Laird in the Middle: A Conversation with the Award Winning Multi Talented James Franco
James Franco is an actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher and author. He began his career on FREAKS AND GEEKS and received a Golden Globe Award for his performance in the biographical film JAMES DEAN. Notable film credits include OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, SPRING BREAKERS, Harry Osborn in the SPIDER-MAN trilogy, MILK, THIS IS THE END, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS for which he received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor and 127 HOURS for which he received Academy Award, SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. He has directed and produced several features including CHILD OF GOD, AS I LAY DYING, ZEROVILLE, SATURDAY NIGHT and IN DUBIOUS BATTLE. His small screen credits include 11.22.63 and the highly anticipated upcoming show THE DEUCE. He made his Broadway debut in OF MICE & MEN to rave reviews and directed the off-Broadway play THE LONG SHRIFT. He has been published several times in magazines and through his own books and teaches college courses at UCLA, USC and CAL ARTS, and acting classes at STUDIO 4. His production company, Rabbit Bandini Productions, has recently launched a new venture with the charity, The Art of Elysium, and together they have created the first philanthropic studio, Elysium Bandini Studios.
In WHY HIM?, from director John Hamburg, Franco plays Laird, an eccentric tech millionaire who has fallen for Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of Cranston’s Ned Fleming. Inviting the Fleming family to spend Christmas at his Palo Alto pad, Laird goes to great lengths to impress his girlfriend’s nearest and dearest, but his eccentricities often get the better of him, and drive Ned insane.
From the film’s set at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, Franco explains his attraction to the role and working with Bryan Cranston.
What first appealed to you about this project?
John [Hamburg] brought it to me and I knew John – he was my professor at NYU, when I was there for graduate filmmaking – so I was interested. I met Bryan for the first time backstage on the last episode of THE COLBERT REPORT. He came up to me backstage and said, “I’ve got this script WHY HIM?, maybe we should discuss it.” That got us kind of talking and emailing. Eventually we met with John and really talked out the script and went over the whole thing together. We talked about where we wanted to go. I thought, John directing and starring opposite Bryan was a great combination.
How much have these characters developed since you and Bryan Cranston were brought on board?
The character developed a bit. The setup has always been that I’m someone who is repellent to Bryan’s character, but in a particular way where most of it is surface level stuff that’s upsetting him, and he can’t really see beneath it and understand that I’m actually a decent guy who really loves his daughter. That setup was always in place. It’s just the particulars of what was setting him off, the specifics of the tattoos, the attitude that I have and all of those little things that developed. Maybe John [Hamburg] and I molded that as we went along.
Bryan said that the thing about Laird – your character – is that everything he says is truthful, and it’s just that the way he says it grates on Ned, Bryan’s character.
Yeah. I think the whole movie depends on that. I’m not somebody that is actually bad for his daughter. I’m actually good for his daughter. It’s just that he has to misunderstand me. I felt like that was a little tricky because it was really important that Laird be an honest and loving person, but doing that, and then not having him come off as soft, is a challenge. If it’s clear from the beginning that he’s actually a really good person. If it would be obvious to somebody like Ned, then the movie wouldn’t work, so he can’t come off soft. Maybe it’s a generational thing with these two. Perhaps it’ll split along generational lines. The fathers will root for Ned, and the kids will like Laird. [laughs]
How has it been to find that level of comic antagonism with Bryan?
It’s been very easy. Bryan is so good that it’s sort of like he just understands. It’s a great feeling when you work with a partner, especially in comedy, where there is a lot of improv. When you have a partner who just sort of gets it, then it’s like playing music. It’s like playing jazz. Then you can roll and build off each other.
One of the key elements for me in this project was Bryan. I knew John before. John had actually been my teacher, although I couldn’t go to class very much because I was doing 127 HOURS at the time. [laughs] He was my directing teacher at NYU. I’ve known John for a long time and really liked his stuff. And I’d heard great things about him from friends of mine like Rashida Jones. She’d worked with him.
Knowing that it would be opposite Bryan was one of the most interesting things to me, especially because I’d been doing a fair amount of comedy, mainly with Seth Rogen, and I liked the idea of having a different kind of comedic partner to bounce off and see where that took us.
You seem to come from very different comic sensibilities. To continue the jazz analogy, are you each different instruments?
Yeah, I guess you could say different instruments, although I think there’s a great understanding that we’re playing the same music. We’re different instruments, but we are playing the same tune. That’s great when you have that.
Even though the characters in the movie are maybe misunderstanding each other, and to that extent are at odds with each other, behind the scenes it’s the exact opposite, because I’m depending on Bryan for my character to work. I need him to provide an obstacle for my character. My character wants his approval to marry his daughter. He, in the same way, is dependent on me for his character, that his character needs to be annoyed and upset that his daughter is going to marry a guy that he thinks is not right for her. If I don’t play a certain amount of obnoxiousness and obliviousness on the surface then he’s got nothing to react to. If he doesn’t give me an obstacle by withholding his approval then I don’t have anything to play either.
Bryan, he’s kind of a team mate that understands the bigger picture. I think that partly comes from him being a great actor. I think you also learn, when you’re an actor who has directed like Bryan has about seeing things in a completely different way and a much more experiential way. When he acts he’s also trying to deliver on that.
You’re a prolific director yourself, and you have all these other interests in your expression of art. Do those other interests all help with understanding your job as an actor?
I think all of the things I do are connected. I guess I like the idea that, because I can do different things, it puts me in a position where I can have form match content, so that if I have an idea I can sort of go through and think about, what’s the best form for this? Some things work better in one form than others and vice versa. I like being in that position where I can decide that and have the ability to execute that.
Everything informs everything. When you edit a film you understand how a performance is reading, what’s actually being used and why. When you write a film, it teaches you to look to what part of the story are you telling? What’s essential to the story? How are you structuring it, and how’s that going to change the nature of the project? Everything informs everything else.
Is there an element of self-parody involved in playing Laird? You’ve been unapologetic about your interests as an artist, even as you’ve faced criticism or misunderstanding. And while Ned dislikes Laird for much of the movie for his eccentricities, as you say he’s a good guy at heart and he’s being misunderstood.
I see the parallel that you’re talking about, but I guess I didn’t really think of it that way. What I thought about was, if the character is obnoxious, goofball and crude on the surface, then he shouldn’t be that way on the inside, and should be oblivious to the effect he has on people. In his heart, his motives are all good, and it was just really a misunderstanding on Ned’s part, that Ned was looking at the surface, and not seeing beneath.
For me, I guess if I was making a parallel I’d say I know that I can’t really control my public persona, and that it’s based partly on things that I do, but also on the way that people view me, and the way that they view my connection to the roles I play, the magazines that feature me and whatever else. There came a point in my career where I stopped worrying about trying to control that, because I can’t control how people see me. I just started to have a little more fun with it. I think I’m much more at ease with it now.
In a movie like THIS IS THE END, where we’re playing versions of ourselves, that was pretty easy for me. I was told that all the other actors had at least one scene where they told Seth [Rogen] like, “I don’t want to do that.” I didn’t have that. It was easy for me because I’d already been having fun with my public persona.
You have involved Bryan, Megan Mullally and Zoey Deutch in the film you’re directing, THE MASTERPIECE, in which you play Tommy Wiseau, the director of THE ROOM. How did that happen?
We’ve been talking about WHY HIM? for a while, and that’s how I met Bryan. We actually met backstage on Stephen Colbert’s show; the last episode of THE COLBERT REPORT. He said, “I’ve been talking to John, and are we going to do this?” That’s when I met him and we started talking. Between then and now, I directed a bunch of movies and Bryan was in two of them. He was gracious enough to be in my Steinbeck adaptation, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE, and he plays himself in THE MASTERPIECE. THE ROOM was made in the early 2000s, so it’s Bryan Cranston from MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE.
And then Megan plays Greg Sestero’s mother, with my brother Dave playing Greg. That was totally coincidental. We cast her and then John had been talking about using her. I don’t even know if he had quite cast her at that point. And also, getting to know Zoey on this, I just asked her to jump in. We were actually thinking about Keegan-Michael Key for another role too, but that didn’t work out. Actually, John said to me, “If you put Keegan in there, you’re fired.” [laughs]
Why Him? is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday May 1, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment