How James Franco Became Michael Glatze

by Maitri Suhas

James Franco's newest film, I Am Michael, sprung from something banal: an email from his friend and director Gus Van Sant. In an exchange between friends, Van Sant emailed Franco a link to the New York Times Magazine profile of Michael Glatze, who James Franco plays in the movie, and Franco was immediately intrigued not only by the story but by the fact that he knew the author, Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Denizet-Lewis was a friend of Michael Glatze, the former gay rights activist who proclaimed he was straight and became a pastor who Franco portrays in the film, directed by Justin Kelly.

“If I hadn’t followed up Gus’ pretty casual suggestion, we probably wouldn’t be here right now, I have learned to listen to whatever Gus says," Franco said in an interview with The Huffington Post at Sundance. It's not bad advice for Franco to follow; he's seen great success working with Van Sant before in playing Harvey Milk's partner Scott Smith in the 2011 film Milk. In a post-screening interview at Sundance, Bustle's Anna Klassen reported, Franco said he found a way inside Michael Glatze's character by focusing on his humanity: "With this role, I thought what is primary here is his journey, his experience, his transformation — his beliefs and how those change.”


Director Justin Kelly was meticulous about writing the script and doing justice to Glatze's unique story, mining people from his life to help round out the biopic:

Kelly spent over a year working on the script, traveling to meet Glatze and some of his former friends, most notably three of his ex-boyfriends in Nova Scotia. According to Kelly, those men helped fill in the meat of the story and bring color to who Glatze had been in his gay advocacy days.

It's this respect to the complexity of the human spirit that tied Kelly and Franco together with the Glatze in the film; the real Michael Glatze, surprisingly, came to Sundance for the screening and afterwards, thanked the cast and crew for telling his story. The most interesting part about I Am Michael is that Franco's and Kelly's motivations were not about passing judgments, but rather to illuminate the difficulty of the journey of life and attempting to show how one man struggles. Franco said it's obviously near impossible to capture exactly what Glatze was feeling when he decided to leave his partner of ten years and become a pastor identifying as straight:

It’s not so simple. We came to this belief that the character really did believe that he was changing. That he’s not lying to himself. He was somebody who, for his whole life, had been grappling with and defining identity. Or defying identity. It was already something that was at the forefront of his mind.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

It's this commitment to authenticity and realism that make Franco a great character actor. As much as he enjoys poking fun at himself at Comedy Central roasts and making comedies like The Interview (and as much as we can poke fun at him for it), Franco really chooses roles that many actors would not be brave enough or dedicated enough to play.

Image: Getty