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.