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09.12.10

James Franco's New Oscar-Worthy Role

In his wrenching new film, 127 Hours, James Franco plays a hiker who saws off his own arm. The intense, shape-shifting actor talks to Nicole LaPorte from the Toronto Film Festival.

As his new film, 127 Hours, debuts at the Toronto Film Festival, James Franco talks to Nicole LaPorte about getting his Ph.D. at Yale, the blogosphere, and acting alone.

Over the last few weeks, James Franco has been setting the record straight—about his sexuality (he says he is straight); his drug habits (he says he’s not a stoner); and pleasuring himself (guilty).

And then there was the rumor that Yale University, where two weeks ago Franco began his latest in a series of graduate degrees—this one is a PhD in English literature and film studies—had reversed its decision to allow the 32-year-old actor to teach undergrads.

“That’s the stuff they want to pick up on, and that’s the stuff that goes viral, you know, a lot of bullshit,” James Franco said of the press.

“There was all this weird confusion,” Franco said the other day. He was sitting in a hotel suite at the Toronto Film Festival, where the talented multitasker was premiering his latest film, 127 Hours, which was made by the Slumdog Millionnaire team of writer-director Danny Boyle, writer Simon Beaufoy, and producer Christian Colson. Due out on November 5th, the film—and Franco’s wrenching performance in it—are garnering much pre-Oscar buzz, along with other fall films screening here, such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, and Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go.

Also getting a lot of attention is the film’s grim, and very realistic, sequence when Franco, as Aron Ralston—a canyoneer who in 2003 severed off his own arm in order to escape from a fallen boulder—performs the amputation using a blunt knife. Boyle lingers his camera over the DIY surgery, which lasts several minutes, the camera acting almost like a scalpel, showing the inside view of arteries and blood vessels. Franco’s face, meanwhile, is a study in tortured anguish. At the film’s premiere on Sunday night, Boyle joked that 127 Hours “is not a horror film like Saw or anything,” but many members of the audience still looked away from the screen.

As for Yale, Franco said: “It seemed like I thought I was going to be teaching my first year as a grad student, when it was going to be something completely separate.” He then explained that he’d actually been approached by Yale to teach a special seminar outside of his degree (what’s known as the Residential College Seminar Program), but the program is being suspended for a year.

“I had no illusions that I was going to be teaching in the English department going in,” said Franco, who was dressed in a James Dean-esque ensemble of jeans and a brown leather bomber jacket. His lightly gelled-back curls and a nearby can of Pepsi completed the Rebel Without a Cause look.

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But despite the physical similarities (Franco actually played Dean in a 2001 TV biopic), the former Spider-Man villain is the antithesis of the tortured actor, even though lately he’s been busying himself with extracurricular interests that could easily be dismissed as the precious dabblings of a self-serious artist. Besides all of the schooling (he just finished masters programs at Columbia and NYU), last year he took a role on General Hospital as part of an exercise in performance art, which culminated in an art show at MoCA in Los Angeles that was both real and a part of the soap opera. (Explaining the meta workings of the project, he said at the time, “It’s an episode from General Hospital, which is a soap opera. And, within the soap opera, it’s an art show.”) And earlier this month, a school project that morphed into a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary about Saturday Night Live was picked up by Oscilloscope Films, which will release it next February.

The fact that reporters have been less interested in discussing this quixotic resume than asking whether, like his character in 127 Hours, Franco ever jerks off, doesn’t faze him in the least.

“It’s the nature of the blogosphere,” he said good-naturedly. “That’s the stuff they want to pick up on, and that’s the stuff that goes viral, you know, a lot of bullshit.”

He continued: “I don’t have a problem talking about certain things, so it’s better to just be candid.” Which his precisely what Franco was when The Advocate recently asked him if the fact that he has been taken on so many gay roles (in films like Howl, Milk, and 2002’s Blind Spot, not to mention two gay-themed poems he adapted into short films) meant anything.

“I’d tell you if I was [gay],” he told reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis. “I guess the reason I wouldn’t is because I’d be worried that it would hurt my career. I suppose that’s the reason one wouldn’t do that, right? But no, that wouldn’t be something that would deter me.”

(Naturally, in the blogosphere, the statement served to fuel speculation that Franco actually is gay.)

As a public person, Franco has not only been consistently interesting, but appealing. Far more so than, say, Joaquin Phoenix, whose own experiments in what are assumed to be performance art have come across as not just frustratingly opaque but self-indulgent. (Phoenix’s new documentary I’m Still Here, which may or may not be a hoax, is also screening in Toronto.)

Not that Franco is making any judgments. “I’m very interested in seeing that movie,” he said, saying that that both he and Phoenix share an interest in making art “where there’s a weird blurring going on.”

Even in his film choices, the intellectually-prone Franco doesn’t seem be over-thinking it, and freely jumps back and forth between thoughtful, serious pictures and more larky fare, such as Pineapple Express and Spider-Man, in which he played the Green Goblin’s son in Sam Raimi’s recent adaptations.

With 127 Hours, he is solidly in the former camp, and his name is already being bandied about in Academy Awards discussions for a performance that, in many ways, is the film.

Of the challenge of playing such a solitary role, Franco said: “For a lot of this movie, there were no other actors. But there was a very palpable kind of obstacle to react against, and there was the kind of physical deterioration that the character was having to face.

“And Danny directed those scenes in such a way, he played them out by letting us do very long takes. He set it up so that I could really experience some of those things on a very physical level. So if I’m chipping at the rock, or if I’m trying to pull out, I’m really trying to get out. And, yes, if I needed to, I could always just step away, but if you’re doing a take that goes on for 10, 15, 20 minutes, and you’re really just pulling and bashing and all that, you get exhausted. And that’s kind of real or authentic in a weird way, and so… I guess it was just really trying to do that that grounded the performance.”

On Sunday night, Franco attended the special presentation of 127 Hours at Roy Thompson Hall, along with a teary-eyed Ralston, Boyle, and the other filmmakers. But the celebratory night—which received a very heartfelt standing ovation—was short-lived. A few hours later, he had to hop on a plane back to the U.S.

He had school the next day.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.