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“This is unlike any Hollywood story ever, it’s so wacky,” says the actor/director James Franco as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 39-year-old is referring to The Disaster Artist, his new film about Tommy Wiseau, the wacky amateur filmmaker behind the 2003 D-movie The Room. Franco both directed and stars as Wiseau in The Disaster Artist — but when he describes an unlikely Hollywood story, he could just as easily be describing his own journey.
Franco dropped out of college to pursue an acting career, became a star and then went back school. He managed to graduate from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in just two years; then enrolled in four graduate programs — NYU for filmmaking, Columbia for fiction writing, Brooklyn College for fiction writing and North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College for a low-residency poetry program — simultaneously; and then he began pursuing his Ph.D in English at Yale, while also taking courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. Oh, and he kept making movies all along the way, including one,127 Hours, for which he received a best actor Oscar nomination, which he lost out on — at the very same Oscars ceremony that he also co-hosted.
“It’s ridiculous, in hindsight,” he says with a chuckle. “There was a part of me that was avoiding life. It’s how I learned, at a very young age, to cope with the world. So at 17, being still a shy, awkward kid who did not know how to deal with the world — other than getting in trouble, and I couldn’t do that anymore — acting became my salvation. And two, three years after that started, I was on Freaks and Geeks, so it was like, ‘This is the answer: Just put my nose down and throw myself into this stuff, and that’s how I’ll survive the world.'”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below, following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Will Arnett, the popular comedy actor, about Louis C.K.‘s fall from grace, voiceover acting, Arrested Development and the animated feature The Lego Batman Movie, in which he voices Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Click here to access all of our 187 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Natalie Portman, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Reese Witherspoon, Robert De Niro, Elisabeth Moss, Jerry Seinfeld, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, J.J. Abrams, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Judi Dench, Warren Beatty, Emma Stone, Ricky Gervais, Kate Winslet, Tyler Perry, Kris Jenner and Jimmy Kimmel.
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Franco was born and raised in Palo Alto, California. A book-smart but directionless kid, he frequently got into trouble, and even became a ward of the court — until he followed a girlfriend into his high school’s drama program, found he loved it and landed the leading role in two shows. “I’m sure I wasn’t great, but it felt right,” he reflects. “It felt like a fit. There was some raw kind of talent or connection to acting even then.” He eventually went off to UCLA, but, as noted, dropped out after a year to pursue an acting career — against his parents’ wishes, and with an understanding that he would lose their financial support if he did so. In order to pay for acting classes, he worked for several months at a McDonald’s drive-thru window, and then landed a Pizza Hut commercial that ran during the Super Bowl, which allowed him to focus on acting full-time. Before long, he booked his first big jobs: a major part opposite Seth Rogen on Judd Apatow and Paul Feig‘s short-lived NBC comedy series Freaks and Geeks; the title part in Mark Rydell‘s TV movie James Dean (for which Franco ultimately won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy); and a supporting role in the Spider-Man franchise, after initially auditioning to play the eponymous superhero himself.
Franco then spent the next few years making “dramatic movies that maybe I shouldn’t have done,” he acknowledges — movies into which he invested tons of preparation, only to feel disappointed when little of that was evident on the screen. While making one, 2006’s Annapolis, he was inspired by how the U.S. Naval Academy prepares its candidates: throwing at them more than they can possibly handle during peacetime so that they will feel ready should wartime come along. “I took on that sort of discipline and all-encompassing kind of an approach,” Franco says, explaining how he began taking on not just acting roles, but also demanding academic programs and extracurricular pursuits like re-editing Gus Van Sant‘s 1991 film My Private Idaho, writing a novel, starring on a soap opera and in a Broadway show and co-hosting the 83rd Oscars with Anne Hathaway in 2011. (“I was in my experimental mode,” he says of that infamous debacle, while insisting, “I was definitely not trying to sabotage it in any way.”) “The lesson I have to keep learning is balance,” he says. “After a while, that sort of workaholism has diminishing returns.”
Franco believes that his life began to right itself when, after years apart, he, Apatow and Rogen reconnected. “Judd and Seth have been so instrumental in my career,” he asserts. “Every time I have a transition in my career, they’re there.” The duo invited him to make a cameo in their 2007 comedy Knocked Up, which they then used to convince Sony that he was funny and should be allowed to star opposite Rogen in the following year’s Pineapple Express, which Apatow and Rogen co-wrote and Apatow produced. Over the course of these reunions, Franco realized that he would achieve “better results” by relaxing and being a team player, things he has strived to do ever since. “It really changed my whole career,” he says, noting that he did some of the work of which he’s proudest later that same year in Van Sant’s Milk, and then, just two years after that, in Danny Boyle‘s 127 Hours, a physically grueling movie on which he worked for five weeks, 12 hours a day, and in which he is the sole actor onscreen most of the time. The latter role was “everything that I had been striving for as a young actor,” Franco says, and he was rewarded with his Oscar nomination as best actor.
During the years since then, Franco has continued to generate great feedback for his unconventional choices. He played a cornrow-coiffed, grill-wearing white rapper in 2012’s Spring Breakers, en route to best supporting actor prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics (Oscar voters were implored to “Consider this shit”); he and Rogen reteamed on the anarchic 2014 comedy The Interview, in retaliation for which North Korea hacked Sony Pictures (“I was proud to be a part of that,” Franco emphasizes); and now he has gone further out on a limb than ever before — generating heaps of praise along the way — with The Disaster Artist. While he had not been a member of The Room‘s cult fanbase in the early 2000s, he was won over by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell‘s book about the movie’s making, also titled The Disaster Artist, and fought to get it made into a film. He did so with Rogen and Rogen’s producing partner Evan Goldberg serving as his producers and his brother Dave Franco, Dave’s wife Alison Brie and Rogen acting alongside him. The film, which Franco directed in-character as Wiseau, premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, screened again at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it was a runner-up for the audience award in the Midnight Madness section) and now seems likely to deliver Franco another Golden Globe nom, and possibly another Oscar nom, too.
Talk about a “wacky” Hollywood story!
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