James Franco On ‘Sal,’ Banksy, His Gay Fascination, and That Faulkner Cover

In an in-depth interview, James Franco discusses his latest directorial effort, the Sal Mineo biopic, his affinity for gay characters, and the controversial ‘As I Lay Dying’ book cover.

Victoria Will/Invision, via AP

Love him or hate him, James Franco is prolific. The 35-year-old multi-hyphenate will appear in no less than ten films this year, in roles ranging from the titular wizard in Oz: The Great and Powerful to a meth kingpin named “Gator” in the gonzo action flick Homefront, out later this month. He stole the show as an exaggerated version of himself in the summer comedy This Is the End, and his riveting turn as a tattooed, fugazi crime lord in Spring Breakers is earning him a bit of Oscar buzz.

Franco also released a novel last month, Actor’s Anonymous, has curated numerous art installations, and was skewered in a highly rated Comedy Central Celebrity Roast.

Oh, and he also directed three films that were released this year, including the documentary Interior. Leather. Bar., the Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying, and the Sal Mineo biopic Sal, which was released on Nov. 1. The latter film is based on Michael Gregg Michaud’s biography, Sal Mineo: A Biography. It stars Val Lauren as Mineo, the actor who earned two Oscar nominations before age 20 for his roles in Rebel Without A Cause and Exodus, and who was one of the first major film stars to come out of the closet. Sal chronicles the last day in the life of the idol, who was stabbed to death at the age of 37.

As far as Sal goes, did you feel a kinship with Rebel Without A Cause after playing James Dean?

That’s certainly part of it. I played James Dean and have a big connection to him, but not in the way that a lot of people think—they think I think I’m James Dean or something, and I’m not 14 [years old]—but I think Dean and his legend and the legends behind the film are very vital and interesting. I did an art show [REBEL] about it at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and did an art piece about Natalie Wood called “The Death of Natalie Wood “ It was something I kept coming back to. And I felt like I owed Sal Mineo one.

And it’s based on Sal Mineo, a biography of the late actor by Michael Gregg Michaud.

I was reading it and wanted to adapt it, but felt like I needed a way in, or some sort of device to capture it. We made it over two years ago, and it looks like we’re copying Fruitvale Station, but we’re not! They shot it after we shot it, because we premiered it at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. But I felt the last day in his life contained everything I needed to say about who he was, and all the tragedy of an actor who had once been at the top of the A-list, with two Oscar nominations before he was 20, whose star had faded, but who was still working very hard at what he loved.

It opens with four consecutive minutes of a glistening Sal Mineo pumping iron. I’m curious why you decided to open with that? It fetishizes him in an interesting way.

I guess you can read it as fetishizing, but it’s more of an ironic form of fetishizing. Sal was a teen star, and I think there were three reasons that his star faded: 1) he got older, and child actors always need to transition to adult roles, which is difficult for them; 2) he sort of came out of the closet, which probably wasn’t helpful for his career; 3) he did a couple of movies that were controversial at the time, which tainted his image a little bit. In one of those films, Who Killed Teddy Bear, he pumps iron and it’s a very earnest fetishizing, so I got the idea from that. Sal did care about his looks, and his career was as a heartthrob actor, so the way that he earned his living was based on his physical beauty. So, it’s about an artist who can’t practice his art the way he once did, and the sadness of that, but that he never stopped trying. The workout scene is to show that he’d hit his ceiling—but not for lack of effort.

You do seem to be very fascinated with gay characters and capturing their inner struggle amid an inequitable society, whether it’s in Milk, or your films The Broken Tower and Sal. Where do you think this fascination stems from?

It’s not like it’s my mission to tell the stories of as many gay men as possible, although in some cases, I think it is the point. In Milk, the point is to show one of the great fighters for equal rights for the gay community, so I was happy to do that. With characters like Allen Ginsberg [in Howl], my love for him started with his work when I was a teenager. So his sexuality is secondary to me. It’s an important aspect of who he was and his character, but it wasn’t like, “Yes, I want to play another gay role,” it was more, “Yes, I’d love to play another one of my heroes.”

It’s also a huge step forward to even see humanistic portrayals of gay characters onscreen. Growing up, most of the gay characters I was privy to in films were of the camp variety, or in some bizarre cases, as killers like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. With the exception of Philadelphia, the early ‘90s was a very strange time for gay characters in mainstream cinema.

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Yeah. Once I choose a subject, if that’s part of who they are and their character, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that. And of course I’m for equal rights and will do whatever I can do to help make that happen. But I feel like because I’ve done more gay characters, gay scenes, or gay projects than most straight actors, people see it as some sort of mission. It’s more of a case-by-case basis, and just trying to capture figures that I love. I guess that a lot of the figures that I love were gay.

We just had Banksy take over New York City for the month of October. He’s another artist who really screws around with artistic appropriation, perception, persona, and medium. Do you see parallels between Banksy and yourself, as far as, I guess, toying around with these themes?

I actually don’t know his work that well. I loved the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, but other than that, I’ve just seen his stencils in different cities. A friend of mine is involved in this New York takeover thing, but I don’t know what he’s done. I just heard he was on a street corner selling some of his prints for $60. But as far as messing with people’s perception of me, sometimes it’s fun to be a little surprising, or get involved with things that people don’t expect you to get involved in. If you go back to something like General Hospital, it’s because I like that it allows for people to look at something with fresh eyes, or to rethink a situation. If it’s my involvement that does it, and I’m going against tacit beliefs of entertainment hierarchy—that a “movie star” would never go on a soap opera, and that soap operas are believed to be an “inferior” form of entertainment than movies—if I’m messing with that, that’s interesting to me. But it’s not like I make all my decisions based on, “Ohhhh, I’m going to mess with people!”

Is it to avoid being pigeonholed? This is an industry that loves to keep people in their square pegs and treat them as interchangeable parts, like “I want so-and-so-type.”

Of course it is, in a way. I’m going to try to not let anyone put me in a box, and that certainly applies to the things I do outside of acting. There’s a tacit belief that actors shouldn’t write books, they’re sort of allowed to direct movies but there will be a lot of skepticism, and they shouldn’t do artwork, or music. There are these invisible roadblocks to gain entrée to these areas for actors, and you kind of have to crash through those invisible barriers. I know why those barriers are there. People are skeptical of anyone who has any bit of celebrity going and doing anything else because they might be wary that they’re cashing in on their celebrity, or that they’re doing these other pursuits not because they’re genuinely into them, but because of their celebrity in other areas. I understand that skepticism, and think it’s valid. But I told myself that if I was going to go back to school and study these other things, I knew I was going to get some shit, and that people were going to be prejudiced without even knowing what I’m doing, and that’s the price I have to pay for doing what I want to do. I think a lot more people that “care” and pay attention to what I’m doing have turned and understand that I take all these other disciplines seriously. I think it’s better now. I’m sure I still have a lot of haters, but I don’t really interact with them.

I’m a big fan of Spring Breakers, and now the “Consider This Shit” Oscar campaign for your character, Alien, has kicked in. But I’ve got to ask: if Britney Spears is indeed the “songbird of our generation,” what’s your favorite Britney song?

It’s probably my favorite role, and favorite movie that I’ve ever done. There are some people that are so shortsighted and can’t see beyond the teen character surface of that movie to see what an innovative and amazing film it is. I’m unabashedly proud of that performance. I’m not running that Oscar campaign, A24 is, and they have to do it in a wacky way because some people don’t get it. The use of Britney Spears in the movie is a paradigm for the way the rest of the movie works. She’s a super pop-y singer, and is, in some ways, the “songbird of our generation”—or one of them. Some people would say that’s a horrible thing, but she’s also a great singer, and the use of her song in the movie is both earnest, where I think those characters actually are falling in love, in a way, but it’s also set against the backdrop of robberies. I actually have very little knowledge of Britney’s work though, and probably couldn’t name any songs for you!

You recently filmed an adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and I’m a big Faulkner fan. It was weird though, because I went to a bookstore and the cover of the book now features you and says, “Now A Movie Starring James Franco.”

I found it weird, and I’m aware that it has upset some people. I think it was on the cover of the Books section of The New York Times or something. Nobody told me that it was going to happen, and it’s not my doing. I don’t know who did it. If I had been asked, I like that photo, as far as photos go, but I don’t think it captures the spirit of the book in an image. On the other hand, the only reason that that cover is what it is is because the publisher wants to sell more Faulkner books. I don’t read movie reviews usually, but I read one review of the movie—A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. One of the things that he said that I liked was that my movies, As I Lay Dying, The Broken Tower, and Child of God, “makes his enthusiasm for these writers contagious.” I loved that. I’m a student of literature and I don’t want the love for literature to die, so in the same way, that’s really what the book covers are doing. Maybe As I Lay Dying wasn’t flying off the shelves and they wanted to sell more. It’s not a vanity piece for me.

I heard you’re adapting another Faulkner novel—my favorite—The Sound and the Fury.

I am, as crazy as that sounds. We just finished shooting it in Mississippi.

According to my most recent calculations, you’ve directed four films set to be released this year and starred in six others. When do you sleep?

I’m a robot. [Laughs]