From n+1’s inception, the magazine has sought insider reports from people who have gone into arts other than writing or scholarship. We’ve thought of it as our States of the Arts series. Previous episodes included the pseudonymous Peter Frankel, television writer and producer, unveiling some “Trends in Network Comedy” (Issue 2), the filmmaker Andrew Bujalski’s wondering “What Independent Film?” (Issue 3), and most recently DJ/rupture (Jace Clayton) delivering “Confessions of a DJ” (Issue 7). (Not to mention the night thoughts of an anonymous Hedge Fund Manager, spread over two issues, or what we like to call “States of the Dark Arts.”)
Past contributions often focused on the money economies that determine practice in the arts. This essay, from James Franco and his collaborator Deenah Vollmer, addresses the psychological economy of the star whose traditional preparations as an actor must be taken to extremes—in hopes of justifying the actor’s personal autonomy as part of the mixed, collaborative art of an expensive Hollywood movie.
I had a period when my career started taking off and I started to get better opportunities. Freaks and Geeks had ended. I was struggling, and then I auditioned for James Dean and got cast as James Dean. I auditioned with Robert De Niro and got cast in City by the Sea. I auditioned for Spider-Man. I didn’t get Spider-Man but I got the friend role, not a role that I had been dying to do, but in one of the biggest movies of all time. So I had a role in the James Dean movie that was very satisfying to an actor, a role with De Niro who was one of my heroes, and a commercial movie. All three came out around the same time. After that, people were offering me movies. I had choices. That was a scary moment, because up until then, you just take what’s given to you. You’re happy if you get a job, and you’re really happy if it’s a good job.
I turned to my teacher for advice. I had an acting teacher I had worked with for years, and when everybody else told me not to do James Dean, he was the only one who said, “Do it.”
He helped me prepare for it too, because he was obsessed with James Dean. He said isolate yourself, don’t talk to your family, don’t talk to your friends, don’t talk to your girlfriend, start smoking, you have to watch one of the James Dean movies every day, maybe two of them, read all the biographies, meet all the people who knew him who are still alive, look at all the photographs, get the poses down, experiment with men, listen to his voice in your car all the time, race cars, go to the zoo, look at the monkeys—because he kind of moves like a monkey—study the chimpanzees, do all that, anything and everything you can.
Because of that, in my young head, I thought, He knows, he has the secret. He knows what to do when everybody else doesn’t. I started going to him about which movies to pick.
When Tristan & Isolde came along, I wasn’t into it. It was directed by Kevin Reynolds, who’d made Waterworld and Robin Hood. I thought maybe we weren’t the right people to work together. I could feel that when I first met with him. Before the meeting, I read up on the legend, and listened to the opera, and his script was different. No love potion causes Tristan and Isolde to fall in love. Isolde doesn’t die.
In the meeting, I asked Kevin something like, Why have you decided not to kill Isolde? I wondered why some choices had been made. He said, “I don’t know, James,” like that was in the hands of the authorities.
I went back to the teacher and said, “I’m not getting a good vibe.”
My teacher replied, “The actor never knows. The actor never knows.” Meaning, the actor doesn’t know what to choose. The actor doesn’t know what’s good for him. In the studio days, roles were picked for the actors, and that made for better movies. It was like a factory. They kept putting them out and you were under contract, and you had to do what the studio said, more or less. Unless you were a big star, and even then you had to do a certain number a year.
“This is a role that a young Olivier would do, that a young Brando would do,” he told me. It didn’t seem right to me, but I thought, Maybe it’s kind of heroic, like Braveheart. There were all these huge, tough battle scenes in it. So I said I guess I’ll do it. It was a young leading-man type of role.
The thing was, I had eight months from when I signed on until we started shooting. I had learned from doing James Dean to prepare in a way that was immersive. When I signed on for Tristan, I thought, I have to do everything. Tristan’s from Cornwall. I got a dialogue coach and worked on Shakespeare. There were sword-fighting scenes and battles on horseback. I thought, I’ve got to learn how to ride a horse. I had never really been on a horse besides dinky trail rides. I started riding every day, seven days a week, right by Hollywood. I went to a father and son named Sled Reynolds and Titus Reynolds, who have great horses that are used in movies—like the horses in Zorro, these Friesians—and beautiful white Andalusians. We rode all over Griffith Park—into the sunset, that kind of thing.
After galloping every day for a few months, you think, I want to do more. I was still a young actor, I didn’t have a ton of experience, and I didn’t know that one of the reasons they get stunt people is not because actors can’t do stunts, but because an actor can’t get hurt. If an actor is hurt the movie might stop. So stunt people do things because stunt people will be replaced. I thought, Oh, if I can only learn how to do this stuff, I can do my own stunts!
I did vaulting things; the horse would be galloping and I’d jump to the side and jump back on. Stuff from old movies. I learned how to stand up on the horse’s back as it’s galloping. I did Roman riding, standing on the backs of two horses. I tried the death drag, from Westerns, hanging by one leg over the saddle.
Did I mention I was also sword fighting? A man named Steven Ho came to my girlfriend’s backyard in the Valley every afternoon and taught me obscure German tactics and vocabulary: like the drei Wunder, which is thrusting and cutting; or Durchführen, which is leading your point under your opponent’s sword to thrust at the opening on the other side. Basically, the German maxim we were operating under was Was sehrt, das lehrt: What hurts, teaches. We ran the gamut with swords: clunky shit, heavy shit, pointy shit. I was really in that universe. I didn’t have a sense of humor about it.
Plus, I was making videos of the best stuff, which I sent to the director periodically. I had some warning signs, because all he would say to me was, “Hey, it looks like you’re getting in good shape, it’ll be great. We want your body to be fit,” and I’d get pissed. What about all the stuff we’re choreographing? I’m thinking I want this to be in the movie. We’re coming up with good stuff here.
I spent two hundred grand on horseback rides. The sword fighting wasn’t cheap, either. Right before I left for Europe, I got a new version of the script, and all the big sword-fighting scenes had been deleted. I was like, What? This is ridiculous!
It dawned on me that, no matter what, there are only a finite number of fight scenes in a movie. All the flashy sword stuff you see in movies, actually, if you go back, isn’t very realistic. There’s a word for that in German too: Leichmeister, which means “dancing master”; it’s a derogatory term for cool-looking but ineffective fencing. If you make it real, it’s just a few slashes and then somebody dies. I thought, why did I spend two hours a day learning all these fancy moves when either none of it’s going to be used, or if it is used, it’ll look stupid?
I also had prepared my approach to the character with my teacher instead of the director. My teacher and I agreed the character was a tragic figure, a paragon of despair, who is suicidal because he can’t be with Isolde. Tristan should be, yes, glad to see his Cornish townsmen, but he’s not in the mood to joke around! The director wanted a charming hero who is back with his friends and happy to see them. I was playing it dark. Tristan’s not, like, the captain of a soccer team.
He said, “Hey James, why don’t you smile in this scene?”
I said, “I’m not going to smile.”
He said, “You can’t keep playing James Dean.”
I said, “Well, you can’t keep making Robin Hood.”
Plus there’s a scene in which I’m discovered on the beach. I’m thought to be dead. Isolde nurses me back to health. The director wanted me to run into the ocean naked. That wasn’t in the script. I’d done nude scenes, but I didn’t want to do this one. I didn’t think it fit.
“James, you’re not the screenwriter,” the director said to me.
“Neither are you,” I pointed out.
He didn’t talk to me for two days, and he had the assistant director direct me. I liked the assistant director.
But then the director refused to shoot coverage on me. He would do the wide shot and a closeup on Isolde, but he wouldn’t do the closeup on Tristan. In the finished movie there are intimate scenes in which I’m out of focus in the background because the director was so mad at me.
I must have had some psychosomatic response, because even though I’d prepared for eight months just for the physical material, something happened to me during a fight scene. I was doing a spin, and I felt someone clobber the side of my leg with a baseball bat, so vividly that I turned around to see who hit me. Nobody. My left kneecap had come loose. I thought I’d just twisted it. We bandaged it up and continued. At the end of the day my knee was swollen to the size of a medieval flail.
We were in Prague and went to the hospital. I have to say, it wasn’t the nicest-looking hospital. It looked like a subway station. They wheeled me in on a gurney and the doctor said, “We operate now, right now.”
I said, “Hold on, don’t operate right now. Maybe I could get a second opinion?” They drained it and I went back to the hotel. There was a week of nonfight stuff, and another week of fight stuff we had to finish. The producers thought OK, let’s just do the dialogue scenes and James won’t have to walk very much and then he’ll rest his knee and maybe he’ll get better.
I went to a physical therapist, I think she was Romanian. I went every day and she would do weird massages on my leg and she would play her CD. It was supposed to be relaxing music, but it was the Twin Peaks sound track.
It seemed like the leg was getting better, so we went to shoot a couple of fight scenes. I got through one, but during the second my knee just blew out.
I felt helpless. I would put weight on the leg and fall over like a dummy. All we had left were fight scenes. They stopped the production. They flew me back to LA. I had orthopedic surgery. They stitched the knee on both sides, then I had physical therapy for a month, then two, and then I went back.
The director wasn’t happy to see me. I wasn’t happy to see him. We went to the field to do the fight scenes and my knee blew out again. They flew me back to the States again. I did two or three more months of physical therapy. I went back, six months after the original shoot. At this point I was wearing armor on my knee—you can almost see it though the wardrobe. The director hated me so much at that point we almost got into another fight. He was like, “James, cut out the attitude.” I guess my attitude was that I didn’t like him. I was on the road for a year and a half or two years with that young leading-man type project, and I hated it.
You would think I would have learned my lesson. A script came along called Annapolis. My teacher said, “This is the one.” It had a young director. It had boxing. There’s something about a boxing role that goes to your head. Every young male actor wants to make a version of Raging Bull. You can get all the way into it, immerse, train, talk about how much training you did, and you feel for once you can say, This is the preparation. It justifies your really very suspicious-looking life. How come everybody’s staring at you and taking pictures of you? How do you get to be famous, instead of any of your comrades from acting school? What do you even do all day? There’s something about dressing up in costume, putting makeup on, being positioned and told just how to walk, where to stand, how to move, plus being pampered and treated like a jewel, that can make men anxious. In high school, unlike in Hollywood, the drama club is not such a macho pursuit. But every time an actor boxes, the trainer testifies, “So-and-so could have boxed for real; he’s so dedicated.” You get punched in the face. What could be more reassuring?
Again I had about eight months, and I trained twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I learned jabs, hooks, power punches, uppercuts. You learn how to do all the fancy footwork around the mat. You’re looking good. You’re looking like a real pugilist. I warned the director about my training this time, and he let me bring my trainer to the shoot—though we also had a fight choreographer who, by coincidence, was the fight choreographer from Tristan & Isolde. He and I got along fine. It was just a coincidence that we worked together on two movies I ended up hating.
I still held the idea that preparation should be all-consuming and should be your life. So in addition to body preparation, for Tristan I’d read Le Morte d’Arthur and the disparate versions of the grail legends, and for Annapolis I spent my spare time reading exclusively about boxing. Of course I read—I was an English major—but the problem is, really you don’t as an actor, not as part of your professional duties, or with expectation of practical gain—there’s no way to insert that kind of preparation into a role. So what if I read Le Morte d’Arthur? When you watch the film you can’t say, “Look at that performance, I see Mallory!” The other actors who didn’t read anything came off as well as I did or better. Could you say, maybe it’s in the texture, maybe you can kind of feel it in the authenticity? No matter what I told myself, you’d think it would have become clear to me that the purchase price was out of all proportion to the dividends.
My antagonist in Annapolis was played by Tyrese Gibson, who was also a singer. I read with Tyrese. I had been cast first, and so I read with a lot of the guys auditioning for the role. I really liked Tyrese. Tyrese ended up not liking me very much. I can understand why. I was being too intense. I was the idiot who didn’t realize this was a light movie, this was a PG-13 movie from Touchstone Pictures. I didn’t need to breathe and think like Muhammad Ali. So Tyrese ended up not crazy about being around me, and we didn’t practice together very much. Unfortunately, in the fight scenes, we were only going to be as good as we were together, and it didn’t matter how much I trained alone.
We shot the last scene in a legendary boxing arena called the Blue Horizon. We shot for three days, and for two of them the filmmakers had a live audience in the seats, because they were doing all these wide shots. Since we hadn’t trained enough together, our choreography was not spot-on. I kept hitting Tyrese. I swear on my mother I was not trying to hit him. Really, he was just getting tapped. I got tapped, too, by other people, but Tyrese was upset; he thought I was hitting him because I meant to. So finally it happened that his head came forward and my hand hit him a little harder than usual. He got a bump on his forehead. I apologized, but now he was really pissed off. I think he had a concert that weekend. And I was pissed off because I didn’t like being accused of trying to hit him. The audience of nonactors had been cheering, because they’re supposed to be cheering the characters, but now they’re cheering for the actors James and Tyrese to go nuts on each other. They had to call it off for the rest of the day. We finished the movie. Again, in total, I had probably spent a year or more with that material.
After the last two films you’d really think I would have learned my lesson. The next offer to come was a movie called Flyboys, directed by Tony Bill. He had won Best Picture for the first film he produced, The Sting. He was known to be an actor’s director. This new one was a movie about World War I aviators, the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American fighters who volunteered for the French Air Force. Tony Bill was also a huge flight enthusiast. He had his pilot’s license.
I had doubts, but he took me out in his plane. He had a single propeller plane called the Marcelli. It was fast. This was the first time I had ever been in a plane that small. We’re out on the runway about to take off—I think we left from Santa Monica—and he said, “All right, you’re gonna do it.” I said, “Do what?” “I’m going to accelerate and you’re going pull back on the yoke.” And I said “Really?” But we were already going. I pulled back, and it was so exhilarating!
Then Tony Bill’s friend took me up in a biplane with open cockpits. We did a bunch of loops and tricks, and that kind of sold me on this trip. I had about six months to prepare. So I got my pilot’s license.
I took a test with Adam Berg, an 80-year-old former World War II pilot who fought against the Japanese. He claimed to have logged the most in-flight hours of any living person. He was a crusty kind of guy, but with a sense of humor. Before I went up in the plane with him, I met him at his office at the Van Nuys Airport. Behind him on the wall in his office was an enormous picture of an American fighter jet diving down on a Japanese battleship. I asked him what it was. He said, “That’s me. I lost my toe getting that picture.” Evidently, when you attack a battleship, you come in just above the water so the gunners can’t see you or shoot at you with their upward-facing guns. You fly low, and at the last minute come up and drop your bombs and fly away. And, actually, he had done that first. He had dropped his bombs, but he wanted to be photographed doing it, so he came back around, and he told his buddy in the attack squadron to snap a picture of him doing it again. Of course when he came back around they shot him up and one of the bullets blew off his toe. I guess if a toe is the price sometimes for re-creating life for the camera, that’s a bargain some people will make.
While I was finishing my qualifying tests for the license—you would think I would have asked somebody what you don’t do in acting by this point—I was reminded by my lawyers that when an actor is insured for a movie, even a movie that happens to be specifically about a bunch of fighter pilots, there is a question in the insurance warrant that says, “Will you pilot a plane during the production?” and the only acceptable answer is No! An actor is never allowed to pilot a plane during production! You’d think it should be motorcycles, but it’s planes.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Flyboys, gentle reader, but I’ll ask you to judge. When I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat pretending to fly, do I look more efficient?
Threaded between these three movies were the Spider-Man films, which I liked because they were movies people really seemed to love, and because I liked the actors and directors and crew I was working with. I prepared for that supporting role, but I didn’t do anything I regret. There is one single line in the first Spider-Man movie where my father, played by Willem Dafoe, says, “You’ve been kicked out of boarding school after boarding school. What else am I supposed to do?” He sends me to public school, where I meet Peter Parker. In my preparation mode, I thought I’d better find out what boarding school kids are like, since I’d never been to one. I went to Choate, stayed two nights, and went to Andover and did the same. Those teenagers weren’t much different from regular teens, except they had more money. Of course I also read the first 100 or 120 issues of Spider-Man, cover to cover, which was the single most useful piece of preparation I ever did. The Spider-Man movies could take five or six months to do, each; you can’t go anywhere even if you don’t have a big part, and 120 issues of Spider-Man will really kill the time.
You act as well as you can, and then the director turns over the material to the editor to cut, to people to put music to, to the colorist. Film is collaborative, and as an actor in film you are the person most dependent on everyone else, and also most on display. This may be one thing that pushes actors to overprepare. If you lose fifty pounds for a role, it’s something nobody else can take credit for.
Every film or television actor needs to sooner or later face the fact that this is a collaborative medium. It’s not an actor’s medium. Some people contend with it by fighting against it. Some stop trying. Some go with it and find satisfaction by accepting it. Some take everybody’s help and then strut around acting as if they still believe it’s an actor’s medium. Some direct or produce.
Right before I worked on Spider-Man 3, all three of those earlier movies I’d prepared for so assiduously had come out and had bombed. I was about to spend six months doing Spider-Man 3, and I felt very discouraged, like I couldn’t do it anymore—put in six months of work and have results that maybe I didn’t like, or that were good and yet I hadn’t had that big a part in. I wanted something more.
That’s when I realized I could go back to UCLA. I did forty-two credits the first semester back, while doing a movie. I realized, if I’m not doing a movie, I can do even more credits. I took more.
As for acting: If you have a part, all you have to do is learn your character’s lines. Why learn your character’s lines and then all of Hamlet? It’s not going to work. It’s not going to help you. Just learn your character’s lines.