What It’s Like To Be James Franco’s Professor
His English professor at Yale reveals that the actor rarely missed a discussion, even when filming in Detroit.
One week, however, the Oz shoot went over schedule and he was stuck on set. Rather than answering the texts from his personal assistant about the possibility of rescheduling, Matt and I carried on the discussion without him. Later, when James meekly offered to meet with me another time to make up the session, I declined and told him, “I respect your effort to test the boundaries of what is humanly possible within normal space and time, but this is one of those boundaries. You’ve got to meet when we agree to meet.” But that happened only once over the course of the semester and James was remarkably punctual to every other discussion. He always came prepared, and at one point even followed through on our scheduled meeting from Palo Alto where he was attending his father’s funeral. That’s right—he actually did the reading and scheduled discussion the same week his father suddenly died. "I'd still like to have the discussion," he said when I realized that he was preparing for a funeral and offered to postpone. "My dad was very proud that I was at Yale, so this is what he'd want." Blowing off class? I certainly would have blown it off under similar circumstances.
I won’t pretend that it hasn’t been interesting, even thrilling, to be studying film theory with James Franco. When, for example, we were reading Jerome Christensen’s America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures, it occurred to all of us that there was probably no better environment to see Christensen’s theory in action than on the set where James was currently working. So, for one of our weekly meetings, Matt and I flew to Detroit. (I paid for both tickets, since I didn’t want Matt to miss out and I didn’t feel right letting James pay for it.) Having studied film for so many years, it was breathtaking to see it happening on such a grand scale. Imagine six Costco-sized warehouses, each one fitted with enormous blue-screen walls and gigantic sets: yellow brick roads, emerald cities, poppy forests, flying monkeys, little people, and on and on.
So what is James like as a reader of scholarly work? I’ve often heard it expressed that he must be a mountebank, since no single person could be doing as many things as he does. How could he possibly be simultaneously reading for a Yale Ph.D and filming a multimillion-dollar motion picture? How could he possibly have time to write anything when he’s also teaching a class at NYU and starring so many films? I’ve wondered the same thing myself. But on that trip to Detroit, I learned a secret. People think that when you’re the star of a film, your time must be chock-full with endless minutia—appearances, conversations, getting “into character,” and so on. But when you’re the star, you end up just sitting around a lot. For a single shot to take place, for instance, a whole series of organized events have to be set in motion: The 3D crew has to gauge the shot, the cinematographer has to line up the camera, the lighting crew has to arrange its lights and shades, the set has to be rearranged or otherwise moved into place, the wardrobe and hair departments have to prepare the actors—and through all of this, the actor just sits and waits. In fact, actors will often sit and wait so for so long that “body doubles” will sometimes be hired just to sit and wait in the appropriate place for the actors. So when you see James’s character with his arm trapped under a rock in 127 Hours, what you don’t see is that there was an assigned reading under the rock with it. When he’s playfully wrestling with a genetically-enhanced chimpanzee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just off to the right of the shot was a stack of books.
The truth is, if you’re an A-list Hollywood star like James Franco, and are willing to put the time into earning a Ph.D, you may actually have more time to read than many of your colleagues. Heck, you don’t even have to worry about the grocery shopping, laundry, and other sundry tasks that every other poor graduate student in the country has to worry about. After visiting Detroit, the thing I found myself wondering was not “How does James do it?” but rather “Why aren’t more Hollywood actors earning Ph.Ds?”
I’m no longer surprised, then, when James comes online for our chat and has not only done the assigned reading, but gone ahead and read a few extra texts as well, watched a few extra films, seen the DVD “special features,” and is prepared with several written pages on what we’re studying. So while a lot of actors turn to knitting, James Franco is becoming a scholar, and I suggest we take him seriously. Pay attention to that man behind the curtain. He’s doing a lot of reading.
John Williams is an assistant professor of English at Yale University. He has published recently in Critical Inquiry, Modernism/modernity, and American Literature.