James Franco: The Beat Goes On

James Franco isn’t a gay man, he just plays one — frequently. The busiest guy in show business takes a break to discuss how he came to play Allen Ginsberg in Howl.



James Franco is whispering to me about gay poetry. We’re seated by a window in the upstairs poetry room at City Lights Books in San Francisco, where several earnest-looking college students pretend to read obscure poetry collections. Franco speaks softly so that he doesn’t disturb them.

They’re not disturbed, of course. If anything, they’d probably like the 32-year-old, who’s hiding his curls under a San Francisco Giants hat, to speak up—to project. But to Franco, a poetry room, especially one with such a strong connection to Allen Ginsberg, a man Franco has admired for years and portrays in the upcoming film Howl, is a serious place where people ought to be allowed to read in peace.

I lean in closer. “When I read a poem that inspires me, I don’t question it,” he says, turning in his seat to gaze toward the brick apartment building across the alleyway, where a woman’s chubby hands extend from an open window to adjust a drying T-shirt on a stained laundry line. It’s an unusually hot day in San Francisco, and only blocks away the city is celebrating gay pride by dancing on floats and trying to keep up with the overwhelming number of possibilities on Grindr.

Here, though, in this room that celebrates the Beat Generation—where a sign reads "Printers’ ink is the great explosive"—Franco is explaining his interest in “The Feast of Stephen,” a gay-themed poem he adapted into a short film of the same name for his course work at New York University. (In addition to completing his thesis at New York University, Franco received an MFA from Brooklyn College, and this fall he’ll begin work toward a Ph.D. in creative writing at Yale University. More on Franco’s love of homework later.)

The Feast of Stephen, the film, looks like something a young Gus Van Sant might have dreamed up: sweaty, sinewy teenage jocks play basketball shirtless on an outdoor court while a gay boy watches and fantasizes about them gang-raping him and smearing feces on his face. It’s a creepy film, and I can’t help but wonder if Franco, who considers Van Sant one of the greatest directors to ever live, subconsciously made the movie to impress him.

Although Franco tells me he doesn’t question inspiration when it strikes, it’s not an answer I’m prepared to accept without a fight. Franco is heterosexual (unless everyone who knows him well—including his girlfriend of five years—is lying or has been monumentally duped), yet he is routinely “inspired” to direct or play gay.