PHOTOGRAPHY INEZ & VINOODH
TEXT ELLIOTT DAVID
INTERVIEW DOUGLAS GORDON
JAMES FRANCO IS A CREATIVE PURIST, REFUSING TO PUT CATEGORIES OR DEFINITIONS ON EXPRESSION. HE PERSONIFIES THE SPIRIT OF THIS GENERATION: IF THERE'S SOMETHING THE PROLIFIC EXPERIMENTALIST CAN'T DO, HE'S GOING TO FIND OUT BY TRYING. THAT'S WHY HE'S OUR MAN OF THE DECADE (SO FAR).
James Franco is a man who needs no more introductions, having already introduced so many iterations of himself to the public. Whereas most actors as famous as Franco are perceived by audiences as a composite of the roles they play and media-constructed non-ish-fiction, Franco filters himself through many forms of expression: he’s an artist, an author, a teacher, a director, a creativity preacher. He’s the godfather of the Millennial generation: those who never take no for an answer, feel their feelings as much or as little in whatever way they want to at any given moment, then hold them up for the world/Internet to see, or don’t. Whatever. It’s like, fuck you, but as a sentiment of unity and identity and love. Here, artist Douglas Gordon speaks with Franco on the nature of celebrity, audience, expectation, and murder.
DOUGLAS GORDON Do you remember when we met?
JAMES FRANCO Was Avignon the first time we met?
DG No. We met in a café and you were introduced to me by Harry.
JF Yes, yes, the Scottish heir.
DG Right, who lives right around the corner from me in Berlin.
JF That’s right. He moved to Berlin.
DG And you know, so we eat and we have a nice lunch, and after that it gets hazy for me.
JF Oh, no. I remember. I fucking remember. You were in the back buying a bunch of Andy Warhols.
DG I was trying to buy a bunch of Andy Warhols; I didn’t get all of them.
DG I don’t know. I think they had some better clients. But there was one photograph that really struck me, which was a photograph of Andy Warhol, Brad Davis, and Fassbender. And I wanted it, and I got it eventually. So if you ever come to visit me in Berlin, you can come into my ramshackle fucking mess of a house.
JF That’s the first thing you see when you go in your house?
DG Yeah. And the picture opposite that is a burnt portrait of Jayne Mansfield—tits are still there, head is off.
JF So I thought you were getting some of those Warhols for a show that you were doing.
DG No. I was trying to buy them.
JF But did you not do a show around that time that somehow combined your work and Warhol’s work?
DG Yeah, I mean roundabout that time I was planning this big show in New York, and there was this weird compulsion to exorcise something, which is another thing I’d like to speak to you about—I don’t know whether I should really call you an actor…
DG You know what I mean? I think this is also one of the good things about what you do outside of Hollywood. I think that you’re pushing it, because you know that when you push it, people want it. You push it, you push it, you push it. Your short film, not the first one I saw, but the second one, which was the rape of the girls? I have to say, that’s a fucking difficult thing for me to watch.
JF Herbert White is based on a poem of the same name by Frank Bidart, it’s the first poem from his first book of poetry,Golden State. It is a persona poem that uses the mask of a serial killer to talk about deeper things. I saw it as a chance to show the extremity of loneliness that a person might feel if they possessed a secret so dark that they could never tell anyone about it. I am probably more proud of this short film than of anything else I’ve done. I got to collaborate with two of my heroes: Frank Bidart and the actor Michael Shannon. It was the first time that I felt really pushed to raise my own game as an artist because I didn’t want to let down these great collaborators.
DG And of course you make the work for those people and for yourself. This is the other great thing when you make work, in any medium, for anyone, and you actually end up in a temporary confrontation or meeting with those people: you realize that what you’ve done is actually effective. But that meta-reflection can be…
JF There is a bit of a dichotomy between my work on camera as an actor and off-camera. I am still hired as an actor in commercial narrative films and my responsibility there is to create characters that are believable and entertaining in each given project. I don’t see my participation in films like Milk or 127 Hours as anything other than storytelling devices among many such devices for the directors of those films. I am a collaborator, but a collaborator serving a director’s vision.
But outside of my role as an actor a different persona has been created—this is the public persona—which has been partly created by me and the career choices I’ve made, and partly by other entities: the press, the public, the Internet. This persona is now material for much of my work as is the material of film itself. Commercial films are designed to entertain and make back their money, they are expensive and thus they are investments, but once they have served their turn in the marketplace I see them as raw material for more explorative kinds of work. I feel like that’s incredibly important because for so long I’ve been working only in mainstream cinema as an actor and that was basically the only outlet I had. So one of the big things for me is: how can I break out? I want to do something that’s based in film, but I don’t want to be confined by that single screen or a single kind of person telling the story. I want it fractured. I want to break it up. I want to lose myself in something bigger. So the presentation and the process of making has become extremely important to me—to get out of what I’m used to. And that’s something that I think you do too.
DG It’s a really curious thing, you know. I mean, I grew up with this idea that everyone’s equal and working class, and if you rise above the working class then you can go on and on and on, and of course I’m super lucky that my mum and dad supported me to go to art school. But then when you’re at art school, people like David Bowie, who I think is genius, extraordinary, the reception of his paintings ain’t that good. There are many examples, and then you realize that there are artists who can make an occasional cameo in a movie and kind of get away with it, but the elevation of art is so strange.
JF I actually talked to Russell Ferguson [chair of The Department of Art at UCLA] about this a lot, because I studied with him, and that was when I first started to make my videos where I was trying to get away from commercial cinema. We talk about that a lot, that actors—especially actors in mainstream film—are gonna bear a lot of that. In my life as an actor, I have this level of commentary, you know—blogs and things that comment on the most base and stupid, stupid level, but that is a level that I have to kind of break through if I want to do anything outside of acting and mainstream film, just something that I always have to face. I mean, I’m not asking people to feel bad for me, I’m just saying that it’s the situation I’m in—that people are skeptical of celebrity.
DG Which you clearly enjoy.
JF You know, I’ve embraced it now. I actually like this sort of superficial criticism of the work, because in a way it becomes this sort of beautiful reflection of
DG This may be a terrible question, but what is the work and what is the work? I know what your work is, and I think you know what your work is. I mean, there’s the daily work and there’s the…
JF I think you are talking about the work as an actor for hire, which is an interpretive kind of work, and work as a director or artist, which is a creative kind of work. I think I’ve found a way to happily combine both worlds. Even when I need to do the “work,” the obligatory work of promoting a big-budget studio film, I have found a way to make this part of my personal practice by trying to be as honest as possible. My public persona has become part of my work, not that I am actually out trying to get tons of attention, believe me, I’d rather not do all the promotion required for a film, but if I do have to do it, then I am going to make it worthwhile. And really I don’t have to do too much, I think people are so used to a kind of celebrity mask that people wear to keep their private lives safe that when someone tries not to wear the mask it is disconcerting. Anyway, I am just trying to make all aspects of my life worthwhile and to turn the “work” into material that I can use for my Work.
DG Can I say this is like the first time that we’ve both actually had quiet time?
JF Very good. To be continued.