James Franco can play any character, including iconic Beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg in his latest film, "Howl", which has premiered at Sundance. The film focuses on his creation of the poem and the obscenity trial that followed. Franco is also doing his Masters in poetry, and as he conceded when we chatted at Sundance, "Howl" could not be a more perfect fit for the actor.
Question: It struck me, when I knew you were going to be doing this and knowing your recent academic foray, that this is almost the perfect character for you. The perfect marriage of artist and character. Would you agree with that?
Franco: Yeah. Well, as you know, I’m at several schools right now. And so Ginsberg went to Columbia.
Franco: Started there as an undergrad. Studied with one of the Van Dorens, and also Lionel Trilling. Then at the end of his life, he taught at Brooklyn College. So, I’m connected to both of those and then I’m also getting a Masters in poetry so this is material that’s right up my alley.
Question: So did you think it was ironic and fortuitous that this came along at this time for you, playing Ginsberg in a movie like this?
Franco: Well, I didn't realize all the connections that were gonna be made, at the time that they brought it to me. I was still in LA, going to UCLA. I mean, I knew that I was a huge fan of Ginsberg’s. I had been reading him and the other Beats, since I was, like, 15 or 16. So I was excited about that. But I didn't realize, like – how close it would be to a lot of the stuff I’d be studying in the next year.
Question: Now, what’s important to you in terms of doing research for this? Is it important to research the period? Is it important to research Ginsberg’s life? Or is it more important to immerse yourself in his work, or a combination of all three?
Franco: It is a combination. The interesting thing about the poem “Howl” is that it’s actually a culmination of Ginsberg’s life up to that point – both his personal life, and his work. It shows the growth of his poetry – it’s the best poem he wrote up to that point. If you study his life, it actually involves many autobiographical elements and biographical elements of his friends.
So, I needed to study his life, just to understand the poem more, and understand what I was reading, and try and figure out why he wrote it this way, and what he was writing about. And then it also wonderfully encapsulates so much of what was going on at the time. So, they all kind of like intertwined. Researching all those aspects kind of intertwined in this poem. The poem is written in such a way that it is a poem that you can make a movie around, because it explains and explores so much about his life and the times.
Question: Why do you think the Beat generation is relevant to today?
Franco: So, the Beats got together in the ‘40s and then through the ‘50s and America was coming out of the war. It was finally reaching a period of prosperity and people didn't want to upset the status quo. Things are finally good after a period of things being very bad. So for the generation after that, Ginsberg’s generation and then in the ‘60s, it was kind of like, “Well, maybe things are too restrictive.”
So the Beats had this real spirit of rebellion, searching for life, for new things. Just – this rebellious vitality that I think is always gonna be appealing to young people. I come across young people all the time – usually young men – that go through their Beat period. It’s just – something about it is still very alive. But then a healthy culture needs healthy artistic movements. The Beats certainly stand for that, and against kind of regulation of the arts.
Question: You have this amazing career as an actor, yet you have this need, obviously, to fulfil yourself intellectually as a student. How do you balance the two, and how hard is it for you to balance those two things within you?
Franco: Well, it is a balancing act. I spend less time on acting now than I did before, because I’m in school. So, I try and put all of my major projects in the summer. So far it’s worked. It can feel schizophrenic at times. Like Sunday I’ll be flying back, and then Monday morning I’ll have class. It’s a very different world than this, but I’ve kind of gotten used to that.
It’s like – I’m in school, studying the things that I love, and I want to study. So I kind of feel like wherever I am or need to be, whichever school I need to be at, or professional project – when I’m there, I’m completely focused on that, and I’m passionate about that. Then I’ll go to the next place, and it’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. I remember this.” Then I’ll focus on that. In a certain way, they’re all kind of intertwining as you can see in this movie, it has a lot to do with what I’m studying in school and the movies that I’m directing are also based on poems.
Question: When is that happening?
Franco: Well, I have one here. I have a movie here called "Herbert White", a short film that I directed starring Michael Shannon.
Question: How was that experience?
Question: Will you direct a feature?
Franco: Yes. Hopefully this Summer.
Question: Do you know what it is?
Franco: It’s gonna be based on Charles Bukowski’s book about his youth.
Question: What’s the next movie that you’re acting in?
Franco: It’s called "127 Hours", directed by Danny Boyle, and Ii’s based on the true story of the hiker Aron Ralston, who got his arm caught under a boulder and then cut his arm off. I also have "Your Highness" is coming out. That’ll be a comedy, hopefully.