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James Franco, Modern-Day Renaissance Man.

James Franco doesn't just spend his time acting in the movies. The star of Milk, Howl and the forthcoming 127 Hours is also an accomplished writer and graduate student. He explains how he juggles his many roles — and why he continues to take on new challenges.

42:57

Other segments from the episode on October 5, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 5, 2010: Interview with James Franco; Review of Lydia Davis's translation of "Madame Bovary."

Transcript

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James Franco, Modern-Day Renaissance Man

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, James Franco has been very busy. He has two new films, "Howl," in
which he plays the young Allen Ginsberg; and "127 Hours," which opens in
November and is based on the true story of a hiker who had to amputate his own
arm after it was caught under a boulder.

Franco's also attending two schools: Yale University and Rhode Island School of
Design. In the past few years, he's been studying art, film and writing. He has
a new collection of short stories that will be published later this month.

Franco got his start on the TV series "Freaks and Geeks," he co-starred in
“Spiderman,” starred with Seth Rogen in the comedy "Pineapple Express," and in
the movie "Milk," he played Harvey Milk's boyfriend. While making "Milk," he
met the directors of a documentary about Harvey Milk. Those directors, Rob
Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, directed "Howl."

The film centers around Ginsberg's first published poem, “Howl,” a ground-
breaking work that evoked Walt Whitman, but with the stories, language and
rhythms of what became known as beat poetry. Here's Franco from the opening of
the film, playing Ginsberg reading the first lines of "Howl" in his first
public reading at the Six Gallery.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): (As Allen Ginsberg) I saw the best minds of my
generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging
themselves through the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, angel-
headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and
high, sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
across the tops of cities...

GROSS: After the poem "Howl" was published in 1957, it became the subject of an
obscenity case. The poem's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was charged with
selling obscene material.

The film "Howl" revolves around the reading of the poem, the courtroom trial
and an extended interview with Ginsberg in which he talks about the experiences
that led to the poem. Here's another section of the poem about being in
Rockland, a psychiatric institution Ginsberg was sent to after he was arrested
as an accessory to crimes committed by friends who were junkies and had stored
stolen goods in Ginsberg’s apartment. As a condition of his release, he pleaded
psychiatric disability and agreed to be treated for homosexuality.

During his eight months in the hospital, he met Carl Solomon, who was being
treated for depression and who is the person Ginsberg is addressing in this
section of "Howl." Here's James Franco.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

Mr. FRANCO: (As Ginsberg) I’m with you in Rockland, where you will split the
heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the
superhuman tomb. I’m with you in Rockland, where there are 25,000 mad comrades
all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale.

I’m with you in Rockland, where we hug and kiss the United States under our bed
sheets, the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep. I’m
with you in Rockland, where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own
souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof. They’ve come to drop angelic bombs. The
hospital illuminates itself, imaginary walls collapse. O skinny legions run
outside. O starry-spangled shock of mercy, the eternal war is here. O victory
forget your underwear, we’re free.

GROSS: That's James Franco, portraying Allen Ginsberg in the new film "Howl,"
and in that scene, he's reading an excerpt of "Howl." Well done.

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: I mean, there's no film here unless you can convincingly get Allen
Ginsberg's cadences because so much of the film revolves around you reading the
poem "Howl."

So, what was it about Allen Ginsberg's voice that really stuck out to you, that
made you think, okay, this is what the voice is, this is what I built the voice
around?

Mr. FRANCO: I guess, you know, he has a bit of a New Jersey accent. I guess
that's what it is, or, you know, it's kind of an East Coast thing. And there is
a alternation – he alternates between kind of great exuberance and I guess, you
know, this kind of sympathetic tone, you know, depending on what section he's
reading. And so I tried to find out how he'd be responding to each section and
then, you know, deliver it accordingly.

GROSS: How familiar were you with Allen Ginsberg's poems before preparing to
make the movie?

Mr. FRANCO: I was pretty familiar. I'd read a fair amount of them when I was
younger. It seems that people of a certain age, you know, young people,
especially young men, usually come across the Beats. And me and my friends, I
and my friends certainly did, and so...

GROSS: What did it mean to you when you read them?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, it's funny. I'm actually in a class right now at Yale where
we're - it's about the Beats and about, it's about literary coteries. So, it’s
about the Beats and about McSweeney's and Dave Eggers. So I'm re-reading all of
those books that I read for the first time when I was in high school.

And I think what really struck me was how, you know, there were these young
guys and they were, you know, looking for a new way of writing. Most of them
had gone to Columbia or some other Ivy Leagues. And they had great teachers,
but they were trying to break away from what they had learned in school and
were looking for new ways.

And they really had no models. So they were just supporting each other and
encouraging each other and that’s how they made it, or that’s how they found
these new ideas. And so, I think that was really inspiring for me as a young
man and that idea of just the search and having, you know, artistic friends
around that could support me, and maybe that would be enough.

GROSS: So your part in the movie alternates between reading the poem "Howl" and
being interviewed, and we don't see your interviewer. You're there alone on
screen, talking alone into a reel-to-reel tape machine as the interview is
being recorded.

So, is this gathered from different transcripts of interviews, or is this based
on one interview with Ginsberg?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, so I guess there was a lost interview that he gave to Time, I
think back in the '60s. And Ginsberg had been in Tangiers, and they flew him
out to Rome, and he gave this interview, and it was lost. They didn't – I guess
it was too racy, and they didn't - they never published it.

And no transcripts exist but Epstein and Friedman decided that they were going
to use that idea for this interview, and it would be the lost interview. But
the way that they created this interview was they compiled, you know, bits from
interviews that Ginsberg had given his entire life. Everything that I say in
those interviews, you know, everything that is said in the courtroom scenes,
all of those are based on, you know, things that people actually said.

GROSS: Okay, so I want to play an excerpt of the interview. And this is him
talking about something that happened between him and his therapist that
changed his life. So, here’s my guest James Franco, in a scene from "Howl," in
which he's being interviewed.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

Mr. FRANCO: (As Ginsberg) In San Francisco, I had a year of psychotherapy with
Dr. Hicks(ph). I was blocked, I couldn’t write. I was still trying to act
normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be
heterosexual and that something was wrong with me.

And Dr. Hicks kept saying, what do you want to do? What is your heart's desire?
So, finally I said, well, what I'd really like to do is to just quit all this
and get a small room with Peter and devote myself to my writing and
contemplation and (BEEP) and smoking pot and doing whatever I wanted.

He said: Why don't you do it, then? I mean, what'll happen if I grow old and I
have pee stains in my underwear, and I'm living in some furnished room, and
nobody loves me, and I'm white-haired and I have no money and bread crumbs are
falling on the floor? And he said, ah, don't worry about that. You're very
charming and lovable, and people will always love you.

What a relief to hear that. I very soon realized that it was all a fear trap,
just illusory.

GROSS: James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in an excerpt of the new film "Howl." So
we've talked a little bit about getting the voice for Allen Ginsberg. What did
you to do try to look like him because you're not the first person who comes to
mind when you think of what Allen Ginsberg looked like. And most of us, when we
think of what Allen Ginsberg looked like, think of him in his later years, as
opposed to when he was in his 20s, because he wasn't as visible then.

I mean, you got the glasses. You got his trademark glasses from the period.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, that was key. Well...

GROSS: Did that help, having the glasses?

Mr. FRANCO: It certainly helped. Well, I had a similar reaction when they asked
me to do it. Actually, Gus Van Sant was the first person to bring the project
to my attention.

I was in the middle of filming "Milk" with Gus. And Gus is an executive
producer on "Howl," and he said, you know – I knew Rob and Jeff because they
had, you know, worked on the documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk," which,
you know, we all watched to prepare for "Milk."

And so I knew who they were, and Gus said, you know, they have a movie about
Allen Ginsberg and they want you to play Allen. And I thought, really? Because,
you know, like I said, I loved the Beats. I had been reading them since I was
about 15. And I - ever since I got into acting I always dreamed about, you
know, doing a movie about the Beats. But I never thought that I would play
Allen. I always thought, well, sure, I'll be Kerouac or Cassady. And - but I
was being offered Allen.

And so I thought, well, will I be of service to this movie playing Allen? I
mean, can I really do that? And so I did, you know, I went back and looked at
some of the photographs of young Allen and then I thought, well, it's not that
far. You know, young Allen, most people think, you know, when they think of
Ginsberg, they think of the older Ginsberg, the heavier and balder and bearded
Ginsberg. And that would’ve been a stretch. But the younger Ginsberg is
actually kind of close to my build. We have similar, you know, coloring. And he
had hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so, and by coincidence, I was hosting "Saturday Night Live" at
the time, and they had just won an Emmy for makeup. So I brought in a picture
of young Ginsberg. I brought it to the makeup department, and I said, hey, you
guys, you know, make people look like other people all the time. How would you,
if I was going to do a sketch on “SNL” about Ginsberg, how would you make me
look like this?

And they said, well, actually, it's not that hard. You just kind of comb your
hair over, and you definitely need the glasses. His ears stick out a little bit
more than yours. So they kind of pushed my ears out. And it was like, oh,
voila. It was almost enough.

And so I told Rob and Jeff about the ear thing. And so for half of the movie,
we didn't have any prosthetic built at that time. So we just put, like, some
weird Play-Dough behind my ears and stuck them out.

And that was kind of it. I mean, I had to get the mannerisms down, but the look
was pretty good.

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. He's starring in the new film "Howl." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Franco, and he stars as Allen Ginsberg in the new film
"Howl."

Now, "Howl" is I think the fourth movie that you've made that is based on real
people. You have the James Dean made-for-TV movie that you did, playing Harvey
Milk's boyfriend in "Milk," playing Allen Ginsberg in "Howl," and now you're
also in the forthcoming film, "127 Hours," playing Aron Ralston, a hiker in a
canyon in Utah who is pinned by a boulder that has fallen on his arm and he
can't get his arm out, and so he has to amputate his arm. It's a true story
and, God, a really gruesome one.

This is directed by Danny Boyle, who directed "Trainspotting" and "Slumdog
Millionaire." And I'll tell you, if somebody came to me and said, we want you
to star as this guy who is, like, pinned down by this boulder, he has to, you
know, cut off his arm, I'd say I'll pass, thank you very much for thinking of
me.

Mr. FRANCO: Why, Terry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, I don't even want to imagine enduring that.

Mr. FRANCO: Well, what role would you want to play?

GROSS: Oh, I'd play Ginsberg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Okay, all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So why did you want to put yourself through the kind of agony, mental
agony, that you'd have to experience acting this role?

Mr. FRANCO: You know, I actually was very attracted to the challenge of doing a
movie that, you know, involved being isolated for all that time. And it's, it
was unique not only because I don't work with – you know, for most of the
movie, I'm not working opposite other actors.

But I'm in one spot. And so it's not even like "Castaway," where he had that
whole island to walk around on. Like, I'm in, I'm just in this canyon and I
can't, you know, I can't move.

And on paper, and especially, you know, working on a project like this with
Danny Boyle, it all sounds, you know, really great and, like, exciting, kind of
new kind of filmmaking. But that doesn't necessarily translate into a movie
that people want to go and watch.

And so - and I was aware of that, and Danny was certainly aware of that. And
that was kind of the challenge that he wanted to take on, you know, and if you
know his films, they’re not slow films. They all have pace, they all have great
energy. And he’s very interested in making movies that are full of life.

I guess, you know, the making of the movie was really, you know, a case of
Danny and I and the DPs and the writer and everyone, you know, really working
together to make this very static situation into something incredibly dynamic.
And I...

GROSS: Yeah, I've read reviews that say yes, it's – he’s pinned by this boulder
but it’s really very entertaining. I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ve seen
“Howl.” But I haven’t seen “127 Hours.”

Mr. FRANCO: I have to say, it's a very unique film experience. I mean, I...

GROSS: So here's what I want to know. Like, what is it like to wake up every
morning when you're shooting the film and say, what’s ahead of me today - oh
yes, pain? I endure a lot more pain.

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I didn’t think I would go crazy. Danny kept warning me before
we did it, he's like, yeah, James, you're going to go crazy. I think he wanted
to prepare me. But yeah, he'd say yeah, James, I think you're going to go a
little crazy in this canyon.

And he prepared for that in some ways. You know, we had a – it was an
incredibly fast shoot. I worked six-day weeks. Danny worked seven-day weeks for
two months because there were two DPs. And so Danny would just, you know,
switch between the crews. And I think Danny designed it that way because he
knew not only would I go a little crazy, the whole crew would go a little crazy
just working under those conditions.

But on one hand, I had an incredible experience ‘cause I was working with Danny
Boyle and then these two incredible DPs, Anthony Don Mantle(ph) and Keekey
Chadiak(ph). And so I was working with, you know, all these guys that I loved
and I had a great relationship with all of them.

But yeah, I was stuck in – you know, we shot a lot of it on a set, but the set
was not like a normal set. You know, usually if you shoot on a stage, you build
a set so that it can be taken apart so, you know, cameras can move in for
different angles that, you know, you normally wouldn't get at a real location.

But they didn’t build the set this way. They built it so that it couldn’t come
apart. And so, really, I was isolated every day in this set, and the way that
it kind of worked, a lot of times it was easier to just stay in the set while
they, you know, would change the camera setups.

And so, for the first month of shooting, I actually didn't even, I didn't see
half of the crew. I just saw, like, I really just saw the DPs because they
operated the cameras and then heard Danny's voice over this little speaker that
they'd built into the wall of the canyon.

And it kind of did drive me a little crazy. I think one of the things that
saved me was I was still in school at the time. And so I had all this reading I
had to do for school. So I'd bring my books and stash them under the boulder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And between setups, I would read my books, and I think that helped
me a little bit.

GROSS: So what's the difference between what you saw when you were cutting off
your arm in the film and what is actually in the film, what you see when you
see yourself in the film?

Mr. FRANCO: What do mean, like...

GROSS: When you were doing the shoot, and you were amputating your arm, what's
difference between what you saw on the set and what we see in the film?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, obviously I didn't really cut my arm off. Although, there
were some scenes where, you know, the character tries, he makes many attempts
to cut his arm off and do various things to get out.

And in some of the takes, Danny asked me to just kind of saw at my arm with a
dull blade, like, you know, because the – that was the thing is, you know, Aron
had a knife, but it was a dull because he had never used a knife before. He had
never needed it before, and so he never even thought to sharpen it.

And so there were times when he attempted to saw his arm off with a dull blade.
And Danny said, well, why don't you just try and do it?

And so there were times when I was doing it on my own arm, and that led to, you
know, some minor permanent damage because, you know, they built, you know,
these great effects guys, they built this arm that had all the, you know,
musculature inside and veins, you know, all the veins were in place and nerves.
And so I really could just go at it.

And the way we shot it is, you know, we did like these 20-minute takes for –
you know, and we did that throughout the movie. You know, we'd do these very,
very long takes. And so – and we did that for the amputation scene.

And so I was just cutting away, and, you know, the arm was going through. And I
actually, Danny told me afterwards that the effects guy was saying to him, you
know, whispering in Danny's ear, like, you know, he’s not going to be able to
make it all the way through. You know, there's certain things in there that
are, you know, going to prevent him from cutting all the way through.

So – but I actually did. I went all the way through, and I surprised him and
everyone. And actually, the first time I went through the arm, I fell back and,
you know, fell on my back, or my butt. And so I actually made it through. And I
think part of that take is in the film.

GROSS: James Franco will be back in the second half of the show. His new films
are "127 Hours," which opens next month, and "Howl," which is in select
theaters.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with James Franco (technical
difficulty) in the TV series "Freaks and Geeks," then co-starred in the films
"Spiderman," "Pineapple Express" and "Milk." He's starring in two new movies,
"Howl," in which he plays (technical difficulty) Allen Ginsberg and "127
Hours," in which he plays a hiker who has his (technical difficulty) after it
is pinned under a boulder.

GROSS: You’ve been making these movies while studying at Columbia, NYU,
Brooklyn College, now you’re studying in two places, the Rhode Island School of
Design and Yale. It's like the college version of extreme sports or something.
Do you know what I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...doing like so many different colleges. How come so many?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, now I, you know, I kind of narrowed it down. It's not - the
schedule isn't quite like that right now. But, yeah, the past two years I was
at a lot of places. And I guess I just thought, you know, yeah, I am a little,
I have an addictive personality and when...

GROSS: Do you? Do you?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. I think I do. So if there's something I like it’s hard for me
to, you know, say, to not engage with it fully and to the - I guess to the
point of doing, you know, physical harm to myself or whatever or mental harm.
But, on the other hand, I loved it and I was, you know, by going to all those
places, I got to work with, you know, all of my favorite writers and, you know,
I got to work with great filmmakers and, you know, do projects that I'm very,
very, very proud of.

GROSS: Now you have a new book of short stories that's going to be published in
mid-October.

Mr. FRANCO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Are these stories from writing that you did basically for writing
assignments in your various college writing courses?

Mr. FRANCO: Yes. I started writing that book way back in, I don’t know, about
five years ago when I was at UCLA and I was working with Mona Simpson.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FRANCO: And I started writing some pieces that would eventually form, you
know, that book in her classes and then I did a creative thesis with Mona and
my thesis was a very early draft of this book. And then I went to New York and
studied with people like Amy Hemphill and Michael Cunningham and Jonathan
Lethem and Gary Shteyngart, and Ben Marcus, and I brought in other pieces that
would go into the book in, you know, into their classes and I then worked on
them also on a one-on-one basis on this book. And so eventually, yeah, all
those pieces came together and I put the book together.

GROSS: So there is a short passage I'd like you to read from the book. And this
is a section in which a girl, whose father kind of wants her to be a
mathematician like he is, gets a job that she finds boring, so she starts just
getting paper from the trash and drawing. Would you read that?

Mr. FRANCO: Yes. (Reading) I drew rainbows, and people, and cities, and guns,
and people getting shot and bleeding, and people having sex. When I got tired I
just drew doodles. I tried to draw portraits of people that I knew. My family
always looked ridiculous, but funny because the pictures resembled them, but
not enough. Then I drew all these things from my childhood, like Hello Kitty
and Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony. I drew my brother's G.I. Joes. I made the
My Little Ponys kill the G.I. Joes.

I drew hundreds of pictures and they were all bad. I wasn't good at drawing. It
was also a little sad to draw so much because I could see everything that was
inside me. I had drawn everything I could think of. All that was inside me was
a bunch of toys, and TV shows, and my family. My life was boring. I only had
one kiss, and it was with my gay cousin, Jamie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's James Franco, reading from his new collection of short stories,
"Palo Alto Stories."

I thought that was a really interesting passage because I think every young
writer or painter actually goes through that, of kind of putting out everything
that's inside them but there isn't much inside them yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because they're young and unformed.

Mr. FRANCO: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if as a writer you experienced what this person
experience when they were trying to draw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Yes, in more ways than one. I actually did work at Lockheed.

GROSS: Oh, really, because your father is a mathematician.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. And so I did work there, although this is a female character
who is a young woman who has very different, you know, life circumstances than
I did, but I let her work at Lockheed like I did. And, but I did do a lot of
drawing when I was young and a lot of, you know, I tried to write and, you
know, I tried to do a lot of things.

And actually, when I first started writing this book, before even I started
working with Mona, I'd write a lot of things about - that were kind of based on
myself and who I was when I was a young person. And, I don’t know, it was - I
just hated it. It was just so full of like self-pity and it was just way too
sensitive and, you know, who wants to read that? And so, yeah, what I did is I
just - I think maybe one thing that I learned from acting is you can go out and
explore other people and there's a way to get to know other people intimately.
And hopefully, you know, you can take on their voice and their worldview and
their life circumstances and then, you know, turn it into something else, turn
it into a performance or turn it into a piece of writing. And so that's kind of
how I worked on a lot of these stories.

GROSS: There's another - I'm sure there's many parallels nevertheless between
the stories and your life. And many of the stories are about kids in trouble
for drinking for getting into car accidents while drunk, for - a few things
along those lines. And one of the kids in one of your stories is arrested after
a drunk driving accident and becomes a ward of the court for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And the judge makes him a ward of the court and threatens him with
juvenile hall if he so much as jaywalks. And then he has to make a supervised
apology and then do 60 hours of community service. Now the last time you were
on FRESH AIR, you mentioned that because I forget of which thing that got you
in trouble, you had briefly become a ward of the state. So I'm sure there's
some parallels between this story and your life.

Mr. FRANCO: Yes. Well, I'm sure you or whoever else is interested can go
through and pick out a lot of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: ...a lot of similarities between, you know, these character's
experiences and my own. And that's, you know, that's one thing that you do as a
writer or an artist of any sort, you use pieces of your own life.

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. His collection of short stories, "Palo Alto,"
will be published later this month. He plays Allen Ginsberg in the new film
"Howl."

Coming up, we'll talk about a surprising chapter in Franco's acting career,
playing the artist and serial killer Franco on ABC's soap opera "General
Hospital."

(Soundbite of ABC's "General Hospital")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) You cut your hair. You hurt yourself. Are you okay?

Unidentified Actress: (as character) What are you doing here?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) Well, I just came to deliver the last six roses. I see
you put the other 60 in a vase. Nice display, very artistic.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) What do you want?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) I'm very fond of the number 66. I just like saying it,
66, sounds dirty.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) Why would you send these flowers to me?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) You and I spent some very special time together. I hope
you haven't forgotten.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) No. Of course, not.

Mr. FRANCO: I told you, I think about you. I have. And I know that you want to
be loyal to your boyfriend and I respect that. Loyalty is hard to come by these
days. I just hope that our performance didn’t damage your relationship.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Franco. He plays Allen Ginsberg in the new film
"Howl."

So I'm afraid we're going to run out of time soon and I want to be able to ask
you about the time that you spent acting on "General Hospital..."

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was such a surprise to everybody. You are such a good actor and
I think a very serious actor, even though you’ve done comedies, you’ve done
them really well...

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: ...so I consider that part of serious acting.

Mr. FRANCO: Right.

GROSS: And not to cast dispersions on soap operas, but it's just a different
style, you know?

Mr. FRANCO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So why did you want to do an afternoon soap, and was it their idea or
your idea to do this?

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, it was my idea.

GROSS: What did you want out of it?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, at first I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was that it would be
interesting. I had been discussing the idea with this artist named Carter, he's
a friend of mine and I collaborate on different projects with him. And we were
going to do a movie called "Maladies," that he was going to direct and I was
going to act in. I was going to play a character that was formerly a soap
opera. And that just got us talking about oh, what if I actually was on a soap
opera? Wouldn’t that be interesting? People would be surprised, nobody would
expect it, and it's also kind of - it's, you know, it's a different kind of
entertainment and acting and not necessarily and, you know, I mean yeah, people
can look, you know, often look down on soap operas as inferior kind of
entertainment, but I was thinking in a different way at that point.

I had just read this book by this guy name Carl Wilson, who has since become a
friend of mine and he wrote this book about Celine Dion. And he, you know,
wasn’t a fan of Celine's, but he decided that he was going to investigate why.
Why does he feel superior to Celine's music? And he didn’t come to any definite
conclusions but he figured out that well, Celine's music means something to
some people and gives a lot of people, I don’t know, strength, hope or whatever
you get from music. But it's working for some people.

And so he decided to suspend his judgment and stop looking down on Celine just
because she doesn’t speak to him. And so that's kind of the mindset I was in at
that time and I thought well, why not? I’ll just try being on a soap opera.

And so my manager represents Steve Burton, who is one of the stars of "General
Hospital." And so he had some connections to "General Hospital" and he called
them up and said that I wanted to be on the show. And they were very excited to
say the least and they called me up and they said, James, it’s so great that
you want to be on this soap opera. What do you want to do? You can do whatever
you like. So I said I wanted the character to be an artist and I wanted him to
be crazy and that's what I told them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And I wanted their version of that. And they gave me the best - I
mean they gave me more than I could've asked for. And...

GROSS: And they named the character Franco.

Mr. FRANCO: And that was their idea, yeah. They asked if they could name the
character Franco. And I guess that sounds, to some people that could sound just
like lazy, you know, like they were being lazy, but actually I thought it was
incredible because it just - it worked with the fact that nobody understood why
I was on that show.

And so already I think people going and seeing me on that show are asking
themselves, why is he there? What is he doing there? And it was as if I was a
little bit of an imposter. But then if you add the, you know, the fact that
people are addressing me by my name, Franco, it just pulls you kind of it pulls
you out of it, you know, even further. And so it was all - it was building this
weird relationship to the show where it was almost commenting on itself. And
then...

GROSS: A kind of performance art for you almost.

Mr. FRANCO: Well, yeah, and then it kind of developed into that. But then the
writers, you know, I love working with them. They - and because soap operas,
you know, have to do a show a day, they generate so much material. And so
because of that, they were able to start writing things that spoke to this
performance art aspect of it in this very strange way. And so it's as if the
character Franco almost knows that he's on a soap opera and so they were
writing to that. And then I started filming all of the whole process. And then
they would have - and then they'd respond to that and have the character Franco
on the show start filming himself and so we just got into this crazy kind of
vortex of, I don’t know, this weird meta-world of commentary.

GROSS: So tell me something that you learned from acting on an afternoon soap
opera?

Mr. FRANCO: So yeah, so then there was just the pure experience of acting on a
soap opera that was also extremely interesting. They have to, you know, you go
through material a lot quicker on a soap opera, but not only that, I was still
in school and so I had to act - I had to do even more material than they
normally do in a single day because they would do all my material on one day a
week. I guess they, it was on a Fridays and I guess they started calling it
Franco Fridays because I'd fly in from New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I'd get on, I'd wake up at like 4:30, go to the airport, land in
L.A. at about 10:30, go to the studio and then we'd work for like 12 to 14
hours until, you know, about two in the morning. And I would do about I guess
70 to 80 pages of material a day. And usually they only, if they get it,
they’ll only do one take. But that's not just - it's not just one take per
setup. They have four cameras going. So that means one take per scene. So you
just learn the lines, do it, boom, on to the next scene. So it’s a really, it’s
kind of exhilarating if you get into the pace of it.

GROSS: Kind of like theater almost.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Like you’re on live. Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: It's very close to how they would do the old like "Playhouse 90" or
"Kraft Theatre"...

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. FRANCO: ...you know, television shows in a way.

GROSS: Well, I'd love to keep talking, but you’re going to be late for class
and...

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: And then I'm afraid you'd be accused of being a celebrity because you
were doing media instead of being in class, so semi-apologies if you’re a
couple of minutes late.

Mr. FRANCO: I will. I will.

GROSS: And, so just one more thing, do you have insomnia and do you use those
hours to just keep working?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is your day longer than mine?

Mr. FRANCO: I don’t have insomnia.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: As you can see on TMZ, I can sleep anywhere and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I really can sleep anywhere. Although now I'm much more wary about
sleeping in public because I'm sure another picture of me will bring a lot of -
of sleeping will bring a lot of money.

GROSS: It was a picture of you sleeping class, which is, I think, you’re
referring to?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. It's actually not class. It's a late night lecture - an
optional lecture at the art school that I was not required to be at, so I
wasn’t, you know, sleeping in class or wasting my opportunity in class. I was
at an optional thing, so I think I had every right to sleep in if I wanted to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: But I, yeah, I can sleep anywhere. I just have a lot to do so I
tend not to sleep.

GROSS: James Franco, it's been great to talk with you again. Thanks so much.

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in the new movie "Howl," which is
playing in select cities and is available on video on demand. His film "127
Hours" opens next month. Franco's selection of short stories "Palo Alto," will
be published later this month. You can find clips from "Howl" and read an
excerpt of his new book on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new translation of "Madame Bovary."

This is FRESH AIR.
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'Bovary' Translation Does 'Le Mot Juste' Justice

TERRY GROSS, host:

There's a new translation of "Madame Bovary," the classic novel by perhaps the
most exacting French writer of the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert. This
translation is by Lydia Davis, a novelist, short story writer and winner of the
2003 French-American Foundation prize for her translation of Marcel Proust's
"Swann's Way."

Here's what our book critic Maureen Corrigan has to say about Davis's new
translation of "Madame Bovary."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: How tickled Madame Bovary herself would be by the latest
homage paid to her: a feature in the September issue of Playboy Magazine. For
the original desperate housewife, as she's been called, the knowledge that
she's the object of the collective male gaze might have relieved some of the
dismal boredom that characterized so much of Emma Bovary's provincial life. Of
course, what the Playboy connoisseurs are surveying is not Madame Bovary's fine
form, nor her much-commented-upon smooth bands of black hair or great dark
eyes.

No, what's wresting attention away from the latest lineup of hydroponically
enhanced models is an excerpt from Lydia Davis's new translation of Gustave
Flaubert's masterpiece. The most scandalous novel of all time - hisses a
headline on Playboy's cover. It's cheering, isn't it, the way Playboy upholds
the primacy of the erotic canon over the claims of postmodern challengers like
say, a sticky, icky groupie memoir like "The Last Living Slut?"

For a translator, even one as renowned as Lydia Davis, Flaubert, the great
apostle of le mot juste, must surely be the Matterhorn of authors. As Davis
says in the introduction to her translation, Flaubert created "Madame Bovary"
through a process of ruthless pruning. Sometimes, he reported in letters to his
mistress, a week's hard labor would result in one meticulous page. To be
simple, wrote Flaubert, is no small matter. Repetitions of words, sounds and
even letters annoyed him, particularly so in this emotionally radical novel
where so much depends on style alone.

For what's really scandalous about "Madame Bovary" - besides the infidelity
plot for which it was put on trial for obscenity when it was first serialized
in 1856 - is its absolute demolition of sentiment.

"Madame Bovary" is the rather uneventful fictional biography of a shallow young
woman. Her baby daughter doesn't interest her, her lovers are manipulative
cads, and her husband, Charles, is the quintessential amiable boor. Flaubert
writes that Charles' conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone's
ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or
laughter, or reverie. With a message and cast of characters this unsympathetic,
Flaubert had to depend on his language to keep readers engaged and to elicit
the responses he desired: ironic laughter, scorn, and occasionally, pity.

Davis says "Madame Bovary" has been translated into English some 11 times, but
despite the fact that Flaubert was Mr. Style, she maintains that many of those
previous translators ignored his zest for linguistic precision and that's what
she's trying to restore in this new edition. I'm not qualified to judge the
accuracy of her translation, but I am grateful to Davis for luring me back to
"Madame Bovary" and for giving us a version which strikes me as elegant and
alive.

Two things overwhelm me about the novel on this rereading: The first is just
how unrelenting Flaubert is in his contempt for sentimentality. Well over half
a century before Hemingway, in "A Farewell to Arms," gave us the signal cynical
phrase of the 20th century - isn't it pretty to think so - Flaubert was carpet-
bombing the maudlin and the mawkish. When Madame Bovary's first lover leaves
her after their initial formal meeting, he thinks to himself: poor little
woman. That one's gasping for love like a carp for water on a kitchen table.

The other marvel about "Madame Bovary" is just how current it is in its
assessment of the dangers that can result from blurring the lines between
reality and fantasy. By dramatizing the effects of fantasy on a susceptible
mind, Flaubert counters the laxity of our own age where reality TV reigns and
it's considered unsophisticated to expect clear demarcations between
autobiography and fiction.

Madame Bovary is literally destroyed by reading. Over and over we hear about
how she tries to model her life on the romantic novels she devours. Flaubert
writes:

Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love.
But since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come,
she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what
was meant in life, by the words bliss, passion, and intoxication, which had
seemed so beautiful to her in books.

The great achievement of Flaubert's novel, of his clear as a marble prose,
presented to us anew in Davis's translation, is that at the same time we're
scoffing at Emma Bovary's naivete, we're also feeling ourselves drawn deeply
into her story, susceptible to the same powerful pull of fiction that is her
undoing.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed Lydia Davis's new translation of "Madame Bovary." You can read an
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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