James Franco - A life in constant motion

Star of 127 Hours and Howl, host of the 2011 Oscars, PhD student, author, curator... James Franco's workload is immense. How does the actor do it? James Mottram finds out

For an actor who has always shied away from the spotlight, James Franco is in danger of becoming ubiquitous. In the next two months, he has two films out, as well as a collection of short stories. He's nominated in one major awards ceremony and will host another. If you miss him on the cover of the US edition of GQ, who proclaim him "Man of the Year", you can catch him suited-and-booted as the new face of Gucci. All of which seems strange for a 32-year-old actor who shrank from Hollywood after the extreme exposure of playing Peter Parker's pal Harry in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.

Four years ago, Franco went back to school, enrolling in literature and creative-writing courses at UCLA a decade after he'd dropped out there. He enjoyed it so much, he moved to New York and took on four separate courses – two in fiction writing, one in poetry, one in filmmaking – in as many colleges. He's now at Yale studying for a PhD in English and film studies. "For me, school is very grounding. It's a way of studying other artists, writers and film-makers, and getting away from stuff like this," he says, waving his hand in the air as he refers to the tedious business of film promotion.

Franco is certainly a strange beast; as one interviewer wrote, his career is looking increasingly like a performance piece "as he slides further along the continuum from [Jake] Gyllenhaal to [Andy] Warhol". As any Franco follower will know, last year he enjoyed a brief stint on US soap General Hospital, playing an obnoxious multi-media artist named – wait for it – Franco. This year, he will host the Oscars with Anne Hathaway in what may be his grandest performance piece yet. To be fair, Franco has a talent for comedy, as his stoner in Pineapple Express and his low-rent criminal in Date Night have shown.

Still, it's hard to imagine how the awkward, insular interviewee sitting in front of me will follow in the footsteps of comics such as Billy Crystal and Chris Rock. Dressed in jeans and a fleece, Franco is not good with eye contact, while his sentences – often prefixed with "Let's see" – um and ah all over the place. Given he's up for a Golden Globe for his role in Danny Boyle's new film, 127 Hours, there's also a chance he could be one of the five Best Actor Oscar nominees. The last time that happened was in 1987, when Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan was co-hosting the show and lost out to Woody Allen in the Best Original Screenplay category.

While he twice hosted Saturday Night Live (he also shot a documentary about the show), Franco says he was surprised when the Oscars' producer Bruce Cohen called. He initially refused but then reconsidered, against the advice of all his representatives. "That always sparks something in me. So I said, 'Yes, of course!' Because the reaction that they have is based on conventional wisdom of what makes a good career. And that can be boring — really boring." As he told Entertainment Weekly, he doesn't even care if he bombs. "I'm happy to take the criticism. Even if it's 'The Worst Oscars Ever,' I don't care. It's one night of the year."

Franco is no stranger to bad reviews, certainly when it comes to his fiction writing. When his story "Just Before the Black" was published in Esquire, one writer tweeted, "Franco makes Ethan Hawke seem like Herman Melville." A little cruel, perhaps, but such is the fate any actor who dares to turn his hand to fiction usually endures. His new book, Palo Alto, is a collection of short stories. Taking its name from the northern California university town where he grew up, each story is set there, driven by a series of interconnected teenage narrators, most of whom are alienated, lonely and unable to face their impulses and emotions.

The LA Times, in one of the balanced reviews, called it "the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detail but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance". Violence is frequent and shocking. "Chinatown in Three Parts" details the degradation of a half-Vietnamese girl whose new boyfriend rapes her with some root vegetables during an orgy, before pimping her out. In another tale, a girl witnesses the murder of a boy she's just been flirting with at a party.

Yet this should be no surprise to anyone who was seen Franco's short film The Feast of Stephen – one of several he's made, based on poems – which features a fantasy scene where teenage boys gang-rape another boy. Perhaps because he's soon to be seen as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, in a film that deals with the obscenity trial around the Beat poet's most famous work, Franco seems embarrassed to talk about his literary achievements, even with his colleagues. As Danny Boyle notes, "I spent all this time working with him and he never told me he'd written this book."

Then again, their time on 127 Hours was intense. Franco plays the real-life climber Aron Ralston, who in 2003 got trapped in a Utah canyon for five days after a rock fell on his arm. With no way of being rescued, he finds it within himself to sever his limb with a blunt penknife. With minor characters only seen at the beginning and end, Franco is forced to hold the screen on his own for well over an hour – a remarkable achievement and perhaps another example of his love of performance art.

Franco admits he went a little stir-crazy, being on the same warehouse-based studio set, locked into one position for more than four weeks. "I didn't think that I would but I did. A friend of mine from NYU [where Franco studied filmmaking] came out and made a documentary and we just recently watched what she put together. There's a part in it where Danny 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, the set not changing. And the nature of the material was so intense."

But there's a masochistic streak to Franco. In 2002, a year after he won a Golden Globe for his breakthrough portrayal of James Dean in a TNT bio, he went all Method. He starred opposite Robert De Niro in the woeful City by the Sea, playing a drug-addict by hanging out with users and sleeping rough. "It was like this whole other world," he recalls. "I gave myself no money, so I had to beg. I made signs on the freeway – and got money that way. In New York, I met up with some people who showed me how to sleep with cardboard boxes." In the same year, for Nicolas Cage's Sonny, he frequented gay strip clubs and watched a gigolo service a client.

It's hardly the path his father, Douglas, who runs a shipping container company, must've envisaged for his son when he encouraged an interest in mathematics. As an adolescent, Franco was an obedient prodigy, even interning at tech company Lockheed Martin. But while his parents had met at the nearby Stanford University, art was as important as academia in the Franco family. His mother, Betsy Lou, is a poet, author, and editor and her mother the owner of a prominent Cleveland art gallery. Initially, Franco was interested in his grandmother's world, going to Stanford after school for 20 hours a week to study life drawing.

While acting came later – after dropping out of UCLA, he was cast in the short-lived cult show Freaks and Geeks – the process eventually became frustrating. "When all I had was acting, despite telling myself that it's the wrong kind of thinking, I would define myself by the movies I did," he says. "If the movie did well, I would feel happy and if it didn't, I would get upset. It was really driving me crazy, trying to somehow control the final product as an actor. It's just insanity. 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."

Certainly, this explains why Franco has become a multimedia multi-tasker (he also mounts art shows). But he now seems to be enjoying acting. In the summer, you'll see him in his first post-Spider-Man blockbuster, the Planet of the Apes prequel Rise of the Apes. He'll also appear in medieval comedy Your Highness, with Natalie Portman. Of course, the surge of activity has prompted some critics to ask if Franco is "for real". Maybe he'll slow down or even burn out. But to quote his character in General Hospital, "I'm not like everyone else – remember that."

'127 Hours' opens on 7 January. 'Palo Alto' is published by Faber & Faber in January. 'Howl' opens on 25 February. The 83rd Academy Awards will take place on 27 February

Special screening and Q&A with Danny Boyle

The BFI has an exclusive preview of 127 Hours at BFI Southbank on Thursday 6 January at 6pm, which includes a Q&A with director Danny Boyle. To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets, answer the question below at Independent.co.uk/promo-competitions and enter the code 'Hours'.

Whose real life story is portrayed by James Franco in 127 Hours?

Terms and conditions There are 10 pairs of tickets to be won. Entries must be received by midnight on 3 January. Winners will be picked at random and notified by telephone or email on 4 January. The Editor's decision is final. Only one entry per household. See www.independent.co.uk/legal for standard Independent terms and conditions.

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