There is more than one scene in the film that takes the viewer out of their comfort zone, forcing them to confront human nature vs. animal instinct in the form of your character. Did you find any particular scene especially difficult to act out, yourself?
The hardest parts for me to film were the physical aspects I went through during the filming, be it in the caves or on the side of mountains, there were no stunt men. I did everything you see in the film. Again, if I hadn’t had lived in that environment before filming I would have gotten hurt most likely if I didn’t already know to handle myself in those situations and on that treacherous terrain.
Outside of the many physically demanding scenes, there were also plenty of emotionally demanding ones, for example when Lester shoots his stuffed animals. Where did the director ask you to go emotionally and mentally in these scenes?
That scene, where I shoot my stuffed animals, was completely improvised. It’s one of the only scenes that isn’t found anywhere in the novel. When I lived in isolation, I found myself talking to myself all the time. I would make friends with whatever I could, build relationships with things that weren’t alive that I could have be my friends. So, during the course of the filming I began talking with the stuffed animals I win at the carnival. I had really developed a friendship with the stuff animals. We had a gap in filming and James walks over to me and says, “What do you think about killing your friends?” I said, “Let’s do it.”
It’s a very intense scene…and disturbing.
I understood what that showed in the arc of what Lester is going through, and we didn’t really discuss it. We both knew it was the right thing to do. James set up the scene, and what you see came out of that moment. It’s a pretty beautiful thing it happened like that, and to be honest, he was so wise for suggesting that. I don’t think the film would be what it is without that scene, it’s a testimony to James’s talent as a filmmaker.
What’s he like as a director? Does he come to you with a very clear idea of how he wants to see the character in any given scene, or is he more about an exchange of ideas on set?
I believe James is one of the greatest actors of my generation. So, he clearly understands how to relate and communicate to actors in a very specific way that benefits the process of an actor. I have a short hand of sorts in terms of communication with James on set, it’s a lot of nods, and looks at each other, and after knowing each other for over a decade and how each other works, we get what the other is thinking without really saying anything at all to each other.
That’s a gift.
My greatest experiences as an actor have been in my collaborations with James, and specifically on this film. James had no idea I was going to move to Tennessee months before the shoot to prepare for the film. I was with James in Detroit where we had a conversation about the film, and then off I went to do my thing.
He must have been shocked.
I’ll never forget the day James saw me for the first time after I had been living in Tennessee. He stopped by my room at night to say hi and when the door opened, it was unforgettable, his jaw just dropped. To say the least, he was happy and couldn’t stop smiling. It was great.
I bet. How did you meet James Franco and come to work with him?
The first time we met was in the back of the Stella Adler lot on Hollywood and Highland. The parking lot doesn’t exist anymore. This was way before the Kodak Theater was built. James came to see me in a play called Beach Play and he approached me to tell me he liked my performance. I was preparing to do a play at the Actors Studio that Mark Rydell was overseeing, and I knew James had just finished shooting the James Dean movie which Rydell directed, and we got to talking. That was in 2000, 13 years ago.
So you have quite a long history together then.
James saw me go through a very dark time in my life. To be really transparent, he saved my life and I’m forever grateful. I cannot put my loyalty to him into words. I have his back forever. No matter what it is, I’ll be there for him. He’s my brother, and I love him.
You share a brotherhood on screen too. Child of God isn’t the only Franco–led film adaptation of a major literary work you’ve been cast in recently.
We’re currently filming an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, and I play Jason Compson IV. James plays my brother Benji in this one.
What’s it been like working on this string of projects with many of the same actors featured in each film?
We have a great circle of actors that James has put together of his friends that is kind of like an acting company of sorts. Many of the same actors are in all of his movies, but if you look at the great directors they all do that in their own way. Scorcesse used De Niro, Pesci, and now DiCaprio. Coppola did it. When Sean Penn directs, you see familiar faces in his movies. Paul Thomas Anderson does it. The Coen Brothers films have a circle of actors, and most recently you see David O. Russell doing it. James has his actors that he trusts, and I’m very grateful to be one of those actors in the mix. It’s really the best, we are all friends for many years and have a genuine love for each other, and it’s such a great feeling watching the films when they are complete and seeing the work my friends are doing. They are all so brilliant.
Outside of movies, I understand you founded a theatre in L.A. How’s the theatre scene in the city? It’s often thought of as quite small, would you say it’s growing?
The theater scene in L.A. is alive, and it’s exciting to see what’s happening in the North Hollywood Arts District right now. When we built the Sherry Theater years ago in NoHo, it wasn’t what it is today. Now, it’s booming with amazing restaurants, nightlife and at the center of it all is the theater scene.
Do you plan on having a career split between film and stage?
I will always do both. I’m actually in talks to be doing my first play in New York this summer at the Rattlestick [Playwrights] Theater. It’s a powerhouse of an original play that I just love. I read it and it read like a classic. Franco is directing. I can’t say too much else about it till we lock in the dates, but that excites me. I love telling stories and I feel so blessed to be able to do that. It’s an honor, so yes, my love for both film and the stage run to the core of who I am. I don’t think there is any other way.
What others projects are you working on next?
Well, I’m actually off to Africa in less than a week to direct a documentary on the life of Charles Mulli. I couldn’t be more excited to tell this story. In short, it’s the story of a young man who was abandoned by his family as young child, begged for food and through his faith and hard work came to be one of the wealthiest men in all of Nairobi. Then one day he was instructed by God to close all of his businesses and devote all his wealth and resources to rescuing street children. This was extremely challenging for many reasons, but over the last 25 years Charles has rescued over 10,000 kids off the streets, and given them a new life, an education, and through his efforts in sustainable farming, is changing the face of Africa. I have never heard of a story like this, so when I was asked if I wanted to direct this film, I was speechless. This might be one of the most important films, if not one of the most important things I will ever do in my life.
It sounds like a busy month is ahead of you.
Then [I’m finishing] filming The Sound and The Fury with James, and immediately start shooting the Warner Bros. produced film Midnight Special with writer/director Jeff Nichols. That film will be with Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton. Jeff Nichols is a genius filmmaker, it’s going to be fantastic to work with him. I’m really looking forward to all the things on the horizon, and especially Child of God‘s theatrical release. I just feel so blessed.
Styling by Jenni Lee Grooming by Grace Phillips at Exclusive Artists Management using Armani
..................................Published November 30, 2013
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