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 02 X560 (YU TSAI) | ADVOCATE.COM O’Reilly shares a telling anecdote: When Franco was 4, someone close to the family died. Franco’s mother explained to him what dying meant, which prompted little James to burst into tears. “But I don’t want to die!” he wailed. “I have so much to do!”

These days, Franco spends most of his time writing. He’s had fiction published in Esquire and McSweeney’s, and in October, Scribner will publish Palo Alto, a collection of his short stories. “I think James is as passionate, if not more passionate, about writing than acting,” O’Reilly says.

But he seems less able to “surrender the results” when it comes to his writing. The response to Franco’s fiction has occasionally been brutal, and O’Reilly says she’s had to help him understand that while some of the criticism may be fair, much of it isn’t. “Because of his fame, it’s really hard for people to be completely objective about his writing, whether they’re an actual reviewer or a fellow student in a writing class with him,” she says. “Because he tries to do so much and is so out there with his work, some people are going to try to tear him down. So it’s hard for him to get a true gauge of what people think and of the quality of the work. Whenever things get touchy, I remind him that the only thing he can do is try to write what he thinks is good.”

At a bar near City Lights, I ask Franco what it would mean if—unlike Allen Ginsberg—he isn’t remembered for his writing. Could he be content being remembered only as a very good and very famous actor? “I don’t want to sound defensive at all,” he says, sounding defensive, “but if websites like Gawker.com or PerezHilton.com don’t like my writing, I can live with that. There is this crazy phenomenon in the blogosphere that is so hostile to anyone being creative, and if I incur that hostility from people who’ve probably read five short stories in the last 10 years, it doesn’t really bother me. I applied to 15 creative writing Ph.D. programs. I got into 14. Some of them only accepted one fiction writer. I know there’s this idea that I’m getting a lot of opportunities because I’m a celebrity, and there certainly is truth to that, but it’s not like I’m coasting. I’m working all the time. Short of writing under an alias, I’m doing everything I can to treat this as seriously as I can.”

As serious as Franco takes his writing—and his life—O’Reilly says he’s also “the goofiest” person she knows. “Prior to these last couple of years, I think people only saw James as this brooding James Dean kind of guy,” she says. “Then people saw him in Pineapple Express”—where Franco plays a lovable, Guatemalan pants–wearing weed dealer—“and realized what all of his friends have always known. James is both the most serious and the goofiest guy around. In some ways he’s not that far off from the role he played in Pineapple Express.”

Minus the weed, of course. Unlike Ginsberg, who took LSD for the first time in 1959 in Franco’s hometown of Palo Alto, Franco doesn’t drink or do drugs. When I e-mail him weeks after our meeting to ask why, his reply is short and sweet. “No time, really.”

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