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James Franco: Rebel‘s Rebel


James Franco is busy. So busy that the only time he can speak is by phone at 7:30 a.m., before business hours for most of us, and an appointment not necessarily made more palatable by a night at the Met gala the evening before. No matter. “I don’t like to waste anything,” Franco says, minutes as well as creative outlets and even press calls. It helps to explain how the relentless multitasker finds time to do it all: shoot major Hollywood movies (next up: the title role in Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, cameos in the latest from Harmony Korine and Seth Rogen’s directorial debut, etc.), direct his own student films and get them distributed (The Broken Tower, a life of poet Hart Crane), model for Gucci, create ads for Seven for All Mankind, occasionally host the Oscars, curate The Dangerous Book Four Boys (now also available in book form, from Rizzoli), and so on and so on.

Franco’s latest project, Rebel (sponsored by Gucci and Seven), arrives thanks to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, at JF Chen’s exhibition space in Los Angeles next week. For this meditation on James Dean—whom he won a Golden Globe for playing in 2002—and Rebel Without a Cause, Franco commissioned artists Paul McCarthy, Ed Ruscha, Aaron Young, Korine, Terry Richardson, and more to reinterpret bits of the film and its attendant legends. (His own take on it, Brad Renfro Forever, screens as well.) Not long after sunrise, Franco spoke with about an evening at the Met, fashion versus film, and the enduring rawness of Rebel.

Rebel runs May 15 through June 23 at JF Chen, 941 North Highland Avenue, L.A., for more information, visit

Thanks for speaking so early. I can imagine it was a late one last night.
It was pretty late. But my date was Marina Abramovic, and she is going to Cuba today, so she wanted to leave early. So I didn’t stay out that late.

How was the Met gala?
It was fine. It was my first time. It’s just a nice dinner, with every celebrity you can think of.

Did you get a chance to see the exhibition?
Yeah, they kind of walk you through it when you get there. It was great. It was all women’s fashion, which I guess I can appreciate.

Fashion definitely seems to appreciate you. How do you see it fitting into what you do?
I see it as one more aspect of the world that I’m involved in. I think a lot of what I do, in whatever medium it might be, is grounded in my experiences as an actor on film. That’s how I enter the professional world, through film. I’m used to certain working methods and collaboration with a lot of people. I’m used to making projects with people that are skilled in different areas. I’m used to coming up with ideas and then having them augmented through collaboration, or hearing other people’s ideas. So fashion is basically, like, the wardrobe department on a film, but for life—for our characters in life.

The companies I work with are very supportive of the art projects that we do, and in the other direction, we’ve been able to incorporate the clothes from Gucci or Seven into the art projects in a way that I’m really happy with. It’s not as if one side takes precedence. There’s something really important about that. It’s not like the art world, or the stuff I do art-wise, related to Gucci doesn’t critique fashion or make fun of it or anything—it just sort of uses the clothes as a wardrobe designer would on a movie. With fashion…they don’t force me to create a false image of myself to sell the clothes. Basically, who I am is what they want.

There’s plenty of clothing in the art, too. I mean, not to be facetious, but a piece like Dicknose in Paris, the film you made wearing the prosthetic dick from Milk on your face—that’s a costume, essentially. Right?
It’s all costumes. When I first signed with Gucci, I had an actor friend say, why would you want to do that? You’re a serious actor. And I thought about it. Gucci has been incredibly supportive of art, [and] when I started working with them, I quickly realized that there isn’t much difference between posing for Interview magazine to promote a movie, and then posing in Gucci clothes to promote Gucci. They’re both products that are using me. In photo shoots to promote movies, I’m already wearing Gucci, or high fashion clothes. The actual process wasn’t different at all.

Do you feel the same way about the difference—or lack thereof—between art projects and big studio films? How do they all relate?
I don’t like to waste anything. Now that I have a variety of outlets, one thing I try to do is frame one project through a different medium or a different outlet—to frame one world within another. That’s where you can see the Rebel project. Gucci allowed us to use their billboard on Sunset by the Chateau Marmont to put images from Rebel…now the art is in an area it normally wouldn’t be in. Because I don’t think either side is taking precedence, there is power generated from that, from the strange seamlessness of these two worlds that sort of go together and then in other ways don’t go together in people’s minds, or haven’t gone together. I think that’s really interesting.

Tell me a little bit more about the Rebel show, then.
Basically, I was initially inspired by the movie Rebel Without a Cause. I played James Dean ten years earlier in a movie that I was proud of, but it’s a movie that approaches the subject in a very earnest way. At the time I did the movie, I read all the books [about James Dean]. Ten years later, there was a new book published on the making of Rebel Without a Cause. I read it, and it made me think there was still material, or aspects of that film and the making of that film, that were vital. It made me want to do something with it. My first, most basic idea was to make a film about the making of a film…But then I thought, if we did a traditional biopic style or behind-the-scenes-style feature-length film, it would be a little tame, or a little too precious with the material. And so I started looking for ways to break it up, to give it new energy. When this movie first came out, it was raw. It was something you hadn’t seen before, and it struck a chord. I approached it to recapture something of that energy. We still stuck with the feature-length film idea but we started breaking it up into different sections, so it wouldn’t be such a linear, narrative film.

That’s where the collaborators came in?
We had these five sections and we were going to shoot them and put them all together into a collagelike film and then we started thinking about casting, and somebody suggested I use the artist Paul McCarthy as Nicholas Ray. Paul McCarthy doesn’t look anything like Nicholas Ray; I was thinking more the director Jim Jarmusch. But that made me think about it in a different way. I thought, I wouldn’t dare ask Paul McCarthy, who’s one of my favorite artists, and who’s shy, and I thought why just waste him as just an actor for hire? I could ask him to collaborate on a movie, or at least part of it, in addition to having him play Nicholas Ray. That opened the door to the idea of collaborating with a different artist on each section. That way, the artists would be able to look at the original material as source material and…approach it in a way that didn’t have to be reverential.

This isn’t the first time you’ve gone back and remixed, as it were, an existing piece; recently, you created your own re-edited version of My Own Private Idaho, called My Own Private River. Why the impulse to revisit?
I feel like movies, television, material on the Internet—they’ve just filled our lives. Half of our lives we’re engaged with those things. It’s where we get so much of our ideas. Whether we accept what we see or reject what we see, it’s still a source of so much of who we are. When I’m searching for raw material for art, I go there to movies or items of pop culture as sources because I think they’re part of the fabric of our lives now. To me, it’s akin to when Wordsworth would walk through the Lake country looking for inspiration from nature.

Photo: James Franco, via L.A. MOCA