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The James Franco Project

Illustrations by Dienstelle 75  

This is, no doubt, mildly insane, even if it’s a form of insanity many of us might want to have.

One of Franco’s most serious productivity advantages is his personal assistant, Dana Morgan. “I tease him when people say, ‘How do you do it?’ ” she tells me. “ ‘You don’t! You do all the things they know about, but you don’t do the normal human-being things.’ ”

Morgan, a former UCLA classmate of Franco’s, manages his minute-to-minute existence: makes sure he wakes up, gets dressed, eats. “I guarantee you he would not eat unless I fed him,” she says. “He’ll do the hand-to-mouth part, but I definitely bring it to his hands. It’s not that he’s helpless. It’s just that he would not take the time to find food. He has the luxury of not having to worry about it.”

Despite the hired help, Morgan tells me, Franco’s hyperproductive life is not always easy. “He definitely gets overwhelmed at times. Sometimes we’ll look at each other, and it’s been 36 hours since either of us has closed our eyes, and he’s switched from decaf to regular, and we’re on a train or a plane or a car and he’ll go, ‘What am I doing? What’s going on?’ But then it’s like: ‘Well, we’re making things happen the way you want.’ ”

4. The After-Party
“The camera never lies. Except it always does.”
—Franco, General Hospital, July 7, 2010

James Franco’s homework has had an incredible year. Short stories he worked on at Columbia and Brooklyn College were published in Esquire and McSweeney’s. His NYU student films—including the artsy adaptations of poetry he was telling me about in the bathroom—graced all the major film festivals. His documentary Saturday Night, which began life as a seven-minute NYU assignment, blossomed—thanks to unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to SNL (a show Franco has hosted twice)—into a full-length feature.

The next time I see Franco is at the Tribeca Film Festival, at an after-party for Saturday Night. The party is sponsored by Polaroid, which is using the occasion to promote its new Polaroid 300 camera so aggressively it feels almost like a satire of publicity: Everyone is taking photos, or photos of photos, or video of photographers taking photos of photos. It’s like Andy Warhol has thrown a surprise party for a Don DeLillo novel.

Over the course of the party, Franco stands mainly right near the front door, creating a bulge of admirers that makes it hard to get in and out of the building. He looks, tonight, not like a grad student but like a swashbuckling young Hollywood leading man: He’s wearing jeans and a brown leather jacket; his sketchy mustache has been normalized by the addition of a goatee; his hair is curly and wild. His job here at the party seems to be to make chitchat—to spread the limited resource of his attention affably across hundreds of targets, never locking in for more than a few minutes at a time, but also never making anyone feel slighted.

Partygoers approach and compliment him, exchange pleasantries with him, take cell-phone pictures of him. He talks to his agent, to his NYU classmates, to the TV critic of the New York Post. Midway through the party, I manage to break into the golden orb of Franco’s attentional sphere. We talk about his latest projects, and he can’t resist making a prediction.

“The new critique you’re gonna start hearing about James Franco,” says James Franco, “is ‘He’s spreading himself too thin.’ ”

I tell him I’ve already heard that critique many times.

“But what does that even mean?” he asks. He seems impatient, genuinely baffled. “Spreading himself too thin?”

Well, I say, isn’t it a reasonable concern? How many targets can one person’s brain realistically hit with any kind of accuracy?

“If the work is good,” Franco says, “what does it matter? I’m doing it because I love it. Why not do as many things I love as I can? As long as the work is good.”

Soon he gets whisked away to a back room to have his portrait taken, in Polaroids, over and over by someone a company rep keeps calling “a real artist.” Franco sits in a kind of Thinker pose, with his face resting on the tripod of his fingers. At the end of the session, the real artist tapes all of his portraits together into one big collage of fractured Franco.

5. The Adolescent
“The best art is understood by the fewest number of people.”
“Okay. Well, you’re incredibly popular. Does that mean you’re not good?”
“I’m good.”
—Franco and Maxie, General Hospital, November 23, 2009

The critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote about Orson Welles, history’s archetypal writer-actor-director, “Orson is the man who tried it all: And every time he tried a medium, it capitulated.” The same cannot be said, as of yet, for Franco. Artistic media don’t seem to capitulate to him. They struggle against him, making him earn every modest inch of success. Watching that struggle is fascinating and a big part of Franco’s appeal: He’s not a savant or an obvious genius—he’s someone of mortal abilities who seems to be working immortally hard. Outside of acting—at which he is, by all accounts, very good and sometimes excellent—Franco’s work gives off a student-y vibe. It exudes effort. His directing is daring but often heavy-handed. His fiction reads like promising work from a writing seminar—not a student whose success you’d guarantee but someone you could see eventually getting there. (When Franco’s story “Just Before the Black” was published in Esquire, it set off a huge online hullabaloo of negativity. Salon called it a “crush killer.” One writer tweeted that “Franco makes Ethan Hawke seem like Herman Melville.”) Still, Franco grades well on a curve. He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.