Actor, painter and now pretend gangsta rapper: James Franco does it all. ShortList’s Joe Ellison pins down Hollywood’s busiest slacker
James Franco isn’t a man to be pigeon-holed. Having ventured down enough career paths to shame Homer Simpson, the actor, model, novelist, teacher and artist has just taken on his most outrageous film role to date. He’s barely recognisable as a tattooed, cornrowed and gold-toothed gangster-cum-rapper in Harmony Korine’s trippy indie thriller Spring Breakers. And, as ShortList discovered when Franco phones from Los Angeles, it’s just one of a plethora of projects the 34-year-old star has lined up. “It’s been a rough morning, but I’m on my way to see one of my graduate students act in their short film,“ he says with a languid drawl not a million miles away from his bong-toting character in Pineapple Express. But as we learn, he’s not particularly keen on being labelled as a stoner...
How did Spring Breakers come about?
Me and Harmony [Korine] had been speaking about doing something together for a year and a half prior to when we shot it, and during that time we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do, except that Harmony was interested in the spring break culture. And then he saw a photo – I don’t know where – of a few girls in ski masks, so that was really the key image that influenced the film.
How do you approach playing a gangsta rapper?
Alien was a bizarre guy to play. In the year before filming, Harmony sent me tons of character references, [ranging] from magazine photos and music videos to interviews with hip-hop performers. That was the groundwork. When he went scouting locations in St Petersburg, Florida, he found a lot of these guys who were into this local rap scene, and one of them was this white guy named Dangeruss, who I based my character on.
Did you meet Dangeruss?
As soon as I arrived, Harmony told me I had to see him, so I went over to his place to introduce myself and hear about his life. Now, he doesn’t have semi-automatic weapons on his wall like Alien, but he does have a double life outside of rap. I could see that came from growing up in hard circumstances, but there was a vulnerability to him, which is something he channels through music. He was a great model for me.
How did your own upbringing compare?
Completely different. I grew up in Palo Alto, California. It’s a nice area, close to Stanford University and also where Steve Jobs lived.
So gang shootings weren’t exactly prominent, then?
The closest I got was at a party in high school, when some local guys showed up playing at being gangsters. I remember everyone suddenly going out front because their rivals showed up, and someone took out a gun and started shooting. No one was shot, fortunately. It was so stupid. Everybody – even the guy with the gun – knew we were in this middle- class town and no one was living the thug life or anything. It was dark.
Lena Dunham recently teased you after you wrote a negative review of Girls. Were you disappointed in that or was it fair criticism?
I wasn’t trying to criticise the show, I love the show. My aim was to point out a trend I saw in HBO programmes of how central characters are all the same sex, while the opposite sex are portrayed in a lesser way. It started with Sex And The City, in which male characters were wet blankets. The response to that was Entourage, where most of the female characters were bitchy. And now with Girls, I feel like the pendulum is swinging back. But it wasn’t a criticism, I’m sure there are a lot of guys like that out there. I’ve spoken to Lena and tried to clear the air.
She hit back by questioning your polymath tendencies. How do you feel when people claim you’re spreading yourself thinly?
I consider those comments narrow-minded and not worth my attention. I’ve done the work, I’ve gone to school – more schools than those trying to criticise me for doing too much – and I’m passionate about my projects.
One of those projects is a cameo in the new Linda Lovelace biopic, playing Hugh Hefner. Ever met Hef?
No, although I’ve always been a fan of his work since I was a kid [laughs]. Seriously, if I could get my hands on his magazines I would – my friend’s father had a stash we used to look at when he wasn’t home. I play him during his Seventies persona – a much younger, more self-aware Hef. It’s funny, watching old interviews to research the part, I saw that he’s not just a smut-hound, he’s pretty interesting. His aim was to mix the mind and body in his magazine in a way that was unprecedented back then – really raw. It’s a tame publication these days.
What do you think he’ll make of your depiction?
I tried to portray him with a bit of complexity and dignity. But there are also the needs of the film to address – to fit him into the kind of story the producers are trying to tell. Linda Lovelace might have started off wide-eyed about the porn industry, but it gets serious, and Hef has to deliver some of that harshness to her. I don’t think he’s seen it yet, but I hope he’ll like it.
Aren’t you also working on a film about gay cruising?
The original idea started with William Friedkin’s Cruising, which was fraught with controversy when it first came out [in 1980], and me and my co-director Travis [Mathews] were specifically interested in the mythical 40 minutes that were either lost or banned, so we set out to create some footage inspired by these never-seen events. But as we started making [the film] we found that the discussion surrounding it was just as important. So now it’s more of an exploration into that world.
Away from that, Seth Rogen told us that he occasionally gets high while working. Is that something you’d join in with, or would it annoy you?
It wouldn’t bother me. Seth can do what he likes, but I wouldn’t do it. Everyone imagines I smoke [marijuana], but I don’t at all. For some reason, I give off that aura and, sure, I’ve played a character [in Pineapple Express] who does, but that sh*t isn’t my thing. The only positive outcome from it is that I get to use it to my benefit for This Is The End [an upcoming apocalyptic comedy where Rogen, Franco and their famous friends play themselves], where I play an exaggerated James Franco – the Hollywood Franco, the cool guy always throwing parties, lives in a big mansion – not really me. We all play ourselves, only different.
Did that get confusing on set?
Sometimes. We’d be goofing around with one another between takes and then we’d have to do it with the cameras on. Take away the special effects and the petty rivalries that don’t exist in real life, it all felt real at times because we’re all friends.
Spring Breakers is at cinemas nationwide from 5 April