James Franco Interview MILK

     November 26, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Opening tomorrow, in limited release, is Gus Van Sant’s new movie “Milk”. Since I’ve already written about the film when I posted the movie clips a few weeks back, this intro will be brief.

All you really need to know is…the performances are all top notch. Sean Penn is Harvey Milk. And this is a film you really need to see.

Anyway, I recently was able to participate in roundtable interviews with most of the cast and the one below is with James Franco.

During out interview he talked about how he’s getting ready to play a singer in Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut “Sympathy for Delicious” and that he’s obsessed with “My Own Private Idaho”. Actually, he told a great story about meeting Gus Van Sant for the first time and how they spent two hours talking “Idaho.” Trust me, it’s not the norm hearing a successful actor geeking out over a film or a director for so long. And don’t worry…of course we talked a lot about “Milk” and other subjects…it’s a great interview.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. Again, “Milk” is opening in limited release tomorrow. I definitely recommend it.

James Franco: What’s the news?

I’m looking you up on IMDB.

James Franco: Oh God. Don’t tell me that.

Did you know that you’re attached to “Howl”.

James: Yes, I did know that. Yes.

You talked about that so…

James: There’s one on there that’s not true.

We’ve got “Red Leaves”, “Sympathy for Delicious”.

James: That’s true, yeah.

“Sympathy for Delicious” sounds interesting so I’m glad that one’s true.

James: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually Mark Ruffalo’s going to direct that. I’m in school right now so I have to shoot during my break. So we’re going to shoot this winter. But tonight we’re going to rehearse. I play a singer in kind of like a…the band is kind of like rock/punk/weird kind of. There’s like a scratch DJ involved too, so we’re going to go practice some of the vocals.

And you’re playing a singer?

James: Yeah.

In “Howl” you’re singing too?

James: We’ll find out tonight. I told them I said look I’m game for you know…

Well if it’s punk movie then you don’t really have to sing so that’s…

James: What’s that?

If it’s a punk movie singing well isn’t a requirement.

James: Yeah, exactly.

Shouting well.

James: I don’t think it’s shouting. It’s more…it’s not exactly punk. I think he’s talking more like you guys know “Brian Jonestown Massacre” or like The Kills or Kings of Leon.

Do you want to tell us where you’re practicing tonight?

James: What? (Laughing)

James, growing up in the Bay area did you know a lot about this story? Did you hear about it growing up?

James: No, sadly. And actually one thing I like to think about is when I first heard Gus was doing this and then I did some more research about the project and learned that Gus was trying to make this for a long time—over 10 years. And then I did research on Milk and you know one of the first things I did is I watched “The Times of Harvey Milk” by Rob Epstein. He’s going to do the Ginsberg thing. And there was something familiar about him. His face looked familiar you know so I guess maybe I saw a poster of him in San Francisco or something when I was little, but reflecting about that it’s surprising to me that I didn’t know more about him. You know I grew up like 45 minutes away from San Francisco and I find it sad that here I am living in the Bay area and I didn’t know. Nobody taught me more about who Harvey Milk was.

How did you get into Scott though? Did you talk to people?

James: Yeah I did. I did a lot of things. There wasn’t a ton of footage on Scott in Epstein’s documentary. There’s just like 5 seconds and the best book on Harvey Milk that I’ve found is “The Mayor of Castro Street” and Scott kind of comes in and out but he doesn’t play a huge role but it seems like just based on talking to people that knew him, that he was very important in Harvey’s life. You know, he was I think in the longest relationship of Harvey’s life. They were together for 4 years. So basically I just talked to Cleve Jones, Danny Nicoletta who worked in the camera shop with Scott and Harvey, Frank Robinson and other people that were around that knew him and kind of took all those stories and boiled it down to some essence or a rounded character that I could play. And then finally Rob Epstein came through. It’s like when he gave…it was like a goldmine. He had old footage of an interview that he’d done with Scott that didn’t make it into the movie and he transferred it. It was on film—like an old reel—and he transferred it to DVD for me and I got to see what Scott really sounded like and moved like so that was like the last kind of brick in the building thing.

Why do you think there is so little about him? Was he reticent to talk about it about himself?

James: It is weird because he…after Harvey was killed Scott was like the main torch bearer of Harvey’s memory and he was even called “the Widow Milk” even though they were broken up when Harvey died. Shilts gives him the biggest acknowledgement at the beginning of his book but I guess, you know, Harvey is the story. This movie is called “Milk” and you know he’s the guy so you’re not going to find a biography on Scott Smith. It’s just, I think he probably just served as somebody that would gather information about Harvey but not necessarily himself and probably didn’t try and infuse too much of himself in these stories. It was really about Harvey so I guess there’s why there’s not a ton of it.

Has Scott died?

James: Yes.

Is there one thing that has to resonate with you before you take a role and what was it about this one?

James: Well, yeah usually. I mean, but this was a little different just because when I heard about the movie and then…I’m the biggest Gus fan. Probably my favorite director even before I started acting I was a Gus Van Sant fan and so I would do anything with him. And then when I learned how important this movie was to him, how important the message of this movie is, I wrote Gus and just said I’ll do anything in the movie. I would have played the pizza guy. I really would have. And fortunately he gave me this good role and sure when he finally gave me the script I looked at the role and say I want to be in the movie can I play this role? And yeah, you know, yeah I can play that role.

He said that when you went to meet with him you spent 2 hours talking about “My Own Private Idaho”.

James: Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, I mean before….I remember before going to L.A. when I was in high school I would just watch that movie and “Drugstore Cowboy” like over and over and over again. And I guess I was particularly drawn just to River’s performance. I mean, the movies as a whole they’re just so unique and then I just think River and Matt Dillon are just so incredible in those movies. And I don’t know. I’m just obsessed. I’m still obsessed with that movie. I mean I have all the Criterion collection and “Idaho” came out on Criterion. It’s really oddly put together because the commentary is like not over the movie. It’s just like a separate recording with Todd Haynes which is really cool but you just have to kind of sit there and listen to it like it’s a radio interview and it’s like 2 hours long. And then there’s like all this stuff with J.T. LaRoy like this phone conversation. I just eat that stuff up. Whatever I can find on “Idaho” I’ll listen to it or read just because I think it’s such an amazing movie.

You’re a big fan of Gus’. Gus and Lance are going to be doing “Electric Kool-aid.”

James: Yeah.

So have you already tried to approach him and been like you know I can do this too….

James: Yeah. Well Keesie lived in La Honda, which was just above Palo Alto up in the hills. And my parents, when they went to Stanford lived up there. And so when we were shooting “Milk” in San Francisco my parents would come down to the set all the time. The first time they came was when there like a big call for a lot of people to be marchers in one of the scenes. My parents came and they met everybody and met Lance and just loved everybody so much that they just kept coming down to the set just to hang out. And when my dad heard that Lance was going to write Tom Wolf’s book or adapt Tom Wolf’s book he’s like oh, I know the area. So he like when up to La Honda and like took like 100’s of photos for Lance of like everywhere and sent them to Lance. Whatever you need, Lance I’ll help you research, so I’m very aware of the project and I’d love to do it.

Is creating sexual odd chemistry between yourself and men and women one in the same or is it harder with a guy or…?

James: I mean it was unfamiliar, you know. I’d never done a scene like that with a guy…but as far as like the process it’s pretty much the same.

Sean a good kisser?

James: He’s…I don’t know what to say. He’s okay. What did Diego say that is was dry? That’s what he told somebody else. It was fine. Yeah, it was fine. Top 30.

One thing I thought interesting that you don’t see very often in movies because a lot of because a lot of gay characters are so…either they make them very flamboyant or they want to tone it down so it’s acceptable to an audience. In this movie you’ve got a vast array of different personalities and was that something that Gus wanted or was that in the script? Or was that something that the actors all just sort of just because they researched these characters, but your character is very, you know, he reminds me of my brother.

James: Right. I think…I can’t speak for the other actors, but I think from what I see and read into it that all the characterizations are kind of based on the real people because they are all real people and some of them are still around, you know? So Emile had the real Cleve Jones there all the time and Lucas had the real Danny Nicoletta there. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I mean if somebody was playing me I’d probably want myself to be portrayed in a certain way and so to have Cleve Jones over my shoulder the whole time might be weird. I don’t know. But I think like Emile’s characterization is based on what the young Cleve Jones was like and so with me, you know, I got that interview with Scott Smith so that combined with what everybody told me about Scott. He wasn’t that flamboyant, you know? He was just…I guess what do you say kind of butch or something? He was definitely like…he dressed like there’s a way of dressing that a lot of people did at the time called the Castro clone. So they wore like plaid shirts and jeans and construction boots and Scott certainly dressed that way and I actually liked the clothes. I would wear those clothes but my characterization is just based on what I think the real Scott behaved like. The same with Sean, you know? That’s kind of how Harvey was so I think it wasn’t like oh, we need a flamboyant around here, we need this here. It was just based on the real people.

But it’s good for audiences to see that.

James: Yeah, yeah definitely, definitely.

How much research did you do into the time frame when you were doing it?

James: You know as much as I could just you know? A bunch of documentaries on Castro in the 70’s. There’s “The Times of Harvey Milk”. There’s a bunch of documentaries on Stonewall which is New York but it’s kind of the same time. There’s a lot of material like that. Then there’s the main book…the book that was most helpful was “The Mayor of Castro Street” but then there was also Gus found a lot of articles from the time and things like that that were very helpful.

That opening encounter on the stairs which was a marvelous spontaneity to it, I’m just wondering—was it totally scripted?

James: It was…I mean most of the scenes in the movie are scripted but what Gus does that’s great and I think helps with that feeling of spontaneity is he A. makes the set extremely relaxed and B. he does allow…he does give the actors the freedom to improvise if they like. Now it’s not the same kind of improvisation as this movie I did before “Pineapple Express” where you’re just rolling the camera out and trying new lines and just doing new jokes, but there’s a little bit of freedom. And what I think that does is when I’m acting with somebody and I know that they can say something that’s unscripted at any moment, it makes me more aware and so the actors don’t get lulled into just saying the same lines over and over again. It creates a more natural feeling that’s more like life because you know; I don’t know what you’re going to say next in real life. So it kind of simulates that a bit more and I might have thrown in like a laugh that wasn’t scripted or something but definitely I think that’s what helps with that feeling of spontaneity.

What are you working on in school now?

James: I’m at Columbia for writing fiction of an MFA program there and then I’m at a couple schools. I’m at Tisch at NYU for directing films.

As you’re getting up I just want to know you were really great in “Pineapple” and you…That was another great love story between 2 men I think.

James: I agree.

It seems you’re aching for doing comedy and you’re doing some serious stuff. Are you thinking about doing another comedy?

James: I would love to do another comedy. It was such a great experience. I’m a little wary of like doing a comedy with anybody other than Judd and Seth but just because I love the way they work so much, but I love comedy and hope to do another one.

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