All of which raises a small army of questions:
(1) Can James Franco possibly be for real?
(2) If he is, then—just logistically—how is all this possible?
(3) And perhaps the biggest mystery of all: Why is Franco doing it? Are his motives honest or dishonest? Neurotic or healthy? Arrogant or humble? Ironic or sincere? Naïve or sophisticated? Should we reward him with our attention or punish him with our contempt? Is he genuinely trying to improve himself or is he just messing with us—using celebrity itself as the raw material for some kind of public prank?
“You are so full of crap.”
“You keep saying that.”
—Maxie and Franco, General Hospital, November 24, 2009
“I’m not like everyone else—remember that.”
—Franco, General Hospital, December 11, 2009
It’s hard not to be a little skeptical. Anyone who’s ever been to grad school will tell you that a single high-level program is pretty much crippling. Not to mention that topflight programs like Yale’s are designed to “professionalize” students, shearing away all of their outside interests and hobbies. Some professors frown on students having relationships, much less other careers—much less twelve of them. So while Franco’s adventure in overeducation might seem, from a distance, admirable, or at least lovably naïve, it also seems basically impossible. This skepticism was bolstered last year when a photo circulated online showing Franco sitting in class at Columbia, his head tilted back, dead asleep. The photo’s unspoken message was that the cynics were probably right: Franco’s pretty smile had given him a free pass to cultural realms the rest of us have to work our whole lumpy-faced lives just to get an outside shot at. He wasn’t so much attending grad school as he was endorsing it: lending these programs his celebrity in exchange for easy intellectual cred.
Franco’s professors, classmates, and colleagues insist, however, that this is not the case. According to everyone I spoke with, Franco has an unusually high metabolism for productivity. He seems to suffer, or to benefit, from the opposite of ADHD: a superhuman ability to focus that allows him to shuttle quickly between projects and to read happily in the midst of chaos. He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping. (He’ll get a few hours a night, then survive on catnaps, which he can fall into at any second, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation.) He doesn’t drink or smoke or—despite his convincingness in Pineapple Express—do drugs. He’s engineered his life so he can spend all his time either making or learning about art. When I asked people if Franco actually does all of his own homework, some of them literally laughed right out loud at me, because apparently homework is all James Franco ever really wants to do. The photo of him sleeping in class, according to his assistant, wasn’t even from one of his classes: It was an extra lecture he was sitting in on, after a full day of work and school, because he wanted to hear the speaker.
Vince Jolivette, Franco’s roommate and general right-hand man (he runs Franco’s production company and plays bit parts in many of his films), met Franco in acting class in 1996. “Our teacher made us rehearse at least once a day outside of class,” he told me. “James would get eight or nine rehearsals. Everyone else would do, at most, one. If we didn’t rehearse, or if I had to cancel, he’d be pissed.”
John Tintori, chair of NYU’s filmmaking program, told me that Franco convinced him of his sincerity in the entrance interview. “He was an hour early. He just sat outside my office waiting. In the interview, the two faculty members who were with me were skeptical and really held his feet to the fire. He said, ‘I am not going to be the guy who’s not pulling his weight.’ And he isn’t. In fact, he’s loading up and doing extra credit. Normally, we’re a three-year program. My guess is he’ll probably finish in two and a half years. A few months ago, he said, ‘I really like it here. Is it okay, after I finish all my requirements—can I keep taking classes?’ I’m looking into that, because I don’t know if it’s allowed.”
According to his mother, Betsy, Franco has been this way since he was born. In kindergarten, he wouldn’t just build regular little block towers—he’d build structures that used every single block in the playroom. At night, he would organize his Star Wars toys before he slept. When Franco was 4 years old, a friend of the family died. Betsy gave him the standard Mortality Talk: no longer with us, just a part of life—yes, but hopefully not for a very long time. Little James burst into tears. He was inconsolable. Eventually, he managed to choke out, between sobs, “But I don’t want to die! I have so much to do!”