James Franco experiments with notions of celebrity on film, stage and soap opera

James Franco rubs his eyes and downs coffee during a break from his intense preparation for his performance art project at the Museum of Contemporary Art in West Hollywood. His face sports some stubble, his lanky frame lounges in a chair, but Franco is amazingly good-natured and friendly for someone who appears to be working around the clock.

If his energy temporarily flags, the 32-year-old Franco has reason: His multifaceted endeavors are enough to make anyone feel like a slacker.

James Franco plays one of Julia Roberts’ love interests in “Eat Pray Love.” photo/ap/sony/francois duhamel

Franco’s pop-culture turns have included Harry Osborn in the wildly popular “Spider-Man” franchise; a lazy pot dealer in “Pineapple Express,” which earned him a Golden Globe nomination; and Sean Penn’s gay lover in “Milk,” for which he won an Independent Spirit Award. He stars opposite Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love,” opening Aug. 13, and will play the (human) lead in the “Planet of the Apes” prequel, “Rise of the Apes,” slated for 2011.

In between, Franco has quietly earned master’s degrees in English and film studies from Brooklyn College and New York University, and in the fall he will enter a doctoral program, on the same subjects, at Yale.

Meanwhile, the edgy collection of short stories he wrote, “Palo Alto,” inspired by his childhood in that city, will be published this fall by Scribner; his first solo art show just opened at Manhattan’s Clocktower Gallery; and recently Franco was at MOCA preparing for his most ambitious project of all — a performance art piece that Salon.com playfully dubbed “the WTF celebrity side project of the year.”

Perking up over the coffee and conversation, Franco admits that the project is a bit difficult to explain. Prompted by his work with the artist Carter, with whom he made an ironically self-referential film, “Erased James Franco,” the actor hoped to experiment further with the concept of his own celebrity. And so he signed on to play a homicidal performance artist, also named Franco, on the ABC soap opera “General Hospital,” in a story arc that began last November.

His stint on the show culminated in a July 22 episode in which the character Franco attempted to create art from his own death during a fictional exhibition at MOCA.

Franco insists he wasn’t making fun of soap operas, but rather was trying to get people to change their perception of that type of show.

“My intention is to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, because as an actor in commercial narrative films, I will be perceived as someone who doesn’t belong in the very stylized world of soap opera,” Franco explains.

Intellectual and artistic pursuits are in Franco’s blood. His Jewish maternal grandparents own an art gallery in Cleveland; his parents became acquainted in a drawing class at Stanford University.

When Franco got his first Hollywood break, in TV’s “Freaks and Geeks,” producer Judd Apatow used to tease him for reading Proust on the set. “Judd kept asking me, ‘Why are you reading that?’ ” Franco recalls with a laugh.

But there is one area of learning that Franco has yet to pursue.

“Sadly, I didn’t have much of a Jewish upbringing, and I feel deprived,” he says. “I had a lot of Jewish friends, and so I went to plenty of bar and bat mitzvahs, but I never went to Hebrew school. I love education and, looking back, it’s like my friends had this whole other education that I didn’t have.”

In 2009, when Franco was roasted as the Harvard Hasty Pudding Man of the Year, the festivities included a faux comedic bar mitzvah. “I found that oddly touching. I do really want to have a bar mitzvah, and the only thing preventing that right now is just the time I would need to prepare,” Franco says, referring to the time constraints imposed by the MOCA project.

While he is passionate about his latest endeavor, he understands that some may view it as pretentious. “I’m sure some people are thinking, ‘Oh, God, please — is he really asking, “What is art?” He should be horse-whipped for asking that,’ ” Franco says. “But on another level, it’s still a question that is very important to be asked … A project like this can get people talking and, at the very least, prompt them to come up with their own definition. As banal as the question may sound, I think it’s still valid.”

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal