The actor/artist/writer/director talks for four hours about his process; young writer takes notes:
Around the middle of October, I received an e-mail at my job with the subject line “Actors Studio/James Franco.” What follows is a wrap-up of the notes I took at a live taping of Inside The Actors’ Studio with James Franco.
My main takeaway is that James Franco is tireless. He walks with an awkward gait, and constantly drinks coffee, or tea, or whatever was in his mug. When asked questions, he pauses for long periods of time, like he either can’t remember what the answer is, or he’s thinking very hard about what he wants to say. At the beginning of the interview, James Lipton asked him what his parents do for a living and Franco looked into the audience, where his younger brother Dave was sitting, and with a quizzical look on his face, said, “That’s a good question. Dave? What do our parents do?” This set the tone for the evening.
James Franco just never seemed to run out of energy. He confessed that he “had a lot of issues growing up,” but didn’t really extrapolate on what those issues were. Years before he starred in a Gucci fragrance campaign (which he then hilariously mocked for Funny Or Die), he stole cologne and re-bottled it to sell to kids at school. He told Lipton that once, as a prank, he bottled up his own urine and sold that. Lipton quipped, “Just think how much money someone could get for that on eBay!” And the battle of which James could be wittier continued.
He talked a lot about the path he took to get to where he is now. As a high school student, he wanted to be an actor but didn’t think he could – he said he thought he “missed his chance” to act, that the actors he idolized were “made that way” as children. He went to UCLA for a year, then dropped out to pursue acting full-time after a teacher, Robert Carnegie, told Franco he could “pay him back later” for acting classes. He got choked up when he talked about that. He worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru for a spell, where he practiced accents on patrons and got into fights with Italians in cars. He said he learned then that artists should “take a chance” on themselves.
When he worked on James Dean, he said he went to “weird extremes,” telling everyone in his life, including girlfriend Marla Sokoloff, that he wasn’t speaking to them until filming was over. He said he doesn’t believe in “getting in the way of other actors’ processes.” For the film Sonny, in which he played a prostitute, he went to New Orleans strip clubs and met up with sex workers for research, once even going home with a male prostitute and his John, who was so “coked up” he didn’t notice that Franco sat in the corner and watched as they carried out their transaction.
He talked a bit about a dark period he went through, after the Spiderman movies and Tristan + Isolde, when he was truly miserable and hated the work he was doing. He finally realized that the problem was “coming from him,” not from anyone else, that he must take “full responsibility for his work.” He signed up for several graduate programs (he infamously attended NYU’s Tisch School, Columbia University, Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College simultaneously) because it was a way for him “to take other interests seriously.” He said he got his sense of “self-worth from performances,” and school was a “private world where accomplishments weren’t based on outside sources.” He said, rightfully I think, that the secret key to getting out of a dark period was to help other people, just to get out of your own mind.
He said he has learned that film is essentially “a director’s medium,” that his job as an actor is to “serve the vision of the director.” He responded to criticisms of his book of short stories, Palo Alto, that all of his characters had the same voice: “So what? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s my world!” He spoke at length about his stint on General Hospital, raving about soap operas as the only artistic medium that allows you to “watch an epic in real time.”
James Franco advised the young actors in the room: “don’t be in a movie you wouldn’t go see.” He amended this by telling the story of his joining the cast of Eat, Pray, Love. He said he still hadn’t seen the movie, but you don’t say no to Julia Roberts. He also advised that “if you want to do something artistic, you’re gonna have opposition – know and be prepared to work very hard for it.” He said, if you’re obsessed with something, it equals talent of a certain level – if you have a commitment that makes you want to work that hard at something, you have a gift. He said, “I believe in doing a lot of work.”
He said the key to successful writing was relaxing, letting go, not trying for perfection. “Do the research,” James Franco said. “Then let it filter through.”