Franco’s reign

Pub date September 21, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM Contrary to popular belief, James Franco is not always high; he is just very, very tired. When the near-ubiquitous actor-writer-director-visual artist-scholar-astronaut-Japanese body pillow enthusiast — who recently came out to the Advocate (as straight) — was in town for the Howl premiere at the Castro Theatre last June, he looked suitably exhausted and bedraggled — in an impish, adorable way, mind you.

Franco, who also recently (and somewhat inexplicably) admitted to compulsively masturbating four to five times a day, suffered from perpetual bouts of yawn-talking during his interview with the Guardian. He was a half-hour late due to a professed need for some “alone time.” Draw your own conclusions.

Taking on the outsized persona of poet-provocateur Allen Ginsberg in Howl is yet another item to tick off on his list of improbable accomplishments, which range from studying for simultaneous graduate degrees to starring on the venerable daytime soap opera General Hospital (as the mysterious, um, “Franco”) in between movie gigs and solo art shows.

And an accomplishment it most definitely is. It’s almost inconceivable that the same actor who initially gained acclaim for his uncanny portrayal of James Dean could also perfect the role of another great midcentury icon, the formidable bear-guru of all things counterculture, less than a decade later.

“I guess I thought if I ever played one of the Beats, it would never be Allen Ginsberg,” he admits, a fact that ironically drew him to the role. “It was actually more attractive to play Ginsberg rather than Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac, who were closer to a James Dean type.” Fortunately for the slight, almost delicate Franco, this wasn’t the Ginsberg that most of us have come to know. “It’s Ginsberg to an age right before he became heavier and bearded and bald, the recognizable Ginsberg,” he explains.

Franco’s passion for the Beats goes back to his rebellious teen years, when he and his friends took regular trips from his Palo Alto home to City Lights bookstore in North Beach. “Everybody loved Kerouac, Burroughs’ Junky, or whatever. But Ginsberg — he was in touch with all the movements that came after the Beat movement, so he always stayed current. Now Ginsberg is probably my favorite.” Surprisingly, a major source of Franco’s inspiration for the role was his older brother, Tom, a sculptor who is “very into meditation.”

Besides an affinity for the darkly offbeat, the late Ginsberg and his onscreen doppelganger might have something else in common: a dangerous flirtation with overexposure. So far, at least, it hasn’t hurt Franco, who still allows himself plenty of me-time to reflect on a brilliant, if overextended, career in his own (very personal) way.

HOWL opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.