartening, and he’s excited for his next big television project, The Deuce, with David Simon. Franco explains that “a few years ago David asked me to do Show Me a Hero” – Simon’s last HBO program, but Franco passed, and the role went to Oscar Isaac. They stayed in touch, however, and on the condition that he could direct a few episodes, Franco says, they finally got The Deuce into motion. “There’s sort of a new direction for my career,” he says.
We’ve been talking for a few hours when he finally takes his thermos and stands up from our table. It’s past midnight. He heads to the elevators and ascends to his room on the seventh floor – maybe to sleep, maybe to read, maybe to write, or maybe something else entirely. Those hummingbirds aren’t going to paint themselves.