“I love you!” screamed a girl seated in the buzzing crowd when James Franco made his way to the small stage in Linsly-Chittenden Hall Thursday afternoon.
The giggling din grew even louder as Yale’s own paparazzi — students armed with camera phones and digital cameras — snapped away before Franco’s talk began. Approximately 80 percent of the audience was female.
More than a thousand students vied for 180 seats at Thursday’s Berkeley College Master’s Tea, co-sponsored by the Yale Film Society, to see Franco — the star of such box office successes as “Milk,” “Pineapple Express” and “Spider-Man.” The lucky few were selected in a lottery.
Yale Film Society president Taylour Chang ’11 called the event “a good opportunity to catch Franco on the cusp of doing much more than just acting.” Indeed, though he is best known as an actor, Franco spoke Thursday about his newer roles as a director, screenwriter and student.
Franco, who visited Yale last April to sit in on Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare lecture, is currently enrolled in both the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Master of Fine Arts program in writing at Columbia University.
“I enjoy film, but I’ve been doing it for 12 years now,” Franco said. “I went back to school because, for me, acting wasn’t enough.”
Franco admitted that he sometimes feels a bit “schizophrenic” straddling the worlds of school and stardom. But he added that the workshops in creative writing courses have forced him to improve his screenwriting abilities and, in turn, his acting.
“The accountability enforced by having peers read my writing has been very valuable,” Franco said.
Franco’s love for literature and the English classes he took as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles continue to affect his work on and off screen and, now, from behind the camera, Franco said.
“All the shorts I’m directing [at Tisch] are based on poetry that I’ve read and adapted,” he said. A number of these short films were screened Thursday night at the Loria Center, followed by a question-and-answer session with the actor.
Several times throughout the tea the crowd erupted into laughter — partly at the star’s dry humor but also at fawning students in the audience.
One student in the audience — a fan of Franco’s work on the television series “Freaks and Geeks” — said the tea was “totally worth missing section for.”
Franco quieted the room’s laughter and talked fondly about his experiences on the late nineties TV show, but he also admitted that the other shows of his early career — including a series called “Pacific Blue,” which he affectionately dubbed “Baywatch on Bikes” — were regrettable at best.
Franco did not shy away from discussing his failures Thursday and said his encounters with poor directing and ill-fitting roles have taught him how to be a conscientious actor.
But collaborating with producer Judd Apatow on “Pinapple Express,” Franco said, was one instance of a working dynamic between director and actor in which he felt “incredibly free.” Franco then answered questions about his acclaimed portrayal of a gay character in last year’s “Milk,” a project he said he pursued because of his love for both the film’s director, Gus Van Sant, and actor Sean Penn. Franco said working on ‘Milk’ inspired him to direct with “an anti-normative approach towards film.”
Franco cited James Dean, Marlon Brando and directors like the Belgian Dardenne brothers as professional inspirations, in addition to his “love affair with books.”
In turn, Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun, who hosted the tea, said he was impressed with Franco’s intellectual sophistication.
“Today is the most thrilling day of my mastership,” Chun said with an grin. “Only at Yale can a lowly, nobody psychology professor share a stage with an international superstar.”
Franco remained after the tea to take photos with fans and sign autographs.
Correction: Nov. 8, 2009
An earlier version of this article misquoted Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun. The quote in the article has been corrected.