Interview with James Franco: “I wanted to create a feeling of ‘too much’”

The actor on stepping outside of Hollywood fame and why collaboration feels so natural


James Franco’s Hollywood career already includes credits as director, producer, screenwriter and leading actor. He won a Golden Globe in 2002, has had two further nominations and, by time of going to press, will also know whether his nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor will have won him an Oscar statuette at the ceremony where he was also co-host.

As a visual artist, however, his career is still in its early stages. Franco completed a year-long programme of independent study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 2009, is due to begin his PhD in art at Rhode Island School of Design this year and has had just two solo exhibitions to date, including “The Dangerous Book Four Boys”, currently at Peres Projects, Berlin (until 23 April).

Despite his limited artistic output, Franco has nevertheless already worked with artists Marina Abramovic and Paul McCarthy, and with film director Gus Van Sant (with whom he has a joint exhibition on show at Gagosian, Beverly Hills, until 9 April). Such high-profile collaborations, in the early days of his career, have been greeted with scepticism by some art world insiders, and with not a little confusion. An April fool’s day joke last year by a prominent New York dealer—that Franco had been chosen to represent the US at the Venice Biennale this year—was rapidly reblogged as genuine news, to a combination of both interest and cynicism. Franco may not be the official US representative (the slot is being filled by Puerto Rican duo Allora and Calzadilla) but in fact he is, he says, planning a Venice project with artists including Ed Ruscha, Paul McCarthy and Douglas Gordon.

Franco’s exhibition at Peres Projects’ galleries in Kreuzberg and Mitte, Berlin, features poignant and personal videos, installations, photography and drawings with themes including identity, adolescence, masculinity, his family and his childhood. Although in his early video work Franco chose to cast actors as the central figure, in these later pieces he plays the role himself. The films, and a series of photographs, depict Franco as characters from his own memories of adolescence.

Despite his familiarity with intense public scrutiny born from his Hollywood success, he is aware that his entry into the art world has attracted a diversity of opinions and readily admits that he has a way to go if he is to be regarded as a fully formed artist of serious intent.

The Art Newspaper: The works in the Peres Projects exhibition span around four years. How long were you working on those pieces?

James Franco: I was working pretty solidly for those four years. Other than a few I included that were from my childhood, the earliest works are from the beginning of my time at UCLA, created with their chair of the department of art, Russell Ferguson. That work consists of videos made about five years ago. There are then other pieces made during time between my other commitments.

There are themes throughout the exhibition that focus on identity and masculinity through adolescence. What is it about that period of your life that inspired you?

Part of the show is autobiographical. When you are dealing with youth one often uses memories from your own experience, consciously and subconsciously. The real kernel of inspiration that led me to use childhood images, structures and motifs was the realisation I wanted to create a feeling of “too much” and of “overflowing”. I wanted some of the works to feel immature and underdeveloped, so that I would be able to infuse them with larger ideas. I wanted to feel like the themes were almost too big for the structures and the forms.

How long have you been making work?

I started in my early teenage years. I was a painter then, as most young artists are; it was just what was accessible.

What was the impetus behind you starting to create work again?

I have been interested in contemporary art for a very long time, even before I started painting as a teenager. I wanted to go to art school but my parents wouldn’t pay for it. That seemed a strange decision as they met on the art programme at Stanford University, California, but they didn’t want me to go down that route. I originally went to UCLA as an English literature major but then later I returned. I had been collecting contemporary art, was introduced to Russell and we ended up doing one year’s worth of independent study together.

What were those first works like?

That collaboration resulted in my first video works, some of which are in the Peres show. It was a way to work with film that was not dependant on narrative, as I had been as an actor. Those early pieces were attempts to get away from classic story telling and to start working with the medium in different ways.

In your later video works you often include yourself as the main character but in earlier films you used actors as that central figure. Why was that?

Because of my need to get away from what I had been doing as an actor. Because of that history and connection I didn’t want to put myself in them at first. They often showed destruction of house-like structures: there is one where the character chops up a structure with an axe. If I made the piece now I would do it myself, but at the time I was afraid it would feel like a performance. Also I was worried that people would see it as a character they already had a preconception of, that they wouldn’t consider it as an essential act.

Was that around the time you made the film Erased James Franco?

Yes, I made that film with the young New York artist Carter—it was not titled by me. The work was based on Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning [a filmed performance piece where Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning drawing] given to him by the artist. Originally it was to be a similar erased performance, but it developed into something more than that. Making that film showed me I could use myself in work of this kind. It opened up that possibility for me. I started working with my persona as an actor in my art to different ends. Not necessarily using my skills in a way that would allow the audience to be drawn into a performance and forget that it was me, but in fact to do it in a way that made sure people wouldn’t forget it was me.

You have noted Kenneth Anger and Paul McCarthy as influences on your work.

They are both huge inspirations. Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos had a big influence. I find the aesthetic and irony in those pieces incredibly interesting. As far as I know Scorpio Rising features a real motorcycle gang. I find it fascinating that Anger convinced the group to let him film them. I imagine they thought they were coming off as tough and masculine, but the way Anger shoots them it becomes something sexualised and homoerotic. I was inspired by the way in which he transformed them and made us see that culture in a different way.

Why Paul McCarthy?

I am drawn to his relationship with film and my understanding of that, having worked in LA for so long…the way he takes classic film and Hollywood film, and then, in his words, “just fucks it up”. I have been working in that world for so long…but he has shown me a way of being able to step outside and examine it. I am honoured to be currently collaborating with him.

What are you working on together?

Paul and his son, Damon, and I are working on a piece which will be shown at the Venice Biennale. It is to be a large-scale collaboration, hopefully with Ed Ruscha, Paul McCarthy, Douglas Gordon, Aaron Young, Terry Richardson and Harmony Korine. Basically all my favourite artists.

Do you have a network of artists you are in conversation with?

Yes, recently a lot of my work has been about collaboration. Because I come from the film world, which is largely dependant on collaboration, it is natural for me to continue working in that way. Of course the results are different, the way that the collaborations are geared is slightly different, but ultimately it is a similar creative process.

The exhibition at Peres Projects was previously shown at the not-for-profit New York space, Clocktower. Has this version of the show changed?

It is almost the same show. Javier Peres saw the exhibition at Clocktower and offered to take it to Berlin. We have reworked it slightly as it is across the two galleries that he has there.

How do you feel about your reception into, and how you are seen within, the art world?

Generally I have been happy but of course there is going to be a lot of scepticism in the beginning. As far as being taken seriously, all I can do is look to my own activity and say, honestly, this is where I have been spending the majority of my time. I am in school to learn more about this side of my work. I am doing everything that “legitimate artists” have done. Okay, yes, the response has been mixed but to be honest, I almost want that. As an artist there is usually a period where you pay your dues. I have certainly done that as an actor, I did that for years, but with my art I am now in a strange position. I am going to get a lot of attention, whether it is good or bad, from the get-go. I am happy though, because however sceptical the critics are, I am able to show with respectable people—Peres and Gagosian for example. We’re going to the Venice Biennale. For me, I don’t know how much better it could get right now. I am taking this as seriously as I can and in some circles I am getting a good response. That is all I can do.


Born: 1978, Palo Alto, California

Education: Yale University; Columbia University; UCLA, California

Selected solo shows: 2011 “The Dangerous Book Four Boys”, Peres Projects, Berlin 2010 “The Dangerous Book Four Boys”, Clocktower, New York

Selected group shows: 2011 Gus Van

Sant & James Franco, Gagosian, Beverly Hills