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James Franco stars in Ginsberg biopic Howl - interview

We speak to the multi-disciplined actor about what he wants from life

Poetry in motion: James Franco

James Franco wears as many hats off-screen as the many characters he has essayed on screen. A prime example of his multitasking will be seen at this year’s Oscars, where the 32-year-old will be a co-presenter alongside Anne Hathaway and is also nominated for the best actor gong for his remarkable turn in 127 Hours. If that were not enough work for a single night, the California-born star promises he’ll be hosting a big Oscar after-after party at a bar that he is opening in Los Angeles.

Franco is presenting the awards while taking a night off from studying at Yale, where he is doing a PhD in literature and film studies. He returned to school four years ago, studying at UCLA. It was a choice that seemed strange at the time as he had began to have stellar success as an actor, most notably as Peter Parker’s best friend Harry in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy.

But it was a desire not to be defined ‘just’ as an actor that made him go to university even as his acting career started to fly. ‘I have a lot of interests,’ he says. ‘Before I started acting, I was a major at UCLA and I’d come to accept that, as an actor, my job is to serve the director’s vision, which is fine, but I also like other aspects of filmmaking and have other interests. I wanted to pursue them and found that when I went back to school, it was a good place for me as I learn well in that environment.’

This year he put out a collection of short stories, Palo Alto, each set in the northern Californian university town where he grew up. He gets to mix his love of literature and acting in Howl by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, in which he takes on the role of a young Allen Ginsberg.

The title comes from the name of Ginsberg’s controversial poem, which was the centre of an obscenity trial in San Francisco in 1957. The film mixes scenes of the trial with an interview with Ginsberg discussing his art and life. Also in the mix, illustrated with animation, is the first reading of the poem that Ginsberg gave to his eclectic group of friends.

‘The interesting thing about this script is that it was all based on transcripts of interviews that Ginsberg actually gave,’ says Franco. ‘The court scenes are all based on transcripts from the court trial. As far as I know everything that is said in the film was actually said by either Ginsberg or someone else.’

This detail was important to the actor. ‘I didn’t want to improvise, because Rob and Jeffrey come from the documentary world and I felt that even though we were recreating events in this film, that the film still had the soul of a documentary,’ he says. ‘I felt that if I was going to be part of the film I had to be loyal to those words. Because these words are spoken in an interview, the trick is to look like I’m coming up with the answers to the questions on the spot, like I am now.’

Adding another string to his bow, Franco is also a producer on the movie. The directors say that without the actor’s involvement the film was unlikely to be made. His involvement reflects the fascination he has with the celebrated poet’s impact on the American public consciousness. ‘The fact that Ginsberg became such a public figure is an anomaly,’ he says. ‘He’s a poet, it just doesn’t happen that often that a poet becomes that big. That’s just the nature of poetry.’

It is equally unusual for a short film director to get such exposure. Only last year, Franco presented experimental art films – conceived primarily for galleries rather than cinemas – at Berlin and Cannes.‘I used to paint a lot when I was in high school,’ he says. ‘I did a lot of training and painting and then continued it, but I haven’t been painting for a while. I’ve been working on different kinds of art, more video and film-based collaborating with an artist named Carter. We did a film [Erased James Franco] that showed in Paris, New York, London and San Francisco.’

It was thanks to a project that Carter and Franco are making together called Maladies that the actor made the surprising choice to appear in the US soap General Hospital: ‘I will play a character that was formerly on a soap opera. So that has nothing to do with General Hospital other than it started out as a conversation between Carter and me about, “Oh, what if you actually did a soap opera, wouldn’t that be funny, because nobody would expect it?” I started thinking about it and it started becoming a very interesting idea.’

The actor will next be seen this summer in Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise of the Apes and is directing The Broken Tower about the poet Hart Crane who committed suicide aged 32.

Howl, Fri 18, 1.30pm & Sat 19 Feb, 9.15pm, GFT, Glasgow.

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