A week after his departure, earnest, bright-eyed freshmen are still camped outside my English 125 class, far earlier than I am, trying to see if they can spy the only member of my class who has played the Green Goblin, a drug dealer (twice), a trapped canyoneer who must cut off his own arm, the Wizard of Oz and most recently, a celebrity journalist ordered by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un. James Franco’s off-screen persona is even wilder: His Instagram recently showcased naked frolics with Seth Rogen in a field and his ride from New Haven back to New York City after class — a helicopter.
Throughout the month of September, Yale students were thrown into a frenzy of selfies once again as he made appearances in Linsly-Chittendon Hall, shadowing professor Catherine Nicholson’s section of Major English Poets, and teaching one session on Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” as part of a teaching practicum required of English graduate students. An actor, filmmaker and teacher, Franco is known for attending multiple graduate programs simultaneously, while appearing in a range of movies, from “Spider Man” to “Pineapple Express” to “Spring Breakers” to “127 Hours.” On television, he jumps out of birthday cakes, twirling handcuffs while wearing a police cap and (apparently) nothing else. In person, he’s quiet and affable, a tall, Bose headphone and Toms-wearing grad student.
After finding a quiet corner of LC, free from nervously hovering iPhone wielders, it hits me. James Franco taught my English class. I’ll never think of the Green Goblin quite the same way again.
Disclaimer: This interview ended with a selfie.
Q. You’re frequently found on college campuses, as a student and as a teacher. What’s the trite answer to “What do you hope to gain?”
(Laughs.) I’ve been to a lot of different programs, and I teach now regularly in LA. I teach graduate filmmaking and writing, and then I teach experimental performance and direction at CalArts, and here, I’m studying something a little different. I’m in the English department, and it’s a more academic program, compared to the MFA programs I’ve gone to as a student and now teach in. So a long time ago, I guess it was about four years ago when I signed up for this, what I wanted was a program that would push me towards critical studies. I had been training as a creative person — that’s what an MFA program is, you know, meant to do — and I wanted a bit more of the other side, the analytical side … I felt like there were tools I was being taught as a creative person, you know, how to write creatively, but that there were this whole other group of people — like critics or scholars — that could write analytically in ways I wasn’t being trained in, so I wanted a program that would give me that.
Another part of your question is pointing to the fact that also, I don’t really need this degree for my livelihood. I don’t need it to get a job, and I’m already teaching anyways in addition to acting and directing. But — what can I say? — I like that it pushes me in directions I would not have gone in on my own, and b, teaching has become very important to me, and although I can get jobs down in MFA programs because I have a degree, I like the idea that teaching would become an even more concrete thing if I have this degree. And I don’t think I knew going into this that teaching would become so important to me, but it has.
Q. What else was I going to ask …?
You can ask me whatever, you can get a little juicier if you want. You can ask me whatever you want.
Q: Can you give an instance of the student experience pushing you in unexpected directions?
Not unexpected — just like, you know — I had to read. I just passed my oral. I had to read tons of theory, you know? And as a graduate student or a Ph.D. candidate, you read as much theory as you read the primary texts. So for example, we were in the Chaucer, Spenser, Donne class together where, in that class, you’re mostly reading the primary texts: “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Faerie Queene.” In a graduate class, you would read those texts and you would also read the scholarship surrounding those texts and get a sense of certain kinds of criticism. If I was just on my own, I probably wouldn’t have done a lot of that extra reading. I probably wouldn’t have even known where to go to get that kind of stuff, and so this program gave me a structure. It taught me to do a certain kind of scholarship.
Q: Do you do all the reading?
Yeah, I was an English major as an undergrad — so I’ve read all the stuff, a couple times. So I did refresh myself. It seems like the consensus in the class is that everyone likes Chaucer a lot better than Spenser, and that’s the same with me. Even though Chaucer and Spenser are not in my field of study — I mostly do American, 20th century, 21st century — it’s still in this tradition that I appreciate. I did study a lot of Shakespeare, and so I appreciate the way that Chaucer and Spenser lead up to Shakespeare.
Q: You’re known for researching your roles intensely. What’s been the most rewarding experience you’ve had with that method?
I’ve been acting for almost 20 years, professionally, and my approach has changed over those two decades. When I was young, I started throwing myself into the roles very deeply — I guess, even starting with “Freaks and Geeks.” So I’ll give you an example there. That was a show about kids in high school, in the ’80s, so it wasn’t my generation exactly, but it wasn’t that far from my experience in high school. I could have, in hindsight, more or less played it without a ton of research. I knew guys like Daniel Desario, my character, in high school — I mean, I was a little like him. I knew enough that I could understand that character emotionally and understand his cultural references. But at that time, I was a very passionate, overzealous kind of young actor. So I learned that the writer, Paul Feig, grew up outside of Detroit, and that he had based a lot of the material on his own experience. So I decided that I needed to go to his hometown and go to his actual high school, to get into character. So I went out there, I think it was summer, but there was summer school. If anything, Paul Feig was one of the geeks, not one of the freaks. In the show, the geeks are part of the A/V Club, the audiovisual club, and I ran into Paul Feig’s actual A/V teacher and he told me a little bit about Paul, and I saw some of the students. I saw a guy who reminded me of Daniel a little bit, and then that was it. When I came back, all the other cast members were like, well, why the heck did you do that? At that time, I think it was important for me as an actor to do too much, to go the extra mile even if it didn’t equate into results, concrete results that could be felt and seen. It’s not like after that trip, I decided, oh, Daniel needs to be this way. But I think as an actor, that trip, maybe, say, pilgrimage or something? That reinforced the kind of dedication to the role that maybe helped me as an actor, that I knew I was throwing myself into it so deep that I would be more emotionally invested in the character. And that was important to me as a young actor. But now I’ve done maybe 100 projects, I don’t need to reinforce my dedication to a character by doing some kind of research that won’t necessarily end in tangible results. The kind of research I do now is something that would directly affect the performance, meaning, if the character needs to ride a horse well, he’s supposed to look like a great equestrian, then I would go and practice riding a horse. And then you’d see if I learned how to do it or not onscreen … I used to really throw myself into the roles, and now, I’m just as committed, but now I’m — I don’t know — smarter about the kind of research I spend my time on.
Q. Kim Jong-un has promised “stern and merciless retaliation” if “The Interview” is released. What’s your response, and if you were in charge, what should the U.S. actually do about North Korea?
I don’t know all the ins and outs, but yeah, North Korea made … a statement … about our movie, “The Interview,” that’s coming out in December. Everything I’ve been told is that it doesn’t seem like the movie’s going to start a war. If it does, that’d be, uh, ridiculous. You know, the movie, once people will see it, they’ll realize it’s just as critical of certain American institutions and celebrity culture in America as it is having fun with certain ways that they do things in North Korea, and it’s a comedy. It’s really not a harsh, serious critique of North Korea and Kim Jong-un, as much as it is a fun reflection of the state of affairs globally.
Q. You’ve worked with a lot of the same people, Seth Rogen especially, since “Freaks and Geeks,” most recently jumping out of a birthday cake with him on “The Tonight Show.” What’s the best part of working with your friends, besides working with your friends?
So I just took my oral exams. I’d been studying; I’d been reading for a year and a half, and studying like crazy and reviewing this past month. And so I had this whole plan, I’d be in New Haven, spend the night before my orals and go in and be prepared. Then they asked me last minute, will you come on “The Tonight Show” with Seth and jump out of the cake for Jimmy’s birthday? That is the worst timing, and we couldn’t change it, because it was his birthday, and he didn’t know, and it was going to be a surprise. So the night before my orals I jumped out of a cake topless with Seth for Jimmy Fallon’s birthday — and I still passed. When movies and television and online videos are all collaborative exercises, they all involve groups of people, whether they be actors, directors, writers, working together. And so when you’re in that kind of environment, as opposed to a novelist, who primarily works alone, when you’re in a collaborative environment — I guess not everyone is this way — but when I’m in a collaborative environment, I like to like the people I work with. I want to know we’re all making things for the same reasons, that we’re all aiming towards the same goal. And so when you find that, when you find a connection or a dynamic that really works, like the one between me and Seth, you want to keep going back to it, because there are so many times when collaborations can’t work, or they’re fine, but they don’t have the magic. When you find the magic in a collaborative medium, you tend to want to just go back to it because you find that it makes you better.