24 Jan 2009: Winning plaudits for his role in Milk, James Franco’s extreme method acting is finally paying off. So how come he prefers studying to making movies, asks Amy Raphael

When Judd Apatow first met James Franco around 10 years ago, he thought the 20-year-old was funny, strange, skinny and very greasy. He couldn’t understand why women found him so attractive. Still, the producer cast the intense young actor in Freaks And Geeks, a critically acclaimed American television drama about two groups of teenagers at high school in the 1980s. After shooting the pilot, Franco flew himself to Michigan to research his role at the scriptwriter’s old high school. Everyone thought he was crazy.

  • Milk
  • Production year: 2008
  • Countries: Rest of the world, USA
  • Cert (UK): 15
  • Runtime: 128 mins
  • Directors: Gus Van Sant, Semih Kaplanoglu
  • Cast: Alev Ucarer, Alison Pill, Basak Koklukaya, Denis O’Hare, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Lucas Grabeel, Melih Selcuk, Riza Akin, Saadet Isil Aksoy, Sean Penn, Tulin Ozen
  • More on this film

But this was just the start of there being madness in the method acting: back in 2001, Franco played James Dean in an American television biopic. He did a decent job and won a Golden Globe. Yet inhabiting James Dean came at a price. “I got it into my head that I needed to be isolated and so told my girlfriend at the time that I wouldn’t be talking to her for four months,” he recalls. “It did not go down well. We finally made a compromise where I talked to her for an hour a week on the phone. I no longer do that.”

Yet, as recently as 2006, Franco starred in a series of films for which he did heroic (or just dumb) preparation. He earned a pilot’s licence for Flyboys, spent eight months in the boxing ring for Annapolis and learned how to sword fight for Tristan & Isolde.

He was openly disappointed with those three films and almost lost faith in acting. In some ways they were just bad choices. Franco had made some great films earlier this decade, including City By The Sea in which he played Robert De Niro’s on-screen son (and outdid the king of method by sleeping rough to get to the heart of his role as a drug-dealing murder suspect), and a part in Robert Altman’s ballet movie The Company.

Yet, until very recently, Franco was known as the actor who auditioned for the lead in Spider-Man but had to make do with being Peter Parker’s mate Harry Osborn. It’s only now, following his turn as a long-haired pothead in Pineapple Express and his role in Milk, that he’s about to become a proper A-lister – the type of actor who can pick and choose his projects.

If the recent hype has gone to his head, he’s not showing it. But James Franco is a little strange to interview. He spends a lot of time rubbing his fists in his eyes (jetlag), closing his eyes or saying “Hmmmm”. He often seems not to have heard a question and sits on the hotel sofa thinking about something else entirely. Yet he doesn’t appear to be aloof or bored, just distracted. He was once voted “Student with the best smile” at high school and although he’s 30 now, it’s still easy to see why; he spends so much time looking intense that it’s a relief when he cracks a grin. Oh, and he’s not bad looking, either – a kind of alpha male Johnny Depp.

The thing is that Franco doesn’t just dip into anything in life. He dropped out of UCLA in 1996 after a year to pursue acting, realised that acting didn’t feed his soul, returned to UCLA around 2006 and took 62 units; most students take a maximum of 24. He studied the philosophy of science, American literature, American Holocaust literature, French and more. He somehow found time to keep up the acting while studying, reading Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer on the set of Spider-Man 3, 16th-century Jacobean drama during Pineapple Express and the back catalogue of Thomas Pynchon while on the set of Milk.

Sean Penn, who stars as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American to be elected to public office, would see Franco sitting around reading and ask what he made of the dense and difficult Pynchon. Then director Gus Van Sant would shout “Action!” and Penn and Franco, who plays Milk’s boyfriend Scott Smith, would be transported back to the San Francisco of the late-70s. It’s all very well reading American classics when you’re acting with such bright and brilliant talent as Sean Penn but don’t other actors think Franco is a bit weird reading Ulysses?

“Everyone always mentions that book…” says Franco, slurping black coffee. Perhaps because he’s the only person ever to have actually finished it? He laughs. “When I was young I read the annotated Ulysses and in a way I was torturing myself because I had no one to discuss it with. At least in a university environment you have people to discuss these things with.” Yes, but don’t other actors think you’re weird? “No! There’s a lot of downtime on set, so instead of watching TV or hanging around and bullshitting with other people, I read.”

Since leaving UCLA last summer, Franco is now studying at two graduate schools in New York, one for creative writing, the other for film-making. He’s flown straight to London from a writing programme at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and talks at length about F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. I ask if he’s too smart to be an actor and he pulls at his hair, scowls and then unleashes the smile.

“No, acting is very challenging, I’ve just had to accept that movies are a director’s medium,” he says. “When I started out I didn’t accept that. I used to work really hard without turning myself over to the director’s vision. Now I only make films in my summer break and only work with directors I totally trust, such as Gus Van Sant. Going to graduate school is also helping my relationship with acting because it takes the pressure off; I have something else in my life.”

Franco and his two younger brothers were brought up in Palo Alto, California by their Stanford university graduate parents. Young James was always pushed to get good grades; his father wanted him to be a mathematician and he scored very highly in his SATs. Inevitably, perhaps, such hot housing was followed by a period of extended rebellion:

“In my first two years of high school I got into a lot of trouble with the police for minor things: graffiti, stealing, crashing cars. It was teen angst. I was uncomfortable in my own skin.

I was shy. I changed my ways just in time to get good grades.”

The Franco household was academic, liberal and largely secular, despite mother Betsy being Jewish. “I do feel like I missed out on the Jewish experience. My Jewish friends tell me not to worry… but I like the idea of religion as a source of community.” Is he a believer? “In God? I don’t know. Yes. To a certain extent. It’s a complicated question.”

Franco seems to like complicating things. Balancing an academic life with a career as a critically acclaimed Hollywood actor is a challenge in itself. He surprised critics and fans alike with the stoner comedy Pineapple Express but can also be seen on Will Ferrell’s comedy website Funny Or Die parodying his own method acting (see actingwithfranco).

“I’m not serious all the time,” says Franco, frowning. “It’s not like I grew up in a house full of jokes, but my dad did turn me on to Monty Python. Freaks And Geeks was a comedy. A few years ago I co-wrote and directed a small film called The Ape, which is a black comedy. I guess it’s just hard to find good comedy, which is why I jumped at the chance of working with Judd [Apatow] again on Pineapple Express. I really think he’s taken American comedy in a new direction. Right now though I have no idea if my next project will be comedy or straight drama.”

For now, however, Franco is happy to be described as a “scene stealer” in the multi-nominated Milk. Just don’t ask him trivial questions about working out (“I don’t. It’s boring”) or kissing his hero Sean Penn. “It’s not that I mind talking about it, it’s just that… there’s so much scrutiny over the answers I offer,” he says. “I really noticed it when Jake [Gyllenhaal] and Heath [Ledger] had to talk about kissing in Brokeback Mountain. It’s like you can never answer in the right way. If I’m too casual it looks as though I’m making fun of the film. If I don’t answer, it looks as though I’m uncomfortable. I can’t win.” He rubs his eyes. Then, finally, smiles. “God, I’m being way too serious! OK. You want the simple answer? I had no problem with kissing Sean Penn.” ·

• Milk is out now