A DECADE ago, James Franco was best known as the actor who auditioned for the lead in Spider-Man but had to make do with being Peter Parker’s pal Harry Osborn. Since then he’s acquired other skills, besides sulking whilst Tobey Maguire snapped his spandex into place.
For his Oscar-nominated work as the self-amputating Aron Ralston in 127 Hours, he lost 20lbs and learned to rock climb. For an obscure movie called Flyboys he earned a pilot’s licence, and for Oz The Great And Powerful he spent two weeks learning magic tricks from Las Vegas illusionist Lance Burton.
“I could make a flame rise from my palm,” he says, and his hands start to sketch the illusion in mid-air. “Then I do a move and it becomes a real dove. Then there’s a fake rabbit I could pull out of a hat and make it look as if it was alive. It took a little practice, but he was a great teacher and I remember feeling really proud of myself when I got it.”
However, you won’t see the wizard of Oz doing any of this in Disney’s movie: “It got cut,” shrugs Franco. “Directors insist you do a lot of research for a film. They’ll say, I need you to learn horseback riding, or swordfighting, or things like that. And I know those are the first scenes that will be cut.”
His face splits into the Cheshire Cat grin that once saw him voted “Student with the best smile” at high school. Other actors might pout at losing the chance to showcase their skills on screen, but Franco is happy to embark on research that is above and beyond what is called for. He slept rough on the streets for one of his first films, City By The Sea, and watched – but absolutely did not participate – in a drug-fuelled threesome to play a hustler in a little-known film called Sonny. “When I was young, I would do a lot of that stuff on my own, almost to prove myself,” he says. “I still do whatever is necessary but back then it was cool to say, ‘I’ve slept on the streets for this role,’ whether it helped or not. So I did a lot of rock climbing for 127 Hours, but when I was younger I might have been, like, ‘Oh, I have to go climb K2.’ ”
For his new film Spring Breakers, Franco dons metal teeth, semi-permanent tattoos and cornrows to play Alien, a wannabe gangster rapper in Harmony Korine’s teen spoof. The early preview at the Glasgow Film Festival, in a screening full of beach balls, has already got people talking, although with gunplay and threesomes, the picture is unlikely to share a bill with Oz anytime soon. According to Franco’s co-star Vanessa Hudgens, Franco enjoyed his hip-hop alter ego so much that he stayed in character for the entire three-week shoot. “I didn’t,” he splutters. “When we finished for the day I didn’t talk or act like Alien, but I couldn’t take off the hair or the fake tattoos. I’d walk through the hotel, being nice and smiling at people, but getting weird looks. Then I’d remember, ‘Of course, I look scary.’”
Mere mortals can’t keep up with Franco. Besides mainstream hits like Spider-man and Pineapple Express, he flirts with ruminative, quasi-experimental efforts like Spring Breakers and a fractured Alan Ginsberg biopic like Howl. He’s also an author of two volumes of poems and stories, he talks about appearing in Of Mice And Men on Broadway, and he is a university lecturer. He has also directed avant-garde films which have been exhibited at the Tate Modern, and recently annoyed his neighbours by shooting a low-budget movie in the driveway of his Hollywood home.
Calling this a career seems inappropriate. His choices seem unplanned and restless. What he calls “projects” – including four degree courses at different universities – are often the result of his curiosity. He was advised not to co-host the 2011 Oscars ceremony alongside Anne Hathaway, but did it anyway. “I knew there could be a backlash, but it was a chance to be at the centre of this big interesting thing,” he says, although the critics said he seemed less interested at the time.
This year’s host Seth MacFarlane was also criticised when he brought his Family Guy political incorrectness to the Kodak Theatre, and Franco is minded to view the job as a thankless one. “In the beginning the Oscars was a show where peers gave awards to peers, but it’s also become this big entertainment. People love to bash the hosts although most of the ones I’ve seen have been fine.”
More recently, he came up against a different kind of hostility when he put up a parody of Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend on his website. In the video, Franco lip-syncs Bieber’s parts while Spring Breakers co-star Ashley Benson dances with him. Now it’s been taken down: “Bieber didn’t contact me, but I don’t think he was too happy,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to diss him.”
Franco in person is serious, a little intense, and not entirely sure he could trust you with a joke anyway, but on screen he’s not afraid to poke a little fun at himself. In the upcoming summer comedy This Is The End, he plays an actorish and slightly socially inappropriate chap called James Franco, who hosts a house party for Seth Rogen, Emma Watson, Jason Segal and Paul Rudd when the apocalypse strikes.
“It’s an exaggerated version of me,” he says. “They gave me this Hollywood-style house that is nothing like where I live, and the things that that version of me cares about are really not my priorities. And in the movie James Franco is in love with Seth Rogen…” He pauses, hamming up the drama. “Whereas, I like Seth but I don’t spend my life trying to be his best friend.”
With the books, paintings, spoofs, and a stint on the US TV soap General Hospital it’s tempting to theorise that Franco is a workaholic. His last break lasted 12 hours, when a cold caused him to pull out of an appearance on the Graham Norton Show. The following morning, however, he’s back doing interviews, although a little low and slow at first. But he strips his gears to refute the idea he can’t turn down work. “I do say no to a lot of things,” he says earnestly. “I think a lot of people think I’m too busy with school so I don’t get a lot of things. But I’m in a lucky position where I don’t need an escape or a vacation. I don’t feel like it’s like being a workaholic: it’s what I love to do, so it is how I spend my time.” «
• Oz, The Great And Powerful is on general release; Spring Breakers is out on 5 April; This Is The End is out on 28 June