On March 10th, James Franco woke up to the news that his film Oz: The Great and Powerful debuted to $79.1 million, the biggest opening weekend of his career if you deduct any film with Tobey Maguire. He spent the afternoon with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, walked the Spring Breakers red carpet that night next to one of the biggest lines in SXSW history, then darted away from the after party in time to make it to The Ritz theater by 2 AM to intro his small featurette about straight actors and gay cruise, Interior. Leather Bar. For hardcore Francophiles, it was their third film of the day—or technically, the next day—and Franco's busy Sunday captured the three rings of cinema that he's trying to simultaneous juggle: commercial blockbusters, cult indies, and micro art house. In between, he made time to sit down for this interview at 1 AM. I expected him to be exhausted, but he was energetic and eager to talk—Franco so loves talking about movies that his post-film Interior. Leather Bar. Q&A would have ticked on past 3:30 AM if everyone else in the theater wasn't tired.
Mortal humans can't keep pace with James Franco. But at least we get to watch his manic turn in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers as Alien, a rapper/drug dealer/man with shorts in “every fucking color.” When Alien impulsively—read: probably stoned—bails four bikini-clad strangers out of jail, all five of them, plus his twin hype men (real life gangsta brothers the ATL Twins) embark on a week of crime, cash, and Britney Spears ballads. If only this vacation could last forever. Alas, Gucci Mane wants them dead. What, you thought a Harmony Korine movie would end with a group hug? Franco talks tattoos, cornrows, and his argument that the tits and beer bong mayhem of a Korine-style Spring Break is a “spiritual experience.”
You agreed to work with Harmony Korine before he even had a script. Were you prepared for anything?
The way that went down was I'd been a huge fan of Harmony's. There was a point when I was doing a really bad movie called Annapolis—
Aw, there's a guy in the room next door [Alamo Drafthouse programmer Greg MacLennan] who loves Annapolis.
Yeah...it didn't turn out very well. But I remember getting the script for Mister Lonely while I was working on that, and I didn't understand how to run my career as a creative person. I was at that point trying to run my career as a “careerist.” That's one of the reasons I did Annapolis: not because I liked it at all, but because I thought it was an honorable leading man or something like that. I ended up not liking the experience and not liking the movie. I remember thinking, “This is so cool: Mister Lonely with Harmony Korine. But I can't do it.” Harmony told me later that he was always looking for a Hispanic actor to play the Michael Jackson impersonator, so I don't know how I was sent the script, anyway. But he emailed me and wanted to do this other project that was sponsored by some alcohol company and VICE Magazine. That didn't end up working out, but it started us talking and I said, “I will tell you right now: I will do absolutely anything with you because I'm such a fan and I have total faith—I don't care what it is. You can't propose anything that I wouldn't do.”
Even wearing a mask on your head and raping a chicken?
I would do it. I would do it with Harmony. We have a lot of mutual friends, and when we finally met he said, “I have an idea of what I wanna do—I'm going to send you a treatment.” Well, he never said it was a treatment, I guess, but it was kind of an outline, or just ideas, for Spring Breakers. He had been doing this research on Spring Break, collecting images of college life, for a while. Now that I know him and I've worked on a few things with him—I did this thing for the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA called Rebel, and he did one of the sections—I see how he works. He has the seed of an idea and then he goes and culls images, videos. For Rebel, I asked Harmony to do something with the knife fight from Rebel Without a Cause and he came back with ideas like, “I like the idea of James Dean getting his head cut off,” and then, “Maybe it's something with Biggie versus Tupac?” Then he found this video online of this real fight between these two groups of women at a gas station. They're all dressed up to go somewhere fancy, so they're all wearing dresses and high heels, bu they start fighting and throwing blows and ripping their dresses of each other. So now they're fighting in g-strings and it is crazy. Somebody just caught it on a cellphone.
That sounds much more awesome than cat videos.
Yeah! I don't know where he finds this stuff. So then it's two groups of girl gangs and one of them is wearing Biggie shirts and the other is wearing Tupac shirts that he made. And then Sal Mineo and James Dean lead each of the gangs. Just to give you an example of how he works.
And in Spring Breakers, there's also two dueling rappers. Well, Gucci Mane, who's a real rapper, and you.
Exactly! I guess those are themes. He returns to his themes. But you can see how images and videos influence his thing, so he did that with this. He had all this Spring Break imagery and then he saw something with ski masks and he thought, “Okay, maybe the Spring Breakers rob tourists.” And that's kind of how it started.
Are you a visual thinker like that? For example, your character Alien is covered in tattoos—did you have a story for what each one meant to him?
Definitely. Harmony's very into that kind of thing, too. And I have to say, as far as the look of the character—and even finding sources for the character—I wouldn't have known where to start, you know what I mean? Harmony gave me so much.
But now you're an expert in that slow motion dirty South rap.
From Harmony, yeah. He gave me videos, he gave me clips of interviews with people. I wouldn't even know who they were. Songs, remixes—
When you first listen to these rappers, they sound completely remedial. Did you ever understand what the art of it is—are they underestimated?
Which ones are you talking about?
I don't really want to come out and say RiFF RAFF because I know there's a weird history there with him and Spring Breakers...
I like RiFF RAFF's music. The thing is that at the time, RiFF RAFF wasn't even close to as well known as he is right now. Part of his notoriety is just off of Spring Breakers. I think that's really what he's doing—he just wants to get some attention.
Well, he does have a new video with your name in the title.
“Rap Game James Franco.” The song is nothing about me, it's just like, “I'm making cheddar,” or whatever. RiFF RAFF was in the mix of the references, but there were like two. Two of hundreds. So sure, he was in the mix, but it's not all based on him. As far as the songs go, there was more Gucci Mane. He even sent me some interviews of his own, to have how he talks and everything. But the look came from Harmony and the make-up team and the wardrobe team.
I heard you went through several different looks of cornrows trying to find the right one. How can a cornrow iteration be wrong?
No, we didn't redo the cornrows. It was more just finding the hairstyle. We wanted it to be extreme, but we have to find that balance between a little goofy, a little scary, and also kind of grounded. It's not just a clown outfit—this is somebody that likes how he looks. We were narrowing down to the cornrows, and then last minute Harmony was like, “Aw, no—I want a shaved head. I'm going to shave designs in your hair.” And this was last minute. I was supposed to go the next day to get my hair done in Florida. I was like, “Harmony, I just can't because I have to do these reshoots on Oz and I just can't shave my head.” So he was like, “All right, all right. Cornrows.” With cornrows, they weave in synthetic hair and colors and stuff, so it made my hair really long. We were going to cut them off, and then the ATL Twins came in and they were like, “Yo, yo, naw—keep it. Looks legit, looks fucking sick, yo.” And then we almost didn't do—I can't believe this—we almost didn't do full grillz. It was that balance of caricature and real guy, so when I first left the grillz in, I was like, “Ohhhh”—
Did it take a second to learn how to talk with the grillz?
No, but you want to mess with them. You want to play with them with your lips. But when I saw it for the first time, it looked really extreme and I just thought, “I hope it doesn’t throw people off. I hope people don't think it's a cartoon.” And then the Twins came in and they were like, “Naw, naw. You gotta keep them.”
So the Twins were your vetting machine.
That's basically all they think about: how they look.
They're the Mikey to Southern hip hop's Life Cereal. When you had to wear the cornrows off the set, did people react to you differently?
Exactly. You asked about the tattoos? They all were great, they all had a story. A lot of times, you go on a movie and they just have these generic tattoos. These were worked out really well with Harmony, by Harmony. There's like an alien head with crossbones, some local Florida stuff like the area code—
The Florida silhouette by your shoulder—
There was a really cool one that's hard to see because the movie goes so fast, but it's this thing stepping out of a window in my chest. Really cool tattoos. And then pot leaves and stuff like that. And then one on my arm that says, “Alive with pleasure.”
The Newport cigarettes slogan?
Is it? Oh, yeah! I think you're right! Makes sense. They were all very specific. On my stomach, it said “M.O.B.” I think that was a local thing. The “M.O.B.” one was taken from this guy Dangeruss, who was a big influence. He's a local guy that Harmony met and he introduced me to him. As far as little things I might say or improvise, I took a lot from Dangeruss. I leraned one of his songs, “Hangin With Da Dopeboys.”
That's the song you perform in the movie, and he's behind you doing back-up.
Exactly. There's also a little bit where Alien, my character, tells his back story. “I grew up in the bad part of town, blah blah blah.” That's stuff that Dangeruss told me. “Then I got into hip hop.” All that—that's Dangeruss' story. That wasn't in the script. You asked about the cornrows, this was a case of really not being able to escape the character and also how you realize surfaces, appearances, play such a big part. Every character is half the outward behavior and appearance, and half the inner life. And this had such a huge outer life. I couldn't take the cornrows out. All the actresses said I stayed in character the whole time. I didn't. When we were wrapped, I didn't talk like Alien, I didn't act like Alien. It's just that I looked like Alien—I couldn't escape it. I had all the fake tattoos and everything. I'd walk down the hallway in the hotel and I'd try to be nice and smile at people as I'd pass, and I'd get weird looks. Then I'd remember, “Oh, yeah—I look scary.” So people did treat me differently, yeah.
No one in this movie seems to have a plan for their future. Can you relate to that at all?
I'm actually teaching a class at NYU on Harmony's unproduced scripts. They're actually going to make films based on his early unproduced scripts, and his book A Crack Up at the Race Riots. So we were talking the other day about what's the common theme, what do we think is working in these early movies? What do all these characters want? What connects them all? One of the things we came up with was that a lot of them are these characters who want some sort of escape. They're in some sort of situation, maybe they're getting certain kinds of bad pressure from a parent or their environment. They want an escape, but the tools for their escape are weird. An escape or an expression—an escape through expression or art.
Because so many people don't have an outlet.
Right. And it comes out in weird ways. Like in Gummo, they're killing cats, they're trying to transcend their environment. Or they'll be weird unions, this kind of thing. With these characters, it's the same. They're trying to escape their environment, except these characters don't stop. They just keep going. Not all of them, but the ones that stay just keep going and going and going past roadblock past roadblock past roadblock. Of course, it's very violent. They're doing horrible things. But it's not a realistic movie. It's an extreme movie to talk about feelings or emotions, or just states of mind or being. Desires. These characters find their release in the same way that you might have plans. That's how you build to something in your life that you appreciate, so that you can do something that you love, so you can find expression in whatever it might be. Be productive. These characters are getting the same kind of expression or release from their activities—it's just that their activities are crazy. Just the repetition of this idea of Spring Break and these images that the movie returns to of people on this idealized beach on this ideal Spring Break, the idea of Spring Break starts to blur into something almost spiritual. At least for these characters, it's something spiritual. The way that they talk about it, it's a spiritual experience for them. It's a release, it's an ecstatic experience.
It's a bracketed week where these girls can go wild. And what's dark about what that Spring Break feeling represents to them is it means the other 51 weeks of the year, they can't have that fun, that freedom.
That's what Spring Break is for most people who don't go and rob people.
This summer, you're playing yourself in Seth Rogen's apocalypse movie This is the End. Do you think the world will end in our lifetime?
On the same morbid note, if you could only put one word in your obituary, what would sum up James Franco?
[Thinks for a long time] Peace.
That's so nice! Do you mean that?
[Bursts out laughing] Whatever.