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James Franco, Modern-Day Renaissance Man

Aaron Tveit and James Franco star as Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg
Aaron Tveit and James Franco star as Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg

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.By Fresh Air/ NPR

Palo Alto: Stories
By James Franco
Hardcover, 208 pages
List Price: $24

Read an Excerpt It's hard to categorize James Franco.

The star of such films as Spider-Man and Milk is also an accomplished painter and writer ? and a graduate student currently enrolled in both Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The frenetic pace suits Franco, who tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he has an "addictive personality."

"If there's something I like," he explains, "it's hard for me to not engage with it fully."

Franco's acting career started in the late 1990s, when he played Daniel Desario on the short-lived but critically acclaimed TV series Freaks and Geeks. Shortly thereafter, he played Peter Parker's buddy Harry Osborn in the first film of the Spider-Man trilogy alongside his real-life friend Tobey Maguire, only to transform into one of the hero's nemeses in the blockbuster's two sequels.

Then there were roles in films including Tristan & Isolde, Pineapple Express and Milk, where he portrayed Scott Smith, the boyfriend of San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk, who was murdered in 1978.

In his latest film Howl, Franco again portrays a real-life person ? this time the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The non-linear film traces Ginsberg's life during the 1940s and 1950s and reenacts Ginberg's 1955 debut performance of his famous poem Howl. Franco says that he was excited to immerse himself in the beatnik culture of the 1950s.

"I loved the Beats and I had been reading them since I was about 15, and ever since I got into acting I always dreamed about doing a movie about the Beats," he explains. "But I never thought that I would play Allen. I always thought I would play [Jack] Kerouac or [Neal] Cassady."

Even after he was offered the part of Ginsberg, Franco says, he still had lingering doubts about the role.

"I thought 'Hmm. Will I be of service to this movie playing Allen? Can I really do that?'" he says. "So I went back and looked at some of the photographs of young Allen and then watched Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy, which was made in 1959. ... Most people, when they think of Ginsberg, they think of the older Ginsberg, the heavier and balder and bearded Ginsberg. And that would have been a stretch. But the younger Ginsberg is actually close to my build and we have similar coloring. And he had hair."

Franco scheduled his time on Howl's set around his class schedule. In the past few years, he's attended graduate school at Columbia University, New York University, Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College ? and currently takes classes at Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Several of the stories he wrote in fiction classes at Columbia and Brooklyn College will be released in his upcoming collection Palo Alto: Stories.

Franco has also appeared on the sitcom 30 Rock and regularly appears in short features on the website Funny or Die. In late 2009, he joined the cast of General Hospital, playing an artist named Franco.

"I had to do even more material than they do in a single day because they would do all of my material on one day a week," he says. "I'd fly in from New York, land in L.A. about 10:30 and then we'd work about 12 or 14 hours, until about 2 a.m. And I would do about 70 to 80 pages of material a day. Usually, if they get it, they'll only do one take. ... It's kind of exhilarating if you get into the pace of it."

Interview Highlights

On Allen Ginsberg's voice

"He has a bit of a New Jersey accent or kind of an East Coast thing. And there is an alternation between great exuberance and this kind of sympathetic tone, depending on what section [of "Howl"] he's reading. So I tried to find out how he'd be responding to each section and deliver it accordingly."

On the movie Howl

"I guess there was a lost interview that [Ginsberg] gave to Time magazine I think back in the 60s. 'Ginsberg had been in Tangiers and they flew him out to Rome and he gave this interview, and it was lost; it was too racy and they never published it. So there's this lost interview and no transcripts exist but [the filmmakers] decided they were going to use that idea for this interview [in this film.] But the way that they created this interview was they compiled bits from interviews that Ginsberg had given his entire life. So everything that I say in that interview, everything that I say in the courtroom, is based on things people actually said."

On acting while taking classes

"I have an addictive personality, so if there's something I like, it's hard for me to not engage with it fully, and to the point of doing physical harm to myself or mental harm. But on the other hand, I loved it. And by going to all of those [universities] I got to work with all of my favorite writers, and I got to work with great filmmakers and do projects that I'm very, very proud of."

On his time on General Hospital

"I'd been discussing the idea [of doing a soap] with this artist named Carter. He's a friend of mine, and I collaborate on different projects with him. We were going to do a movie called Maladies that he was going to direct and I was going to star in, and I was going to play a character who was formerly on a soap opera. And that got us talking about, what if I actually was on a soap opera? Wouldn't that be interesting? People would be surprised. Nobody would expect it. And also, it's a different kind of entertainment and acting and yeah, people often look down on soap operas as kind of inferior entertainment. But I was thinking in a different way at that point.

I had just read this book by Carl Wilson ... about Celine Dion. And he wasn't a fan of Celine but he decided 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 Celine's music means something to some people and gives a lot of people strength, hope ? whatever you get from music. So he decided to suspend his judgment and stop looking down on Celine just because she doesn't speak to him. So that's kind of the mindset I was in at that time."

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