James Franco rubbed his eyes and downed coffee during a break from his intense preparation for his performance-art project at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Pacific Design Center recently. His Gucci cologne-endorsing face sports some stubble, his lanky frame lounges in a chair, but Franco is amazingly good-natured and friendly for someone who appeared to be working around the clock. If his energy had temporarily flagged, the 32-year-old Franco had reason: His multifaceted endeavors are enough to make anyone feel like a slacker.
Franco’s pop-culture turns have included Harry Osborn in the wildly popular “Spider-Man” franchise; a lazy pot dealer in “Pineapple Express,” which earned him a Golden Globe nomination; and Sean Penn’s gay lover in “Milk,” for which he won an Independent Spirit Award. He stars opposite Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love,” opening later this summer, and will play the (human) lead in the “Planet of the Apes” prequel, “Rise of the Apes,” slated for 2011.
In between, Franco has quietly earned master’s degrees in English and film studies from Brooklyn College and New York University, and in the fall he will enter a doctoral program, on the same subjects, at Yale.
Meanwhile, the edgy collection of short stories he wrote, “Palo Alto,” inspired by his childhood in that city, will be published this fall by Scribner; his first solo art show just opened at Manhattan’s Clocktower Gallery; and recently Franco was at MOCA preparing for his most ambitious project of all — a performance art piece that Salon.com playfully dubbed “the WTF celebrity side project of the year.”
Perking up over the coffee and conversation, Franco admitted that the project is a bit difficult to explain. Prompted by his work with the artist Carter, with whom he made an ironically self-referential film, “Erased James Franco,” the actor hoped to experiment further with the concept of his own celebrity. And so he signed on to play a homicidal performance artist, also named Franco, on the ABC soap opera “General Hospital,” appearing in one story arc earlier this year. From June 30 on, he will appear in a number of other episodes, culminating in a July 22 show in which the character Franco attempts to create art from his own death during a fictional exhibition at MOCA. The sequence was shot at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center branch, with the museum’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch, playing himself. In several months, MOCA and Deitch will screen an experimental film the actor is now making about the experience.
“Andy Warhol opened the door for this, when he famously had a role on ‘Love Boat,’ and I remember everyone I knew in the art world rushed home to tune in and see him on the show,” Deitch said at the MOCA/“General Hospital” shoot. “That was one of the first examples of the artist not just getting his inspiration from pop culture, but actually inserting himself into pop culture. And James is going way beyond that. Andy only dreamed of this.”
“My intention is to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, because as an actor in commercial narrative films, I will be perceived as someone who doesn’t belong in the very stylized world of soap opera,” Franco explained. “But I’m not making fun of soap operas. It’s a very conscious decision to go on a show that people might often perceive as ‘beneath’ feature films or prime-time television — and to, hopefully, make people look at it differently.
“I also like the idea of a blending of worlds,” he added. It’s a mixing of my [real] self as James Franco with that character named Franco; of the art world with the soap opera world; and even a blending of my life with my real mother, Betsy Franco, who plays my mother on the show.”
The actor, in person, is a blending of seemingly contradictory elements. During the filming of the July 22 episode, he appeared to be the dashing Hollywood A-lister, with his tuxedo and slicked-back hair; in an interview, he is more reminiscent of a college buddy with whom you’d shoot the intellectual breeze late into the night.
Intellectual and artistic pursuits are in his blood. His Jewish maternal grandparents own an art gallery in Cleveland; his parents became acquainted in a drawing class at Stanford University. And yes, they were concerned when he dropped out of UCLA for a time to pursue acting — not because of the creative pursuit, but because education is a primary value in the family, Betsy Franco said.
But Franco always was a voracious reader. In fact, studying the Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, helped him to overcome a difficult period in high school when he was arrested for tagging. “He just jumped head first into his studies,” Betsy Franco recalled of that time. “He turned around 180 degrees.”
When Franco got his first Hollywood break, in TV’s “Freaks and Geeks,” producer Judd Apatow used to tease him for reading Proust on the set. “Judd kept asking me, ‘Why are you reading that?’ ” Franco recalled with a laugh. He did eventually go back to UCLA — unlike many other successful actors of his generation who drop out and stay out. “I love to learn,” he explained, with a shrug.
But there is one area of learning that Franco has yet to pursue.
“Sadly, I didn’t have much of a Jewish upbringing, and I feel deprived,” he said. “I had a lot of Jewish friends, and so I went to plenty of bar and bat mitzvahs, but I never went to Hebrew school. I love education and, looking back, it’s like my friends had this whole other education that I didn’t have. And it’s a lot of subjects that now I’m very interested in. At UCLA, I took a whole series of classes on the Bible and the Bible as literature, and when I would talk to Jewish friends about what I was learning in class, they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I learned that in Hebrew school.’ So I wish I had been exposed to it much earlier.”
In 2009, when Franco was roasted as the Harvard Hasty Pudding Man of the Year, the festivities included a faux comedic bar mitzvah. “I found that oddly touching. I do really want to have a bar mitzvah, and the only thing preventing that right now is just the time I would need to prepare,” Franco said, referring to the time
constraints imposed by the MOCA project — which has been both praised and trashed in the blogosphere.
While he is passionate about the endeavor, he understands that some may view it as pretentious. “I’m sure some people are thinking, ‘Oh, God, please — is he really asking, “What is art?” He should be horse-whipped for asking that.’ But on another level, it’s still a question that is very important to be asked. ... A project like this can get people talking and, at the very least, prompt them to come up with their own definition. As banal as the question may sound, I think it’s still valid.”