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EXCLUSIVE: How James Franco Uses His Famous Friends to Make Hollywood Movies His Way

by Stacy Lambe 11:35 AM PDT, April 22, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

On an unusually crisp Saturday afternoon at the Smyth Hotel in New York City, James Franco is busy with yet another Tribeca Film Festival. The hotel suite he’s in to answer questions about the film, King Cobra, is filled with personal publicists, film reps, a photographer shooting Vanity Fair portraits, his co-stars -- Christian Slater and Garrett Clayton -- as well as the film’s director, Justin Kelly.

That night, Franco will attend the premiere of King Cobra, his latest subversive project about the real-life story of budding gay porn star Sean Lockhart (known as Brent Corrigan on computer screens) and the murder of Bryan Kocis, the producer who made him famous.

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Ahead of its premiere, King Cobra has generated all sorts of suggestive headlines (“James Franco's Queerest Role Yet” in Variety; “James Franco and Keegan Allen Are Sweaty Pigs in New Clip From ‘King Cobra’” in Towleroad) as Franco himself has been garnering his own attention for revealing interviews with Rolling Stone and New York Magazine. In the latter, he said he was “a little gay” while explaining that his celebrity is the only reason anyone cares about his sexuality. The quote, of course, generated a flurry of even more headlines.

And that may be exactly how he intended it.

The conversation about his sexuality extended from the fact that Franco has previously said he’s gay in his work, which was to explain why he has starred in such queer films as Milk, which won Sean Penn an Academy Award for portraying gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk; Howl as poet Allen Ginsberg; Sal, which he also wrote and directed; and Interior. Leather Bar, an imagining of the deleted scenes from the controversial 1980 film, Cruising. Last year, he once again played gay in I Am Michael (also directed by Kelly), about the real-life story of Michael Glatze, a gay activist who renounced homosexuality to become a Christian pastor; and Wild Horses opposite Robert Duvall.

Vague sexual identity aside, Franco told Rolling Stone in March that his interest in queer cinema was a reaction to the production of “straight, heteronormative stories ad nauseam” in everything from film to TV commercials. “I think it's healthy to make work that disrupts and questions that, and shows alternative narratives,” he added.

Photo: Getty Images

Back in the hotel room, Franco tells ET that King Cobra, in which he plays a rival gay porn producer, is part of that disruption. “I just thought, ‘Here’s something I can be a part of that would hopefully bring this kind of subject matter a little bit more toward the mainstream market, to get different kinds of eyes on it, and because of that, make the conversation start to change,’” the actors says, explaining his mission to push ideas on the fringe inward. “When things are compartmentalized, or whatever, certain people aren't being exposed.”

According to the actor, his latest movie just so happens to be the middle chapter of loosely related, real-life stories about struggling identities he and Kelly are making together -- their first entry being I Am Michael, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. “There’s a third part coming,” Franco says, revealing it’s about JT LeRoy, the famed literary identity created by writer Laura Albert. After being exposed in 2005, Albert explained that she created an alternate persona as a way to deal with her own experiences with abuse and gender identity.

“We're on a queer journey together,” Kelly adds.

And for his part, Franco doesn’t just want to push the limits of mainstream. The actor also wants to push the concept of gay films, with King Cobra offering “an alternative to movies in the LGBT community.”

“It has a very unique and dark narrative to it that was very intriguing,” Franco says of the film, which is part noir, part black comedy, and part softcore porn. “So, I thought it was doing a lot of disrupting.”

While much can be said about Franco’s choice in films, especially the roles that seem to play on the media’s own fascination about his persona, something should also be said about the sheer amount of projects he produces. In 2013, Franco wrote, directed, produced or starred in 10 different films. The following year (a slow one), it was five. And in 2015, it was 11. This year, he has four films slated for release plus a starring role in the Hulu original series, 11.22.63.

“There's nothing more frustrating or disappointing to me than when you have a great idea, and for whatever reason, it just doesn't happen,” Franco says. He seeks out people who “will do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

And many of those projects of the past three years include frequent collaborators, such as Kelly; Slater, who also appears in The Adderall Diaries, which is now in theaters; and Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, both of whom have co-starred in Franco’s more mainstream films. The actor's other film premiering at the festival, The Fixer, was directed by Ian Olds, who co-directed the experimental project, Francophrenia: (or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is).

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“When I have a good relationship with someone, now I just hold on to it. Like, let's do more,” Franco says of his ever-expanding circle of friends. “I think I'm pretty fair now too. So, if Christian comes to me and is like, 'Dude, I want you to play whatever,' I will probably do it for him, because he's shown up for us.”

“It creates a community and it kind of gives us a little more power and agency over what we want to do and make what we want to do,” he continues. “If we make them at a certain level, we don't have to go to studios or get approved. It's like, 'All right, you do this and we'll make it happen. And I'll do one for you and we'll make that happen.'

And for Franco, the disruptive nature of what he does -- and how often he does it -- is what seems to satisfy him most. “It's great and very empowering.”

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