The fact that James Franco is a true Renaissance man has become a bit of a punch line. He acts! He directs! He writes poetry! He’s your English teacher! He’s a beekeeper! He’s the cashier at Rite Aid!
But in truth, Franco is as studied in literature as he is acting. And he is as much a filmmaker as he is a performer. So it’s not a surprise that he would choose to direct In Dubious Battle, the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s first major work.
I recently sat down with Franco at the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood to discuss his latest directorial project, which tells the story of California fruit pickers in the 1930s organizing a labor strike. Admittedly, when I first walked into the room I had to shake my image of him as Daniel Desario from Freaks and Geeks. But within moments that all melted away.
HG: You first started working on In Dubious Battle before the presidential election, and now the film is being released after inauguration. How does this create new meaning for you?
James Franco: It’s interesting. Nowadays I’ve never seen so many people so politically engaged and aware, myself included. I’ve never been this sort of, awake politically. There’s been a huge change in people learning how our political system works. I’ll speak for myself here, but there’s been a change in how I engage with my job and think about what kind of projects I want to do. I would guess most people, creative or otherwise, are thinking about what they do in new ways. Everything has shifted a bit.
Our movie is about a labor strike, an apple picker’s strike. It’s a group of people in the Depression who didn’t want to strike. If they could have, they just would have done their work and lived their lives. But they got pushed so far that they couldn’t survive. They had to stand up and join together. And that kind of thing is happening now. Whether it’s labor issues or otherwise. In our movie it involves unions, and it’s specifically about the haves and the have nots in an economic sense. But that idea of people in power versus the people who are not is an internal conflict, whether it’s over economic issues, or racial or religious reasons. And so the struggle in our film is very topical.
HG: This film has an extraordinary cast: Robert Duvall, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Selena Gomez and more. Was there anyone who you were particularly nervous to direct? Or who surprised you?
JF: I’ve worked with Robert Duvall before and have known him over the years, but I never directed him. And he has a little bit of a reputation of being tough. Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, or you just do something wrong in his rulebook, I don’t know what. I was a little nervous—a lot nervous—about that. But I am very proud to say that I did not have a Robert Duvall blowup on set. [Laughs] It seemed like he had a good time and felt like the set was run in a good way. He’s all about naturalistic acting, and I am, too. So I guess I passed all his criteria.
And I was surprised by people like Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston. I’ve since done two projects with Bryan Cranston. And now I know what an incredible guy he is. But this is the first thing I’ve ever worked with him in, and guys like Bryan and Ed Harris, who have been doing it for so long, and they’re so good, and they’ve been a part of so many great projects, it was so great to see how un-jaded they were and how excited they were to do something like this. And committed.
I remember Ed [Harris] stayed in character for most of the time he’s working and he’d do these scenes and he’d come up to me in the voice of his character, “Was that okay, boss? Was that good, boss?” And I’d just be like, “That was incredible! Ed Harris, are you kidding me? I’m still in shock that you’re here! Don’t worry!” Not that he was worried, but he was treating me with respect. And it was really moving and humbling see somebody that talented and accomplished giving himself over to the project like that. It was such a lesson for me as an actor, too.
It’s so easy to lose sight of what a great job this is, and how lucky I am to get to do what I do. And as an actor, yeah you can sort of lose patience with incompetence and that sort of thing if you’ve been doing it for so long. But to start off with that attitude of humility and professionalism was such a great lesson.
HG: Two of your recent directorial projects, In Dubious Battle and The Institute, are period pieces. What is your “true period,” or what era is your aura from?
JF: You know, it’s a funny thing. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially since [I watched] Midnight In Paris. Obviously the lesson of that film is every period has its ups and downs, and we’re kind of meant to be where we’re meant to be. And I really do think that. Who we are is a product of what we grow up around and how we react to that. I wouldn’t be myself if I were in a different period. I’m not really answering your question, am I? I should just say a period.
HG: How about…Victorian? I used to think that was mine, but then I decided that’s creepy.
JF: I know, right? [Laughs] Yeah, you think Victorian, oh I like the clothes. But here’s the thing. I remember reading about Will Ferrell saying at one point he wanted to be a newscaster. I think he went to USC for Sports Broadcasting. Then he realized, nah, he didn’t want to be a newscaster, he just wanted to play one. And that’s how it is with period pieces. It’s so fun to go back and recreate the Depression! But if you’re actually there, you’re like, “Uh, not so cool.”
And here’s the other thing. It’s funny, I wrote a book of short stories, Palo Alto, and they play this exact game. “If you could go back to King Arthur times or be in Egypt during the pyramids, would you?” And you always think, yeah, if I go back to Victorian times I’ll be in the royal court. [Laughs]. Or if I go back to ancient Egypt, I’ll be a pharaoh, right? But actually, yeah, probably not. And if you’re not, it’s a whole different thing. But to answer your question, I love aspects of the ‘50s and ‘60s, ‘70s. I guess that’s not going back that far. But a lot of my heroes are from those eras.
HG: What’s something you haven’t done yet that you’d like to? Not necessarily in life, but today?
JF: Something I haven’t done today? Take a nap.
*”In Dubious Battle” is out now in theaters and VOD. “The Institute,” co-directed by Pamela Romanowsky and James Franco, opens in theaters and VOD March 3rd.