James Franco | Interview
Actor-writer James Franco plays Sean Penn’s squeeze.
Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho helped inspire James Franco to act. So when Franco heard that “probably my favorite director” would helm a movie about Harvey Milk, the first out gay man elected to public office in the U.S., Franco took time away from pursuing his undergrad degree at UCLA (he's currently getting his M.F.A. in fiction writing at Columbia University) to play Scott Smith, Milk’s (Sean Penn) boyfriend.
Time Out Chicago: It used to be seen as risky for straight actors to play gay. Now it seems almost to bestow acting cred—with films like Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Milk.
James Franco: I think it’s true to a certain extent, but you’re naming, like, really great films [Laughs] and great actors giving great performances, and that has something to do with it as well.
TOC: But there has been a shift, right? Any adverse effect wasn’t a concern for you, in other words.
James Franco: There’s certainly been a shift. No, it wasn’t a concern. And if this role did have any negative effects on my career, it could only be for the most bigoted reason. So I would say, “Bring it on.” I’d gladly suffer any repercussions like that. I heard Gus was doing this movie, and I wrote him an e-mail and said I’d do anything to be a part of it. Thank God he didn’t give me the pizza-boy role.
TOC: Has every interviewer asked you about kissing Sean Penn?
James Franco: Uh, yes. [Laughs]
TOC: And you say it was uncomfortable because of his fake moustache?
James Franco: I told that once, and yeah, I mean, I don’t want to make it sound like—I feel bad—that kind of makes it sound like it was the worst thing in the world. It wasn’t.
TOC: Whenever there’s a gay relationship onscreen, isn’t that always the question? “What was it like to kiss someone of the same gender?”
James Franco: Actually, yeah. But I think Gus did a good thing: In the original draft I read, there were kissing scenes, but they weren’t early on; then I got another draft, and it was, like, a page-five love scene. The idea was that, here we are making this movie with Sean Penn and straight actors and one of the things in the back of people’s minds is, Okay, he’s playing a gay character—when’s he gonna kiss a guy? So the idea was, let’s just do it and show it so you can get on with it.
TOC: You said in Out that when you play someone’s romantic partner, you look for things in the other actor that you like. What about Penn did you latch onto to play his lover?
James Franco: Sean really has been a person I can call whenever I need advice from somebody that has the experience he’s had. He can be a very intense guy, but I found an extremely giving person. And it was so nice and refreshing and attractive that here’s Sean Penn, one of the greatest American actors of all time, and if he wanted to, he could be a dick or unavailable or unconcerned with other people, but he was the complete opposite.
TOC: Harvey Milk is depicted here as this very savvy, charismatic political leader who gains power against all odds. Sounds a bit like Obama.
James Franco: There are certainly parallels. They’re both achieving political firsts. Martin Luther King had some quote, the essence of which was change isn’t just gonna happen; people have to make it happen. That was what Harvey Milk did, and that’s what Obama just did.
TOC: I saw you on CNN celebrating on the night of the election.
James Franco: That was a nice night in New York. I went to this party just to be with people to watch the election results, and CNN was like, “Come on. Do an interview.” I’m like, “I can’t talk about politics. I’m gonna sound like an idiot.” “Please, please!” I’ve been studying literature for a while; if they ask me about a book, yeah. I certainly was following the election, but politics is not my forte.
TOC: Well, I’m still going to ask you a political question: With Milk coming out just after Proposition 8 passed, do you see connections between its era and ours?
James Franco: There are very strong connections. I live in New York now, but I voted absentee for California; I voted no on 8. I have friends who were married during the short period when it was legal. In Harvey’s life, there was Proposition 6, which would’ve barred gay teachers from being able to teach in schools. Harvey and others turned it around in California and beat it. They also had the endorsement of President Carter.
TOC: So we need Obama to come out against Prop 8.
James Franco: I don’t think it would hurt.
TOC: I don’t see that happening, though.
James Franco: Yeah, I don’t know. If Harvey was alive, he’d be fighting against Prop 8. It just shows that the issues in the movie aren’t over. The fight is very much alive today.
Milk opens Wednesday 26.