James Franco received the Outstanding Performance Award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last Saturday.
Franco is even more exuberant and charming in real life, something to which the event’s crowd (a mix of screaming fan girls and film aficionados) can attest.
“I actually didn’t know I was gonna be talking tonight,” Franco began after an enthusiastic welcome from the audience. “I thought Seth Rogen was gonna tell a couple of jokes and I’d come up and get an award or something.”
The evening consisted of far more than Franco’s forecast. Led by moderator Leonard Maltin, Franco discussed his versatile career.
The discussion began with the origins of Franco, a Palo Alto native, as Maltin asked Franco if his parents were supportive of his career choice. “Uh, no”, Franco said, hesitating a little. “I was at UCLA, an English major, and even that was a compromise because my father wanted me to be a mathematician.”
“I went to UCLA for about a year [before] I left for acting school.…My parents were not very excited about that. I was living on a couch in Sherman Oaks. I didn’t have a car, so I got a job at a place I could walk to, which ended up being McDonald’s. So of course they weren’t excited about it.”
Franco assures the audience that his parents’ outlook has changed since: “Now I have all the support I could ask for.”
Now having worked in the industry for 15 years, Franco recalls his first paid acting job — a guest spot on a 1997 television episode. “I did a show called ‘Pacific Blue,’ which was basically ‘Baywatch’ on bicycles… I was a guy who was selling horse tranquillizers to bicycle racers. It was probably the most excited I’ve ever been about getting a part.”
After landing several more minor television gigs, a series regular role in the cult series “Freaks and Geeks” raised Franco’s profile considerably. “That season, I had two offers: ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and some other high school show. I remember the day before, I didn’t know what to decide. At the last minute, I thought alright, I’ll do the other. And then, thank God, the other one called and said we don’t want James.”
Reflecting on the cancellation of “Freaks and Geeks,” Franco says it was all about bad luck. “We got put on Monday nights which was opposite “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” at its height, and it was like the highest rated show ever. Then the World Series came on, and then one night there was like a horrible plane crash. We just had horrible luck.”
However, Franco’s luck soon turned.
“Then I actually did this thing for VH1. I played a heroin addict or something. And I remember I was in Houston shooting that, when I got this call asking me to audition for James Dean. The way I dealt with the huge responsibility of that role and the potential criticism for the role, I just prepared as much as I could. I started smoking, I smoked two packs a day… and I didn’t talk to anybody.”
After receiving a Golden Globe for his performance as James Dean, Franco recalled taking roles in the 2002 Robert De Niro film “City by the Sea” and Nicolas Cage’s 2002 directorial debut “Sonny.”
“He was great actually,” Franco said of Cage’s directorial ability. “It’s nice to have an actor as a director because there are certain things that they understand that you just know they understand. They’re looking out for you in ways that a director that doesn’t have acting experience just can’t really know.”
Franco praised Cage’s conscientiousness regarding Franco’s method acting.
“Nic certainly was very conscientious about all [my] needs as an actor at the time. I fancied myself pretty intense. But he was into that. So he allowed me to do all that weird actor stuff. But also on the research side of it, I was playing a male prostitute so I wanted to go meet male prostitutes. And [Nic] also wanted to meet male prostitutes.”
For Cage and Franco, meeting male prositutes was not as simple as it seemed.
“The problem was [Nic] wanted to do it undercover. I was just the guy who had been on this TV show, that I guess hadn’t hit New Orleans, so nobody recognized me. But Nic Cage, when he wanted to go undercover, he had to do it with like seven other people. So we went to this like 200-year-old bar… and I would bring the prostitutes in there as he would sit in the shadows. It was a great experience.”
The Spider-Man trilogy and Franco’s role in the franchise was the next topic of discussion. Reflecting on the experience, Franco seemed grateful because filming “Spider-Man 3” led Franco to make his decision to return to school.
While studying at various institutions across the country, Franco took time out to shoot the stoner action- comedy “Pineapple Express,” which saw him reunited with “Freaks and Geeks” alumni Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen.
“Initially I just assumed they wanted me to play the Dale role, Seth’s role, because he was the guy with the girlfriend. I remember reading it and there were these jokes throughout where Saul kept getting kicked or hit in the balls, and for some reason that clicked with me — I could really play that. So we went to lunch and I said, ‘I love the script but Seth gets to play the role that I want to play.’ And then they said that, you know, ‘What’s crazy is that right before you got here we had this conversation that it would be a crazy thing if you actually played the dealer role.’ And I said, ‘Great, sounds good to me!’” Franco said.
Franco explained that “Pineapple Express” really changed his approach to movies and reinvigorated his passion for making them.
“Before then, making movies was kind of painful. I went to like ‘the tortured actor place’ and I got to the point where I didn’t want to do it,” Franco said.
Quickly touching on several later films in Franco’s career, from “Milk” to “Eat Pray Love,” Maltin then asked Franco to explain his reasoning behind his decision to work on the long-running soap opera, “General Hospital.”
“I was talking to my artist friend and we were talking about doing another movie where I was going to play a character that was formerly on a soap opera. Then I was walking on the street and then somehow it came up that I should just really do a soap opera. Not for preparation though. You don’t need to have been on a soap opera to play a soap opera actor, or murder someone to you play a murderer. It was just the idea of being on a soap opera seemed really cool,” Franco elaborated.
Concluding the retrospective, Franco discussed the secret method behind his Oscar-nominated performance in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.”
“One thing we found doing the movie is that we could do these very long takes. You can shoot for like 20 minutes, and we did sometimes,” Franco said. The actor recalled one scene where a boulder had just fallen on his character’s hand and he had to try and dislodge it.
“Danny said just do it. And I said, I’m gonna get beat up and then he said, yeah you better. And when he said cut, it had been 22 minutes of me beating myself up against that boulder. But we realized, ‘wow, that’s the way to do these scenes.’ Just really do these things that Aron Ralston really did, short of cutting my own arm off. Sometimes it would take me 10-15 minutes to actually do it, and at that point I wasn’t really thinking about the character. I was just doing it and really becoming frustrated,” Franco said.
After recapping Franco’s rather incredible career, the night ended with Maltin handing the microphone over to Seth Rogen onstage to present Franco with the award.
Best-Selling Author. Soap Opera Star. Grad Student. Oscar-Nominated Actor. Oscar Co-Host. It truly seems like there’s nothing Franco can’t do. With Franco next helming an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, one can’t help but question where Franco’s many talents will ptake him next.