When I was at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), one of the most legendary campus rumors was that James Franco had once crashed a Halloween house party wearing a mask of his own face. According to the rumor, everyone at the party thought he was just another lame art-school bro, yet this masked Franco somehow coaxed a young woman into the master bedroom. In the middle of making love, Franco removed his James Franco mask, and, depending on whom you ask, either they both came simultaneously or she vomited all over him. I think both probably happened; Franco wields that kind of power. Rumors travel quickly and thrive in olde Savannah, so there is no telling the veracity of the story. It's the kind of bizarre tale that art-school kids live for; however, I believe Franco spread the rumor himself.
James Franco attended the Savannah Film Festival every year that I was at SCAD. This festival attracts B-list celebrities looking for a fun paid vacation with great networking opportunities. Every year at the end of October, the Savannah Film Festival brings together disparate personalities like Ileana Douglas, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Charlie Rose, Ellen Burstyn, and a slew of other fabulous, famous folks who were quite genial and interesting to learn from. In exchange for showing a film and doling out advice to students, celebrities enjoyed a week of delicious Southern food and nightly open-bar afterparties. Since it was Halloween week, celebrities never suspected that the anime, furry, and steampunk costumes they saw on students were actually year-round fashion statements. Franco was always there, chatting up the cute girls, enjoying the munchies in the courtesy suite, and schmoozing with publicist-buddy Bobby Zarem.
During my senior year I had the honor of interviewing celebrities on camera for the film festival, and my first guest was going to be James Franco. Years of toiling in the student newspaper, radio, and TV station had paid off: I was finally a real-ish entertainment journalist! But I woke up the first day of my final Savannah Film Festival dreadfully ill. I had just recovered from from a bout of hangover-flu, and this morning I felt like a boa constrictor had taken hold of my chest. My first interview -- of course the big one with James Franco -- was scheduled that afternoon. I rushed to the doc-in-a-box, shallow-breathing all the way, desperate to be well enough for the rest of the week.
By noon I had a diagnosis (bronchitis), a prescription (inhaler and antibiotics), and just enough time to make it to set at 2 p.m. -- drugged up and ready to meet James Franco. My producer, a beautiful British woman who looked like a walking Marc Jacobs mannequin, gave me a quick pep talk before I got under the lights. She'd interviewed Franco the last few years, and she said, "Whatever happens, don't take it personally." I took a hit of my steroid inhaler and hopped on my stool under the searing lights. Our production team wanted to be immediately ready for the celebrities when they showed up, so we sat and waited, ready to roll.
After two hours dehydrating on the hot set and no sign of Franco, I was ready to take another inhaler hit. Just as I popped up to grab it from offset, Franco and his entourage rolled in, and my producer barked at me to sit down and engage with the celebrity. Franco, so casual and loose with his friends, immediately changed demeanor when he sat in the hot seat. All traces of bro left Franco, and I realized I was talking to a very intelligent artist.
Franco spoke very seriously about his intentions as an actor, writer, and filmmaker; he explained how much thought and hard work can go into even an unpopular movie (like Good Time Max, the auteur piece he was hawking at the film festival). Franco gave shout-outs to all the folks in his professional network who had helped him achieve success, and he did so without seeming condescending. Even when I threw him softball questions, he answered with a serious eloquence rarely seen outside uptight stage actors.
About 90 seconds into our interview, Franco commented on my "positive energy" and said quietly, "Just kidding. You're great." I could barely breathe enough to get the questions out, and my energy was more deathly uninterested than positive. As the interview rolled on, I couldn't help but feel completely insecure sitting next to James Franco. Despite all my desires to cast him as a no-nothing Hollywood lout, he proved immediately that he was a smart, hardworking artist. It was clear that he was dedicated to his craft, and he put a lot of thought and work into projects that nobodies like me wrote off.
For 10 minutes I felt like I was drowning on camera -- gasping for just one breath of fresh air in this interview -- while James Franco stood just out of my reach. He was far more intelligent than I'd expected, and I saw myself as another whiny kid he had to interact with as part of his professional duties. He achieved his success by continually improving his craft, building a self brand, and doing what it takes to get the job done. James Franco understood the power that he wielded with his bro image, and I knew he very likely could have crafted the masked-Franco-tryst story as a way to instill awe amongst art students like me.
Once we wrapped the interview and cut the lights, I ran for my inhaler. My producer came up, hugged the air out of me, and said I'd gotten "the best Franco interview we've ever filmed." It was the worst interview of my life, and all I could think about was going home to pass out.
I stood there, extremely grateful to puff on my prescribed drugs, and Franco came up to shake my hand and thank me. He was not only professional but polite; I noted this as the trait of a successful artist. He said I'd given a great interview, and he wished me the best after graduation.
Franco took a beat before stepping out of the studio, and I saw the face of the professional artist wash away. Bro Franco was back and ready to be unleashed into the world. Before he left, he turned back to me to ask me one question: "Where can I find some good fried chicken and pussy?"
Neither was my delicacy. I shrugged and said, "Paula Deen's or the gas station by the housing projects."
Either one would do.
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