“Believe what you want. But here’s a clue. The secret to life: Anyone can die at any time.”

31 December 2010

From The James Franco Project :

The crowd has dispersed now, and Franco is out here in the lobby bouncing around, weirdly, like a boxer before a fight, hopping back and forth, telling me about how stressed he is. He’s just flown back from Berlin this afternoon, he says, and he has a 35-page paper due tomorrow. Next weekend he has to shoot a student film, because in two weeks he’ll be flying out to Salt Lake City to start acting in a movie called 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, in which Franco will play a hiker who gets pinned by a boulder and has to amputate his own arm. Revisions are due soon on his book of short stories, which will be published in October by Scribner. He’s trying to nail down the details of an art show that will be based, somehow, on his recent performance on the soap opera General Hospital. Also, he has class every day, which—since he’s enrolled in four graduate programs at once—requires commuting among Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, Morningside Heights, and occasionally North Carolina. He looks exhausted; it occurs to me that maybe he’s bouncing around to keep himself awake.

x x x

At age 28, ten years after dropping out, Franco decided to go back to college. He enrolled in a couple of UCLA extension courses (literature, creative writing) and found them so magically satisfying—so safe and pure compared with the world of acting—that he threw himself back into his education with crazy abandon. He persuaded his advisers to let him exceed the maximum course load, then proceeded to take 62 credits a quarter, roughly three times the normal limit. When he had to work—to fly to San Francisco, for instance, to film Milk—he’d ask classmates to record lectures for him, then listen to them at night in his trailer. He graduated in two years with a degree in English and a GPA over 3.5. He wrote a novel as his honors thesis. 

It was interesting timing. As soon as Franco decided his Hollywood career wasn’t enough, his Hollywood career exploded—which meant that his intellectual pursuits got picked up on the radar of the A-list Hollywood publicity machine. Which was, of course, baffled by all of it. Plenty of actors dabble in side projects—rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism—but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Take, for instance, graduate school. As soon as Franco finished at UCLA, he moved to New York and enrolled in four of them: NYU for filmmaking, Columbia for fiction writing, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and—just for good measure—a low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. This fall, at 32, before he’s even done with all of these, he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Franco says all of his pursuits are possible, at least in part, because he’s cut down on his acting, but he’s still doing plenty of that. In the next year or so, he’ll be appearing in the films Eat, Pray, Love (as Julia Roberts’s boyfriend), Howl (as Allen Ginsberg), 127 Hours (as the one-armed hiker), Your Highness (a medieval comedy), William Vincent (an indie film by one of his NYU professors), Maladies (put out by his own production company), and Rise of the Apes (a prequel to Planet of the Apes). And of course there’s his epically weird stint on General Hospital—the crown jewel in the current science project of his career.

x x x

It’s hard not to be a little skeptical. Anyone who’s ever been to grad school will tell you that a single high-level program is pretty much crippling. Not to mention that topflight programs like Yale’s are designed to “professionalize” students, shearing away all of their outside interests and hobbies. Some professors frown on students having relationships, much less other careers—much less twelve of them. So while Franco’s adventure in overeducation might seem, from a distance, admirable, or at least lovably naïve, it also seems basically impossible. This skepticism was bolstered last year when a photo circulated online showing Franco sitting in class at Columbia, his head tilted back, dead asleep. The photo’s unspoken message was that the cynics were probably right: Franco’s pretty smile had given him a free pass to cultural realms the rest of us have to work our whole lumpy-faced lives just to get an outside shot at. He wasn’t so much attending grad school as he was endorsing it: lending these programs his celebrity in exchange for easy intellectual cred.

Franco’s professors, classmates, and colleagues insist, however, that this is not the case. According to everyone I spoke with, Franco has an unusually high metabolism for productivity. He seems to suffer, or to benefit, from the opposite of ADHD: a superhuman ability to focus that allows him to shuttle quickly between projects and to read happily in the midst of chaos. He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping. (He’ll get a few hours a night, then survive on catnaps, which he can fall into at any second, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation.) He doesn’t drink or smoke or—despite his convincingness in Pineapple Express—do drugs. He’s engineered his life so he can spend all his time either making or learning about art. When I asked people if Franco actually does all of his own homework, some of them literally laughed right out loud at me, because apparently homework is all James Franco ever really wants to do. The photo of him sleeping in class, according to his assistant, wasn’t even from one of his classes: It was an extra lecture he was sitting in on, after a full day of work and school, because he wanted to hear the speaker.

x x x

“But what does that even mean?” he asks. He seems impatient, genuinely baffled. “Spreading himself too thin?”

Well, I say, isn’t it a reasonable concern? How many targets can one person’s brain realistically hit with any kind of accuracy?

“If the work is good,” Franco says, “what does it matter? I’m doing it because I love it. Why not do as many things I love as I can? As long as the work is good.”

x x x

The critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote about Orson Welles, history’s archetypal writer-actor-director, “Orson is the man who tried it all: And every time he tried a medium, it capitulated.” The same cannot be said, as of yet, for Franco. Artistic media don’t seem to capitulate to him. They struggle against him, making him earn every modest inch of success. Watching that struggle is fascinating and a big part of Franco’s appeal: He’s not a savant or an obvious genius—he’s someone of mortal abilities who seems to be working immortally hard. Outside of acting—at which he is, by all accounts, very good and sometimes excellent—Franco’s work gives off a student-y vibe. It exudes effort. His directing is daring but often heavy-handed. His fiction reads like promising work from a writing seminar—not a student whose success you’d guarantee but someone you could see eventually getting there. (When Franco’s story “Just Before the Black” was published in Esquire, it set off a huge online hullabaloo of negativity. Salon called it a “crush killer.” One writer tweeted that “Franco makes Ethan Hawke seem like Herman Melville.”) Still, Franco grades well on a curve. He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.

x x x

I tell him that his inner circle has done everything short of surrounding him with barbed wire.

“You know that’s not coming from me, right?” he says.

I don’t know if this is true, here in the room that’s consuming itself, or if James Franco is just trying to paralyze me with his charm. But my heart melts a little anyway. I have the feeling I had once when I ran into Bill Clinton, randomly, and he shook my hand in a way that made me want to devote the rest of my life to hugging him.

Franco slaps me on the shoulder. “Don’t be scared,” he says. And he walks back out into the thickening crowd.

james franco is ♥ :)


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