By Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Photography by Juco
"God, I wish I was an actor in the 1950s,” Val Lauren laments, shaking his fist in mock anguish. “But I wish I was in the movies of the 1970s. There’s nothing like that today.” Clad in black, toting a copy of David Mamet’s November, a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, and a pair of chunky Wayfayers, Lauren, 38, draws inspiration from a vulnerable tribe of ’50s men—James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift—all pupils of Lee Strasberg’s school of streetwise realism.
“I think all actors bring a certain flavor; their personalities seep through into their characters, their life experience colors their performance,” Lauren explains, seated under the undulating canvas umbrellas of the Chateau Marmont’s patio in Hollywood. “So many actors today, they just don’t have the right flavor.”
Lauren plays Sal Mineo, the dusky, baby-faced teen idol–turned–B-movie washout on the cusp of a comeback in James Franco’s Sal. The 90-minute flick, another funky art-house project in Franco’s expanding canon, follows Mineo’s last day before he was murdered in a botched robbery outside his apartment in 1976 (for years, rumors circulated that Mineo, one of Hollywood’s first openly gay men, had been killed while cruising in West Hollywood). Lauren’s performance in Sal is magnetic; he imbues the mundane acts of phone calls, play rehearsals, and even a bathhouse shvitz with a compressed anxiety, a palpable longing to be taken seriously. “I remember exactly what James [Franco] said to convince me to do the movie,” Lauren recalls. “ ‘We’re going to make an unconventional movie about an unconventional man.’ And I was in.”