'Francophrenia': James Franco Takes on Media and His Critics, Reveals Career Master Plan

James Franco
Doug Chamberlain

Up close with Franco, whose character on the show was named Franco.

The Oscar nominee talks to THR about his new film, public perception, why he hates acting classes and how all his disparate projects fit together.

The simple synopsis of Francophrenia (or, Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), which makes its U.S. debut Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival, is that it's a movie about a TV actor who confuses his true self with his character. The mental blur, at the most basic level, comes due to the fact that the actor shares his name with his character, who just so happens to recite long monologues about manipulating reality.

But that the actor is James Franco, a man who has gone from well-regarded actor to tirelessly medium-hopping Hollywood Rorschach blot, makes it impossible to settle for a simple synopsis. 

After all, this is the guy who gave just two requirements for his character on General Hospital: "All I said was I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to be crazy," he tells The Hollywood Reporter during a sit-down conversation in New York.

It was two years ago that, in order to prepare for a role as a fictional soap opera actor in a film by his artist friend Carter, Franco decided the best research was to actually act in a daytime soap. That led to that famed guest arc on the ABC daytime drama, where he was rewarded with a part as a crazed installation artist-serial killer named Franco, the first step in the warping of fact and fiction.

"I didn't know what would happen, it was just sort of an experiment, it was a way to just insert myself into this kind of foreign world that was also sort of related to my world," Franco explains, adding that he also was interested in exploring the friction between what is perceived as highbrow (film) and lowbrow (soaps) entertainment. The parody in it all, the name Franco and serial killer identity, didn't come from any desire to poke fun at the world -- they came straight from the General Hospital writers room. If there was any joke, everyone from the show was in on it.

That sense of fun didn't extend to the audience. At first, the reception for his soap work was less than positive, and he got the creeping sense that he was seen as an impostor in the daytime world.

Why, people wondered, would a guy who had just earned awards for starring with Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning drama now go to the equivalent of Hollywood’s cheesier minor leagues? Some saw it as an attention grab – though there are far easier and seedier ways to get press than a recurring role on a daytime show – which hardened his resolve “to frame [the role on the show] for myself and have some ownership of it.”

PHOTOS: Images From 'Francophrenia (or, Don't Kill Me, I Know Where The Baby Is)

From there, he took a camera on set to document his experiences, including at a special, public taping of an episode at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Between a plot that featured the character Franco’s artistic re-creation of the show's usual hospital set and fans of the show doubling as extras in the episode, it was multi-layered even before Franco filmed behind the scenes.

"We wanted our own, basically fucked-up version," he laughs, though he admits he didn't know how that fucked-up version would take shape. 

Ian Olds, who partnered with Franco on a documentary called Saturday Night, asked Franco for the chance to play with the footage. The result was the paranoid, shrieking and terrifyingly funny voiceover that plays over intimate and uncomfortably close shots from both the episode and behind-the-scenes of its production. It all came with the actor's consent, but he had little input. Olds found a dual subject in the layers of his star, as well as the real physical labor being put in by the production crew and other actors. By being seen going on with their daily jobs, they grounded the film in reality.

** Don’t kill him, he knows where the baby is **

While it may all seem confusing – that’s actually half the fun for the audience – Franco and Olds talk with a remarkably firm grasp on such a seemingly complex and fleeting concept, like they're reading a master plan in a blueprint drafted in their own proprietary language.

In many ways, that's the point: the film serves in part as a sort of notice that, yes, Franco is well aware that his forays into writing, cross-country degree collection, art, experimental filmmaking and celebrity-challenging sometimes leave people scratching their heads – and often outwardly cynical about his motives. Here, he gets to wink at those critics, even though his initial acting in General Hospital was as straightforward as the sometimes ludicrous story line allowed.

“Doing something like this is saying, look, I know what all of you guys are doing, and also this public thing that's been created is not all my doing, but here's a way for me to comment on that, too,” he says. “It’s called Francophrenia, but it's not me trying to get my story across in a clear way or even look good -- I fucking hate that hair I have in it, I cringe every time I see it -- but it's a way for me to kind of, I think, call some people out, but also just make my own comments on it.”

It’s a sly response to the sort of bizarre myth that has grown around him. Among other critical missives, he refers to a 2010 New York Magazine piece by Sam Anderson that asked “Is James Franco for Real?” and served as a kind of national damnation by inquiry, casting him as equal parts myth, savant and snake oil salesman in its examination of his literary, artistic and academic pursuits.

“That article by Sam Anderson, I didn't mind it. It was a fine article, but I kind of felt like people like that -- there's this group of I guess art students or something in Oregon that have just put out this book called Fucking James Franco -- and to me it feels like they're pretending to be critical of this public persona that's called James Franco but they're also using it to serve themselves,” counters James Franco, the actual person.

“Sam Anderson just went around and collected all those fucking kudos for that article, so he's really just doing it for himself and he's using me,” Franco continues, frustration with the seeming insincerity of his critics spilling over. “It's the same thing with Fucking James Franco -- you write a book about these fictional sexual encounters that I have, it seems like you're being kind of critical, but in fact, they're just trying to tap into whatever that was.”

Ultimately, though, Francophrenia is less about winking at his critics than a prime example of his ambitions and interests. After all, one doesn't make the transition from starring strictly in big-budget studio films like the first Spider-Man series to suddenly writing novels, directing microbudget features and putting on art shows in an effort to acquire mainstream approval; ultimately, it’s a matter of being satisfied and, frankly, interested in his own work.

“I went to acting school for like eight years, I got sick of the idea of just honing and honing my craft. I mean, we have all these computers and machines now that can just do that kind of things for us,” he explains. “So honing craft, yes is important, but also kind of less interesting to me than it is to step aside and look at that material and re-examine it and turn it into something else.”

Now, he says, he can let directors do whatever they choose with the films in which he is strictly an actor – prime examples being big-budget fare like last summer’s Planet of the Apes prequel and next summer’s Wizard of Oz prequel – and then do his creative part once the final cut is in the can.

“Afterward, I can step back and look at that like a sculptor looks at clay and say, that's raw material that can be turned into something else,” he offers. “And I think it's very potent material.”

There also is the matter of his wholly original projects, the non-derivative efforts that attract audiences of varying sizes. It’s a bottomless portfolio, with recent and upcoming works that include The Broken Tower, a film that he directs and stars in, about the tragically closeted and ultimately suicidal early 20th century poet Hart Crane; re-edited versions of Three’s Company and My Own Private Idaho; and his in-production adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novella Child of God.

“I do think it's all connected. I write, I direct movies, and all of that, and any individual case, I might just be focused on that thing,” Franco explains, offering that no matter what each project’s solo goal is, “it can be turned into something else, that has a different emphasis.”

James Franco, it would seem, is very much real – even if it’s not always within the realm one might expect.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin