As Harvey Milk’s super-supportive boyfriend, Scott Smith, James Franco sports some of that authentic election swag.
MILK directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black, with Sean Penn, James Franco and James Brolin. An Alliance release. 128 minutes. Opens Wednesday (November 26). For venues and times, see Movies.
Los Angeles - Once you get over James Franco's green bedroom eyes, the next thing that hits you is his voice - a booming depth charge even when he's groping for words.
Which he does a lot. He holds his head in his hands, pauses to gather his thoughts, hems and haws. But his passion, especially for Milk, the story of San Francisco's openly gay supervisor who was assassinated in 1978, is obvious.
Even after Jake and Heath cuddled up inside that sleeping bag in Brokeback Mountain, few actors have the nerve to play gay, but Franco didn't hesitate to risk taking on the role of Scott Smith, Milk's lover of four years.
"I didn't even consider not doing it," he says emphatically, sitting with me in an L.A. hotel room, dressed down and not anything like his high-fashion image in those Gucci cologne ads now all over the television. "I pursued Gus [Milk director Van Sant], knowing how important the film and the story was to him. I would have played the pizza guy.
"If by chance Scott has an adverse effect on my career simply because it was a gay role, the only reason for that happening would be prejudice and bigotry, and if that's what happens I would gladly take it on."
It's typical of this thoughtful, unusually well-rounded artist, who's just graduated from UCLA's creative writing program. He's best known as Spider-Man's friend-turned-foe, Harry Osborn, but he also writes plays, makes his own short films and doesn't shy away from his new film's political issues. The first thing he says when he enters the room for his round table is that he wishes he could go to the demonstration that night to protest the passage of Proposition 8. (See sidebar, page 98.)
Fitting, since Scott Smith, the character he plays, was Milk's major support during his early failed attempts to win office. It's not the flashiest part - that would belong to Sean Penn, who's terrific as Milk - but it's a tribute to Franco's performance that he stands out and doesn't get overshadowed by his powerhouse boyfriend.
"People have said, ‘You're kinda playing the housewife role,'" Franco allows. "Female actors always say, ‘I don't want to play another housewife role.' They hate playing them because they always get offered subordinate roles. But," and here he smiles, "I'd never been offered the housewife role before."
The movie is called Milk, he says pointedly. It's not called Smith.
"One of the big roles for Scott in real life was that he was the supportive person for Harvey Milk. Milk is ambitious, he's breaking new ground, he's a dreamer. It's important to play Smith as the person who gives him emotional grounding. Anything else would have been messy."
Franco's breakout performance was as James Dean in the made-for-TV biopic, for which he picked up an Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe. He then went the franchise route in the Spider-Man pics. But he got himself a whole new audience playing Saul in the stoner pic Pineapple Express.
That Judd Apatow film brought him back to comedy after roles in intense dramas like In The Valley Of Elah and To Serve And Protect, where he played Robert De Niro's son. He first met Apatow when he joined the cast of the Apatow-exec-produced TV series Freaks And Geeks. When Franco's 2005 short film The Ape played at South By Southwest in Austin, Apatow saw it and hit up Franco with the line "I miss the funny Franco." Then he gave him the role of Saul.
As for how his young, macho Express fans are going to react to Milk, Franco's unfazed.
"I basically saw Pineapple Express as a love story, so they've already been bathed in that. In fact, I played the character as if I was in love with Seth Rogan's character. I hope anybody who saw Pineapple Express goes to Milk because they like Saul. What Harvey was fighting for was so plain and self-evident, I just hope it gets across."
In his 10-year career, Franco has played against the heaviest hitters in Hollywood, including Tommy Lee Jones in Elah, Robert De Niro in City By The Sea and now Sean Penn.
"I always thought Jones was the kind of guy you didn't want to cross. He was incredibly focused and concerned with all the minutiae, even an insert shot of him pulling the Bible out of a drawer.
"De Niro - well, that was a dream for me. It was strange. Sometimes he'd do a scene over and over and over again because he didn't think it was right, and then in another he'd be satisfied with one take.
"Sean is extremely meticulous, and though he can be intense, too, he was very giving. I felt incredibly comfortable around him. Sean really loves other actors, and for the people he likes he will do anything."
Some gay activists complain when straight actors play gay characters, but Franco's remarkably undefensive when the subject comes up.
"I don't know if a gay actor could have played the role better than I did. I just know that I feel strongly about all the issues Harvey was fighting for. Hopefully, my passion for those issues will help the work.
"And you wouldn't want to preclude actors who are gay from playing straight roles. So to say only gay actors should play gay roles would be detrimental in inverse ways as well."
Franco's famous for doing a ton of research for every role he plays. He learned how to fly for Flyboys, read hundreds of comic books for Spider-Man and went to homeless shelters when he played down and out in City By The Sea.
"It was hard to find stuff on Smith," he recalls. "He's only in the documentary [The Times Of Harvey Milk] for five seconds. But then [Times director] Rob Epstein [who's directing Franco in the upcoming Howl, where Franco plays another gay icon, poet Allen Ginsberg] opened the vault and I got to see an expanded interview. But it's not like with James Dean, where people could watch East Of Eden and decide whether I got it right, so I was able to create my own character."
And what about kissing Sean Penn?
"In most of the other movies I've done I've had at least one kissing scene with a female actor, and it wouldn't have flown if I'd said, ‘Let's go research that love scene in my hotel.'
"Most people know how to kiss," he says. "You just show up and do it."
On why he decided to get an english degree mid-acting career