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...