The wonderful wizard of all trades

James Franco, star of the new Wizard of Oz prequel, discusses his many, varied projects

James Franco at the European premiere of Oz: The Great and Powerful in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

James Franco at the European premiere of Oz: The Great and Powerful in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters


James Franco is the polymath of the moment. This week, the scalpel-cheeked Californian, known for turns in 127 Hours, Milk and Spider-Man , turns up as a dishonest conjuror in Sam Raimi’s beautiful Oz the Great and Powerful , a prequel to The Wizard of Oz .

A second volume of his collected writings emerges shortly. He is a university lecturer. He has directed avant-garde films. He presented the 2011 Oscars (with mixed results) alongside Anne Hathaway. He recently unveiled an exhibition of his painting. Busy man.

When do you sleep, James? I am very busy. But a lot of the projects I do take a long time. I did Oz over a year ago. I have another small book coming out in April. I have days that are dedicated to the teaching in New York. Mondays, I am in LA. I arranged the press tour for Oz so I could have Sundays and Mondays off. I am in a fortunate position. I can’t always dictate my schedule. But I make time for the things that I do.

I believe, for Oz , you got some tips from slick Las Vegas conjuror Lance Burton. I used more tricks than I learned from Lance. But I give a lot of credit to Lance Burton for teaching me how to hold myself on stage and for those tricks of his that I do use.

Did you always want to act? Were you yearning to be Marlon Brando and James Dean as a teenager? Yeah. But those weren’t the first actors I watched. I was very into Stand by Me . I liked River Phoenix and people like that.

I loved film and TV, but I grew up I northern California and it doesn’t have a very big film industry. I didn’t know how to get into it. These other kids all seemed born into it. I thought I was too old to get into it.

At 15?
Yes. Ha, ha! Then I went to study English at UCLA and realised there were other ways into it. I took some classes. The bug hit. I realised that if I was going to take my shot, this was the time.

It is said you got into a bit of trouble as a kid. You were even arrested on one occasion.

It was the usual teenager trouble. Maybe I pushed it a stage further. I did get arrested. But I grew up in Palo Alto, which is like the heart of Silicon Valley, right next to Stanford University. The “trouble” I was getting into was in that context.

You mean had you been doing the same things in, say, the south Bronx you wouldn’t have got arrested?
Maybe. Ha, ha! I don’t know. But I am sure in other places what I was doing was more the norm.

What do you make of the press coverage that you have received? The commentary on the avant-garde art projects has sometimes carried hints of disdain.
I don’t ignore it. In fact sometimes I use it for different projects I have been doing.

I stopped caring about certain kinds of commentary because there is no way to control it. I don’t find the need any longer.

I originally thought I needed to project the image of a serious actor. I don’t spend any energy trying to control that now. I don’t mind looking like a goofball. It’s creatively liberating.

What about the commentary on presenting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway? Franco was said to be aloof. She was said to be over-the-top. Did that sting?
No. Because I went into it knowing that could potentially happen. I was asked to do it. I didn’t petition for it. I saw it as an opportunity to be at the centre of this grand thing. I thought: I’ll get in and do my job as well as I can.

I knew there was potential for backlash. As an actor, I thought: that’s fine. Ultimately, I thought: this is an interesting place to be and I am going to experience that.

That being said, Oscar hosting is a thankless job. It started as a show, way back in the day, with peers giving awards to peers. Now it’s also supposed to be this big entertaining thing. It’s a jumble. People love to bash Oscar hosts. Most of the hosts I’ve seen are absolutely fine.

Could any of the other interests ever elbow acting aside? Could the poetry or the teaching or the visual art ever take over entirely?
No. I don’t find that need. I enjoy acting. One of the things it’s done for me is that it allows me to collaborate with great artists and great directors. I feel that it’s a skill I possess.

It has allowed me to work with my heroes: artists like Paul McCartney or Douglas Gordon. I can still get satisfaction out of performing as an actor.

And a lot of pressure has been taken off the acting because I have these other outlets.

So y ou feel like a more complete person?
Now, I can really be of service to the movie. I don’t need to say: this has to be a great performance because this is the only way people are going to recognise me.

Oz the Great and Powerful is on general release.