Film

James Franco on Teaching, Crying, and Playing a Perv

James Franco hadn't planned to take a role in Gia Coppola's <i>Palo Alto</i>, the film adaptation of his book, <i>Palo Alto: Stories</i>. But eventually, he ended up being cast as Mr. B, a pervy gym teacher with eyes for April, an introvert teen on his...

Daniel Stuckey

Daniel Stuckey

Disclosure: James Franco writes a weekly column for this website. In fact, his latest piece came out today, like ten minutes ago. It's a fictional script of Three's Company that ends in a big orgy and you can read it here.

James Franco hadn't planned on playing a role in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto, the film adaptation of his book, Palo Alto: Stories. Originally, his role was as producer, but when Gia needed someone to play Mr. B, a pervy gym teacher with eyes for April (played by Emma Roberts), an introvert teen on his soccer team, James stepped up to the plate.

Coppola's debut feature is based off of three stories from Franco's book. Parodying coming-of-age classics, arming characters with smartphones and 21st century slang, Coppola's treatment of Palo Alto doesn't bring to mind the mid-90s iteration that Franco initially wrote about in his book. But that doesn't matter, because the underlying theme of the book, and what comes across on the screen, is the dizzying awkwardness of being a kid in a generic Bay Area suburb with no patience for the future.

"To have a completely loyal adaptation without doing anything new would be bizarre," Franco wrote in a recent article on this website discussing Danny Boyle's adaptation of Trainspotting for the screen. He went on to explore how sex is being approached by new cinema in films like Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac and Steve McQueen’s Shame. The topic has surely been on his mind while working on Palo Alto, a project that has forced him to watch characters based on his teenage memories come to life to fuck and emotionally torture each other on the screen.

I met up with Franco at a press junket yesterday. Walking into the building felt like wandering Frankfurt's red light district, but with an appointment confirmed by e-mail. PR girls in matching leather jackets escorted me through dark hotel hallways under low ceilings. I was seated outside of Franco's room while another interviewer whittled away at my time slot. "It looks like you're only going to have ten minutes at this point," the PR girl said. "That's fine," I said, and she let me in. Here's how James and I spent those ten minutes.

VICE: You had a pervy gym teacher, right?
James Franco: Well, there was a guy at my junior high who the character Mr. B in the movie and the book is loosely based on. So, yeah, I knew a teacher who had a relationship with a 13- or 14-year-old girl. At the time, we were not aware—it came out after.

You've played the jackass rebel kid before, in Freaks and Geeks. Did you decide to play the teacher this time see the other side of things?
Honestly, I did not intend to play the teacher. I wrote the character, but she [Gia Coppola] selected the stories, so she selected that whole storyline. It didn’t necessarily need to be in there. I was the producer, so she would run casting ideas by me. She was running a lot of different ideas for that role by me. I would say, "Oh, yeah, he would be good," that sort of thing, but in the end she asked me to do it. So, I'm really only in the movie because Gia wanted me in there, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help the movie.

James Franco as Mr. B. and Emma Roberts as April

It's not a role I was dying to play. In fact, I much prefer playing Daniel Desario in Freaks and Geeks to playing the teacher. But I did it to help the movie, and once I committed it was like, well—I can't wink at the audience and say, "I know, this guy's a fuckin' creep." I had to commit to it and play it so that it would be a genuine portrayal. That being said, I didn’t like playing that dude.

Do you cry more as an actor, or did you cry more as a teenager?
Weird [laughs]. That's a good question. I'm sure I cried a lot as a teenager in private, but there are certain roles that call for some tears, and I guess I’m just used to drawing on those. If you really want to know, it's not hard for me to cry—if the material's right. If the material doesn't feel genuine, it’s so hard for me to cry. But if it's genuine, and it feels honest, like, I can cry like that.

I've got to shoot my friend every night in Of Mice and Men. It's this guy I've grown up with, Lenny. I cry almost every night. Not because I'm trying to, it's just because the material pulls me in, and I hook in emotionally so the tears just come. You know, if you had to shoot your best friend… so, I probably cry more now. I mean, I cry every night. [laughs]

You've taught before, right?
I still teach. I don't teach high school. I teach at college. I teach at UCLA, USC, and Cal Arts. I teach graduate film; I teach undergrad writing; I teach a weird kind of performance class at Cal Arts, and it's great for me. I get to work with very talented people. If students are in those programs, they're already very accomplished, to a certain extent. So I get to work with very good students and it's nice to kind of help other people with their work, to not worry about my work, and to get off of myself for a minute. It's sort of a relief, and it's a purer space than the professional world. The academic and school space has very little of the business side of things in it. So I like working on projects in a pure space like that.

The art teacher in Palo Alto seems like a cool dude you knew.
The guy in the movie (Mr. Wilson, played by Don Novello)—I think Gia played him a little goofier than the guy in the book, and then the guy in the book is loosely based on an art teacher I had. His name was Jim Smith. He didn’t teach at high school, he taught at this art league outside of Palo Alto. And yeah! Here was somebody who lived as an artist and was a very accomplished kind of figurative painter, but he certainly wasn't in the contemporary art scene of New York or LA, or something like that. So I think he was making a lot of his living as a teacher, but it was still impressive that there he was, living as an artist. And that was very influential.

Did you feel like you were properly inside of your book? Like, do you feel like you were in your book?
Well, it’s based on Palo Alto in the mid-90s, which is when I was in Palo Alto as a teenager. So a lot of it is based on experiences that I had, or that other people had, and some of it is made up or fictionalized. But there are a lot of things where I've had friends who have gone through it, or friends' parents who have gone through it and been like, Did that really happen? Is that you?—that kind of thing. There’s enough material based on real things that you could play that game.

But it’s fiction. So, like any writer, I've repurposed things, I've re-contextualized them and have used them in ways that are different than how they impacted everyone when they really happened. So yeah, I think I’m in there. Of course I’m in there. There’s the character, Teddy, who Jack Kilmer plays that'd I'd say is the most based on me.

Nat Wolff as Fred and Jack Kilmer as Teddy

What about Fred, the crazy rebel character?
That's interesting that you bring that up. So Fred, played by Nat Wolff, is a character in the book. But whereas with other characters I can point to people and say, "Oh, she's based on her, she's based on her, and he's based on him." With Fred, that's not the case. There is nobody. Fred wasn’t based on anyone. Fred came out of my imagination, and once he was on the page, I realized, oh, he's another side of me. And I basically created him when I was writing the story so that these two sides of myself could talk to each other. So, yeah, in a sense Fred is sort of based on me too. What Gia's done, is she’s combined the Fred in the book with another character in the book, this guy Roberto, so Fred's a little sleazier than I think I ever was. But yeah, you're right. I think Teddy and Fred are two sides of me. Generally speaking.

Well, I think they’re making us wrap up. Let's take a selfie?
Yeah, let's do it.

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