James Franco Gets Real About His Experimental Persona & Playing A Character With A Cognitive Disability In 'The Sound & The Fury'

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 02: Actor James Franco arrives at the LACMA 2013 Art + Film Gala on November 2, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Source: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

When James Franco seeped into the public consciousness in the mid '90s, he was 100 percent heartthrob. He was in smaller roles in films like Never Been Kissed and Whatever It Takes as the hunky, sometimes airhead friend. He stepped into a slightly less mainstream — but just as dreamy — role with Paul Feig's Freaks and Geeks in 1999 and played smoldering bad boy Harry Osborn in Spider-Man and its two sequels. But then something miraculous happened. Somehow, Franco shed his All-American, fratty facade, and became a fully fledged serious actor. He took on the role of Harvey Milk's lover in 2008's Milk and earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in 127 Hours. And now Franco has transformed once again. In 2015's cinematic landscape, He's known as the artist — an experimenter, a wildcard, an innovator, a teacher, and that guy jamming with Lenny Kravitz in Guitar Hero commercials. "All you can do is work as hard as you can," the 37-year-old actor says. 

Most recently, Franco's hard work has led him in the direction of adaptation, most specifically William Faulkner novels in which he directs and stars on screen. He first directed and starred in As I Lay Dying in 2013, and last year adapted another classic, The Sound & The Fury, which is finally being released in October. "I've loved Faulker since high school. I've read almost all of his stuff. When I started directing my own movies, I found that when I started adapting his books into films, the books are written in such strange and experimental ways, and are structured so unusually, that if I tried to adapt them and tried to stay loyal to what Faulkner was doing in the books, that I would be pushed to make movies in new ways, in ways that I wouldn't do otherwise," he says. 

"I liked the challenge of that, and I liked that it pushed me to grow by finding new solutions." 

In order to get eyes on these adaptations that might not attract a traditional mainstream audience, Franco stars in each one. In The Sound and the Fury, he takes on the role of Benjy Compson, a person with a cognitive disability. "Benjy Compson is one of the most famous characters in literature. I knew it would be a hard role, a tricky role. He's mentally challenged, but he's described in a very particular way in the book," Franco says, who claims everything he needed to craft the role was found in the book. "I had a clear vision of how I imagined Benjy. I didn't model it off of anyone real, but tried to look at the descriptions in the book and use that as my guide for the character. He moans a lot in the book, it describes the sounds he makes, and how he moves, all of that." 

The film has already been seen by select audiences, with critics giving it a mere 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Glenn Dunks of Film Experience said of the film: "The Sound and the Fury is a step in the right direction for Franco the director, but it still doesn't quite suggest he's on the verge of something truly great. Yet, at least." Robbie Collin of the Telegraph says, "Looking at [Franco's] workload, you wonder when the man switches off. Then you go to the films themselves, and find the answer."  

But Franco is well versed in criticism, noting his role as James Dean as the point in which he realized constant critiquing of his work was inevitable. "There is a certain amount of pressure, but I've faced that pressure before. Out of all the roles in the film, this one will be the most scrutinized and criticized. I can take that on, take on that criticism, because then maybe I can take it off the backs of other actors." 

He continued to speak to his critics: "With these projects, I'm not only trying to tell the the story that Faulkner told, I'm trying to take on his style. In that sense, I am being, or trying to be very loyal to Faulkner. Nobody can criticize me and say, 'Oh, he made Faulkner contemporary!' I'm taking on Faulkner for everything: The style, and the story, and the period." 

When adapting this story, Franco drew from his "family" of actor friends to help bring Faulkner's fictional characters to the screen. "Tim Blake Nelson has been in four or five projects of mine now. Danny [McBride] and I have done four or five movies, same with Seth Rogen," the actor says. "You get to really know each other and not only do you get into a working rhythm where you pull the best out of each other, you also know what one another is capable of, so you can push people to try things they might not try with other directors. Danny is mostly known for his comedies, but the movies he does with me are mostly dramas. I think he enjoys the change." 

Franco also brought his Oz the Great and Powerful co-star Joey King into the film, a move that helped facilitate the now 16-year-old actress's first real life (and on-screen) kiss. "That was her first kiss with Keegan Allen," Franco laughs. In the film, Allen's character is credited as simply, "Man with Red Tie," acting as a teenage love interest for King's character. "Joey is great. She is a very precocious young woman, and that's exactly what we needed for Miss Quentin. In some ways it was her first young adult role." 

When he's not busy acting, directing, painting, etc. Franco can be found in the classroom teaching. His Studio 4, which has branches in Los Angeles and New York City, is devoted to teaching young filmmakers, actors, writers, directors, and producers about the collaborative process of making feature films. And I would know, I'm currently enrolled in Franco's Studio 4 Dark Hours class, co-writing a screenplay Franco will produce early next year. "I've been doing this almost 20 years, and I've done a lot of projects that I'm proud of, both as an actor and director, so I thought maybe it was time to help other people achieve their dreams, give opportunities to other people," he says. "Not only is it about helping other people, it keeps me excited. It keeps me in touch with people that are still pure about filmmaking, still passionate and excited about it. For all of those reasons I love teaching." 

Franco's Los Angeles studio, Studio 4, was just given a library of over 6,000 books, thanks to the man himself. For Franco, reading is just as important as watching films for his creative process. "I'm sure there are are a lot of directors who don't read many books and just watch movies. For me, books have always been just as important as film. The way that I tell stories is influenced by literature as much as movies. And the kinds of movies I make are all adaptations. For me, books are essential." 

Audiences can expect to see Franco in films, commercials, and at less conventional events like his own adult Bar Mitzvah — a Los Angeles event that raised 2.5 million dollars for Alzheimer's — on Instagram, and in class rooms for the foreseeable future. 

As my conversation with Franco comes to a close, we say goodbye, but only momentarily — I have a draft of the screenplay I'm co-writing due later that week. "Alright Anna, see you in class," he says, seamlessly transitioning from actor/director Franco into Professor Franco, a skill he's been fine-tuning since he put on his teaching hat for the first time nearly five years ago. 

The Sound and the Fury hits theaters and OnDemand Oct. 23. 

Images: Rabbit Bandini Films 

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