James Franco was an alumni of Freaks and Geeks, the groundbreaking television show that also served as a jumping-off point for Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. Three years later, he hit the big time as Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Notable films followed, including roles in Milk, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 127 Hours, the last of which earned him an Academy Award nomination. This spring, he returns to work with Sam Raimi again, this time playing a young Wizard in Oz the Great and Powerful. He spoke to the press about the role at a recent junket for the film.
Question: What was it like to work with Sam Raimi for a completely different film?
James Franco: I’ve known Sam for over ten years, and he is one of the most fun directors to work with. That’s no small thing: a director on a film really sets the tone of just how people go about things. When you have someone like Sam, everybody is happy to be at work and everybody does their best. He’s a very collaborative director… not just with the actors, but with all departments. And it really makes people want to do their best because they all feel like they’re a big part of the movie. I love working with Sam. I’d do anything with him.
Q: You had to learn magic for the movie. What was that like? And then have you used it in real life since?
JF: I got to learn with Lance Burton, who’s a great magician from Las Vegas. I got private lessons, and I could pull off some basic sleight-of-hand tricks: a few more than could be fit into the film. We had to cut some of them for time, but there were some pretty cool ones. It’s just one of the skills that I’ve learned like along the way, like sword-fighting or flying a plane. I don’t use them very much after I’m done with the movie.
Q: How was it coming back to working with Mila Kunis again?
JF: Mila and I have worked on many projects. Some very big, like Oz or Date Night. Some smaller projects that I’ve pulled her into. When we were in Detroit, she did a movie with some of my students from NYU and we’ve done Internet things. I love working with Mila. I’d heard that Mila was either getting involved or was already signed on to Oz, that was one of the big reasons that I wanted to do the movie. One of the great things about Mila is she’s just a great collaborator. She’s very easy-going, and she’s done a lot of comedy; she’s very good at acting on her feet, doing improvisation, and figuring things out in a very organic way.
Q: How hard is it finding the character amid all the effects and spectacle?
JF: Sam was very big on keeping the characters front and center at all times. When you deal with Oz as a subject, you of course have to have a fantastical land. But you can’t give people that and then just leave it. You want the characters to have their own inner journeys. And Sam kept pushing that.
I thought, as selfish as my character is, as much of a cad as he is in the beginning, it should never go to the point where he’s unlikeable. So we sort of played all his cons and manipulations for laughs, which helps set the tone for the journey he takes. I just loved that the character was comedic, that he could go into this world and bounce off it, rather than just being pulled into it smoothly. I thought that was a very unique take on a world like this. I can’t quite blame him for being the way he is because of his history, you know? He was a little like Dorothy in that he grew up in circumstances where he just wanted to get out. He wanted something different. Performing was the way out for him, but he’s gone a little too far in his ambitions and it’s blinded him to the love of the people around him. That’s a great beginning for a journey like this.
Q: How do you find the balance between doing a mainstream project like this and some of your more, shall we say, adult type of projects?
JF: I’ve been lucky enough to do many different kinds of projects. But I also try to be very aware about how and where they’re released and what kinds of audience they’re for. When I do a film that’s released at Sundance, I feel like it’s okay to push some boundaries because that’s an audience that can take it and embrace it. There’s a place for those kinds of movies. And when I do a movie like this, I know what the intention is and I’m not going to bring in material that doesn’t fit in this world. It’s my job to align myself with the intention of this world. It’s just a matter of knowing the kind of project I’m working on and fitting myself into that.