James Franco on Sex, Porn & the Eternal Appeal of '70s New York

James Franco
Photography: Gavin Bond

James Franco has never been easy to pin down—by design, it seems. The actor-director-writer-artist has been fearless in his career choices—from directing queer-themed art-house flicks to publishing poetry and fiction that confounds those critics who prefer that celebrities stay in their assigned lanes. In that sense Franco, with his restless curiosity, has more in common with Tilda Swinton, eschewing convention in favor of passion projects that reward collaboration.

Related | Gallery: James Franco & The Deuce

Franco’s latest, The Deuce (arriving on HBO September 10), is a taut and grimy account of New York’s emerging porn industry in the 1970s, when Times Square was awash with peep shows, adult theaters, and hookers. Written by The Wire’s David Simon, it stars Franco playing two very different brothers—frequently in the same scene—and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a sex worker transitioning into adult films. Franco, who signed on to the series on the condition that he also get to direct three episodes, sat down to chat sex, crime, and punishment with the legendary author and longtime New York resident Edmund White.

Edmund White: How are you?

James Franco: I’ve been learning to surf, and now I’m at the International Dance Academy on Hollywood Boulevard, about to take my hip-hop lesson.

EW: Are you going to be surfing and dancing in your next role?

JF: [Laughs.] It’s a kind of therapy for me. I’ve started a new chapter of my life. I was very work-addicted, and addicted to other things—not substances, I got over that a long time ago—but I’ve recently changed my life, and this is part of my therapy.

EW: I’ve been watching episodes of your HBO show, The Deuce. It’s really great.

JF: I directed the third and the seventh episode.

EW: I was going ask you how much you participated in the concept and in the directing.

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Jacket & T-Shirt: Coach, Pants: Prada

JF: Well, I heard about this project about three years before it was made, while I was on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. I am a huge fan of David Simon, and met him for the first time when he was casting his series Show Me a Hero. Although I really admired the balls it took to do a project that was just pure politics in motion, there’s another side of David Simon that I really appreciate in The Wire where he engages with politics and journalism and the school systems—all these things—but through the filter of the drug wars. You could go all the way up the ladder to the mayor’s office, but it was always balanced out by the life on the street. So during the first meeting, I asked if he had anything else that he was thinking about, and he mentioned this show, about 42nd Street in the ’70s and the rise of the porn industry. David Simon’s porn is politics and corruption, right? That’s really hot to him. And he said, “I want to make this show about peep shows and the sex trade and the rise of the gay community post-Stonewall, but I’m not going to give them what they want.” So many people want to do shows about porn, but they’re all sort of gratuitous. They may criticize objectifying women or sex, but they do the very same thing.

EW: I just watched the scene where Maggie Gyllenhaal gets squirted with mayonnaise by two guys dressed as Vikings. You can’t accuse that of glamorizing porn.

JF: In the back of my mind, I thought, Despite David’s wishes to keep the sexiness out of the show, it's going to be very hard to keep it completely out. Because if you go to the extreme of taking out all of the sexual content it’s almost as bad as gratuitous sex. Then you just get this impression of prostitution and working in pornography that’s also unrealistic—

EW: I mean, the girls have to be attractive in order to sell themselves, and they are, I think mostly.

JF: It’s actually a very topical and sharp critique of misogyny and the way that women, in particular, are subjugated and bought and sold throughout history. David is very much about realism and a kind of documentary approach, because if you make it as real as possible, if you’re not stylizing it, you can show the sex, you can show all the real stuff, because you’re showing what really happened.

EW: People say to me, “Oh, you write so many sex scenes,” and I say, “Yeah, but I’m trying to show you what sex feels like, which is almost never done.” Because pornography is designed for one-handed reading, it has to follow a certain rhythm where it leads to a climax, whereas real sex is oftentimes funny because the body fails, or the spirit fails, or you think you’re going to do something but it doesn’t come off. I try to show what actually goes on in your mind: You’re worried about the cramp in your leg, or whether you can keep it up, or whether she or he is really enjoying it. In one novel or another I said that sex is the most intense form of communication we have but we don’t know what we’re saying or what the other person’s hearing. We don’t know what we’re communicating through sex. Anyway, we get to see you naked in the first episode.

JF: Oh, that’s right. [Laughs.] Yeah, I remember in writing classes talking about sex scenes, and it seems like, generally speaking, if you lean too heavily on physical descriptions of sex it’s just supermarket romance fiction. To go into people’s heads and the actual experience of sex is much more of a deeper examination of what it feels like.

EW: That’s the main thing that fiction can do that no other art form can.

JF: Exactly, exactly. The fluidity between the outer world and the inner world.

EW: Exactly. No other art form writes about your thoughts, which is where we live—we live inside our heads.

JF: I had to direct sex scenes in The Deuce and… whooo, it was interesting, I have to say. Maggie Gyllenhaal, in addition to being just an incredible actress, is fearless, and she really led the charge with how she handled the sex scenes and how she handled herself, and really set the template for everyone else. If I didn’t have someone like her I think it would have been really, really hard to engage in those scenes, but she just made it so easy. She’s fearless.

EW: And she’s so charming and appealing.

JF: She’s so smart and sophisticated, so one of the things that we had to think about was why her character, Candy, was walking the streets. At the very least she could probably get a job as a secretary. David Simon and the others really wrestled with that.

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Shirt: Gucci

EW: I think the answer to that is money. I’ve had lots of friends who were hookers who tried to go straight, but the truth is, they can make more in one night than a secretary can make in three weeks.

JF: You were in New York when? Our first season is set in ’71, ’72.

EW: I came in ’62, and I was actually in the Stonewall uprising, just by chance. I was walking past when it was all happening, and I wrote a letter the next day to a friend of mine, describing it all. You know, it was a very dangerous neighborhood at that time. A lot of people have a nostalgia for the ’70s because they say, “Oh, so edgy.” Yeah, but it really was scary. I live in Chelsea on 22nd Street, and I often think when I’m letting myself into the building that I can do it without worrying now, but in the ’70s I would have been looking behind my shoulder to make sure nobody was following. If I took a cab home, I made the taxi wait until I got through the door. And my apartment was robbed twice, but I was a real child of the ’70s, too, so I would say to myself, “Oh, well, private property’s a crime anyway.”

JF: So when did your first book come out?

EW: In 1973.

JF: In ’73? Wow.

EW: Yeah. We used to wear whistles around our necks. If we had to walk past the projects on 9th and 10th avenue on our way to the leather bars, which were 20th, 21st, and 22nd on the river, we’d blow our whistles if the gangs from the projects attacked us, so that the other gay guys would come and help us.

JF: Did you ever have to blow your whistle?

EW: I got chased down the street by guys with a baseball bat, but I outran them.

JF: So you didn’t blow your whistle?

EW: I didn’t blow it, no. [Laughs.] I don’t know if it would have worked.

JF: So the gay scene at that time was not around Times Square and 42nd Street?

EW: No, but I had some dealings with that area because I tried to pose for porn. I mean, I was in my 20s in the ’60s, but I remember how complicated it was, because you’d go to an audition, and if they liked you, they would tell you to go to a place, where they’d tell you to go to another place, because they were so worried about the law. A friend of mine worked in a green-stamp redemption center and posed for some porn, and the guy who took the porn was arrested, sent to Rikers Island, and came out two years later a shattered man. My friend who was just an actor in porn was also arrested at the green-stamp redemption center. They werent fooling around in those days.

JF: In one of the later episodes, the second one I directed, there’s a scene about the 100-day event screening of Boys in the Sand.

EW: I knew the guy who was the star of it—the blond kid, Casey Donovan. He bought a guest house in Key West with his earnings from that film, and then he died of AIDS down there.

JF: Yeah, he was big-time in that era, wasnt he?

EW: Absolutely.

JF: When Boys in the Sand came out, it was still the fairly early days for feature-length porn, so there was an actual review of this gay porn movie in Variety. There wasn’t a real kind of differentiation—the lines were still very blurry.

EW: Well, you know, James, that was true of other things too. For instance, I always liked to hire hustlers. Even when I was a teenager I would hire them because I couldn’t figure out how to have sex otherwise. I’d hire men twice my age—

JF: You were pretty sophisticated.

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Suit: Hermès, Sweater: Tom Ford

EW: I was—or horny. But there wasn’t that firm boundary between middle-class people and sex workers that there is now. People would run little ads in alternative newspapers like the East Village Other, and they would say, “I’ll come to your house and give you an oatmeal rubdown,” whatever that was, and then you’d hire them and they’d come and you’d have sex. And you’d lie around and talk afterwards, especially if you were stoned, and then you’d find out they were a law student. There was an early porn movie I saw that took place in trucks, and the truck driver was obviously middle-class because when he was getting a blow job he’d say, “Oh, excellent.” [Laughs.]

JF: Along those lines, and something we show in the series, is that Deep Throat was such a big hit, and the legend is that Jack Nicholson and Henry Kissinger were at the premiere. Suddenly porn was legitimized to a certain level, but up until then, a lot of the people, at least in straight porn, came from prostitution. What our show really tracks is how as streetwalkers the women needed pimps for protection, and were very dependent on them, and how that moved indoors, into the massage parlors, and the pimps started to become obsolete because the women didnt need the same kind of protection because they werent outside anymore. Then post–Deep Throat, you got people moving to New York and then eventually Los Angeles and the Valley to be actors in porn without the intermediate step of prostitution. That was the second generation of people performing in porn—or, as you charmingly say, “posing” for porn. [Laughs.] Did you ever go to Tin
Pan Alley?

EW: I never did, no.

JF: It was a bar that the photographer Nan Goldin worked at, and a guy that worked there was the inspiration for one of my characters. It was this bohemian gathering spot where the people in the sex trade and artists and Warhol would go and meet. A year ago MoMA hosted Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency show, and there are photos of Tin Pan Alley, which is the inspiration for our bar.

EW: Did you have any problems working through this with the way blacks are portrayed as pimps and gangsters?

JF: Yeah, I think it’s one of the reasons David really favors this documentary approach, because he comes from journalism and likes the facts, and I guess statistics show that most of the pimps were African-American. It’s the way it was.

EW: You do believe in all these people and these scenes and these characters, and I think that’s inarguable—you can’t really argue against it from a PC point of view. People will, but I think the realism is what works in its favor.

JF: Yeah, if it was all stylized, it would feel a little icky, I think.

EW: How would you describe the character you play?

JF: I play twin brothers: Vincent and Frankie. I like to say I play the Harvey Keitel character in Mean Streets and I also play the Robert De Niro character in Mean Streets. One is the responsible brother and the other is the guy who can’t get it together. The real Vincent had this really interesting dilemma where he fell in love with this woman, Abby, who is intelligent, very smart. He comes from the streets. He’s street-smart, but she’s book-smart, and as he gets pulled deeper and deeper into the massage parlors, really just as a front man, she becomes more and more involved in feminism and eventually trying to help women get off the street. So he’s got this whole secret life that he has to keep from her, because he loves her so much but she is so against women being involved in the sex trade. Here’s the thing: In David Simon’s shows the bad guys also have a little goodness and the good guys are also bad, and so my guy Vincent, he’s a good guy at heart, but because he’s so good at what he does, he gets pulled deep into this whole underworld.

EW: Did you have to learn to talk New York–ese for this character?

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Suit: Hermès, Sweater: Tom Ford

JF: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean every young actor wants to be Robert De Niro. I actually played De Niro’s son about 15 years ago in a movie called City by the Sea. For that film I watched a De Niro movie every single night—De Niro movies that you never saw, movies that he probably can't even remember, movies he did with Brian de Palma when they were both kids and De Niro’s like the 10th lead or something. So I think that was my induction into New York–ese and all of that.

EW: Have you directed many movies or TV shows?

JF: Yeah, I directed a bunch of small
artsy movies. I did Faulkner adaptations—As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury. I did movies that most people don’t want to see but that were very important to me. Then when I did The Deuce, when I finally talked to David, I said, “All right, I’m in, but I want to direct.” And he’s like, “OK, OK, you can direct.” And I said, “I want to direct at least three episodes of the season.” Ironically, the first episode I directed is the most twin-heavy of the entire season. Every scene is the twins acting opposite each other, so it was a full-on schizophrenic personality shift for me, from director mode to Vincent mode to Frankie mode.

EW: So are we going to lose you as an actor now?

JF: I’ve got to say, of all the things that I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot, the actual process of directing is the most fun, because you’re in the middle of all these different creative people. But no, I will not stop acting. Most actors come to a point in their lives where they have to reassess what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and for me, after going back to school and trying to do all these other things, this new chapter, with surfing and dancing, is really about slowing down and trying to focus on fewer things but in a deeper, more quality-filled way.

I’m seguing, but I wanted to ask you: I have a very addictive personality. When I was a teenager I got over certain addictions, and that’s when I started acting, at age 17. I really threw myself into it, and that became everything, to the point where I didn’t even socialize. And then after, like, 10 years of that, at age 27, I realized, Man, I’m so depressed. On the surface my life seems pretty good—I have a career and everything—but I feel isolated and lonely. So then I threw myself into school, but again it was just this sort of running, running, running. So I went to Brooklyn College. I studied with Michael Cunningham and Amy Hempel. And anyway, I was going to ask you, because in the gay community it seems like there was, and maybe is, such an importance in this liberation that being free sexually is almost a political act. On the other hand, do you find that sort of sex-positive attitude can pull some people, if not a bunch of people, into a kind of sexual addiction? Because you can see the straight community sort of following suit nowadays with Tinder and this kind of app hookup culture. Do you notice a lack of intimacy, real intimacy between people?

EW: Yeah, I do. I’m writing a memoir now about my whole sex life. I’ve always wanted to write this book, but I was always afraid to write it. But I think your question is a very good one, because there are a lot of gay people who are sex-negative—the Larry Kramers of this world, all the people who were kind of monitoring everybody because of AIDS. But I think it’s all shifted to being online. I was teaching creative writing until this past May at Princeton, and I would say half of my students were into hookup culture. They would just have sex every weekend. They would get very drunk at these parties and fall into a big heap and thrash around—in a way because of feminism, since the whole thing of men courting women isnt in anymore and it would just look absurd. So it’s fallen back into the hookup culture because they don’t know how else to get together. And the other half of my students are Christians who wear purity rings that their fathers put on their fingers in church. It’s like a marriage.

JF: Oh, my god.

EW: At least half my students are Christians and the other half are sluts. [Laughs.]

JF: Maybe it’s always been that way.

Photography: Gavin Bond
Styling: Nicolas Klam

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