LOS ANGELES - Seven years ago, when James Franco was essentially that kid from “Freaks and Geeks” playing James Dean, he embodied the physical and psychological characteristics of those combined characters. He was freakishly handsome, but skittish; enormously talented but ill equipped to deal with all that comes along with being the guy close to becoming the next big thing.
He only spoke when spoken to. He had not yet learned how to dance.
These days when Franco comes into a room he actually takes the lead. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and some Chuck Taylors, the Palo Alto, Calif., native with the slightly lopsided boyish grin recently entered a hotel suite cracking jokes about all the mistakes on his imdb.com page, how he’s probably the only Golden Globe winner simultaneously studying film at NYU and creative writing at Columbia, and then going into detail about playing a singer in “Sympathy for Delicious.”
Although Franco exudes confidence now, he couldn’t help but be a little nervous about making his singing debut on set later that night.
Does he have any skills?
“We’ll find out tonight,” he said with a smile. “I told them I’m game for anything.”
That seems to be the mantra he lives by. He’s gone from “James Dean” to a trio of “Spider-man” flicks to “Flyboys” and “The Valley of Elah” to playing Sean Penn’s gay lover Scott Smith in Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.”
The film, which opens in L.A. and New York on Friday and wide in the following weeks, is based on the life of slain San Francisco city official Harvey Milk, who became the country’s first openly gay elected official in 1978. Smith, one of Milk’s pre-election lovers, co-owned a camera shop with Milk and helped him organize community and gay rights demonstrations in San Francisco’s Castro district. On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk, 48, along with Mayor George Moscone, were murdered in their respective offices by fellow city supervisor Dan White.
It’s a small role for Franco, but one he had to do.
“I am obsessed with Gus,” Franco said. “I would have played the pizza guy — I really would have. Fortunately he gave me a good role.”
More people need to know about Milk
Although Franco grew up in the Bay Area, he was only seven months old at the time of Milk’s death and doesn’t remember hearing a lot about the famed gay rights crusader.
“No, sadly, I didn’t know a lot about it,” Franco said. “There was something familiar about him. I think maybe I saw a poster of him in San Francisco or something when I was little. So it made me sad that I grew up in the Bay Area and no one taught me more about who Harvey Milk was.”
While there is an abundance of resource material on Milk including Rob Epstein’s Oscar winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” there isn’t a lot of documentation on who Scott Smith was. Smith, who died in 1994, is only briefly mentioned in Epstein’s documentary or in the book “The Mayor of Castro Street.” Franco was told by some of Smith and Milk’s mutual friends that Smith was very important in Milk’s life (they were together for four years) but it was the discovery of some old footage that the actor found most useful.
“I had been talking to Cleve Jones and Danny Nicoletta, who worked in the camera shop with them,” Franco said. “I also talked to Frank Robinson and other people around who knew him. And then finally Rob Epstein came through. He had old footage of an interview with Scott that didn’t make it into the movie. I got to see what Scott sounded like and looked like. So that was kind of like the last brick in the building.”
Playing opposite Penn was a career highlight for Franco. They gelled well on screen but creating that sexual chemistry was a bit challenging for Franco.
“It was unfamiliar,” said Franco who makes love to Penn in the film. “I’d never done a scene like that with a guy.”
They pulled it off so well that Penn might be kissing an Academy Award in February. Franco, however, will likely just have to savor the memory of sucking face with an Oscar winner.
Was it good for him, too?
Seven years ago the Franco who rarely looked a reporter in the eye might not have known how to answer that question. But even though he blushed and chuckled just a bit, he looked me right in the eye and didn’t stutter.
“He’s OK. I know Diego (Luna) told other people he was dry, but it was fine,” Franco said while smiling. And then, it was if he suddenly remembered the stature of the man he had gotten intimate with and realized he deserved a little more respect.
“Top, uh, 30.”
Miki Turner can be reached at email@example.com.