Every winter, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival fetes one actor for his or her "Outstanding Performance" in the previous year. On January 29, James Franco was given this honor for his portrayal of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Franco arrived rather perplexed by the format of the evening. He'd raced up the coast from Los Angeles, where rehearsals for the Academy Awards, which he is co-hosting (with Anne Hathaway), had run long. Apparently nobody had told him he'd be doing more than just receiving a statue and saying thanks to a crowd. One of the unique and special things about the SBIFF is that those they celebrate sit down for a couple hours and talk about their careers with moderators like, in this case, Leonard Maltin. For cinema lovers, it's a rare opportunity to hear filmmakers, like Franco, speak candidly and at length about their lives and body of work.
Were James' parents supportive of his early desire to pursue acting?
"No. I was at UCLA, I was an English major. Even that was a compromise. My father wanted me to be a mathematician like him. When I got to L.A., half the town was in the [movie] business. That isn't what it's like in Palo Alto, where acting in film sounded impossible. So I went to acting school, which my parents weren't happy about either. Look at it from their point of view. I left UCLA, I was sleeping on a couch, and I had no car so I had to get jobs close to where I lived. Of course my parents weren't happy."
On how he scored his breakthrough gig as James Dean, the performance he won a Golden Globe for:
"Freaks and Geeks was unfortunately canceled. We had the worst luck in some ways. Someone at the network had, I guess, no problems in high school and just didn't get the show. Then they put us on Monday night opposite Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which was like the biggest show in the world at the time. Then opposite the World Series and, like, a horrible plane crash or something. So I went back to auditioning and did this movie Whatever It Takes. Then I did this thing where I played a heroin addict, and that's when I got the call for James Dean. I had seen his movies, but rewatched them all. I read and had a pretty good feeling after the audition. Then everyone told me not to do it. I'd be typecast, there'd be a lot of scrutiny, and people would destroy me critically. I had an offer on an actual feature and James Dean was [only on] TV. So [the feature] sounded better to everyone else, but the movie was The Hole, an old Keira Knightley movie. I almost did that. I almost did The Hole film! [Laughs] But I had this old acting teacher who told me to do Dean. He got Dean and turned out to be the one guy who could help me prepare. I prepared as much as I could. Started smoking. Smoked three packs a day. This teacher told me not to talk to anybody, to play James Dean in isolation. That [last bit] is now a Trivial Pursuit question: ‘Which actor did James Franco not speak to anyone for three months to prepare for?'"
Soon after, James was cast to star opposite Robert De Niro in City by the Sea:
"It was great. At the time, it was a dream come true. I had just shot the James Dean film. I remember, I had to go read with De Niro and he was promoting Meet the Parents at the time. It was at some hotel in New York. The director had to take a call and left the room and De Niro wouldn't talk. It was really awkward. The movie didn't need us very much in the same scenes together, but I would come just to watch him act. When we finally got to our big scene together, it was great, one of the best acting experiences I'd had at that point. At the end, we went to do his coverage and I'm feeling good about what I've done. [They're going to shoot over my shoulder], so I really want to act it up for him. To give him everything I've got to work off of. We did my take and he was like, ‘James, that was great, but can you just do it faster.' Ha. Not weird."
The same year, 2002, he starred in Sonny, Nicolas Cage's one and only attempt to helm a movie. What was Cage like as a director?
"Enthusiastic. He was great, actually. It's nice to have an actor as a director. They're looking out for you in ways directors without acting experience do. I fancied myself as very intense at the time, so he was all into that actory stuff."
2002 was also another major turning point in James' career. He appeared on-screen as Harry Osborne, Peter Parker's best friend and future arch-nemesis in Spider-Man. He originally auditioned and almost nabbed the starring role, but Parker went on to be played by Tobey Maguire instead.
"Yeah, could've been me."
Was he less than pleased with that casting realignment?
"No, I mean, whatever. I auditioned for Spider-Man. Yeah, at the time I was really upset that I didn't get it. But when I was about to shoot Spider-Man 3, and I knew I had six months ahead of me waiting for a green screen to be ready, that's when I decided to go back to school. So yeah, you can say Spider-Man changed my life."
His passion for acting on the decline, James headed back to college. In fact, he still regularly takes classes and has become something of a professional student since then. Ultimately, however, landing the role of a pot dealer in the Judd Apatow-produced Pineapple Express reinvigorated his passion for acting and brought him back to the profession full-time. How did a dramatic actor score a comedic lead and what was so special about the experience?
"It was, I think, a pretty complicated process. Obviously I knew Judd and Seth [Rogen; his Pineapple co-star] from Freaks and Geeks. But [they went off and did their thing] and at some point Judd said to Seth, ‘Come up with 100 ideas of movies you'd like to make.' Seth and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, came up with the idea of a stoner action-comedy. This was years before we made it. I had been making a lot of movies I wasn't happy with, so I went off and made my own movie called The Ape. It turned out OK, and I took it to the Austin Film Festival where Judd came to see it. He said, ‘You're doing all these drama things, but, when you do your own thing, it's comedy. You think that means something?' He said, ‘I'm going to do this movie Knocked Up with Seth, but then you two should do something together.' I said, ‘Yes, great!' They sent me Pineapple Express and I assumed they wanted me for the straight man role. We had lunch and I had been thing about [how I could really play those scenes where Saul, the pot dealer, gets kicked in the balls]. I told Judd I loved the script, but I wanted to play the role Seth would play. Judd said, ‘That's crazy because we just talked about how you should play the stoner role and Seth the other role.' And it changed the way I approach movies. Before then, making movies was kind of painful. It was just that tortured actor stuff. I didn't want to act anymore. That's why I went back to school. But when I did Pineapple, it showed me making movies could be fun. Now I only work with people I like. It makes everything so much better."
He's also developed a habit of appearing in cameos of varying lengths, sometimes not even credited. Eat, Pray, Love, Date Night, and The Green Hornet are all recent examples of this.
"I'll tell you what. Seth Rogen gave me some of the best advice. When we were promoting Pineapple Express, he said, ‘I will never do a movie I wouldn't go to see.' For some reason, I didn't understand that at the start of my career. So that's what I do now except if I won't have to work for months on a movie. I like doing these small things when I like who I'd be working with. Why wouldn't I want to play Julia Roberts' lover? Now I haven't seen the movie. It's not a movie I'd probably go see anyway. But you don't say no to Julia Roberts."
On what the hell he's doing in a reoccurring role on daytime soap General Hospital:
"I'm making art is what I'm doing. [Grins] How'd it come about? I was talking to an artist friend I had done this project with -- Erased James Franco. So we made this movie and he took it to MOMA in New York. We were talking about doing another movie, and I was going to play a character who was starring on a soap opera. Then I was walking down a New York street and thought, ‘I should just be on a soap opera.' Not for research. It just sounded really cool, really fun."
On how his role as an artist named "Franco" came about?
"Turns out General Hospital was very open to me coming on. I could design my own character and even write for it. I didn't want that. I wanted the full soap opera treatment. I just said, ‘Make him an artist and make him crazy.' That's all I wanted. They said, ‘We want to call your character Franco.' I thought that was awesome. So the shock of me being on people's screen, being called, ‘Hey, Franco,' keeps people from forgetting it's me. It's like, ‘It's James Franco, but he's acting kind of crazy.' People look at it different from the movies I make. In movies, you just want people to suspect their disbelief. In soap opera, it's so the other world."
James received his first Oscar nomination this year, as Best Actor for 127 Hours. On the movie's director, Danny Boyle, who's also nominated this year for an Oscar in the Best Adapted Screenplay category:
"Danny's the best, he's so great to work with. To set it up, I think there are two things that drive Danny Boyle as a director. Every film is different, including how he approaches a film. With 127 Hours, he told me he wanted to do a character in isolation. The other thing that drives him is he wants a dynamic moviegoing experience. So when he takes on the challenge of the character in isolation, he didn't want a slow, artsy movie. He wanted a character who doesn't move in an action movie.
On what making 127 Hours was like considering he's alone on-screen 95 percent of the movie:
"Because there were no other actors, everyone's looking at me like, ‘Wasn't it weird not having actors to work with?' Yeah, it was. But it was for everyone on set. Everyone had to embody this character to bring him to the screen."