Inside the Charity That Inspires James Franco to Don Green Tights

From left: Janira Obregon, Franco, Julia Bhyunn, Heard and Lydia Maria Colon
From left: Janira Obregon, Franco, Julia Bhyunn, Heard and Lydia Maria Colon
 Wesley Mann

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Everybody knows James Franco is creative, but now he has found a way to make even his philanthropy innovative.

He's donating the proceeds from the three small films he's currently co-producing — Memoria, Killing Animals and Yosemite, all based on his short stories about his experiences growing up in Palo Alto, Calif. — to critically ill children through The Art of Elysium. The charity helps some 40,000 sick youth — like the wheelchair-bound Obregon, Bhyunn and Colon (pictured above) — every year with art, music and film workshops held by volunteers in hospitals all over Los Angeles and New York City. And to make even more of a difference, Franco gave the job of directing the trio of films (two are in postproduction; the third is still in preproduction) to three unknown young directors, perhaps beginning the careers of Hollywood's next generation of cutting-edge auteurs.

"I love that I was able to raise money to help talented young filmmakers and also give the money from sales to charity," says Franco, 36, who started working with Elysium after his pal Kirsten Dunst introduced him to the group. "It was an amazing situation."

Elysium, which turns 17 this August, has a long track record of working with stars. Sting, Scarlett Johansson, Miley Cyrus, Billy Idol, Mark Wahlberg and Amber Heard (Franco's co-star in the upcoming The Adderall Diaries) also have contributed to the organization. In fact, this year Heard will receive the Spirit of Elysium Award for her frequent volunteering and other good works (past winners include Eva Mendes, David Arquette, Dunst and Franco). "When I first moved to L.A., I was looking for a way to help," says Heard, 28. "But since I didn't have any money, my time was all I could offer."

These days, Heard contributes more than time: She purchased music equipment and costumes for Elysium's numerous children's programs. And Franco has been known to slip into green tights and play the Grinch during Elysium's Christmas show. "I would try to visit the All Saints hospital [in North Hollywood] once a week to work with a young man named David on the script for the holiday play," Franco says of a boy who's been in hospice care since infancy. "David had aspirations of being a filmmaker, and working with him on something that was from my world and could help him move toward his dreams was incredibly meaningful to both of us."

In recent years, Art of Elysium has grown dramatically. Its work with children at hospitals in New York City started in 2009. Now, says group founder Jennifer Howell, they are currently in the middle of expanding their programs "to be of service through the arts to other areas of needs and truly heal the world through art  We have been specifically asked for years to bring programs into elder care facilities and two weeks ago, we did our first music workshops for an elder care facility in the Valley."

Go here to find out more about The Art of Elysium and make a donation.

Read more from THR's Philanthropy Issue here.

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