Actor-director James Franco wants to set the record straight.
Despite his costar Seth Rogen‘s recent jokes to the contrary, in the media, Franco says he never approached the dissociative fugue state that Jim Carrey entered when playing late comedian Andy Kaufman in 1999’s Man on the Moon, on the set of The Disaster Artist. But he still commits to his roles. In fact, the Palo Alto native claims that each time he was made-up to look like real-life filmmaker Tommy Wiseau for The Disaster Artist — a hilarious comedy about the making of the eccentric filmmaker’s 2003 box-office-bomb-turned-cult-
In an interview, alongside his The Disaster Artist costar and brother Dave Franco — who plays Wiseau’s friend and acting partner, Greg Sestero — James Franco also opened up about the liberation and rejection he felt playing the much-mocked moviemaker and how authenticity and even marriage have become greater priorities.
James, from James Dean in the James Dean biopic to Scott Smith in Milk to Aron Ralston in 127 Hours to now Tommy in The Disaster Artist, you’ve thrown yourself head first into several biographical roles. Seth Rogen joked that it was difficult to deal with you on The Disaster Artist set, because you never broke character. At what point do you break character?
JF: OK, so there are different levels of being a character. The character of Tommy has the outer aspect, like the behavior, the voice, the look, the putting on the prosthetics, and all that. And then there’s the inner life, where it’s Tommy’s actual thought process.
There’s an amazing documentary out on Netflix, Jim and Andy, where there’s footage of Jim Carrey fully in Andy Kaufman character. Jim Carrey is not there anymore, and Milos Foreman has to not only address him as Andy, but deal with Andy’s personality. But anyone can come up to me and ask responsible questions that a director should answer. And from everything I’ve read about the way Tommy was on his own set, he was not responsive in the way I was. So, it was really just me staying in the behavior. But it was James filtered through that, so it was not a full Jim Carrey immersion. Especially because I was the director, too!
So, at what point do you break character?
JF: When the prosthetics were on, Tommy was there. It took like two and a half hours to put them on, and I would listen to Tommy’s recordings while I was doing that. That was kind of entering the zone.
Did you do more or less immersion than what you did on the James Dean set?
JF: No, it was about the same level as I did on James Dean. Although on James Dean, I was only the actor, so I communicated with the director mostly. I did keep to myself quite a bit on James Dean.
Dave Franco: I feel like with James Dean, there was a different element, too, where you decided you didn’t want to talk to the family for a long time because James Dean didn’t have a good relationship with his family.
Dave, and how did you feel when he wasn’t talking to you?
JF: It wasn’t like we talked on the phone all the time. It wasn’t that much different. [To Dave] You were young, too, when I did that. Were you still in high school? I was probably about 23, so yeah, you were definitely still in high school…
But that’s the time when an impressionable boy most needs his older brother.
JF: [Laughs] Anyway, Dave was fine. He was, like, homecoming king and stuff.
Getting back to Jim and Andy, one of the most interesting moments, for me, was when Carrey admitted that he was able to experience all these emotions as Andy Kaufman that he couldn’t otherwise experience in his own life.
JF: Oh, yeah. Well the way Jim talks about it, his acting is a kind, benign Jekyll-and-Hyde situation. Like when he acts, Hyde comes out. It’s not an evil Hyde – just a different personality. And I guess that just came from his approach, so I think, for him, that worked. For me, I think the way I bring emotional through-lines to characters is I try to align myself with the characters. I try to find what I can relate to in Tommy and go through that. When Tommy is down, I know what it’s like to feel rejected; I know what it’s like to not have people believe in you. And I try to align with that, rather than just get rid of all of James’s feelings and experience only Tommy’s feelings.
But when you are immersed in characters, are you able to experience different feelings you can’t ordinarily experience? Like when someone’s wearing a mask or a costume?
JF: Well, the Tommy character sort of was a mask. He has a prosthetic nose, cheeks, chin, and eyelids, and a wig and contacts – and so when all that stuff was on, I did experience, to a certain extent, what it was like to be Tommy. People did treat me a little differently. I feel like people I knew weren’t as warm to me or even strangers that I would meet wouldn’t be as friendly as they normally were when it was me. So, in that sense, yeah, people do talk about quote, unquote masks or actual masks being liberating, and they are in a way. I think what Jim Carrey is getting at is that acting takes you to this imaginary place, and if you can really access that, then you really can be liberated. You’re not confined by the restrictions of your daily life, which are in place for a reason. But in an imaginary setting of a film, you are freer.
James, you said in a recent interview about The Disaster Artist that “You have to accept the perception that people want to have of you but also be yourself.” How do you manage both?
JF: I think that comment was referencing a different period in my life, maybe over a year ago, where I was on social media, and I was doing a lot of different things, and now I’m not. I had a sort of experimental phase where I was trying a lot of different things, and now it’s over. So, I would say, now I just try to be as earnest and authentic as I can, and that falls in line with the sort of projects I do. I only do projects that I am 100 percent behind. I’m just doing things that are expressions of who I am.
So now that your younger brother is married, do you feel pressure to follow suit?
JF: Yeah. I think it was a little bit of a wakeup call, because they are such a great couple. I remember going to the wedding in February and thinking, “Wow, that’s really nice.” I was just so happy for them, and it was a really nice thing to see. So yeah, it was like, “What are you doing, James?”
So, what are you doing, James?
JF: Well, I don’t want to rush into anything or to force anything, but I’ve…
DF: It seems like part of the reason you’re slowing down is so you can focus on your personal life a little bit more…
JF: Yeah. I am focusing on my life a little bit more. I’m doing it! I’m doing it!
The Disaster Artist is currently playing at Alamo Drafthouse – New Mission and Metreon 16. It opens on Thursday, Dec. 7 at the Van Ness 14 and Kabuki 8.