On the heels of “Pineapple Express” you could tell James Franco was in a state of career and personal transition.
2008 was a peak year of box office success and popularity for the then 30 year old actor. Best known for his award-winning turn as the legendary James Dean and his character in the cult-TV classic Freaks and Geeks, Franco ascended soon after to the top of the entertainment business. With a string of hit movies throughout the oughts, 2008 was confirmation that Franco was no flash-in-the-pan.
When I met with James Franco during that period (on November 14, 2008), I was a freshman student journalist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Earlier that year in June 2008, Franco had received his undergraduate degree in English from UCLA. That fall he had enrolled at Columbia University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Brooklyn College concurrently.
Franco expressed that he felt a little regret leaving school at 18 to pursue his acting career. Earning his B.A. in English spurred him on to pursue his education further and to make more meaningful and profound decisions in his film career. He wanted to be more than just a pretty boy, good at the brooding and smoldering. So on the presupous of a new stage in his career, before Spring Breakers, 127 Hours and The Interview, before getting his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame… this was James Franco in 2008.
James Franco on Harvey Milk, civil rights
November 28th, 2008
James Franco portrays the partner of the legendary Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office anywhere. With a small role as Scott Smith, alongside Sean Penn, James got to delve into the production of the movie and see it all unfold. Courtesy of Terry Hines & Associates and Focus Features, he sat down to tell about his first romantic scene with Sean Penn and some of his experience making this very poignant film about rights and change. The film is now playing in theaters.
Stephanie Jevtic: How did you get involved?
James Franco: I was in London at the time. I decided to go back to school for a while to take some literature classes. My agent called me one day, told me Gus Vansant was making a film about Harvey Milk. I have been a fan of Gus Vansant since I was a boy, before I ever thought about acting. I knew it’d be an amazing movie because Gus puts a lot of passion into all of his work. I wanted to be a part of it.
S.J.: Do you think if the movie had been released earlier that it would have helped with stopping Proposition 8?
J.F.: I grew up in California so I voted absentee “No” on Proposition 8. It was a very close vote. “Milk” was an inspiring film for me. It will raise awareness on Harvey Milk and I would hope it would influence a lot of people on gay rights. Maybe the Proposition 8 vote could’ve been swayed if the film was released 3 or 4 months early, but no one can know that for sure. The movie will keep the fight going.
S.J.: What was your preparation for your role as Scott Smith?
J.F.: The movie has an important message about the life of a figure who meant a lot. There are many who remember him and it was a huge responsibility to try to get it all right. That aside, I do a lot of research. On this movie, there were two levels: time and place, and character. Scott Smith was Harvey Milk’s lover for four years and at the big moments in his political career. After Harvey died Scott helped keep his memory alive. There were key pieces of research: two book citings and some old reels the director found. That was a goldmine because Scott was a limited resource, and his mannerisms and speech helped me express his personality through the words.
S.J.: Do you prefer doing drama or comedy?
J.F.: Hard to say. “Freaks and Geeks” was the first good thing I did, and it was a combination of both drama and comedy. Not until “Pineapple Express” this year have I done a comedy in a long time. That was a lot of fun, an amazing experience with amazing people I call my friends. I tend to pick dramas because it’s hard to find a good comedy for me. But it’s hard to say.
S.J.: Do you think some things were candy-coated about your character, for example his drug abuse after the breakup and rehabilitation?
J.F.: Yeah, there is only so much you can show in a movie. The focus was to show the loving relationship between Scott and Harvey. Harvey had to let go because his political life was taking from the relationship. The politics and civil rights were the focus of the story. I like to think the performances are a way to show important aspects of the story that can’t be elaborated.
S.J.: Harvey Milk was not a typical politician, how would you describe him?
J.F.: What I read and watched, Milk was a charismatic and loving person. A bit of a ham, but he embraced that part of himself and used it to get into office as member of the San Francisco board of supervisors (1977 from http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/milk03.html). In that year he showed the potential of a great potential even passing Proposition 6 by 1978. Before he ran he had no experience in politics, he and Scott moved to San Francisco with no idea that they’d face the frustrating the system against gays only to change it.
S.J.: Was it awkward doing the love scenes?
J.F.: Not really, it was new for both of us (Sean Penn). It was in the script, there wasn’t a ton of discussion about it. With female actors you don’t rehearse either. Your costar doesn’t just come up to you and say “let’s rehearse back at my hotel room.” Usually you just do it on shooting day.
S.J.: “Milk” gives hope to college students about making change, what will get us to go see the movie most?
J.F.: It’s sad I didn’t know anything about Harvey Milk before. I wish more gay historical figures were taught in universities. A lot of changes for the better have been made, like how gays are portrayed in movies. Change still needs to be made. Milk shows that it takes people standing up to make it.
S.J.: Did you acquire any new perspective?
J.F.: Reinforcement to fight civil rights for whoever needs it. Harvey Milk’s example shows it and inspires it for everyone. Being a part of this movie inspired me to fight more.
James Franco’s Next Career Move
Today James Franco is a Ph.D Student at Yale University. His Alma Maters include: University of California, Los Angeles (B.A.); Columbia University (M.F.A.); New York University (M.F.A.); Brooklyn College (M.F.A.); Warren Wilson College (M.F.A.);Yale University (current Ph.D. student); and Rhode Island School of Design(attended)