There’s a scene in Dick Tracy, the excessively stylized—and deliciously entertaining—Warren Beatty gangster flick that sums up some people’s feelings about James Franco. Big Boy Caprice, the diminutive baddie played with insane gusto by Al Pacino, is fed up with Tracy and his gang of square-jawed, trench-coated detectives, who’ve busted up every gambling and booze racket he’s got. He’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore.
Everywhere I go, it’s, “TRACY, TRACY, TRACY!”
And for consumers of culture, there's no escaping Franco. This year alone has brought us his mesmerizing performance in Spring Breakers as Alien, a Florida-based pseudo gangster with cornrows, a gnarly grill, and a heart of gold, which has sparked one of the more inventive Oscar campaigns in recent memory; a multimedia performance of Bird Shit at MoMA’s PS1 in Queens, New York, overseen by Franco; a starring role in one of the funniest comedy blockbusters of the summer, This Is the End, as an exaggerated version of himself; his adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which debuted at Cannes to critical acclaim; Comedy Central's recent Roast of James Franco, which attracted millions of viewers; and now, the multifaceted artist is at the Toronto International Film Festival to unveil his latest directorial effort, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God.
Directed by Franco, the film stars Scott Haze as Lester Ballard, a backwoods man who, after he’s dispossessed of his family land, starts to fall deeper and deeper into madness, eventually resorting to necrophilia ... and murder.
So, this is a pretty crazy story. What attracted you to it?
It is pretty crazy. I’m a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, and have read every book of his. I first read this book at a class at UCLA about seven years ago, and it was a class on McCarthy. I read a lot—I have a degree in English—so there are certain things I read where my reaction is different; where I want to engage with it more. I had that feeling. Now that it’s made and I look back on it, this is actually not my first necrophilia piece. I directed a short film called Herbert White with Michael Shannon while I was at NYU.
Big necrophilia fan?
[Laughs] It’s not that I, in my own life, find dead bodies particularly sexy or anything like that, but in a film, it allows you, in a very extreme way, to deal with a character whose imagination has gone to a crazy place. It also deals with loneliness, uncontrollable compulsion, as well as the artistic impulse. I made a movie about another artist, Hart Crane, who was this isolated, lonely poet, and in his isolation, his imagination bloomed into poetry.
So that loneliness and desperation can take you to beautiful places ... or horrible ones.
Yeah. In Child of God, he basically goes on a date with one of these bodies, and the motions that he goes through aren’t any different from any romantic comedy, but he’s animating both sides of the relationship with his imagination. To me, that’s fascinating, and it’s a way to do what movies should do—talk about the human condition.
I don’t even care if people think I’m gay, so it was like, ‘Awesome!’ I mean, I wish I was … I wish I was gay.
How did you persuade the actress who played the dead woman in the car, who’s then wildly raped, to take that role? “So, I have this part for you …”
[Laughs] She’s pretty great, isn’t she? That’s an actress named Nina Ljeti, and she is somebody I’ve met at NYU and she’s a friend of mine. I needed somebody I could trust, somebody that would go through a lot for me, and we’ve done a few projects before. And she was game. It’s hard dealing with dead bodies, because there are scenes with other dead bodies in the film and I cast some locals, and they weren’t good at holding their breath.
It seems to me like the Franco directing oeuvre is getting considerably darker, from Good Time Max to the BDSM documentary Kink, which we spoke about at Sundance, and now a film about a necrophiliac killer. What dark part of yourself are you exploring in making these films?
There’s two sides to it. I like making movies that have some sort of extreme circumstance, but this film is really a character study, and it’s sort of in line with what I’ve done. This, I feel, is the third part of a trilogy of isolated character studies, along with the Hart Crane movie [The Broken Tower] and a movie about Sal Mineo [Sal], that I think will have a release in October. And the darkness is not a surface-level alignment with the character but a way to use circumstances that are not a part of my life to talk about things that I can understand: loneliness and the inability to socialize.
How do you find the time to do all this stuff—attend classes, act, direct, etc.? No sleep or vacation ever?
No, I sleep. Yeah, I don’t go on vacation. I don’t really need vacation. This is kind of a vacation! I like film festivals. These are my people, and I get to go to great places and show films and see films. But I don’t need a vacation in the traditional sense, like I would if I had a job I hated. When I’m working on a project like this, I have everyone that I love around me, so I don’t need a break from that.
What’s the biggest misconception about you? People do seem to cast aspersions on you.
Well, I got roasted! That was the moment where I was like, “Let it all come out. I’ll take it all.” And I didn’t tell anyone that there was anything that’s out of bounds. So if I look at that, it’s that people maybe think I’m gay, they didn’t like my performance at the Oscars, and they think I’m very into myself … and I squint a lot.
How was the roast, for you?
That whole thing was a shock to me because I didn’t know they were going to be roasting each other, and I do comedy mainly with Seth [Rogen] and that gang, but I’m not necessarily up on the comedy world, so it’s interesting to see what’s acceptable as far as gay jokes and Indian jokes. They had to cut about 40–60 minutes of it. But Jeff Ross was saying some crazy shit. They weren’t even funny, these jokes, they just gave me nightmares. He was referencing the Ohio kidnapper dude [Ariel Castro], abortion, it was just like … “oh god.”
With the gay jokes, it seems like when an actor plays a gay character convincingly onscreen, whether it’s you in Milk or whoever, gay rumors seem to sprout up about that actor. And, of course, there were a lot of gay jokes directed at you during the roast, as well as in This Is the End.
There’s two sides to what happened in the roast. If that’s what they were going to make fun of me for, I was like, “Great! Bring on the gay jokes!” because these aren’t insults at all. I don’t even care if people think I’m gay, so it was like, “Awesome!” I mean, I wish I was … I wish I was gay.
I mean … we don’t have to go into it. But as far as that larger phenomenon that you’re talking about that happens to other actors, part of it is that movies are a place where people can project things and identify with characters, and it’s the same thing with actors outside of their roles—and it’s been that way since Hollywood was around. That’s why there’s a lot of conjecture. That’s been one of my things, too. My relationship with my public image over the past four or five years has just become weirder and weirder, because I look at it and it’s me, and it’s not me, so if other people want to use that for their own purposes or needs, I’m fine with it.