We probably couldn’t have a better cover person for our Artist Issue than James Franco. His entire career and way of life is practically synonymous with artistry. Franco’s career is filled with livelihood risking endeavors. He has made several career moves that have baffled the Hollywood industry. Things like appearing on the soap opera General Hospital and hosting the Academy Awards have left many unsure of his career intentions. One thing is quite certain—there is no challenge Franco won’t tackle if it means he can experience brand new forms of expression. When it comes to his art, he is truly fearless.
There are very few positions held in Hollywood that are more celebrated and coveted than that of the leading man. The majority of films made are constructed around its top billed male actor. The job comes with plenty of wealth and fame, but it is also straddled with a tremendous amount of expectation. The film studios invest a lot in their male stars and they demand a lot in return. Obviously he must give a professional performance, but there is also a lot of thought put into his overall career path. The movie executives, as well as the film going public, have a lot of preconceived notions of what being a leading man truly means.
Actor James Franco has all the traits associated with Hollywood’s elite—good looks, plenty of charm and immense talent. He has also demonstrated a tremendous amount of bravery in terms of the choices he’s made in regards to his career. The star is a lot more than just an actor. The Academy Award Nominated performer is also an accomplished director, author and visual artist.
How is he able to balance so many different interests and crafts? He explained his mindset on the subject at a Q&A session for his latest book, A California Childhood. “I’m not scared to try new things because I don’t need it to be the best. Most of the value for me comes from the attempt and the authenticity of the attempt,” Franco says to an audience of fans.
The Q&A session took place at Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, Ca. The bookstore is just outside of Franco’s hometown of Palo Alto. A California Childhood is a memoir that covers the artist’s formative years. The manuscript toys with convention in regard to how a book memoir is presented and written. It utilizes personal snapshots, full color paintings by Franco himself and personal effects; like notes and report cards. All of these different creative forces in the book are brought together to serve one goal for the artist. “They are all things that are inspired by my youth. I see it as a kaleidoscope of work.”
This approach to his book may be unconventional, but it is very similar to how the acclaimed thespian tackles his film projects. “When I act in a film like Oz the Great and Powerful; I don’t want to break the form. The audience expects to be pulled into a fantastical world and forget they are in a dark room. Other film projects I do…outside of mainstream commercial cinema…I want the film to become a sculpture or poem. I want the audience to be aware of the form.”
It’s quite obvious when you hear Franco speak that he takes his work extremely serious. His constant need to grind and produce could be viewed as compulsive, but Franco doesn’t see himself as a workaholic. “It’s what I enjoy in life…it’s what gives me meaning. My work is the same as what I love. I’m most content when I’m engaged in the things I’m interested in,” Franco tells me during a phone interview.
No matter what endeavors Franco takes on in the future, he will probably always be first labeled an actor. He made his first major splash in show business with the cult favorite television show, Freaks and Geeks. The comedy had a hard time attracting viewers when it originally aired but has grown in stature since it was cancelled in 2000. Only 18 episodes were made despite the immense talent that worked on the program. Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr and other current notables appeared with Franco on the short-lived ensemble program. Like Franco, much of the troupe received stardom long after the show had ended. Behind the camera: Paul Feig, Mike White and Judd Apatow helped to steer Freaks and Geeks into a modern classic. Like the cast, the writers and directors for the show achieved their greatest level of success after the program’s cancellation.
“Because it was an early job for me…I didn’t realize how unique the circumstances were. We had so many talented people in different positions on that show. It was a great experience; I just didn’t know every job wouldn’t be that way. When the show was cancelled…I realized Freak and Geeks was pretty incredible,” Franco reflects.
He has continued to work with actor Seth Rogen and writer/director/producer Judd Apatow post Freak and Geeks. Franco teamed up with Rogen and Apatow for 2008’s Pineapple Express. Franco’s portrayal of the loveable stoner Saul Silver in the action comedy is arguably his most recognizable character. He recently teamed up with Rogen again for the comedy This is the End. “We have tried to work together again over the years because we realize we work really well together,” Franco says in regards to the Freaks and Geeks crew.
While his role in Pineapple Express might be audience’s favorite of his filmography, Franco actually feels most proud of a recent performance that may surprise many of his supporters. “I was in a movie…Spring Breakers…I played a character [named] Alien. He was a pretty wild character. I couldn’t have created this character without the tremendous amount of help I got from the film’s director. On the surface, the character went very far away from who I am in life. However, I feel there is still something emotionally true about the character. I was very happy about that.”
For James, his performance in Spring Breakers may be the most satisfying aspect of his acting career. However, the art of acting is not what Franco pulls the most gratification from. “Each endeavor has its own purpose. The one I get the most satisfaction from is film directing. It’s so collaborative. I get to bring all my friends and collaborators on board. That’s the most satisfying for me.”
Franco is happy with his directing skills but feels there is room to grow. “I’m pretty happy with what I have been able to do in the projects I have done. There are bigger stories I would like to take on as a director. That would introduce new challenges. But, I am very happy with the movies I have directed.”
James Franco is a lot more than just a Hollywood leading man—he is a true artist that is constantly branching out and experimenting. He is a shining example of great success not having to stunt art. His advice for other artists who may want to follow in his footsteps is quite simple.
“It’s a weird world. It’s not always a fair thing. But, if you really want to do it, you will do it. If you want to be an artist you have to be responsible for yourself. The results—the way your art is received—is mostly out of your hands. If you really want to do it, find the time and means to do what you want to do.”