The Beat Goes On
BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis
September 09 2010 4:00 AM ET
James Franco was a brooding, troublemaking 15-year-old when a friend first introduced him to “Howl.” Franco—a voracious reader who loved Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Melville—and his friends were so inspired by the Beats that they made the occasional drive north from Palo Alto to City Lights. “I don’t think I understood most of ‘Howl’ when I first read it,” Franco says. “I didn’t catch all the autobiographical and biographical references, and I certainly didn’t know what he was doing with tempo and lineation and syntax.”
But like many young people before and since, Franco was drawn to the poem’s lyrical language and its ballsy, counterculture bravado. At about the same time he first read “Howl,” Franco was partaking in his own rebellion of sorts. He was arrested for graffiti and underage drinking and was involved in a “cologne-stealing ring,” in which he and some friends swiped bottles from department stores and then sold them to fellow students. (More than a decade later Franco became a model for Gucci’s men’s fragrance line.)
Franco pulled himself together for his last two years of high school (throwing himself into acting and painting) and was admitted to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he stayed for a year before dropping out to pursue acting full-time.
He got his break less than two years later, when Judd Apatow cast him in the television series Freaks and Geeks. Franco’s first major film role was in the romantic comedy Whatever It Takes, where he starred alongside his then-girlfriend, Marla Sokoloff. He followed that with the TNT biopic James Dean and a year later with the role of Harry Osborn in Spider-Man.
Franco concedes that he was often difficult on movie sets, irritating cast members with his intensity—and occasionally trying to tell directors how to do their job. “I used to approach acting with a very antagonistic [attitude],” he says. “I was very hard to get along with, and it made working in film very unpleasant. It also hurt my performances. Now I think about acting differently. I feel a little detached from acting, actually. I still work really hard, but for my own sanity—and everyone else’s—I’ve had to surrender the results.”
Coinciding with the change in attitude was a return to academia. Franco finished at UCLA and then enrolled in four graduate programs—two for fiction, one for poetry, and one for film. “I think all of his friends asked him, ‘Why are you doing this, you crazy person?’ ” girlfriend O’Reilly says. “One graduate program is hard enough, and he’s going to do four? But ever since he’s gone back to school, I’ve seen a transformation in him. He’s just happier. He can’t get enough of it.”
How does he get it all (films, graduate work, art) done? For one thing, he rarely sleeps. But he’s also quite possibly the most focused human being currently walking the planet. Franco’s youngest brother, 25-year-old actor David Franco, recalls what it was like to live with James for a year in Los Angeles. “I would come home and he would be writing on the computer, reading a book, listening to music, and watching television all at the same time,” David says. “I was, like, ‘Dude, chill out.’ I did this interview with him recently where I asked him when was the last time he did absolutely nothing. He couldn’t understand what I was talking about. He said, ‘What do you mean?’ So I tried to explain it. I said, ‘You know, you go to the park with your friends or you just relax and watch TV.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ He literally does not understand the concept of downtime, of doing nothing.”