1. The Wink
“Franco is here. And he is seriously good looking, but very weird.”
—Maxie and Lulu, General Hospital, November 23, 2009
James Franco will not stop bouncing around. We’re standing on the sixth floor of a building at NYU, in the Department of Cinema Studies, outside a small theater. He’s wearing a standard grad-student uniform: washed-out jeans, charcoal sweater, gray sneakers, messy hair. His face—the face whose sculpted smoothness has won him countless film roles, and a Gucci endorsement, and daily floods of heartsick prose poetry on Internet comment boards—has been abducted by a mildly disturbing mustache. (He had to grow it for a role, he says.) We’ve just finished listening to a lecture by the performance artist Marina Abramovic—a talk Franco introduced with a charming but rambling overview of Abramovic’s career: the time she screamed herself hoarse, the time she took medication to give herself seizures, the time she cut her own hand with a knife, the time she ate an entire raw onion. It’s unclear whether people have come tonight to see Abramovic or Franco or just the symbiotic fusion of the two—this rare public marriage of Hollywood and art-world stars.
The crowd has dispersed now, and Franco is out here in the lobby bouncing around, weirdly, like a boxer before a fight, hopping back and forth, telling me about how stressed he is. He’s just flown back from Berlin this afternoon, he says, and he has a 35-page paper due tomorrow. Next weekend he has to shoot a student film, because in two weeks he’ll be flying out to Salt Lake City to start acting in a movie called 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, in which Franco will play a hiker who gets pinned by a boulder and has to amputate his own arm. Revisions are due soon on his book of short stories, which will be published in October by Scribner. He’s trying to nail down the details of an art show that will be based, somehow, on his recent performance on the soap opera General Hospital. Also, he has class every day, which—since he’s enrolled in four graduate programs at once—requires commuting among Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, Morningside Heights, and occasionally North Carolina. He looks exhausted; it occurs to me that maybe he’s bouncing around to keep himself awake.
After a few minutes, Franco apologizes for his hopping and says he really just desperately needs to urinate. He keeps talking about his work as we walk down the hall—most of his student films, he tells me, have been adaptations of poems—and then he talks about it some more as he enters the bathroom. His voice takes on the ring of institutional porcelain and tile. His next film, he says, will be based on Spencer Reece’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale,” a dramatic monologue by a man who works in a mall. Franco is still talking about all of this as he starts to urinate, matter-of-factly, into a urinal—a process that goes on for an extremely long time. (He’s a compulsive drinker of Starbucks coffee, and Abramovic talked for well over an hour.) He’ll be filming at an actual mall in Queens next weekend, he says, still urinating, and the movie will star the performance artist John Kelly, who’s best known for appearing onstage, in drag, as Joni Mitchell. As I stand behind Franco, here in the tiny bathroom, taking notes, I feel a strange little thrill of low-grade intimacy—equal parts discomfort, amusement, affection, and an excitement whose source I can’t quite trace.
Franco washes his hands, and we head back out to the lobby, where he’s met by a small group that’s been milling around—it’s hard to tell if it’s an entourage or just a few lingering friends and classmates, a Hollywood thing or a student thing. Before he turns to walk away, Franco does something surprising: He winks at me. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. As he and Abramovic walk off together toward the elevators, my mind starts to run through all the possible interpretations. Was it a cheesy Hollywood-schmoozer wink, meant to charm and titillate me—the equivalent of a personalized James Franco autograph on our conversation? Or was it sincere, a gesture of goodwill and openhearted, rakish, devil-may-care bonhomie? (Is a sincere wink even possible, here in the cinema-studies department at NYU, in the year 2010?) Was it ironic—a wink set in quotation marks? Was he making fun of me, and of himself, and of the whole vexed transaction of celebrity journalism? Was he flirting with me, or metaflirting—making a sly reference to all the gay rumors swirling around him, and to our strange homosocial trip to the bathroom together?