What can’t James Franco do?
Not much. He’s an accomplished actor, director, screenwriter, teacher, painter and poet: A book of his poetry, Directing Herbert White (Graywolf Press), comes out in April. His breakout role on the television cult classic, Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), led to such films as the Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007), Pineapple Express (2008) and 127 Hours (2010), which earned him an Academy Award nod for Best Actor.
He’s currently working on several upcoming films: The Sound and the Fury (his own adaptation of the Faulkner novel, which he’s also directing and starring in), The Interview (release date Oct. 2014) and Queen of the Desert, which comes out sometime this year. Now, he’s adding to all that. He’s about to make his Broadway debut in John Steinbeck’s Depression-era play Of Mice and Men as migrant worker George. (Previews begin Mar. 19).
Franco knows that movie sets are leisurely compared to the stress of eight shows a week. Is he nervous? Nope. Interested—in the big unknown.
Any worries about doing eight shows a week? I don’t know: I’ve never done it. I’ve done plays in Los Angeles in small theaters, but we’ve never had an eight- performance-a- week schedule. As far as my nerves go … right now, I feel fine. If I’d been cast in this role for a movie, I’d feel very confident about it. [My co-star] Chris O’Dowd and I have great chemistry. I have total faith in director Anna Shapiro. So, on those levels, I feel great. I know I can give the performance, but it’s about doing it in this new kind of space and form. So that’s the big unknown.
You’ve had so much success in movies, why even try live theater? I love acting, I love exploring and I have to try Broadway at least once. If I didn’t, the only thing that would be holding me back is fear, and I could never let that stop me.
Why this play? It has all the elements I could ask for. And, you know, some people know my work and find me in buddy comedies or bromances. This is, in a way, the ultimate, tragic bromance.
How did this role come about? I had been looking to do Broadway. Because it is my first time and because it is a big commitment of energy and time, and also because I knew a lot of people would be watching, I wanted to find the perfect play to go out in. I’ve loved Steinbeck since I was very young. And Anna Shapiro is my favorite theater director. But even more than that, Anna had done an interview in which she was asked what her dream show was. And she said, Of Mice and Men. I thought, well then, I should help make her dream come true.
How does the play resonate today? Even though it’s set in a certain time, it’s never going to be dated. At the center is the relationship between the two men, George and Lennie. At the beginning, what George doesn’t realize is that what he has in Lennie [played by O’Dowd] is a friend. In a world where so many people are alone, they have each other. He only realizes that at the end, when Lennie is gone. So, that’s a story that will never, ever get old. It’s sad within the story, but there’s something positive that comes out of depicting a bond like they have. Even though the play ends tragically, that’s the positive aspect of it.
Is it true that you originally went into acting to overcome your shyness? The way I think it worked was: I was a very shy kid but I loved film and I loved acting. One of the things that I think prevented me from acting in school plays or local theater was partly my shyness, partly a fear of a very public kind of failure. Even though I loved film, I think that’s what prevented me from trying it early on. But when I did start acting it was that strange kind of phenomenon where all the shyness left me. I was in an imaginary world. And so everything that was inhibiting me was left aside once I was onstage.
Where will you be living here? Do you have any favorite parts of the city? I’m not sure where I’ll be living yet. I used to live in the Village, on 13th St. between Sixth and Seventh aves. I’ve also lived on the Lower East Side, on Clinton St. I loved those neighborhoods.
I’m a big museum guy. I love the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim. And I love gallery hopping. I’m also a big Broadway guy. I try to see all the plays I can. Then I end up at my favorite restaurant, the Waverly Inn.
You’ve been teaching at UCLA, USC and the California Institute of the Arts. I read that you do that because you want to “give back” some of what you’ve been given. That’s true. I love teaching. It’s great to work with talented young people. I realized that it’s changed my whole outlook: I don’t want to have to think about myself all the time. I can think about other people’s work for a while. I can help give young people the opportunity that I was given. There’s also this: As an actor, it’s always: me, me, me. But teaching, well, it’s just a nice thing not to have to be thinking that way for a while.