Lunch with the FT: James Franco
By Peter Aspden
Few A-listers divide opinion as much as the actor/writer/scholar and artist. Peter Aspden catches him in Berlin to hear why being a movie star just isn’t enough
It is bitterly cold in Berlin and there is a soft snowfall on the Karl-Marx-Allee, a broad avenue lined with luxury apartment blocks that were the reward for devotion to the communist cause in the former German Democratic Republic. Like any city space that has been overtaken by history, it is turning into a fashionable art district. I meet James Franco inside the gallery Peres Projects, which is housing his latest exhibition Gay Town. We are introduced and leave the gallery to take an early lunch at a restaurant just up the road.
“I have some students with me from LA,” says Franco chummily. “Or do you want this to be super-private?” The question throws me slightly and, much as I want Lunch with the FT to evolve into a free-flowing Californian media studies seminar group, I think it best to stick with tradition. “Whatever you want,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder and smiling broadly.
The James Franco smile, it cannot be denied, is a thing of wonder. It has made him a star. A proper Hollywood star, who makes multimillion-dollar-grossing movies, who gets to host the Oscars with Anne Hathaway, and who has to deal with the ferocious gossip-mongering of the internet age. Franco is a distinguished acting talent – his bloody excavations into a forearm in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours earned him his own Oscar nomination and a clutch of awards – but it is that smile that has catapulted him into the thinner air of stellar celebrity.
But Franco, 34, is not just an actor. He is also an artist, a writer and a scholar. Indeed, depending on your point of view, he is either the most erudite and cleverly subversive commentator on the relationship between fame and art since Andy Warhol or a pretentious, self-referential fraud. Critics can be savage – the Hollywood Reporter has described him as “a tirelessly medium-hopping Hollywood Rorschach blot” – but that in itself serves as further fuel for Franco’s work.
Some of his feelings about celebrity form the subject of Gay Town. The exhibition is a sprawling, infernal mess. Mixed media from an evidently mixed-up mind: videos, printed rugs, neon signs, many of them profane, all questioning the motives of a culture that simultaneously values and trashes those to whom it assigns celebrity status. A recurring image is one of a crudely-drawn Spider-Man figure, with the words “Fuck Spider-Man” scrawled across it. (Franco featured in all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, as the hero’s friend-nemesis Harry Osborn, aka the New Goblin.)
The show’s title is a reference to speculation on Franco’s sexual preferences – just one of the preoccupations of the gossip-mongers, fuelled by some of the actor’s professional choices: he played alongside Sean Penn as gay politician Harvey Milk’s lover in the biopic Milk (2008), the gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl (2010) and has just co-directed and brought to the Berlin Film Festival Interior. Leather Bar, a sexually explicit reimagining of some “lost” scenes from Cruising, William Friedkin’s infamous 1980 gay police thriller starring Al Pacino.
We are a long way from that degenerate world as we take our seats in Henselmann, a bright and empty café-restaurant with cheery yellow seats, named after the architect who designed several of the local buildings. It is not yet noon, so the specials are not on, and the soup...
and the soup – “potatoes with beef and capers” – sounds a little weird, so we both settle on vegetarian quiche with salad.
Franco is wearing a green checked shirt, a short black coat and jeans. I am a little zonked, I say, having just arrived on an early flight from London. “I’ve just flown in from LA,” he out-zonks me instantly. “But I’m used to it.” We both order cappuccinos.
So, Gay Town: it looks like a crazy place, I say. Franco takes a deep breath and explains, in a long but carefully measured answer, how he came to the subject of his art, which is essentially himself. “It happened about six or seven years ago, when I went back to college to study English literature and art, and I wanted to take those activities as seriously as I took my acting.
“At first I thought that I couldn’t involve my acting in my art; people wouldn’t take me seriously – they would say it wasn’t a good subject. But then I did this project called Erased James Franco (2009) that was loosely based on Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” [drawing], where we collected all this stuff from my previous film performances and used it as raw material. It was a very interesting piece.
“And that showed me that all this stuff I do with film and my public persona is actually great material for the other work I want to do. A lot of other artists – Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, Douglas Gordon – look at the film and performance world and filter it through their own work. But here I am, in this unique position, with a foot in each world. And it is a great subject.”
Smiles and piercing dark eyes aside, this is the kind of remark that determines whether you love or hate Franco. Several of the works in Gay Town consist of articles written about him, with his own observations scrawled none too delicately around them. The show is quite dark, I say. “I guess you could say the themes are dark. In other ways, they aren’t. I’m just trying to engage people in the way we live now, the way we interact with each other and the way images are redistributed and appropriated.”
Lunch with the FT: the book
The FT at 125: As part of celebrations to mark the Financial Times’ 125th anniversary this year, Penguin is publishing Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews, which includes encounters with world figures from Angela Merkel to Zaha Hadid. The book is available from March 14 as hardback and ebook. For more on the anniversary, visit www.ft.com/125
What about poor Spider-Man? Those works seem angry.
There is a long pause.
“It’s not anger at any person or situation. Sam Raimi directed me in Spider-Man, and I have just done Oz [The Great and Powerful] with him. Those paintings are about poking holes in certain façades. I know I am part of this machinery that is so huge, and I’m not complaining, but we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these movies so that they are beautiful, they transport people, they are an amazing art form.
“But they do create these weird polished surfaces that are very difficult to get underneath. And I get sucked into all that. So these pictures are a way of poking through that.” I say that I found them funny. “Well, I love to bring humour into my work,” he says. “Because comedy is not a huge part of the art world. And big-business film takes itself very seriously.”
Our quiches arrive and they prove to be tastier than they look. Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” starts to play in the background – an ominous portent – but Franco is in a relaxed, giving mood. Did he find it difficult to compartmentalise his complicated life and multilayered work?
He laughs. “I did. When I was only an actor, I didn’t want things to get out. I was told to be like [Jack] Nicholson or Al Pacino: they didn’t do the talk shows so the
[quote]And then I wanted actual sex on screen. But I was scared of doing it. I had never directed real sex.” So Franco decided to join forces with Travis Mathews, a gay art-porn director. “He comes from queer cinema and lives that gay lifestyle, and I don’t. It was a good collaboration.”
Why does he have to emphasize this in every single interview?
Apologies for bumping my own thread; I thought the few DLers who aren't yet tired of Franco might be interested.
[quote]Why does he have to emphasize this in every single interview?
Because he's a fake.
Speaking of the FT, they have two writers that I swear post here: Tyler Brule and David Tang.
Both are hysterically bitchy and catty. (Tang is supposedly married to a woman though every word out of his mouth screams 'vengeful queen').
Brule wrote a thousand words a year or so ago on how offended he was that his seatmate on a plane was dressed in track pants and not the finest cotton or silk.
Tang dislikes EVERYTHING.
Two bigger bitches unlikely to be found.....
James is an attention whore, but he's still more interesting than most actors in Hollywood.
Did you see him on the cover of Details magazine? There's this blurb that comes after a question about his sexuality (or something; I haven't read the full interview yet):
"One of my professors at Yale ...had been a 19th-century literature scholar. But as soon as he brought his queer life into that world, it gave him this energy and a realization: It wasn't about being gay but about being different. And that gave me a feeling of enormous permission."
permission to do . . . ?
He talks about the same shit in EVERY interview.
The hater in me thinks that he'll produce a lot of stuff and none of it will be of consequence.
[quote]He talks about the same shit in EVERY interview.
Now he has some new shit to talk about since he got involved with the Daytona 500 NASCAR race. That's so butch!!!!!