It is bitterly cold in Berlin and there is a soft snowfall on the Karl-Marx-Allee, a broad avenue lined with luxury apartment blocks that were the reward for devotion to the communist cause in the former German Democratic Republic. Like any city space that has been overtaken by history, it is turning into a fashionable art district. I meet James Franco inside the gallery Peres Projects, which is housing his latest exhibition Gay Town. We are introduced and leave the gallery to take an early lunch at a restaurant just up the road.
“I have some students with me from LA,” says Franco chummily. “Or do you want this to be super-private?” The question throws me slightly and, much as I want Lunch with the FT to evolve into a free-flowing Californian media studies seminar group, I think it best to stick with tradition. “Whatever you want,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder and smiling broadly.
The James Franco smile, it cannot be denied, is a thing of wonder. It has made him a star. A proper Hollywood star, who makes multimillion-dollar-grossing movies, who gets to host the Oscars with Anne Hathaway, and who has to deal with the ferocious gossip-mongering of the internet age. Franco is a distinguished acting talent – his bloody excavations into a forearm in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours earned him his own Oscar nomination and a clutch of awards – but it is that smile that has catapulted him into the thinner air of stellar celebrity.
But Franco, 34, is not just an actor. He is also an artist, a writer and a scholar. Indeed, depending on your point of view, he is either the most erudite and cleverly subversive commentator on the relationship between fame and art since Andy Warhol or a pretentious, self-referential fraud. Critics can be savage – the Hollywood Reporter has described him as “a tirelessly medium-hopping Hollywood Rorschach blot” – but that in itself serves as further fuel for Franco’s work.
Some of his feelings about celebrity form the subject of Gay Town. The exhibition is a sprawling, infernal mess. Mixed media from an evidently mixed-up mind: videos, printed rugs, neon signs, many of them profane, all questioning the motives of a culture that simultaneously values and trashes those to whom it assigns celebrity status. A recurring image is one of a crudely-drawn Spider-Man figure, with the words “Fuck Spider-Man” scrawled across it. (Franco featured in all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, as the hero’s friend-nemesis Harry Osborn, aka the New Goblin.)
The show’s title is a reference to speculation on Franco’s sexual preferences – just one of the preoccupations of the gossip-mongers, fuelled by some of the actor’s professional choices: he played alongside Sean Penn as gay politician Harvey Milk’s lover in the biopic Milk (2008), the gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl (2010) and has just co-directed and brought to the Berlin Film Festival Interior. Leather Bar, a sexually explicit reimagining of some “lost” scenes from Cruising, William Friedkin’s infamous 1980 gay police thriller starring Al Pacino.
We are a long way from that degenerate world as we take our seats in Henselmann, a bright and empty café-restaurant with cheery yellow seats, named after the architect who designed several of the local buildings. It is not yet noon, so the specials are not on, and the soup – “potatoes with beef and capers” – sounds a little weird, so we both settle on vegetarian quiche with salad.
Franco is wearing a green checked shirt, a short black coat and jeans. I am a little zonked, I say, having just arrived on an early flight from London. “I’ve just flown in from LA,” he out-zonks me instantly. “But I’m used to it.” We both order cappuccinos.
So, Gay Town: it looks like a crazy place, I say. Franco takes a deep breath and explains, in a long but carefully measured answer, how he came to the subject of his art, which is essentially himself. “It happened about six or seven years ago, when I went back to college to study English literature and art, and I wanted to take those activities as seriously as I took my acting.
“At first I thought that I couldn’t involve my acting in my art; people wouldn’t take me seriously – they would say it wasn’t a good subject. But then I did this project called Erased James Franco (2009) that was loosely based on Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” [drawing], where we collected all this stuff from my previous film performances and used it as raw material. It was a very interesting piece.
“And that showed me that all this stuff I do with film and my public persona is actually great material for the other work I want to do. A lot of other artists – Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, Douglas Gordon – look at the film and performance world and filter it through their own work. But here I am, in this unique position, with a foot in each world. And it is a great subject.”
Smiles and piercing dark eyes aside, this is the kind of remark that determines whether you love or hate Franco. Several of the works in Gay Town consist of articles written about him, with his own observations scrawled none too delicately around them. The show is quite dark, I say. “I guess you could say the themes are dark. In other ways, they aren’t. I’m just trying to engage people in the way we live now, the way we interact with each other and the way images are redistributed and appropriated.”
What about poor Spider-Man? Those works seem angry.
There is a long pause.
“It’s not anger at any person or situation. Sam Raimi directed me in Spider-Man, and I have just done Oz [The Great and Powerful] with him. Those paintings are about poking holes in certain façades. I know I am part of this machinery that is so huge, and I’m not complaining, but we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these movies so that they are beautiful, they transport people, they are an amazing art form.
“But they do create these weird polished surfaces that are very difficult to get underneath. And I get sucked into all that. So these pictures are a way of poking through that.” I say that I found them funny. “Well, I love to bring humour into my work,” he says. “Because comedy is not a huge part of the art world. And big-business film takes itself very seriously.”
Our quiches arrive and they prove to be tastier than they look. Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” starts to play in the background – an ominous portent – but Franco is in a relaxed, giving mood. Did he find it difficult to compartmentalise his complicated life and multilayered work?
He laughs. “I did. When I was only an actor, I didn’t want things to get out. I was told to be like [Jack] Nicholson or Al Pacino: they didn’t do the talk shows so they could then slip into any role. But it got to be too hard. I spent so much of my energy on it and it made me difficult. The pay-off wasn’t that great. And, actually, I don’t mind interviews. I like them.” He waves a welcoming hand towards my microphone. “And I find I can still slip into roles. People still buy me.”
Franco, who once described sleeping as a waste of time, generally succeeds in his frenetic role-swapping, with the occasional car-crash moment. In his 2011 Oscar-hosting with Hathaway, he appears frozen with cool next to his glamorous and effusive co-host. Word on the web was that he was high, which he strenuously denied on the Late Show with David Letterman. “I love her but Anne Hathaway is so energetic, I think the Tasmanian devil would look stoned standing next to [her],” he said.
In 2006, a decade after he dropped out of college, Franco went back, enrolling in literature and writing classes at the University of California in Los Angeles before, somewhat characteristically, signing up to classes at four separate graduate schools and, latterly, teaching too (hence the entourage from LA). Was there an epiphany behind this? “School allowed me to have outlets so that some of the pressure was taken off the acting. Every role in every movie, I used to live or die by. Once I had these new outlets, I relaxed a lot more.”
I ask if he is still reading for any degrees. “The last thing I have to finish is my PhD at Yale. That takes a long time.” What is its theme? “Something about how literature and film intersect, and what happens when one is translated into the other.” Franco’s apparent devotion to study is naturally considered bizarre in Hollywood circles. “Don’t neglect the studies!” quipped Letterman, wrapping up another recent interview on his show.
Franco was born in Palo Alto, California, into a family with Portuguese, Russian, Swedish and Jewish roots and had a liberal, secular upbringing. He originally enrolled at UCLA as an English major but dropped out after a year to pursue acting. His breakthrough came in 2001 when he played James Dean in an eponymous television biopic, which then led to the first Spider-Man film.
His work since then has been determinedly eclectic: from stoner comedy (2008’s Pineapple Express) to television soap opera, starring, more than a little postmodernly, as a serial killer called Franco in General Hospital. In 2010 he published a collection of related short stories, Palo Alto, about teenage lives in suburban America. Franco’s spare, uncluttered prose received favourable reviews, as well as the inevitable put-downs.
Why the abiding interest in adolescence, I ask him? His reply is surprisingly technical: “As an adolescent, everything feels much bigger, but your experience level is more shallow. Because of that, small things become very dramatic. But now I am an adult, and I still have a lot of the same issues. How do you relate to people? Who are you loyal to? How do you deal with your friends, your enemies? How do you deal with your dreams?”
And those issues must get magnified in the hothouse world that he now inhabits, being a movie star? “And that is why that is my other big subject,” he counters.
If nothing else, Hollywood stardom gives Franco plenty of fresh and diverse material with which to furnish his other creative work. As well as opening his art show, he is in Berlin to promote Oz and three more films at the festival, including Lovelace, in which he plays Hugh Hefner, and Interior. Leather Bar. I ask him about the latter, which received some scathing reviews after its screening at Sundance earlier this year. He appears unfazed.
“That’s a great example of how you can use film as a source to rework things,” he says. “I was fascinated by Cruising. Aesthetically, I was very drawn to the leather bars. Friedkin used the actual leather bars of the late 1970s and also a lot of the real patrons. That was pre-Aids, they are all gone now. It just looks amazing.
“And then I wanted actual sex on screen. But I was scared of doing it. I had never directed real sex.” So Franco decided to join forces with Travis Mathews, a gay art-porn director. “He comes from queer cinema and lives that gay lifestyle, and I don’t. It was a good collaboration.”
This is as near to a definitive proclamation of heterosexuality as Franco gets. And who cares anyway?
It is easy to see how and why he irritates so many people. The movie business cannot help mistrusting those who don’t conform to its demands. It is not that Franco won’t play their game – he is a charming talk-show guest, and able to adapt to the various requirements of his profession, otherwise the jobs would have dried up.
More threateningly, he complements the Hollywood game with his own games, with frequently unwholesome results. The art world, too, which can be infuriatingly self-regarding, does not take kindly to casual interlopers. At a gallery opening later in the evening, a Berlin dealer will tell me that he finds Franco’s work “juvenile” – a not uncommon reaction.
But I think he is more important than that. In bestriding these two colossal cultural worlds, Franco is able to provide fresh insights into both. The blurring of life and art is a cliché; but it has been taken to a new level by the unceasing chatter of social media, which is more invasive and crueller than what went before. Celebrity is not what it was in Warhol’s day: it is still a double-edged state of being but the edges cut deeper. And Franco knows what that feels like, more than Sherman or McCarthy or Gordon. I ask him if his vituperative art works taking aim at the blogosphere are a form of revenge. There is, after all, some pretty nutty stuff out there.
“But it is out of my control,” he says. “And I don’t try to control it. What I do is use it as raw material for my work. So if someone wants to poke at me, I am not just going to be a victim. And for people who say it is just another Franco vanity project, believe me, I am not trying to make myself look good. If I were, I could make a much better job of it.”
There is no disputing that. And no time for any more food. Franco has to give a hasty press conference in the gallery. I follow him after settling the modest bill. At the conference, he is asked, more than once, in a variety of ways, why so much of his film and art work concentrates on sex. “It is a subject that is such a huge part of our lives. Most people talk about it. And as far as I know, most people do it. And it’s how we reproduce ourselves.”
Javier Peres, the gallery owner, tries to explain to mystified onlookers what the show is all about. “James uses fame as a basic ingredient in his work,” he says. “Like a painter uses oil.” Franco is in turn asked what he does when he gets bored with “all that celebrity”.
“I live most of my life in my own private space,” he answers. “It’s not an issue.”
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
Karl-Marx-Allee 75, Berlin
Vegetarian quiche x2 €15
Cappuccino x2 €5