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For an actor best known as Peter Parker’s pal in Spider- Man, James Franco is finally taking centre stage. This month, you can see the 32 year old portray trapped climber Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, a role for which he’s received a Golden Globe nomination. He’ll follow this by playing Allen Ginsberg in Howl, a film about the obscenity trial surrounding the Beat writer’s most famous poem, before co-hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway at the end of February. And for good measure, his first collection of short stories, Palo Alto—which takes its name from the California city where he grew up—has just been published. It begs the question: is there anything James Franco can’t do?
With Aron trapped in a canyon for much of the film, 127 Hours sees you act almost entirely on your own. How did you find that?
It was unusual, and it was unusual for me. Normally, you do a scene as an actor and you’re acting opposite another performer. That’s where you react from, where you generate the scene in a way. All the material of the scene is just coming across from these interactions. When you don’t have that, there’s nothing in front of you. The camera is right there, right in front of my face. Normally, you do a scene and you forget the camera in a way. You play the scene. You don’t think ‘The camera is right there.’
So did the camera become your co-star?
No, in a weird way the operators and the cinematographer almost became my co-stars. I’m performing activities, and I’m focused on these activities. But meanwhile, the only other people in the canyon with me, for most of the time, were the operators. Because these cameras are so mobile, they’re hand-held and can really go anywhere in that little space. So as I was doing these scenes, they would be reacting to me.
Did you start to feel cabin fever?
I didn’t think that I would but I did. A friend of mine from NYU came out and made a documentary, and we just recently watched what she put together. There’s a part in it where Danny [Boyle] is asking me how I’m doing. And I’m like, ‘I think I lost it yesterday.’ When I look back, it was an amazing experience. But that documentary showed me it was taking a toll, going into this space day after day, set not changing, for a month at least. And the nature of the material was very intense.
In Howl, you play Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Were you always a fan?
When I was younger, we probably read more [Jack] Kerouac than Ginsberg, I think because my friends and I were more oriented towards fiction at the time. And then when I started acting, of course, I wanted to be involved with a movie about the Beats. But I always thought I would play Kerouac or Neal Cassady, and I never thought I would play Allen Ginsberg, so it was kind of a surprise when they asked me to do that. I didn’t have to think that long. I was a fan but I guess I had to convince myself that I was right for it, or I could do it.
The Beats were from the same era as the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean [who Franco played in a 2001 TV movie]; did you see these actors as kindred spirits with the Beats?
Well, in the States at least there are a lot of young people that are attracted to the Beats at a certain age. The searching nature of the literature and the call to this lifestyle that seeks new experiences and freedom of a certain sorts…I think that’s very appealing to people of a certain age. And Brando and Dean and Montgomery Clift are also actors that are inspiring to young actors, I guess because of their emotional expression and freedom and rebelliousness that they stand for. So I was certainly attracted to them, but I think it’s a fairly common attraction.
You’re well known for other artistic activities—writing, directing shorts, painting. What do all these things give you?
In a very simple way, it takes pressure off movies. I still work very hard when I’m hired as an actor. I consider it my responsibility to work as hard as possible. But when all I had was acting, despite telling myself it’s the wrong kind of thinking, I would define myself by the movies. If the movie did well, I would feel happy and if it didn’t, I would get upset. Because of that, I would try and control the final product. And as an actor, you just can’t do it. But it was really driving me crazy.
So I had to come to an understanding that my job as an actor was to help a director achieve his or her vision, and that’s it. Go and do my performance and then let it go. Now I try to only work with great people, with that understanding. If I’m helping someone deliver that vision, I’m going to believe in that vision. With that understanding, I needed something more. So by going to school, it’s more my own. It’s just learning for me. But it also allowed me to have something else in my life, so I don’t have to worry about the end result as much anymore. And really just say ‘What can I control? Who I work with and how hard I work on a project.’
How about directing? You’ve made several shorts…do they help your acting?
I don’t act in those films. I got to work with my favourite actor, Michael Shannon, on Herbert White. And it is a different experience. It’s something I love. I love the idea of collaborating with actors who I look up to and to allow them their interpretations. To be able to stand back and just watch them perform, it’s a different but very rewarding experience. •