'11.22.63' Star James Franco Talks Time-Traveling and Career Move He (Almost) Regrets

11.22.63 - James Franco - still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The 1960s were a tumultuous time, an era of upheaval and protest and change, much of which came about after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And for the characters of Hulu's new miniseries 11.22.63, changing that one event holds the answer to a better American in 2016. Lucky for them, they’ve discovered a time portal that leads to a time and place a few years prior to the assassination, so high school English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) heads back in time to try and prevent JFK from being killed. Along the way, he’s both entranced and repelled by an earlier America, and he discovers the past can be awfully resistant to change.

Based on the 2012 Stephen King best-seller and exec produced by J.J. Abrams, the series premieres on Presidents’ Day (naturally). We talked to Franco about playing a character who is himself acting all the time, and whether he would change the past if he had the same opportunity.

You’re known for picking eclectic projects. How did you decide to work on this one?

I had been preparing for my oral exams at Yale for my PhD in English, and I had to read 150 books that I would be tested on by five professors, so it took me about a year and a half to prepare for that. As soon as I was done, I was like, 'Oh, man, I’ve been in this hole where I’ve only been reading to prepare for this test. Now I can read whatever I want.' And I remembered that I’d seen 11/22/63 in a bookstore at the airport, and thought it looked great. So it was the first book that I read after the test, and I loved it. It was over 1,000 pages, but I read it really quickly, and I remember thinking it was really cinematic. Through a friend who knew him, I got Stephen King’s email address and wrote to him and asked him if the rights were available, because I’d heard that he was very generous with his material. He said, "Oh, I’d love to do something with you, but J.J. Abrams already has the rights to the book and he’s doing it as a series for Hulu."

I thought, "Well, there goes that. There’s no way I’m going to beat J.J. out for the rights." So I just wrote a little review of the book for Vice, and then I guess J.J. read it, and a couple weeks later I got an email from him and he said, "Hey, I love everything you love about the book. I’m doing this series, would you consider playing Jake?" 

Jake is a modern man living in a very different time. Was that something you were conscious of when you were portraying him, that you wanted to act like a modern guy stuck in 1960?

That concept was one of my favorite things about the book and the scripts, was that Jake isn’t from this time. As an actor, I’ve done period pieces before, and in those conventional period pieces, you, as an actor, try to act like a character who’s from that period. You don’t see the seams of how the filmmakers create that period. You just want the audience to feel like, "OK, we’re back in time." But in this case, the character is not of that time. He becomes this really interesting figure who can point out things to the audience about what was great about the past. Like, the food tastes different, the milk tastes better, the pie is so good. And then he can point out things that were horrible or worse than they are now, like Jim Crow laws and things like that.

It’s a unique storytelling device where the main character really becomes an ambassador for the audience to highlight different things about the past and what he’s looking at. But then, in addition to that, what the character Jake has to do is, he has to fit into the past. He’s not of that time. People did things differently back then. He is essentially doing what I do as an actor when I play a role. He is taking on different colloquialisms or different sayings of a period. He is dressing in a different way. He is behaving in a different way. Because he is trying to fit into the past. And so as an actor, playing somebody who essentially is being an actor himself, I don’t know, it was just fun.

There’s a self-consciousness about how he’s behaving in the world.

Yeah, I love that. I love that aspect of it, that there is this justification -- because of the setup -- for meta commentaries, or these very self-aware commentaries about what’s going on.

Why do you think Jake agrees to the mission? It’s kind of an insane task, to give up years of your life to try and do this thing that you may not even succeed at. Why is he up for it?

Jake’s life in 2016 isn’t really going the way that he had always dreamed that it would. I guess when he was younger, he probably dreamed of getting married and starting a family and becoming a novelist, and none of those things have worked out. We find him, he’s divorced, his novel never went anywhere, his high school English students don’t seem that interested in what he’s trying to teach. And so he doesn’t really have that much going on in the present.

And then in addition to that, Chris Cooper’s character, Al, the one who introduces him to the time portal and asks him to go on this mission, is so emphatic and believes so deeply in this mission and that by saving JFK, maybe the country and the world will be a better place. 

Does that make him the right man for the job?

Well, one of the things that I like about the project is that Jake isn’t a spy. He doesn’t have any military background or anything like that. So he is in some ways not well equipped to take on a mission like this. But in other ways he’s smart and resourceful. I like playing characters like that, where it’s sort of an everyman character who is asked to rise to certain circumstances when he’s called upon.

Right place right time, rather than "You are chosen for this.”

Yeah, it’s not like he’s Harry Potter, like you’re the Chosen One and you’re the only one who can do this. It’s more like, Al has nobody else he can turn to, so please do this.

If you had the opportunity Jake has, would you want to change things? Or would you want to just go back to observe what’s happening?

That’s so tricky. I would say yes, there are certain things that you just would want to warn people about, but on the other hand, if I look back at just the small events of my own life, I know that sometimes the hardest things I had to go through or the most adverse things I had to experience are the things that changed me for the better. Just a really small example is, when I was younger, I did a series of movies that I really didn’t like. I worked really hard on them, but they weren’t movies that I cared about. And after they came out, I just felt so awful. So I could say, oh, I would go back and not do those movies, but in fact by doing those movies, I realized, oh, never make decisions based on career or what other people tell you anymore. Only do projects that you care about, that you believe in, and that idea really just came out of having a bad experience on those movies. So it’s hard to say. Yeah, you want to go and save a lot of people or whatever, but the butterfly effect? Who knows what other horrible thing you might enable if you go change one thing?

11.22.63 premieres on Monday, Feb. 15, on Hulu.