James Franco Uncensored: The Actor on Broadway, NYT Hate, and That Half-Naked Instagram

The newly minted Broadway actor sat down for a wide-ranging conversation touching on his social media addiction and criticism from the art world.

Matt Carr/Getty

Are you here for Franco?

Those are the first words I hear upon entering the restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen that James Franco, the polymath actor-artist-you name it, chose. The latest feather in his cap is Broadway star, playing the prickly George—opposite Chris O’Dowd’s not-so-gentle-giant, Lennie—in Tony Award winner Anna Shapiro’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Franco picked this eatery for our quickie lunch because it’s not far from the Longacre Theatre, where the play has been enjoying a sellout run.

But Franco’s theater debut, which is very strongly acted and executed, along with the excellent film Palo Alto, which is based on his collection of short stories and stars him as a predatory soccer coach, has been overshadowed in recent weeks by a series of pseudo-scandals—the 17-year-old Scottish Francophile he hit on via Instagram; his appearance on Lindsay Lohan’s self-described “F--k List” that somehow leaked to the tabloids; a kerfuffle with The New York Times’ theater critic, Ben Brantley, over a sour review; and a half-naked Instagram selfie that he hastily deleted.

A few days before our chat, Franco addressed the fangirl saga and his Adventures in Lohan-sitting on Howard Stern’s radio show. But there was still plenty left to unpack in Francoville.

He arrives incognito in shades, a pulled-down trucker cap with tucked-in earbuds, and a backpack. After removing the shades, exchanging a few pleasantries, and ordering his black coffee and turkey BLT, we get into it.

I enjoyed Of Mice and Men. Why did you decide to appear in this adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic for your Broadway debut?

Anna Shapiro was going to do it about four years ago, and she wanted me. I’d never done theater but loved it. When I was in high school, I’d go from Palo Alto to San Francisco to watch A.C.T. productions, and saw David Strathairn in The Tempest, but I never seriously thought about doing it. Then out of the blue she asked me, and I was interested, but it was such a new idea to me that I wasn’t able to make the time commitment because my life was going in a different direction. It seemed unfortunate that the whole production fell apart, but that…

…Planted the seed.

Yeah. It planted the seed. And then I started flirting with doing a few other plays, but those also didn’t happen for scheduling reasons. A long time ago, I was asked to do a London incarnation of This is Our Youth, and a lot of young actors were doing it at the time like Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Anakin Skywalker [Hayden Christensen]. Casey Affleck did it with Matt Damon, and I was supposed to do it with Casey but Matt filled in for me, and I always regretted that. And then I regretted turning down this, but I was so grateful that it came back around. Our producer David Binder, who had acquired the rights, came back around to me and asked me if I was interested and I thought, “Don’t let it go again.” And Binder said, “Should we go back to Anna Shapiro?” And I said, “Yes, please try and get her.” I had seen August: Osage County—the play, not the movie—and she had wanted me, which meant a lot.

Do you find it to be culturally resonant now? It is, of course, set during the Great Depression, and we are recovering from the worst depression since then.

Exactly. People can say that since it takes place in the ’30s it’s of a bygone era, but the issues are still very relevant. It’s also like a Greek tragedy, and it hadn’t been done on Broadway in over 40 years. I also loved that Anna was a woman directing a play filled with so many men. Now, if she was here she’d say, “Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m interested in the masculine issues of the play,” but there was something about that filter that was very interesting. I’ve been working with a lot of female directors lately and I really like it. There’s a different energy. There isn’t a lot of posturing, in a way. The actors and director don’t need to fight over who’s top banana.

There isn’t a dick-measuring contest.

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Yeah, in a way.

The crowd at the matinee showing I went to of Of Mice and Men was comprised of many young kids—mostly female.

I’d rather have young people in that audience than old people. And yeah, that’s my audience. A lot of those people are coming to see me, Chris, and Leighton [Meester] because of our other stuff, and yeah, with a lot of the matinee crowds, when there are school groups coming in, you can tell they didn’t read the book. But I have no snobbery about any of that. When you looked out in those audiences at early Beatles concerts, what did you see? Fucking teen girls!

It seems like there’s a divide among the theater community of those who welcome star power on Broadway and those who don’t, and it was really reflected in the Tony nominations, where a lot of the stars—you included—were snubbed.

Yeah, I felt like I was in good company being shunned with Ian McKellen, Denzel Washington, and Marisa Tomei. But to me, that attitude is so self-destructive. To have a play like Of Mice and Men, just a straight drama on Broadway, and to do as well as we’re doing—we broke the house record at the Longacre—is unheard of. Seven out of 10 Broadway plays don’t make their money back. So, to have the critics come in and, on top of those odds, hurt the production even more, it’s like…what do you want? Twenty Aladdins? Because that’s what you’re gonna get!

That New York Times review of Of Mice and Men really seemed to get under your skin, and led to you calling out Ben Brantley on Instagram.

I really normally don’t read any reviews or any other stuff about me because it’s just not healthy, but I read that one because I was new to the theater and it’s a small community. You know what? Maybe I reacted too quickly. It just felt like a poorly written review; a poorly considered review. Also, when you do a movie like, say, Spider-Man, all the reviews are out. Andrew Garfield doesn’t have to go and play Spider-Man now that the reviews are out. All the work is done. But in theater, we have to go on stage the next day. So I felt a little bad that I was pulling in these biased reviews because of my celebrity, and felt a little bit of a need to stand up for the rest of my group—the production—and say, “We’re not going to stand for this.” There was a part of me that just wanted to say, “Hey, shut the fuck up! We don’t care about you.” But maybe I shouldn’t have done it… Too late now!

Let’s talk about your Instagram presence. I myself have been accused of taking too many food porn-y pictures, but what’s the appeal for you?

I don’t know why it’s become such a big deal, but I go through these phases where, honestly, I get addicted. It’s a weird power.

Is it out of loneliness, the selfies? Are you… reaching out?

I’m not lonely…I have people around me all the time. It’s just that as a performer, you get used to interactions with attention and interactions with audiences, so it feels like an audience that’s both private and large at the same time—intimate and wide-reaching—which is very seductive. And there are positive things that come out of my relationship with it, and negative things. I get pulled into these things and, if I look back on my relationship with Instagram, or Twitter, or whatever, I find that I push certain boundaries to see what kind of reaction I’ll get and then inevitably I go too far. It’s ironic to me because what takes it too far I find, in some realms, not to be racy at all.

Like that half-naked selfie that you recently deleted.

Look at any fucking ad! Look at the fucking Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Issue!

David Beckham’s packed penis pouch on a billboard.

Up there on a fucking billboard! Is it because it’s in my own bathroom? Don’t worry, I’m not going to do any more of those. [Laughs]

Back to The New York Times. They also really gave it to your latest art exhibition, James Franco: New Film Stills, which sees you dressed in drag re-creating Cindy Sherman stills, at Pace Gallery.

I didn’t read it. I know the reviews were kind of brutal! [Laughs]

It also seemed to be a bit of a personal attack, and it was a bit weird because this is a publication—The New York Times—that you’d recently written for, so they essentially published your essays on “selfies” and Shia LaBeouf, and then turned around and stuck it to you…twice.

What can I do, man? I think the better route than just lashing out at everybody is to just be humble and keep doing my work. I don’t know what else to do. The idea for [the exhibition] came while I was in art school at RISD, and was dealing a lot with public persona. Honestly, I have not read the review, but I know it wasn’t positive. If Roberta Smith was bringing anything personal in there, I believe the work is very much about my public persona.

So how did the Cindy Sherman tribute come about?

For my thesis show at RISD, I did this piece based on this book called Fucking James Franco. There’s a group of art students in Portland that put this book together and it was very well-designed from a graphics standpoint, and it was this collection of fictional stories about me. So there’s one story in it where I’m on the set of Spider-Man and I’m having sex with someone in my trailer, and they describe everything where we smoke pot and have sex, and at the end it reveals that it’s Tobey [Maguire]. So… really stupid. The stories weren’t clever at all.

So I thought, “I don’t know these people, and it’s supposed to be funny based on my public persona, but at the same time, any attention they’re getting for this project is strictly because of my name, and because of the title: Fucking James Franco.” So they can make fun of me, but the one thing they actually can’t have is me in their project. So I thought, “That’s what I’ll give them.” I decided to perform them, become the stories and, in a way, give them their version of me. In the larger scheme, I feel like that’s what my public persona is. It’s not solely of my making; everybody is contributing to it. Anyone who writes about me is contributing to that public persona.

Once I did that performance for my thesis and had to defend it and was talking to my professors, I found that I was referencing Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, and Richard Prince, and I realized that these were all artists who used film as a reference for their artwork. So, I figured here I am and I’m deep in the film world, and they’re looking at film from an outsider’s perspective, and I have an insider’s perspective, and it’s a fairly unique position to straddle both worlds. Where Cindy was placing herself in fictional movies and disappearing in them, I thought I would do that and just like she was addressing certain gender roles, this would be a further step because I’d be a man playing a woman, but also, my public persona is so different and I’m coming from the film world, so if I enter into these fictional films, it will have a new kind of emphasis.

Why do you think those in the art world react so violently to your work? And is that part of the intention—that your work constantly incites these debates of “Is this art?”

Well, all I can say is I know that coming to the art world having already established myself in a different world is part of the reaction. I’ve tried to do everything I can to treat this seriously. I’ve been to as much art school as any other artist, but I also understand that it’s just not the same as if I was just an artist and all I had was the art I was producing; it’s not the same position that I’m in now.

Palo Alto is an interesting film. There’s a lot of famous offspring involved in the project, from Gia Coppola to Jack Kilmer to Emma Roberts. Was that intentional, similar to the way Harmony Korine cast a bevy of Disney starlets in Spring Breakers, to give the film an added layer of cultural resonance?

I wasn’t involved in the casting, I just chose Gia to direct, and I wrote the book. I’d solely seen Gia’s photographs but what I sensed in the photographs was that she was in touch with contemporary youth, and if she could translate that to the movie, she’d be fine. I took her through a series of developmental steps that I have my grad students at UCLA and USC go through, so she shot a 45-minute test and edited it together. So I helped guide her, but it was only to be able to show her that she could adapt what she did in the photographs to film. The instinct I had, and I think it really paid off, is that she’d be able to capture youth in a way that speaks to youth, but also to elevate it beyond that milieu.

And you play a predatory high school soccer coach who pursues, and ultimately sleeps with, a teenage student, played by Emma Roberts. I heard that was based on a teacher in your neighborhood?

Loosely-based! It was even worse than what was depicted in the movie. He went to prison—but not until later, when we were all graduated from high school. I changed certain circumstances, but the stories that I read in the paper were that the girl that I knew wasn’t the only one.

At this point, Franco says an abrupt “goodbye” and rushes off to the theater for a matinee performance.