James Franco nearly bared all for Hillary Clinton. So the Oscar-nominated actor turned filmmaker, whose series of ads branded HRC “the most interesting woman in the world,” hasn’t been taking the election result very well.
“I mean, I’ve been reacting really badly!” he exclaims. “I’ve spiraled into a depression and I’ve been questioning everything that I am, and how I’ve been doing things. It’s been a rough few months.”
The arrival of I Am Michael—a commendable and important film—in theaters and on-demand should help alleviate some of the pain. Directed by Justin Kelly and executive produced by Gus Van Sant, both of whom are gay, the movie dramatizes the true story of Michael Glatze (Franco), an outspoken gay activist and co-founder (with his boyfriend, played by Zachary Quinto) of Young Gay America, an influential magazine for LGBT youth. After suffering a health scare, Glatze turned to Christianity, renounced his homosexuality, and became an ex-gay spokesman of sorts, penning several disgustingly homophobic op-eds for the right-wing website WorldNetDaily about how he was “repulsed by homosexuality” and considered it sinful. In 2013, Glatze married a woman.
Kelly’s film received positive reviews following its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and the real-life Glatze not only confessed to finding the film “healing,” but was also inspired to issue a seemingly heartfelt apology for his anti-gay rhetoric.
“I remember before the film came out, there was a little concern about how we might be giving this guy—who was at one point very anti-gay—a voice, and a non-judgmental approach wouldn’t be fair,” says Kelly. “It’s something I struggled a lot with early on, because he did say some pretty nasty things. But it was really from a lot of gay filmmaker-friends, Gus [Van Sant] included, who helped me with this.”
I Am Michael couldn’t be coming at a more important time, too, given that Vice President Mike Pence, a onetime supporter of gay conversion therapy with an alarming track record of homophobia, has the ear of President Trump.
“Maybe Mike Pence will watch it and learn something,” offers Kelly.
The Daily Beast spoke to James Franco, who delivers a heartfelt, understated turn as Glatze, about the film and much more.
One of the strong points of the film is how even-handed the approach is. There’s a temptation here to be more harsh and judgmental toward Michael Glatze, but instead the film treats its subject rather gracefully, leaving much open to interpretation.
That was really Justin’s take on it, and I thought it was great because it really allows one of the subjects we’re examining—that subject being identity—and how one’s identity is created. Who decides? Do we decide or not? We’re so used to movies having an opposite coming-out story, a coming out of the closet story, and to have it go in the reverse direction is, I think, very strange for people. People I’ve spoken with about the movie tend to believe [Michael] less or think he’s lying to himself, as opposed to other stories of people going from straight to gay, so to leave much of the judgment out of the film really challenges the audience to wrestle with it on their own.
The film makes you think about the fluidity of sexuality. A lot of people are going to see the film and think that Michael is betraying himself, but there is a contrarian argument one could make that, if sexuality is truly fluid, couldn’t a man then decide he doesn’t want to date men anymore and start seeing women?
It seems like we’re much more at ease with someone who was in the closet and then identifies as gay versus the other way around, but the way Michael identified as straight was so politicized. He was so used to being vocal when he was gay, and helping gay youths, and really putting his beliefs out into the public that when he became very religious, playing the character, it seemed like he was doing some of the same thing—just putting his thoughts out there—unfortunately they were very hurtful, and I believe very misguided. But I like what you’re saying. I think the film touches on that in an interesting way, just by virtue of the fact that it’s going in the opposite direction than what we’re used to. It’s very tricky.
I think Michael’s proselytizing was the issue—one of several, really—and how he viewed homosexuality as a disorder that needed to be fixed. Sexual fluidity is one thing, but to go out there and do a very aggressive 180 and then start demonizing the gay community, a community you once loved with every fiber of your being, rang very false.
I Am Michael seemed to have a pretty profound impact on Michael. He said he found it “healing,” and issued what seemed like a heartfelt apology to the gay community.
Before the screening, before he saw it, and before meeting him, we were a little apprehensive. I believe our producer or financier had arranged for him to be part of a panel with IndieWire, and we were a little unsure if he would blast the film publicly or go on one of the rants he’d gone on. I met him right before the panel after he had seen the film, and he seemed really moved, humbled, and it seemed like he had already been shifting away from some of the harsh, ugly stances he’d taken, and maybe anticipating the film coming out got him to question some of the things he’d written. But he did seem like a very changed person.
It’s taken the film quite some time to come out since it premiered at Sundance two years ago, but it seems like the right time for it, given the environment it’s being released into with President Trump and now Vice President Pence, who notoriously fought to divert AIDS funding toward conversion therapy. Many in the LGBT community are scared for what’s to come.
I will say, as non-judgmental and even-handed as the film is in some ways, in other ways it does take a stance. For me, one of the most horrific scenes—and the hardest scene for me to do—is when my character, Michael, is talking a gay kid out of his sexual orientation as if I’m some spiritual guide able to dispense that kind of advice. It was so chilling to do, and so chilling to watch. This for sure is not a pro-conversion-therapy film.
There’s been a lot of chatter in the tabloids and on gossip blogs about your sexuality. I’ve always found it a bit disturbing—the odd obsession with it, and that you need to be labeled a certain way, and that you being gay would somehow be exotic or unusual. Gawker, in particular, wrote a series of stories insinuating that you were gay that reeked of homophobia.
I really have taken a step back in just reassessing everything, but for a while I was of course aware of all that because it’s been happening for years—since Milk, where Gawker did the one article that really bothered me, that I was a “gay rapist” and had a boyfriend that didn’t exist and I beat him and raped him or something. That was so offensive. So offensive. Other than that, with the coverage, I always felt like, you know what? This is a new era. Actors from the generation before, I guess straight actors or actors rumored to be in the closet or whatever, would find this thing really scary and run from it. I thought, well, there’s nothing I can do about it. This is the trash press that we have nowadays. And if I show that this isn’t making me change any artistic or professional decisions that I’ve made or am going to make, maybe… I don’t know. If there’s anything good that can come out of it, it’s that I wouldn’t be running; that I would, somehow, help usher in some sort of new kinds of discussions about coming out or portraying gay characters in films—not that that was my goal, or that I wanted to be in that position, but the good that maybe came out of that situation is it showed that things are changing.
I’ve had some interesting discussions with gay friends about outing famous actors. I am personally of the opinion that it’s not OK, but many gay friends I’ve spoken with have expressed how important it is for prominent gay actors to be out of the closet from a representational standpoint, that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and that staying in the celluloid closet is standing in the way of progress. I’m curious what you think about it.
I arrive in the middle of those two. Role models are certainly important—especially for youth groups that feel ostracized or on the fringe. Perhaps you don’t have the support of your immediate peers and so a role model may be to someone in that situation what books are to me: your friend. Something you turn to for emotional support and self-discovery. If a public figure can come out in a strong way and provide an example, I think it’s a great thing. On the other hand, I’m also in agreement with you that… I guess I would say that there maybe is a little bit more weight of obligation for somebody in the public eye, but if a person is an entertainer, plays sports, or whatever, yeah, they’re going into a profession where they know what the score is and know what’s going to happen and know the risks, but I still don’t think they automatically lose their right to their privacy.