So much has been made of all that James Franco has done in and outside of Hollywood since he broke through as a teen heartthrob in Freaks and Geeks that it’s probably easier to ask, What has James Franco—actor, director, writer, model, artist, soap star, USC professor, UCLA professor, Oscar nominee, Oscar host, and so on—not done? It turns out, in fact, that he’s not yet played twins onscreen, which he does as the star of HBO’s much-anticipated new drama The Deuce, premiering in September. Created by The Wire‘s David Simon, the TV series centers on twin brothers Frankie and Vinnie Martino, both played by Franco, during the rise of the now-billion dollar porn industry in Times Square in ’70s New York. Franco being Franco, of course, he decided to direct himself while trying to play both parts onscreen at the same time (he’s also an executive producer of the show). In an interview with Lynn Hirschberg, he explains how he pulled it off, and how he originally started honing his Brooklyn accent—and his acting chops in general—while working at a McDonald’s drive-thru window.
When did you know you were going to be an actor?
I started acting my senior year in high school. I had loved movies since as long as I can remember. Then finally my senior year, I started acting. And I had a girlfriend in the drama program, and she had been asked to do a one-act by this guy. And he had written this one-act and was directing and starring in it. It was this romantic piece, and they were gonna make out in it. And I got really jealous, and I begged her not to do it. But she did it anyway, as she should have. I realize in hindsight that I was jealous probably more because he had constructed this whole thing and he’d written it and directed it and was acting in it—it was, like, all the things that I wanted to do. And so as my revenge, I decided that I would join the drama class. I got the leads in the last two plays that year.
Then I hadn’t applied to any drama schools ’cause I was too late, and so I wasn’t in the theater program at UCLA. But I was in L.A., and there was, like, a guy in my dorm that was on the show Cybill, with Cybill Shepherd. It was just all around me, and I was like, “Well, I, I need to do this now.” So I dropped out of school. My parents wouldn’t support me anymore. So I worked at McDonald’s for two or three months.
Oh, wow. You wore the uniform.
Oh, yeah. I got a couple dates from the drive-thru window. [Laughter.]Tthen I got a Pizza Hut commercial, and then not long after that I did Freaks and Geeks. So it all worked out.
I can’t believe you worked at McDonald’s. How did you get dates from the drive-thru?
Well, they didn’t go so well. I was in acting class, and I would practice different accents in the drive-thru, like really bad accents. But people believed me. So I’d be like [in terrible Italian-American accent] “Hey, welcome to McDonald’s. May I help you?” You know, like, that bad.
And I’d always know that they were interested ’cause they’d come back around. So, you know, a young lady would be like, “Oh, I forgot the, uh, strawberry milkshake.”She’d come back and she’d be like, “Well, I’m trying to learn Italian. Maybe you could give me some Italian lessons.” I’d go [in accent], “Yeah, yeah, sure.” But then there were a couple, I guess, with my Irish accent or, like, my Brooklyn accent—those I could go out on dates with. You know, we went to see Titanic, and I had to keep it up. You know, so like [in equally bad Brooklyn accent], “Whoa, Leonardo. Wow, he was amazing. Yo, oh.”
Then I always had to break it to ’em, ’cause they’d call me, and it was before cell phones. So I’d pick up the phone, I didn’t know who it was. And I’d be like [in regular voice], “Hello?”
And they’d be like, “James, is that you? What happened to your accent?” It was always the worst, as if I was this huge imposter. I just saw this play, Dear Evan Hansen. It was sort of like that. Like, I had to come clean: “Hey, I’m not from Brooklyn. I’m from Palo Alto.” And they just look at me like I’m a complete stranger. And it usually ended right there.
In your current project, The Deuce, you also have an accent.
I play twins, they’re both from Brooklyn. So it turns out all that training at McDonald’s, this kid from Palo Alto pretending he’s from Brooklyn, it actually worked out. I probably wouldn’t be on The Deuce or I wouldn’t be as good on The Deuce had I not gone on all those dates as [snaps fingers] this guy from Brooklyn who works at McDonald’s. [Laughs.]
So how did The Deuce come about?
Actually, I sort of pursued it. I had met with [creator] David Simon years before, for a different project that I couldn’t do. But I was a huge fan because he did The Wire, which is the greatest TV show ever made. And so I asked him, “Do you have anything else?” And he said, “Well, I’ve got this thing about the rise of pornography, it’s all about the old 42nd Street and New York in the ’70s.”
And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, it’s the world and the milieu of all my favorite movies from the ’70s: Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, all that stuff.
So I kept that in the back of my mind. And then I read this book called Difficult Men, a great book about this new golden age of television. It’s really about all the showrunners and the new kind of long-form television. And it got me so excited about it as an actor, you know, and being able to, really dig into a character. Whereas in a movie, even if it’s the best movie, there frankly is a limited number of great scenes that you can do as a character, and a limited number of kind of turns that you can make as a character. But I read this book, and I was like, “Oh, yeah.” You can have a character go through so much and change so much. Just look at Breaking Bad, where Walter White starts and where he ends. Like, you can do so much as an actor but also as a storyteller, too.
And I remember I was coincidentally at Francis Ford Coppola’s place in Napa, and I called David Simon and—or I e-mailed him, like, “Let’s do it. Let’s do that porn show, you know, New York in the ’70s. I’m in. I’ll play the twins—and I’d love to direct.” He said, “But you’re gonna be playing twins and directing—I don’t know. You know, maybe we’ll give you one episode.”
Cut to a year and a half later. We’re shooting the series and I was like, “Come on. Let me direct more than one episode.”
You weren’t nervous about directing yourself?
I directed myself in a lot of projects.
I know, but it’s hard to do twins as an actor.
It is. Well, so then I had to prove myself. I directed the third episode—it turns out that that was the episode with the most twin scenes of all.
[Laughs.] Did you know that?
No, I was actually supposed to do the second episode. I thought that one would be easier because of scheduling. And then it turns out, boom, we get the script, and it’s like every scene is twins talking to each other, you know what I mean? So as a director, I gotta kinda set it up, and then I gotta put on the makeup as Vinnie, and then do Vinnie. And then I’ve gotta double.
And when you’re playing two characters in a scene, it’s this whole different thing from what I’m used to doing in movies with Seth Rogen, where we improvise all the time. But when you’re playing twins, you kind of have to think about what the other one is gonna improvise. So it’s like I would come up with stuff for Vinnie, but then I’d be like, “Oh, wait, Frankie should be saying that.” So then I had to whisper to Will, this guy from NYU who was my double, like, “All right, when I say this, you say that.” So it’s like I’m improvising for both.
And then Will would say it—he’s a really good actor, but he’s very different than I am. So sometimes he wouldn’t say it like I was gonna say it. So I’d have to be like, “All right, David, when I turn around and I play Frankie, I’m not gonna say it like that.”
Then I’d have to get out of Vinnie. It’s like an hour to do Frankie’s hair ’cause he does this big bouffant. And then, boom, I jump in and do Frankie, and Will then plays Vinnie. And so, yeah, it was a whole head twist. But I did a good job, so they let me do another episode.
This is what I love about you. You always have to make things more complicated.
Has that just always been your DNA?
Lynn, I’m insane. I’m insane. That’s why; that’s what happened. Who would want to not only direct themselves, but direct themselves in two roles? Like, that’s insane. But it did go well.
It was amazing. And, I mean, you wear ’70s clothes well. Did you do a lot with the wardrobe?
It was the ’70s, so the wardrobe was really important. And also, a ’70s wardrobe is really tight. For like a year, all I had for lunch and dinner was salad, salad, salad, salad, salad—so I could get that [snaps fingers] you know, ’70s vibe.
And you were a great bartender in the show. Who knew? Can you mix drinks?
Who knew? Yeah, you know, I have probably spent the least amount of time in bars of any actor. But, yeah, it was like Cheers. But it was actually interesting. The twins were based on real twins, one of them who David interviewed. And their real bar was called Tin Pan Alley; Nan Goldin worked there. If you go and see her show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” there are photos of the actual bar in there.
Do you watch a lot of TV now or are you just so busy doing 4,000 things?
I do watch a lot of television. I mean, TV’s gotten so good. In a way to sort of prepare for directing The Deuce, I was like, “Oh, I’d better watch some TV.” So I went through all the great shows: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones. Now I’m watching BoJack Horseman.
What movie makes you cry?
Well, it’s not a movie, but I did just go see Dear Evan Hansen, the musical. Oh my god. Like, I cried at every single song. Usually, I’m not the biggest musical guy, but there’s usually one song in every musical where I’d get emotional. And in Dear Evan Hansen, every song I’m bawling. During the intermission, they were like, “You want to come to the green room?” And it was, like, the manager’s office, this little weird cave with, like, little tea—I don’t know, it was odd. But he had special Dear Evan Hansen tissues, I guess because people cry so much.
Oh, and I’ll call the actor out, Ben Platt. So he’s giving this amazing performance, and there’s a part in the play where his character comes to the lip of the stage to give a speech for this other kid that’s committed suicide. Well, Ben comes up, and he goes to the mic, and he hawks the biggest loogie, like, right on the foot of or off the stage. And I’m thinking, like, “Is that part of the play? Is the character so awkward or anxious right that he’s clearing his throat?” But I look down. There’s these two young women in the front row, and when he spits, they’re like…
So I go see him after. I’m like, “Man, great show. What was up with that spitting part?” Ben was like, “Oh, those girls were talking the whole time. I was trying to make eye contact with them, and they wouldn’t shut up. So I just spit on ’em.”
Oh my god. That’s so intense.
Okay, what was your favorite birthday that you remember?
My 30th I got a surprise birthday. It was, like, a “this is your life” kind of surprise party—old teachers, people from elementary school, you know. That was great. I mean, it was great to have at least one of those, I think.
Were you surprised?
I was surprised. I’s a weird moment when you get surprised. All the attention’s on you. There’s everybody that you’ve known. You’ve got different feelings about all of them, and it’s all [snaps fingers] hitting you at once. I’m surprised that more people don’t, I don’t know, just freak out and punch somebody in that moment.
To just handle that pressure, I mean, I gotta hand it to the producers of La La Land, you know what I mean? When you’re in that moment [at the 2017 Oscars] and it’s just elation, but then it just becomes something else.
I thought they were incredible. I thought the Moonlight guys were incredible, too. I thought everybody handled it really well.
I had a weird reaction.
Well, you’ve hosted the Oscars, so you probably related to it.
No, not to that, to my surprise party. I had a weird reaction. I guess I was just overwhelmed. Anyway, on my [recent] 39th birthday, I treated myself: I went to an old-fashioned video game arcade, and I played video games. I got all the quarters I wanted, and I beat this old game I used to play, Street Fighter II. Then I went out dancing. I’ve been doing hip-hop lessons, Magic Mike lessons. Well, I don’t strip or anything. But I do like hip-hop.
Do you have a favorite song to dance to?
We do, like, a lot of Bobby Brown.
Exactly. “My Prerogative,” that’s my song now. Yeah, so I beat Street Fighter II, and then I went to this bar in Silver Lake, did a few moves, and then went home.
Do you have a karaoke song?
Um, “Patience,” Guns N’ Roses—easy one to do.
Do you do the snake dance?
Yeah, a little Axl snake dance. If I go solo, that’s the go-to. The group one is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” of course.
Nicole Kidman, Milo Ventimiglia and 11 More Actors Who Prove that Television Has Never Been Hotter
“In the show I play an abused woman, and I felt very exposed and deeply humiliated. I remember lying on the floor in the bathroom at the end of a difficult scene, and I wouldn’t get up between takes. I was just lying there, basically naked in half-torn underwear, and Jean-Marc Vallée [the director] would come over and place a towel over me. It was very hard.”
Kidman wears a Miu Miu dress and coat.
“As a girl, I was obsessed with the program 20/20—especially with the coanchor Hugh Downs. I thought I was going to marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. Everything was going to be all right because Hugh Downs was going to tell you the important story you needed to know that Friday night. They just don’t do newsmen like him anymore.”
Marling wears a Prada dress.
“My first crush was Jessica Lange in Tootsie. I was maybe 8 or 9 when I first saw the movie, and I had never felt anything for a girl before that. I was just mesmerized by her. I watched the film over and over again because of Jessica Lange. I’m still not over her. Every time I meet someone, I compare her to Jessica Lange in Tootsie. That’s probably why I’m not married.”
Skarsgård wears a Cleverly Laundry robe; Schiesser Revival shirt.
“The Americans mostly takes place in the ’80s, during the Cold War. Anytime you’re wearing clothes that are unlike yours, it just heightens the moment. When I wear heels and silk shirts, slacks and blouses, it makes me feel like an adult. On the show, I wear a cat eye with black eyeliner, and it makes me feel like a panther. It’s so unlike me as Keri—this tired mom in flip-flops and jeans. And I love that transformation.”
Russell wears a Michael Kors Collection top; Philosophy briefs; Manolo Blahnik shoes; Louis Vuitton bracelet.
“For Homeland, I made an audition tape with a point-and-click camera and sent it in. The ratio was off. It was out of focus. I was also wearing the wrong thing, and I filmed it against a door that they later told me made it look like I was in a mental asylum. The producers were like, ‘Where the hell is this kid?!’ In the end, I did seven separate audition tapes of the same scene. They finally said yes.”
Friend wears an Hermès sweater; Sunspel boxers; his own ring and socks.
“I went to work on The Crown four months after giving birth. The queen didn’t wear a corset, but I did in the beginning. Now, in the second season, I have to wear a significantly padded brassiere. In the first season, it was all my own breast work, but now it’s ‘Ha! Where have they gone?’ The queen would be so ashamed of me.”
Foy wears a Louis Vuitton dress; Messika Paris bracelet.
“I usually get stopped in the U.K. before I board a plane. What’s funny is that Heathrow is in a heavily South Asian neighborhood, and the kids working at the airport are fans of mine. So while they’re swabbing me for explosives, they’re asking me for selfies. While they’re going through my underwear, they’re quoting my raps back at me. It’s quite a surreal experience that speaks to the insider/outsider status I’ve felt all my life.”
Ahmed wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Jeffrey Rüdes pants.
“Even with the show, I still live at home in Liverpool. I can’t bring myself to leave just yet. My brother is 21 and he’s still at home, too. I said to my mom, ‘We’re going to be 30-, 40-odd years old and we’re still going to be living in the kids’ rooms.’ I’m hoping I will be able to leave the nest at some point.”
Comer wears a Marc Jacobs dress; Jennifer Meyer necklace; Larkspur & Hawk ring.
“During the screen test for Stranger Things, one of the directors came up to me and said, ‘Bzzz,’ over my head. He then asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I was like, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘To cut all your hair off!’ The next day I got the job and I cut it. My hair was down to here, but it’s only hair. After that, I was called ‘boy’ a lot.”
Brown wears a Balenciaga dress and tights; Chanel shoes; Jennifer Meyer ring.
“I worked at McDonald’s for a few months, and I got a couple of dates from taking orders at the drive-through window. I was enrolled in an acting class, and I would practice different accents. I was really bad, but people believed me. A young lady would say, ‘Oh, I forgot to order the strawberry milkshake’ and ask me about my Italian or Irish or Brooklyn accent. We would go out on a date, go back to the McDonald’s parking lot, and make out. Eventually, I had to break it to them that I wasn’t Italian or Irish or from New York. The girls would usually end it right then and there.”
Franco wears a Prada shirt.
“In playing Albert Einstein, I found out that he was not the archetypal absentminded professor. He was an energetic, slightly rebellious, rakish, sort-of-bohemian poet. And he was quite amorous—he had many lovers. Einstein wasn’t exactly a ‘player,’ but he enjoyed women, and when his first marriage fell apart, he became what you would call a ladies’ man. He gave up on monogamy.”
Flynn wears a Calvin Klein Jeans Established 1978 jacket and pants.
“My dad, Stan Lathan, was one of the first black TV directors. He used to direct Sesame Street, and he blindfolded me once, and when he took the blindfold off, I was on the set. I got to meet Big Bird. It was my birthday, and the whole cast sang to me. That was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Lathan wears a Lanvin coat.
“I’m not a big crier. But family stuff gets to me. Fathers and brothers and children. If I wasn’t on This Is Us, I’d be a wet noodle watching the show. I’d be crying along with everyone else.”
Ventimiglia wears a Current/Elliott shirt; his own chain.