“James Franco on School (and Harmony Korine)” is forthcoming in the anthology A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (University of Massachusetts Press) edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker
Mentors. I’ve had a few. I’ve been to too many schools. I’ve been at some schools for too much time. I’ve been a mentor to some. But I haven’t given enough time to being a mentor; this is why I teach at two universities, one art school, and have a bicoastal acting and filmmaking school of my own.
The teachers I loved—acting teachers, writing teachers, directing teachers— were the ones who were completely focused on their students. There were some teachers who had their own careers, and you knew that they were only doing it for the money. Some teachers had their own careers and didn’t need the money, but they were doing it to meet young actresses, and to feed off the students’ energy.
Even though I teach, I know that I’m still wrapped up in my own work. The teaching pulls me out of myself. I have been teaching for four years now, and I usually schedule a single day for all of my Los Angeles classes so that if I’m working out of town—for example, when I was in Of Mice and Men on Broadway—I can fly into Los Angeles, teach, and then fly back out within twenty hours. But even though I’m killing myself, and spending tons of my own money, and having to fight to carve out that time from my professional schedule, I still feel like it’s not enough.
When I was a freshman at UCLA I wasn’t in the theater school, and I wasn’t in the film school, and I was jealous of all the creative students that had been admitted to those selective programs. I had wanted to go to art school, but my parents wouldn’t pay for it, so we compromised: I was an English major. There were creative writing classes in the English department, but students were admitted by selection, and I was so worried that my freshman-level creative writing wouldn’t get me in that I didn’t even try. I felt locked out of all these creative programs. I wanted to write, I wanted to make art, I wanted to direct, I wanted to act. So instead of trying to jump through the hoops at UCLA, I left after my first year and went to acting school.
Acting school was a place where my creative desires were accepted and sup- ported; I was surrounded by students with similar interests, and dedicated teachers. In that environment I could work hard, as hard as I wanted, and I could see dividends. I worked my ass off. I did acting exercises and rehearsed scenes with whomever I could, from morning to night; I drove as far east as Eagle Rock, and as far west as the beach at Santa Monica. I rehearsed in generic actor apartments, in parks—the police were called more than a few times for what concerned citizens thought were real altercations—and in restaurants. I couldn’t stop rehearsing.
Even when I started getting professional work, I stayed at school. I couldn’t train enough; I wanted to be the best. I stayed at acting school for eight years. By the time I left I had won a Golden Globe, been nominated for a Sag Award, an Emmy, and been in some of the biggest movies ever made, but I was still interested in finding a way to be great, truly great, to stand alongside De Niro, Brando, Dean, and Montgomery Clift. I wanted to be River Phoenix, but I thought I wasn’t odd enough to be the next River, so I had to supplement my emptiness with diligence.
After eight years, the amount of time it takes to become a doctor, when my twenties were three-quarters over, I left acting school because I realized that it had become too tightly entwined with my life. I didn’t know how to socialize because I spent all my time rehearsing. I didn’t know how to choose which movies to be in because I only chose films that my teachers would approve of. I didn’t know how to relax because I filled every free moment reading the books I would have read if I had stayed an English major at UCLA—except that I read even more than I would have read had I stayed, because I was overcompensating for dropping out.
It’s weird to say, but I went through a depression. I don’t say this for pity, and I certainly didn’t talk about it much when I was in the middle of it because how would it look if the guy who was cast as Spider-Man’s best friend in a billion-dollar franchise was sad because he didn’t like most of the work he was doing? And I got even more depressed because I couldn’t talk about it with anyone. I mean, I woke up crying. I searched for ways out of the slump: religion, volunteering, Italian vacations. Finally, my girlfriend—the person who witnessed the middle-of-the-night crying and slumped around Italy with the wet-noodle boyfriend—suggested I take a class at UCLA Extension, opening the idea that education could be the answer.
After taking a writing class with my now-friend and poetry publisher Ian R. Wilson and a Bible-as-literature class with Lynn Batten, I was hooked on school. Before, such classes had felt like a distraction to my budding acting career: now they were the most interesting things I had going because they were learning environments unburdened by the professional pressures of my acting life. I then learned that the UC system allows students to reenroll at any time, that an eighty-year-old actor had recently gotten his bachelor’s degree after leaving school for a career when he was eighteen. I didn’t want to wait sixty years to come back; I was ready to actually put my career on hold for the education I had put aside years before.
After reenrolling, I had some legends of English academia as teachers: A. R. Braunmuller for Shakespeare, N. Katherine Hales for experimental fiction, Mark McGurl for early twentieth-century American literature, and Eric Sundquist for Holocaust literature. I put my head down and humbled myself because I was eight years older than most of the other students. I felt like an intruder, but I wanted to be there so badly, I endured. There were some odd reactions to my presence, but they didn’t deter me from my work with my professors. I took too many classes because I couldn’t get enough learning. My attitude was completely different from when I was eighteen: now I was there because I wanted to be.
I also got into the creative writing classes that had intimidated me when I was eighteen, and Mona Simpson became the first reader of my first book, Palo Alto.
After I got my bachelor’s degree, I signed up for more school. I went to four graduate schools at the same time because I realized that in grad school you get to study exactly what you want, and in the writing programs your teachers are often the best writers alive. Going to school with Gary Shteyngart, Tony Hoagland, Robert Boswell, James Wood, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Cunningham, David Shields, Amy Hempel, and so many others was as good as working as an actor under Marty Scorsese, Francis Coppola, or Steven Spielberg.
After a while the press heard about all my schooling and it became a thing to criticize, as if I were doing it all for the attention or not taking it seriously. This is fine, they can read into it whatever they want; I still got the education and the guidance from some of the best mentors in my fields of interest. And it also warms my insecure heart a little to know that in the future I’ll be able to say to any snarky critic, “That’s Doctor Franco to you, bitch.”
As a teacher of film directing, writing, acting, and art, I try to open the doors of opportunity and ability for my students. I try to give them what I felt like I was missing for so long, a way in; and I try to guide them down their individual paths so they can walk with confidence.
For so long, I felt shut out of everything I was interested in. Sometimes I still feel that way. My gluttonous engagement with education was pricked by a need to break through to the other side. My overextended efforts were part of a personal battle to run beyond the pressures and the naysayers that might hold me back or imprison me in the boxes they had fashioned for me: “privileged straight white male,” “stupid actor,” “dilettante,” “attention seeker,” “no-talent.”
What I found on the other side, once I had broken through, was a bunch of artists, and now I was one of them, having a conversation with them. With my students I open the doors. As a teacher I say yes. As a teacher I give them everything I would have wanted as a student.
Recently, Harmony Korine gave me some advice because I was still worried about how some of my work was being perceived.
THE WISDOM OF HARMONY
• Roll with it. You’ll be free when you realize that none of this really means anything. Just keep doing your thing.
• It all goes by in a blink.
• Just keep having fun.
• Artists have become very tactical because of the money.
• Always remember you are inventing your own game . . . it takes a while for people to figure out what’s goin’ on.
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, and 127 Hours, for which he received Academy Award, SAG, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. He has directed, written, and produced several features and has been published several times in magazines and through his own books. He is currently teaching college courses at UCLA, USC, and CalArts and acting classes at Studio 4 and recently made his Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men to rave reviews.