Will James Franco be a good Academy Awards host? Will he even have time to read the teleprompter? The actor, who is co-hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway on Feb. 27, is the first person since the ’70s to host while being nominated (he has a Best Actor nod for getting his arm cut off in 127 Hours). But Franco may be best known not for his acting (even as the sidekick in the Spider-Man movies) but as the guy who has an infinite number of projects going. While preparing to host, he’s continued his role on General Hospital as a character named “Franco,” and signed on for a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. He’s also improving his mind by taking courses at several different colleges, telling Jon Stewart that after he was nominated for the Oscar, he went to his poetry class at Yale.
All these projects have made him a ripe subject for parody. Saturday Night Live did a sketch portraying Franco as having gone off the deep end from all this work. Franco himself may enjoy having us think the same thing. He jokingly said that at the Oscars, he’ll be “basically depending on” Hathaway to do most of the work. Jill Farren Phelps, executive producer of General Hospital, told Maclean’s that when Franco asked to be on the show, he made only two demands: “He would like to play an artist, and he would like for him to be crazy.”
People were even more willing to believe he was crazy when he became the subject of a film editing course at Columbia College Hollywood. It’s called “Master class: Editing James Franco… with James Franco”; students will create a documentary about him based on video footage he himself provides. Tyler Danna, a frequent Franco collaborator who is teaching the course, told Maclean’s that “it’s definitely not a publicity stunt,” and that Franco came up with the idea long before he was nominated for an Oscar. But because of the timing and the title (“We didn’t think too much about the title until we saw it blasted across all these different publications,” Danna admits), it was hard to resist portraying it as a strange thing to do; Alan Gansberg, the dean of the college, says some outlets have unfairly portrayed it as “the height of self-absorption and narcissism.”
Franco does so many different things that there has been occasional speculation that his hyperactivity is all some kind of act, like Joaquin Phoenix’s pose as a crazy person for the movie I’m Still Here. Franco himself has contributed to this perception with some of the things he’s said. He wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal explaining that he chose to appear on General Hospital as a form of “performance art,” to play on the fact that he “doesn’t belong to the incredibly stylized world of soap operas.” Phelps says that he initially didn’t talk about that idea to the crew—especially since much of the audience didn’t know him that well when he first appeared in 2009—but that by now, the character “is James Franco playing James Franco.” Except that the TV version is a serial killer.
Franco is by no means the only movie star to have taken on multiple projects outside of movie acting. Sandra Bullock is a producer. Angelina Jolie has directed documentary films and wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about her meeting in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus. Last year’s Oscar co-host, Steve Martin, is a writer, actor, and banjo player. Towering over them all is George Clooney, producer, writer, director and all-round better person than any of us. It was once common for movie stars to stick to acting, but now, Gansberg says, they want to show they “can do more than walk on a set.” If Franco sometimes seems to think he’s more brilliant than he really is—take the time he told critic Elvis Mitchell that 127 Hours was “like the cutting edge of moviemaking”—he’s in good company with other stars who want to be known for their brains.
Franco isn’t even the only multi-tasking actor from a short-lived Judd Apatow TV series. When he played one of the “freaks” on Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, Apatow encouraged Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen to branch out; Rogen has written several movies and shows, while Segel wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall for himself. Franco’s training on Freaks also came along at a time when creativity was starting to become acceptable for young actors, thanks to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s success in writing Good Will Hunting: “Two actors who had some work, but weren’t big stars, wrote a project for themselves,” Gansberg notes. Franco’s activities help keep him in the news and may have helped him go from sidekick to leading man. They also make him, in Phelps’s words, “a bit of an entrepreneur” instead of just another actor.
The difference between Franco and other stars is that they take on tasks that are big and respectable. Writing, producing and activism are the things actors typically wind up doing when they want to expand their horizons. But Franco hasn’t created a feature for himself yet, the way his fellow Freaks have. His involvement in politics or social activism has been fairly muted compared to many other actors. Until last Friday, he didn’t even have a Twitter account to build a following. Instead, Franco sets his sights on small things. He pays attention to his school classes to the point that Phelps says her show has “had to accommodate his school schedule more than anything else.” And at an age when some actors have already written and directed features, he’s mostly concentrated on directing short films, often quirky and experimental ones.
Much of his work involves what Phelps calls his fascination with “different media and how they all blend together,” often in bizarre and unexpected ways. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, his entry was a film where he took the first three scripts of the sitcom Three’s Company and recreated them as a serious drama. He made the audience watch it from a theatre designed to look like the actual set of Three’s Company: Danna, who participated, says that “it’s an approximation of the set, and you’re sitting in it, but the image is playing on the walls,” sometimes out of sync. Franco then told TV Guide he was thinking of expanding the idea into “a Three’s Company feature film and maybe an off-Broadway play.” Instead of writing feature films like his Freaks and Geeks buddies, he published a book of short stories, Palo Alto, so filled with similes and metaphors it left no doubt the writer was currently in college. Stars like Clooney, Jolie and Rogen want to do huge things; Franco likes to be a miniaturist.
And he takes his small projects as seriously as other stars take their big ones. Gansberg calls Franco “very focused, very sincere and very passionate” about the editing course, and adds that the actor tells students to ignore the media coverage: “He said, ‘Don’t focus on that, focus on what we’re doing.’ His desire is to do a great project, not to get attention. And I think that’s what was missed by a lot of the reports.” On General Hospital, Phelps says there has never been any indication Franco doesn’t take the job seriously: “He’s completely professional. If he doesn’t know his lines by the time he gets here, he knows them by the time he’s ready to shoot. He’s very loved here by our crew and our company.”
It might be that Franco is doing all these things because he really enjoys them—and being a movie star is a way to finance this stuff, just as Jay Leno uses his money to buy cars and Charlie Sheen uses it to buy things that are better not discussed.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be concentrating on little things forever. He’s reportedly in talks to star in Spider-Man director Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, and he unveiled plans to write and direct a feature film, The Broken Tower, about poet Hart Crane. But for now, he’s just as happy with smaller pursuits, and Phelps is grateful that Franco has “legitimized” genres like soap opera. “There’s all kinds of people now in the acting community who might be willing to do daytime drama as a job, and I think in some measure James made it very cool.”
With that ability to draw attention to lesser-known genres, Franco sometimes seems to view himself as a guy who can break down the barriers between different media. He told the website Pop Sugar that his Oscar gig could “bridge the gap between the older generation and younger generation.” But there are some types of performance art he still seems wary of: the Paley Centre For Media has announced plans for a Freaks and Geeks reunion on March 12, and Franco is the only major cast member not planning to attend. It could be that James Franco is a guy who’ll do anything— except look back.