James Franco has made the transition from cult TV show Freaks and Geeks to a major Hollywood actor thanks to the Spider-Man trilogy, Pineapple Express and, most recently, Milk. Despite his success and pin-up looks he continues to surprise and stray away from standard fare by picking and choosing his roles carefully, painting, studying writing at Columbia University and filmmaking at New York University's Tisch School of Arts. He sat down with Maria Realf to discuss Milk, Spider-Man and, erm, The Goonies.
LWLies: What first attracted you to Milk?
Franco: The first thing that caught my attention was Gus’s involvement. I see all of his films – I’ve been a fan since I was 15 or something – and I heard Gus was doing a new movie called Milk about this guy Harvey Milk. I didn’t know much about Harvey so I looked it up, and I was surprised and sad to find out that he’d had his whole political career in San Francisco – which is less than an hour away from where I grew up – and I didn’t know anything about him.
I found out the whole story and that he was the first openly gay man to be elected to [major] public office in the country. Then I saw the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and it’s just an incredible story. I also found out that Gus had been trying to tell this story for 15 years. I put all of that together: it’s Gus Van Sant, it’s a great story and it’s a story that’s very close to him. So I thought, 'Gus will be at the top of his game and it sounds like a project I’d love to be a part of.' I wrote him an email – I still didn’t have the script at that point; I just told him I’d love to be a part of it in any way. I knew him a little bit before that, and then we met again and talked, and he offered me the part.
LWLies: Was Sean Penn on board when you wrote to him?
Franco: Yes, Sean was on board – of course that was a huge draw as well. He’s one of my favourite actors.
LWLies: The two of you look really comfortable as an on-screen couple – is that a bond that came naturally or did you have to develop that over time?
Franco: I’ve known Sean for about five years. He had a movie that he was considering [but never directed], so he wanted to meet with me about being in it, and we got along really well. He’s always been really supportive – he’s great that way. We’d never worked together before, but he was always there if I needed some sort of advice and because of that I felt very comfortable with him, just because I looked up to him and used him as an adviser in a lot of ways. It was easy to trust him and be comfortable with him.
LWLies: Did you have any idea when you were making this film that it was going to receive all this acclaim?
Franco: I try to think back to what we were thinking then. I just knew that I was working with the best people on a very important story so that felt special. You don’t really sit around a set thinking, 'This is Oscar material right here' – you just kind of do the movie the best way you can and make it as natural as you can.
LWLies: Where did you first discover your love of acting?
Franco: It goes back to high school, I guess. I’ve always loved movies – growing up in the ’80s I was exposed to a lot of ’80s teen films.
LWLies: Did you watch The Goonies?
Franco: Of course.
LWLies: Was it weird working with Josh Brolin?
Franco: I was obsessed with The Goonies, and I had a Goonie fan moment with Josh. We were at a benefit one time and I warned him, I said, 'I’m going to have a Goonie moment with you tonight.'
LWLies: Was this before Milk?
Franco: This was after we’d done Milk. We’ve actually been in three movies together but we’ve never had a scene together. We were in The Dead Girl, In the Valley of Elahand then Milk.
LWLies: You dropped out of uni for a bit to pursue acting and then went back – what made you return once you’d made it?
Franco: I don’t know. I had been acting for eight years – I enjoy acting and was very grateful for being able to support myself as an actor, but I guess I just needed something more. I had a lot of other interests and I just wanted to pursue them in a serious way.
LWLies: Did you study writing?
Franco: Yeah. Around the same time I started acting in high school, I got very interested in literature so it’s always been an interest of mine.
LWLies: You’ve done blockbusters, comedy, romance, drama – do you make a deliberate effort to mix it up and avoid being typecast?
Franco: No, for me – especially now – it’s really about the directors and the people that I work with. When I do a movie now, I’m signing on to help deliver the director’s vision. If there are two roles in two different films that are similar, but they’re two directors that I believe in, I think I’d do them both if they wanted me.
LWLies: One of the big roles you’re famous for is Harry in Spider-Man – were you a bit disappointed not to get the Peter Parker role or were you just glad to get a good part?
Franco: I was up for the Peter Parker role and sure, when I heard that I didn’t get it, I was disappointed. But it’s so long ago now. I think Tobey’s great in the role and I believe it worked out for the best.
LWLies: Is that it for you now with Spider-Man or could there be a ghostly Harry apparition…?
Franco: Yeah, I don’t know... You know as much as I do! They’re doing a fourth one I guess, but I died in the third one and I haven’t heard anything about a ghostly cameo [laughs]. But maybe…
LWLies: What’s your next project?
Franco: I’m doing a movie about the American poet Allen Ginsberg – his most famous poem is Howl and back in the ’50s it was put on trial for possibly being obscene. So I’m going to play the young Ginsberg.