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.

BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis

September 09 2010 4:00 AM ET

JAMES FRANCO 01 X560 (YU TSAI) | ADVOCATE.COM In addition to the two gay-themed poems he adapted for student films (Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White” being the other), Franco portrayed a 17-year-old swimmer dating an older man in the gay indie film Blind Spot and Harvey Milk’s lover in Milk. He also French-kissed Will Forte on Saturday Night Live, took a queer studies course at NYU, and created performance art pieces about gender and sexual confusion. And then there’s Franco’s first solo art show this past summer in New York City; it featured video monologues with lines like “We’re all gender-fucked—we’re all something in between, floating like angels.”

And now, just in case Franco hasn’t confounded us enough (and blown the lid off the conventional thinking about how many gay projects an A-list actor can tackle without  imploding), he’s taking on arguably his most challenging role yet: iconic gay poet Allen Ginsberg, a man who discovered within himself “mountains of homosexuality.”

As the City Lights poetry room grows suspiciously crowded with gay men (has someone alerted a float?), I ask Franco what attracts him to gay roles. He leans back in his chair and ponders the question. “In this history of cinema, there are so many heterosexual love stories,” he whispers. “It’s so hammered, so done. It’s just not that interesting to me. It’s more interesting to me to play roles and relationships that haven’t been portrayed as often.”

“If you were gay or bisexual, would you tell me?” I ask him. “Are we at a point where someone like yourself could matter-of-factly come out without the world stopping for a day or two?”

He smiles and glances out the window. One of the college students shuffles closer. “Sure, I’d tell you if I was,” he says. “I guess the reason I wouldn’t is because I’d be worried that it would hurt my career. I suppose that’s the reason one wouldn’t do that, right? But no, that wouldn’t be something that would deter me. I’m going to do projects that I want to do. Everyone thinks I’m a stoner, and some people think I’m gay because I’ve played these gay roles. That’s what people think, but it’s not true. I don’t smoke pot. I’m not gay. But on another level, there’s something in me that is able to play roles like that in a way that’s convincing.”

I’m curious what that something is. Can he relate to sexual confusion? Does he secretly want to be gay? His girlfriend, actress Ahna O’Reilly, laughs when I phone her later and suggest the second possibility. “If he does, it’s news to me!” she says, adding that Franco’s interest in sexuality is less about homosexuality and more about boyhood, masculinity, and journeys of self-discovery. Franco’s favorite movie is My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant’s 1991 surreal update of Shakespeare’s King Henry plays, which stars River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves and is certainly about all of those things.

“I’ve loved that movie since before I was an actor, when I was in high school,” he says. “I suppose the aesthetics struck me. I loved the makeshift family, the idea that people could come together and survive. I loved the clothes. And I am sure the performances were what I was mostly drawn to, especially River’s. He’s vulnerable, quirky, cool, and clownish. He’s like James Dean and Charlie Chaplin. I am sure I was drawn to his character’s quirkiness and desire to be loved.” (Franco and Van Sant are currently working on an art project reexamination of Idaho using never-before-seen footage.)

Though Franco didn’t know any openly gay people in his San Francisco Bay area high school (“It was not considered a good thing to be gay,” he says), he doesn’t remember ever having negative feelings about homosexuality. “My friends and I read the Beats, so we were familiar with gay characters,” he says. He also grew up in a liberal household—his mother is a poet and author—where he says it was OK to be unique and artistic.

I ask Franco if he’s ever been counseled to slow down on the number of gay-themed projects he accepts. He shakes his head. “You want to know what my agents did try to talk me out of?” he says. “General Hospital. They didn’t think me acting in a soap opera was the greatest idea. But they know that I’ve always wanted to do a movie about the Beats, so no one tried to stop me from playing Allen Ginsberg.”

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