"That’s what you call it?” says James Franco, quizzically. “‘Sleeping rough’, huh? Is that how you say it in England?” He repeats the phrase, testing how it sounds, and after a deathly pause he’s finally ready to tell ShortList about the time he prepared for a role as a homeless kid in gritty 2002 drama City By The Sea by actually spending a weekend on the streets.
This brief exchange tells you a fair bit about the 33-year-old actor. There’s the intense commitment to his craft that saw him earn an Oscar nomination this year for 127 Hours. The inquisitive nature that’s led to him exploring countless other projects including, most recently, an English PhD at Yale. And the long, thoughtful silences that (on more than one heart-stopping occasion) genuinely convince us that the transatlantic phone line has conked out.
So he’s not your average A-lister. But as he saddles up for simian blockbuster Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, surely he can’t take himself too seriously?
Were you a fan of the original Planet Of The Apes?
Well, I was certainly aware of it, but I wasn’t a huge fan when I was younger. Although I was always very intrigued by the idea.
You’re famed for method acting. Did you spend any time with real apes for this new film?
My character [pictured above right] isn’t necessarily an ape specialist — he’s a scientist, so I didn’t have to be, like, Jane Goodall [the world’s foremost chimpanzee specialist]. But I did watch a great documentary about an intelligent ape called Koko. Honestly, though, Andy Serkis [who plays central ape Caesar, pictured inset] is such a magnificent performer that I didn’t need to. Even in these weird grey pyjamas, with wires all over, dots on his face and a camera on his head, he was so convincing that I couldn’t help but be pulled into the imaginary circumstance and react like he was a real ape. He made you forget all the apparati or apparatuses or however you say multiple apparatus [laughs], so you’d react to him like he was a real ape who happened to have the best acting instincts around.
Do you think you’re calming down in terms of extreme role research?
I don’t think I’m calming down but I think I’m smarter about it now. I still do whatever research I believe is necessary, but when I was a younger actor I was doing a lot of that stuff on my own, almost out of a need to prove myself. It was cool to say, “I’ve slept on the streets for this role,” whether it helped or not. But I wasn’t working closely with my directors so I’d just go off and do a bunch of preparation that wasn’t necessarily in line with the movie. I now believe in working closely with directors, especially now I’m directing.
If you did it too much you’d be dealing weed one week and hacking your arm off the next…
[Laughs] Exactly. For 127 Hours I prepared a lot. I went to rock-climbing gyms and I lost a lot of weight. I did everything necessary but although I needed to know some stuff about rock climbing, I didn’t need to go and climb a 14,000ft peak because I didn’t do that in the movie. I didn’t think that would help me much. Whereas when I was younger I might have been, like, “OK, I have to go climb K2.”
What’s your take on the abundance of sequels, prequels and remakes at the moment?
It is a weird phenomenon, isn’t it? I guess there’s the tradition of the theatre where everybody would do their version of Hamlet and everybody would do their King Lear and that kind of thing. It’s a little different with movies because people like to think that films last forever, but within just 10 years you already have a new Spider-Man franchise. It’s weird what that might do to the original Spider-Man films…
How do you feel about the new Amazing Spider-Man?
I had a great time on the Spider-Man films and Tobey [Maguire], Kirsten [Dunst] and Sam Raimi [the series’ director] have all become lifelong friends. My role in those films was not my favourite but I’m OK with the new one. The thing is, the technology is advancing so fast that often the new renditions sell themselves as having the cutting-edge technology. What early versions couldn’t do even five or 10 years ago, these ones can — whether that’s exciting new effects or whatever. Sometimes it’s about the new actors, but if you think about the first Batman films, those performances are great. You’ll always remember Jack Nicholson as The Joker regardless of what new technology comes along.
You’re studying English, writing fiction, painting, directing and making an album. Ever worry about over-doing it?
No, I do a lot, but in some ways… The way the stuff is presented might make it seem like it’s a bunch of different activities in a bunch of different areas, but a lot of these things I’m doing are connected. And I manage my time. I work on a lot of things but I work on them over a long time — years, sometimes. They have to come out at some point and then they coincide with other things so it looks like I’m everywhere.
Reassure us and the rest of mankind: are there any things you’re rubbish at?
[Laughs] Yeah, there are a lot of things. I don’t cook at all, and I’m only really OK at sports, but I haven’t participated in anything other than ping pong for quite a long time. And I’m not even very good at that. Honestly, there’s a lot.
Was there ever a time that you struggled to meet women?
The pattern used to be that girls would be interested in me, then they’d realise that I was a shy guy who was incapable of saying anything to them. I was more of a geek. I’m a little more confident now. As an actor, you have to talk to a lot of people. You’re kind of forced to talk, so I’ve learned to overcome that.
Have you got any secret guilty pleasures? Ever slob out in front of the TV?
I play a fair amount of Xbox. The only games I’ve played in the past year and a half are Grand Theft Auto IV and, in fact, when I was doing Apes, my friend and I were playing Red Dead Redemption a lot. Now I’m playing LA Noire. All of the [video game publisher] Rockstar games, really.
How else do you relax in your spare time? Ever indulge in any Pineapple Express-style refreshment?
No. Sh*t, is that what people do while they’re playing video games? Is that part of the Xbox experience? [Laughs]
So there’s no truth in the rumours that you were stoned while presenting this year’s Oscars?
No. That night I did heroin.
Just to take the edge off?
[Laughs] Yeah. I had a great time.
In all seriousness, do you regret hosting the Academy Awards?
No, I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it all. I had a great time and — I was actually just thinking about this on my ride home to do this interview — I’m glad I did it. I think it’s funny that people want to slam me for that because I don’t think it’s genuine. I don’t think people really care about the Oscar host, but it’s something that they feel they can go after me for, and they have. But they’re doing it for different reasons. Everybody knows it’s a weird show and nobody cares. What did I do that was so bad? I heard what they said was “low energy”. I mean, wow. I said those lines as well as I could.
Is it true that you weren’t a fan of Ricky Gervais’s hosting style at the Golden Globes?
Here’s the deal with Ricky: I think he’s really, really funny and a great comedian. He has a certain kind of harshness which I appreciate. But the thing is, [after the Globes] he said, “I’m not ashamed. Why should I feel bad about making fun of a bunch of millionaires?” True. He should do that. People in the movie business live very good lives and they should be made fun of every once in a while. But when it’s an event where you’ve been asked to host and it’s a celebration, it just doesn’t seem like the right context. He should do that kind of thing on his show. If he’s been asked to participate in something where he’s supposed to celebrate people, don’t bring that kind of humour in. It just doesn’t fit and it’s bad taste for me.
When we spoke to Danny McBride last year, he told us he gained quite a taste for Irish whiskey and Guinness while filming Your Highness in Northern Ireland. Did you indulge too?
I wish I could say that I indulged as much as Danny, but I can’t. I did go out in Belfast a bunch. The whole crew had a great, great time in Belfast and we actually met a whole bunch of locals and had weekly parties at various pubs and bars. It got to be really fun. It was almost the most fun I’ve had on a set away from home.
Finally, is it true that you used to work at McDonald’s? Earn many stars on your name badge?
[Laughs] I worked there a long time ago, when I was 18 or 19. I was going to UCLA to study English literature, but I was in LA and also had this desire to act. So I left college to go to acting school and my parents weren’t happy about that. Well, let’s just say they weren’t excited. So they said, “That’s fine, but if you want to pursue your artistic goals you should support yourself.” I had to get a job and all of the other actors were better waiters [laughs]. I have no horror stories. The worst a customer ever got from me was probably an oversalted French fry.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is at cinemas nationwide from 11 August; riseoftheplanetoftheapes.com
(Image: Rex Features)