In the hours after our brief meeting, and then in the months that followed, I would come to believe that everything important about Franco and his career could be derived from that mystifying wink. The only problem was that I had no idea, really none at all, what he meant by it.
2. The Everything-ist
“Believe what you want. But here’s a clue. The secret to life: Anyone can die at any time.”
“So what do we do about it?”
“Amuse ourselves. Don’t live by rules or boundaries. And take what you want, when you want.”
—Franco and Maxie, General Hospital, November 24, 2009
Not so long ago, James Franco’s life and career were fairly normal. He grew up in Palo Alto, California, where his parents had met as Stanford students. Young James was, at his father’s urging, a math whiz—he even got an internship at Lockheed Martin. As a teenager, he rebelled, got in trouble with the law (drinking, shoplifting, graffiti), and eventually migrated toward the arts. His hero was Faulkner. He fell in love with acting when he played the lead in a couple of dark and heavy high-school plays. After freshman year, he dropped out of UCLA, very much against his parents’ wishes, to try to make a career of it. He was good, lucky, and driven, and within a couple of years, he got his first big break: Judd Apatow cast him in what would become the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks. When the series was canceled after just a season, Franco landed the lead in the TNT biopic James Dean. He played the part with a slumping intensity that seemed like a reasonable replication of the real thing—or at least much closer than anyone had a right to expect from a TNT biopic—and the performance won a Golden Globe. Soon after, he was cast as Robert De Niro’s drug-addicted son in the film City by the Sea. That same year, he entered mainstream consciousness as Peter Parker’s best friend in Spider-Man.
Franco had become, in other words, a working Hollywood actor. An unusual actor—he overprepared for minor roles, read Dostoyevsky and Proust between takes, and occasionally drove colleagues crazy with his intensity—but still identifiably an actor, with an actor’s career. As he climbed toward leading-man status, however, Franco had a crisis of faith. He found himself cast in a string of mediocre films—Annapolis, Flyboys, Tristan + Isolde—most of which bombed. He felt like he was funneling all his effort into glossy, big-budget entertainment over which he had no control, and of which he wasn’t proud.
At age 28, ten years after dropping out, Franco decided to go back to college. He enrolled in a couple of UCLA extension courses (literature, creative writing) and found them so magically satisfying—so safe and pure compared with the world of acting—that he threw himself back into his education with crazy abandon. He persuaded his advisers to let him exceed the maximum course load, then proceeded to take 62 credits a quarter, roughly three times the normal limit. When he had to work—to fly to San Francisco, for instance, to film Milk—he’d ask classmates to record lectures for him, then listen to them at night in his trailer. He graduated in two years with a degree in English and a GPA over 3.5. He wrote a novel as his honors thesis.
It was interesting timing. As soon as Franco decided his Hollywood career wasn’t enough, his Hollywood career exploded—which meant that his intellectual pursuits got picked up on the radar of the A-list Hollywood publicity machine. Which was, of course, baffled by all of it. Plenty of actors dabble in side projects—rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism—but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.
Take, for instance, graduate school. As soon as Franco finished at UCLA, he moved to New York and enrolled in four of them: NYU for filmmaking, Columbia for fiction writing, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and—just for good measure—a low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. This fall, at 32, before he’s even done with all of these, he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.
Franco says all of his pursuits are possible, at least in part, because he’s cut down on his acting, but he’s still doing plenty of that. In the next year or so, he’ll be appearing in the films Eat, Pray, Love (as Julia Roberts’s boyfriend), Howl (as Allen Ginsberg), 127 Hours (as the one-armed hiker), Your Highness (a medieval comedy), William Vincent (an indie film by one of his NYU professors), Maladies (put out by his own production company), and Rise of the Apes (a prequel to Planet of the Apes). And of course there’s his epically weird stint on General Hospital—the crown jewel in the current science project of his career.