James Franco seems to have no problem switching between extreme real-life characters in movies, which recently has meant jumping from playing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl to finding himself howling for real while pinned under a boulder in a remote Utah canyon as wilderness hiker Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Franco met to talk about the harshest critic of his performance (Ralston himself), his key to getting in touch with the character and his own not entirely similar personal ordeal of getting lost while in search of a Paris taxi.
James, you’re amazing in this movie, but how did Aron react to your depiction of him? Well, he said something like, “Gosh, it’s weird to watch this with a director and an actor in the room, because it’s such a poor performance!” We thought he was crazy to say that. Aron asked me why I wanted to play this role and—I still believe this—I love the way that it strips down this character and this person and everything that is familiar in our day-to-day lives and just the daily activities that keep us from looking at ourselves, you know, in a very intimate way. All of that is taken away. It’s a man alone. It’s a man facing death. So I imagined that what we had was a real way to just study what it is to be human, what’s important in our lives, and what we hold on to from our outside life and what then pulls us out, and what really gives us strength. Aron, I guess, corrected me a little bit. He told me to get out was his connection to the outside world and his friends and family. That’s given me an appreciation for people in my life.
How did you rate your own performance? For me as a performer, what I saw was a guy with the knowledge that he was probably going to die. But the way he delivered the message was with such dignity and strength, knowing that, you know, just doing it with dignity. That simplicity, combined with the knowledge of death behind it, was incredibly strong for me and showed me a way to do the part. I always had faith, you know, as an actor, that if you do a lot of work beforehand and then proceed in a certain way, you’re generating the performance from inside out, and that actually, you will hit the right beats on the outside.
Did you ever draw from your personal survival skills that you may have relied upon in your own life? I mean, I have been lost. You know, I got lost in Paris and I had to find a taxi! There aren’t taxis at a certain hour, and it was really hard. But no, nothing like that.
Well, did the experience of making 127 Hours change your attitude about fear and doing daring stuff? If I hike, I’ll be sure to tell people where I go. But it’s given me an appreciation for my life and for the people in my life, certainly.