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.
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"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
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