With impressive drive, the Palo Alto High School graduate has striven over the last 15 years to be a modern Renaissance man: a scholar, essayist, fiction writer, screenwriter, film director and producer, artist and actor. His success as an actor has made him something else entirely: a star, with all attendant scrutiny from press, paparazzi and fans.
Still, Franco hasn't let living under a microscope cramp his style. In recent years, he has become particularly adept at making the media work for him, precisely because of his refusal to be pigeonholed.
Take his recent stints on the long-running daytime soap "General Hospital." Playing Franco, a multimedia artist with a show at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, James Franco simultaneously held his own show at the same museum. Then, lest he be misinterpreted, the star of "Spider-Man," "Pineapple Express" and "Milk" wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal explicating his daytime-acting experiment as performance art. It's obvious that Franco speaks with a unique voice amongst his generation of actors.
Franco's disdain for boundaries and love of literature dovetail with his latest role as Allen Ginsberg in the independent drama "Howl," which comes to movie theaters later this month.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's prismatic look at the famous poem "Howl," its attendant controversy, and its creator finds Franco recreating the poem's initial public reading in 1955 San Francisco, as well as giving an intimate interview with a reporter for Time Magazine. And so it is that interviewing Franco about "Howl" is tantamount to joining him in a hall of mirrors.
As to tackling the poem's volume of words, Franco admits in a recent interview in San Francisco: "I'd never done a film performance that had required that of me. But I've done plenty of interviews, right? I'm doing that now, so I know what it is to give an interview.
"And I know what it's like to read poems aloud and prose aloud. I've done a fair amount for girlfriends and also in front of audiences. So I kind of had that experience. But the trick was then ... in the interview scenes, to say those scripted lines as naturally as I'm just saying this, off the cuff."
We wander deeper into the labyrinth when I suggest that the investigation required of acting is much like journalism, which Franco first practiced as a writer for Paly's Campanile newspaper. "Very much so," Franco agrees. "And I imagine, like, one of the things you must love about being a journalist is — at least when you get to work on stories that you're interested in — you get to go and learn about them. All the topics that you want to learn about. And you get to do research about it.
"And it's the same thing as an actor, but here's one of the reasons that I went back to school (to several graduate programs)," Franco says. "When I was only an actor, I'd put tons of work into the roles. Sometimes I'd sign to a movie ... nine, 10 months in advance. I would prepare every day for 10 months for a role. Now the problem with that is ... a film role is never going to be able to utilize every bit of research that you do. Not that a story could either, but as a journalist ... in, I guess, the ideal case, you get to choose the arc of the story, what you're going to include, what you're going to focus on, how you're going to shape it.
"As an actor, you're serving a bigger film, and so there might be like a really juicy bit of research that you found or something that you practiced that you're really good at, so you can ride on a horse standing up while it's galloping or something. But there's no place in the movie for that! It's not gonna happen. So I would do all this research, and then it felt to me like 80 percent of it was always just like ending up nowhere ... And then I'd see someone else come on a few days before, and they'd get the same kind of reviews that I got."
With so much he wants to do, Franco has learned to manage his time more wisely. "I work very hard on the roles now," he explains, "but I'm very clear about the kind of preparation I do. I wanna do what's necessary, so with Ginsberg, I've studied his whole life, but I knew that it was his life up to a certain age, so that's what I'm going to focus on. I'm not gonna worry so much about what he was thinking about when he was 70."
With the time he's saved by not making himself crazy with research, Franco has launched a multi-pronged thematic investigation into the mysteries of adolescence and, in particular, boyhood. Franco's multimedia art show "The Dangerous Book Four Boys" is on now in New York, and includes items from his boyhood bedroom. In October, Scribner will publish Franco's first book, "Palo Alto: Stories," inspired in part by tales culled from Paly students in a couple of 2007 return visits. In addition, Franco has revealed his hopes of penning a children's book.
Paly English teacher Kaye Paugh helped to organize her former student's class visits. Currently transitioning into retirement, Paugh has nothing but fond memories of the boy she taught (then known as Ted) and high regard for the man he has become.
"He'll usually say in interviews that he was kind of quiet and withdrawn," Paugh says. She had no idea that Franco had an interest in drama until he appeared in a campus production of Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" in his senior year.
"I came in just a little bit late, and there was James on stage. And I have never been so astounded in my life. He was just incredible. And I didn't even know that he was interested in acting. ... You felt like there was something special on stage."
Franco credits then-Paly drama teacher Ron Williamson for bringing a shy young man out of his shell and onto the stage.
Paugh taught all three of the Franco brothers, remembering Tom, Ted and Dave as "fun, adventurous young men" who kept their writer-artist mother Betsy and businessman father Doug on their toes. As the author of more than 80 books for young readers, Betsy has inspired and encouraged James' writing and been inspired in return by his and Dave's acting and Tom's success as an illustrator and sculptor.
Paugh says her own son singled out his classmate Ted as "a deep thinker." James Franco has only grown more committed to mulling meaning.
Asked to consider Ginsberg's "Howl" as a coming-out manifesto providing an example to others in the public eye, Franco grows especially contemplative. "Hm." He laughs. "You're using Ginsberg as a leaping-off place. I mean, it was very hard for him and very brave of him to write this poem, I think. Especially because people were still getting shock therapy for being gay. And especially because he was expelled from Columbia for being gay. It's one of the first coming-out manifestos, you can call it that. But here's the other thing ..." He takes a long pause.
"As far as we've come, the press is still so hetero-normative. If any straight actor plays a gay role or any gay actor plays a straight role, that's the issue ... straight magazines and gay magazines talk about that! And if somebody came out, both the straight press and the gay press would talk about it, as if it's like this real big thing."
Franco added: "It's a big moment in one's life to come out, but in the public eye it's something else. ... I imagine you would have to answer for it and keep talking about it. And it becomes part of your identity. Just being a straight actor isn't necessarily something that you would talk about all the time."
"Howl" is one of four films being released this year that feature Franco, the others being "Date Night," "Eat Pray Love" and "127 Hours." In the last of the four, he will play trapped mountain climber Aron Ralston for Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire").
Franco is also a voracious grad student, whose alma maters include UCLA, Columbia University's MFA writing program, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College. Next are the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University, where he'll pursue a Ph.D. in English.
It's all a part of the search, for one who examines and is examined.