James Franco - Hollywood star with the soul of a poet

James Franco's latest film sees him play Allen Ginsberg. But the Spider-Man actor's devotion to writing goes much deeper, he explains to Kaleem Aftab

James Franco needed a change. After years of travelling fast on the upward curve of an enviable acting career, he decided to go back to university and study poetry. His decision to attend class at Columbia in New York City can be seen as a cry to those who had pigeonholed him as a pretty-boy movie star to look deeper and see that it was his appearances in Milk and In the Valley of Elah were closer in spirit to him than turns in Spider-Man and Date Night.

"It was a need," he says about school. "After eight years of acting I wasn't satisfied, I needed something more, and I didn't want to continue just being an actor. I was very grateful for my career but I think if I'd continued to just do that, I would have quit because that was the only thing that I had.

"My work is one thing and my identity is something else, but when acting is all I had, my identity was inevitably tied to my career. So if my career was not doing well, I inevitably felt bad and I did not like that feeling, so having other interests takes the pressure off acting and now it's a job I can do and work hard at, but because I have this whole other side to my life, I'm not dependent on acting for my self-worth"

If his artistic ambitions were hard to discern from his appearances in the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks, playing super-villain Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy or as a pothead in Pineapple Express, his latest role as the poet Allen Ginsberg in is a more suitable match.

On paper it seems an odd casting choice. Ginsberg, as he was depicted in Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, is a bearded, balding and slightly rotund figure, whereas the 32-year-old before me has a square jaw, alluring eyes and looks every inch a poster boy. However, this film is not concerned with the established poet and celebrity but with the obscenity trial brought against the young Allen Ginsberg after the publication of his poem "Howl".

Franco dons glasses, but, try as he might, he just doesn't quite look as awkward as Ginsberg did, though away from the aesthetic he captures the poet splendidly. Ginsberg didn't attend the trial, so most of the shots of Franco centre on an interview in which he recounts his experiences thus far, his first reading of the poem attended by a who's-who of the Beat Generation, and waiting apprehensively for the trial result.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman gave Franco the script at an early stage, and he came on board as producer as well as actor. Not that Franco says there was much wiggle room to bring his own ideas to the well-researched script. "The interesting thing about this script is that it's all based on transcripts of interviews that Ginsberg actually gave. All the court scenes are based on transcripts of that court trial, so as far as the dialogue in the film, everything was actually said by either Ginsberg or somebody else, so I didn't want to improvise, I wanted to say these words, especially as directors Rob and Jeffrey come from a documentary background. I felt like, even though we were recreating events in this film, that the film still had the soul of a documentary and part of the art of this film was to be loyal to these words."

An actor referring to a movie using the words "soul" and proclaiming it "art" often has a stench of pretentiousness, but Franco speaks in an earnest manner and, despite being a movie star and poet, "pretentious" would be a harsh way to describe someone who clearly has as much fun making popcorn fare and sending himself up as he does being serious.

Indeed, before Howl hits our screen, this summer sees the New York-based actor appear opposite Julia Roberts in Glee creator Ryan Murphy's adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat Pray Love.

"I play one of the men she meets," states Franco. "I guess I'm the first one. Her character has been recently divorced and is looking for some changes in her life and she meets my character, who is an actor and is also involved in this meditation group, and he introduces her to meditation."

For the past year, Franco has also been seen on the television soap General Hospital playing a character called Franco. This surprise move was born out of his creative relationship with the New York-based artist and film-maker Carter, with whom he collaborated in 2008 on the project Erased James Franco, in which Franco recreated scenes from his own movies, and other famous movie scenes about psychic disintegration stripped entirely of their context.

The actor explains: "Carter and I are going to do another film called Maladies, and in that film I will play a character who was formerly on a soap opera, so that has nothing to do with General Hospital other than it started a conversation between Carter and about how funny it would be if I actually did a soap opera because no one would expect that. So we contacted General Hospital and they said 'yes', and they asked me what kind of character I would like to play. All I said is that I really want to be an artist and I want to be crazy, so they wrote that character for me and then asked me if that character could be called Franco. So we did it and there was this big reaction and people were very surprised and I was surprised by their reaction." The reaction was so good that Franco has decided to return and film a few more episodes.

"I want to be an artist and I want to be crazy," could be some kind of mantra for the Columbia student who has also started directing. He studied this at NYU. In the last three months he has been a regular on the festival circuit. His short film The Feast of Stephen, based upon Anthony Hecht's poem about a young gay New York basketball player daydreaming about a beating, won a Teddy award at Berlin. Saturday Night, a documentary showing the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that go into creating an episode of Saturday Night Live debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. His latest short film, The Clerk's Tale, based on Spencer Reece's poem, premiered at Cannes. It's a psychological portrait of a gay man trapped in a monotonous job at a high-end male store.

There used to be a taboo about actors playing gay characters on screen, but it's not something that concerns Franco. He says, about the number of gay characters he's portrayed or put on screen, that, "the worst downside, and I don't consider this a downside, the worst thing that anybody could say is that I was gay and if somebody said that I guess they would be wrong, but I also wouldn't care and as far as being typecast, that's not the case, nonetheless I would be happy to play 100 gay roles as long as they were always good parts." He has been dating actress Anha O'Reilly for several years.

Having completed a master's degree at Columbia, in the autumn Franco is transferring to Yale to do a Phd in their English department. His love of school life is clear, and he says he would like to work as a teaching assistant once he gets to the university. No doubt applications to his classes will skyrocket. Yet he says he doesn't and cannot have aspirations to become more famous as a poet than he is as a movie star.

"The fact that Ginsberg became such a public figure is an anomaly. It jut doesn't happen that often that a poet becomes that big. It's the nature of poetry. Compared to fiction people don't read much poetry and compared to movies people just don't read much fiction and compared to television people don't watch that many movies."

By contrast, audiences are watching Franco whether he's acting, directing or writing poetry.

'Howl' opens in the UK later this year

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little