He's a writer, actor, host, model and sometime comedian
NEW YORK -- In Palo Alto, a stark, contemplative, at times difficult drama based on his book of short stories, James Franco plays a high school teacher who has a fling with a student.
This is, of course, the same actor who made headlines after an unfortunate interaction with an underage fan on Instagram, which she then shared with the world.
When asked about the incidents, one drawn from fiction, another that won't go away in the press, Franco – loquacious and thoughtful and at ease – gets visibly uncomfortable and edgy.
"Uh. I don't know what to say. I guess we'll skip it," says the actor, 36, of addressing the issue.
So, fine, it's a topic he understandably doesn't want to rehash. But what about social media? Franco is a confounding presence. Clearly, the guys has smarts. Big time. So why, then, those social media snafus, like the underwear selfie he posted, and then deleted? Franco is very active on Instagram in general, posting slews of photos, odes to friend Seth Rogen, shots from and snippets of reviews of his play, Of Mice and Men.
"I'm pretty happy with who I am. I don't mind revealing certain things. I guess I've learned to share the things that I appreciate, that I love, that I'm interested in. One of the great things abut social media is that it does create communities of shared interests," he says, diplomatically.
He's a gifted, deeply intelligent actor who is perhaps best known for both his moving performance as Sean Penn's boyfriend in 2008's Milk, as the pothead in 2008's Pineapple Express, which made him a star, and for his collaborations with comedic impresario Seth Rogen; their latest caper, The Interview (about an ill-fated sit-down with North Korea's dictator) opens in October.
He's written numerous books, including one of poetry and the aforementioned Palo Alto short story collection. He has taught drama classes and studied extensively at Yale, NYU and UCLA. He made the ill-advised move of co-hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway in 2011. He co-wrote and directed 2013's Child of God, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. And he was instrumental in bringing Palo Alto, directed by newbie filmmaker Gia Coppola (of those Coppolas) to the screen. The two met five years ago in a deli, and later were introduced by Coppola's mother at a party. And they began discussing how they could work together in some capacity.
"He's always interested in what other people are reading. We were talking about photography and stayed in touch," says Coppola. "He believes in you and gives you a chance. James told me to take the stories I liked and make them into individual screenplays. And then, he told me to make a super low-budget film, to get a sense of what I was thinking. He set up an environment for me that wasn't full of pressure."
His Mr. B was based on an actual teacher Franco knew in high school, one with a penchant for his students.
"With some roles the context and the story will do a lot of the work. The guy does not think of himself as a creep. He thinks, 'Oh, I'm really attracted to this young woman and I understand that there are certain rules and laws that says I shouldn't do this. But my feelings are so strong that I will follow my heart.' He almost sees himself as almost in a Romeo and Juliet situation," says Franco. "Meaning, I didn't have to play creep. It's more insidious. It would gilding the lily. I don't need to project that 'hey, this is a creep.' What he does is creepy."
It's tough to accuse Franco of taking the easy road. When he could have cashed in, done one mindless blockbuster after another (we'll overlook 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes), he instead went to college. And guest-starred on General Hospital. And played the dreadlocked cunning rapper in Spring Breakers.
"The year of Pineapple Express and Milk, I went back to school and was trying to change a lot of things in my life. I pursued my other interests seriously. It was the year that I did these movies that changed my acting career and changed my attitude about making movies," says Franco. "I only want to work on projects I believe in. It's led me to this nice place that lets me work on projects that I like. I get to focus on what I want to do."
And that brings us back to The Interview, which gets Franco visibly excited. He's not all serious and artistic all the time. In fact, he'll happily spoof Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's Bound 2 video, in a clip with Rogen that blew up the Internet. "The movies I do with Seth are things that I value and are expressions of a lot of the ideas I'm interested in," he says.
So no cameo at the Kimye wedding? "I don't think that's going to happen. As soon as Kanye pitched the idea, he realized how crazy it was. It would be funny for 10 seconds. It's a whole different thing live than with the canyons in the background. That is another side of my life," says Franco.