James Franco: My image is "a creation, like a painting or a movie"

The actor talked to Salon about art, identity and his new foreword for Hermann Hesse's classic, "Demian"

Published August 9, 2013 4:52PM (EDT)

James Franco, the actor/blogger/singer/artist/writer constantly balancing on the brink of self-parody, is now the Voice of a Generation thanks to Penguin Classics. The publishing house has this month issued a new translation of Hermann Hesse's bildungsroman, "Demian," by award-winning translator Damion Searls, with a foreword by Franco (excerpted below!).

And lo, in a move to appeal to those hopeless millennials, Franco has been charged with ushering in a new generation of Hesse readers -- a task previously entrusted to writers like Thomas Mann. The actor, who also designed the cover art for the new translation, responded via email to Salon's questions about that responsibility, his projects and his image, which he sees simply as "a thing that other people use, and a thing that I use" to promote their own agendas.

Thanks to this foreword, an entire generation of young readers are now going to associate you with Hermann Hesse and "Demian." How does that make you feel?

Writing the foreword was not really about that. It was an opportunity to reflect on a book that was important to me when I was younger and then to possibly point other readers in that direction. If I help guide some people to Hesse, that’s the important thing. It’s not about having both our names on the same cover.

You designed the cover art. The figure on the right looks an awful lot like you. Was that intentional?

Penguin asked me to write the foreword, and then later they had the idea that I could contribute art to the cover. I thought it would be a nice combination because Hesse was also a painter. The images are from a series I did based on photos from my old junior high and high school yearbooks. One image is of me, age 12, and one is of my late friend Ivan. I thought that they would go well together on the cover because their juxtaposition parallels the relationship of the boys in the novel. I didn’t paint them to be like that, and my relationship with Ivan was different in life from the one in the book, but the images, as images, worked well together in this context.

A lot of writers and artists turn back to formative books they read. I find that when I do this, I get very different things out of the same book I read as a teenager. Is "Demian" something you come back to a lot? If so, what do you get out of it now?

It’s not one that I came back to until I was asked to write the foreword, but once I did, I saw that it had been a big influence on me. Most of the things I write or the movies I make are about creative types, and about the artistic process, just like this book. I also write a lot about youth, and this book is all about youth.

I do return to books: "Moby-Dick," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "As I Lay Dying," "Sound and the Fury," "The Hamlet," "Cannery Row."

To outside observers, your projects really seem to be all over the place. You recently played a gangster in "Spring Breakers," put out a BDSM art film, starred in a comedy "This Is the End" -- the list goes on. Is there any pattern to the projects and roles you undertake?

Yeah, they are all projects that deal with identity. But that isn’t a conscious pattern I design, at least when it comes to movies, it’s just the lens I look through now. You only mentioned films above, so I’ll address my acting career. Mainly, when it comes to acting in film, it’s about who I’m working with. Movies are such a collaborative medium, and I just want to collaborate with people I believe in.

There are a ton of Hollywood celebs whose personas and roles have spawned memes, à la Nicolas Cage. Though you sometimes get similar treatment from the media, you've also managed to be in on the joke at the same time. Has that been a conscious decision for you, or are you just having fun with it all?

I don’t read anything about myself anymore. The way I’m in on the joke is that I see how outlets use my image and persona to sell their own products (like this very interview), so why can’t I use my persona and image for my own purposes. I see my public image as a thing, a thing that other people use, and a thing that I use. I don’t have as much emotional connection to it as I did when I was younger. It’s just a creation, like a painting or a movie.

Is there anything you're worried about coming out of the Comedy Central Roast? (Are you ready for it?)

I don’t know. I don’t really care.

This is a question I ask everyone I interview: Due to the limits of language, there are bound to be concepts, thoughts and feelings we want to express but don't have the vocabulary to express them with. If you could coin one neologism, what would it be?

Artism: the inability to look at the world as it is, but only as an artistic creation, as something to be messed with.

James Franco's foreword, below:

I remember reading Demian for the first time. It was the beginning of summer, I had turned nineteen in April, and I was working at a café on the UCLA campus, selling deli sandwiches, microwaved pizza, cheap Mexican hash, and glistening Chinese. I had spent the previous school year studying English literature but had recently taken the plunge into the raging sea of film acting and was freshly making my way through the tide pools of acting school. I had not auditioned for the UCLA theater program and thus had been forced to take classes in the Valley, and just before the spring quarter at UCLA had ended I decided to devote myself full time to acting. My parents didn’t object, saying only that they would support me as long as I studied at the university, but if I wanted to be an artist I had to find my own way.

Working at the north campus eatery, I was serving the students who once had been my classmates. My boss was a graduate student with a shaved head except in two spots that he dyed red and gelled into six-inch horns. I’ll call him Bill. I remember liking Bill if only because he was closer to my age than any boss I’d ever had, but he was still a boss. I was working to support my dream (one of a few) to become a film actor, and my employer looked like the devil.

On my breaks I read plays by O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, and anyone else who might help me understand my chosen profession. It turned out that the grinding aspect of the job was not Bill’s constant watch as I loaded meat and mustard on sandwiches or scooped chili rellenos from the tin, depending on the day of the week; it was the boredom. I know now that I learned much about responsibility, dedication, and service from that humble job, but back then I had dreams of grandeur. I had left school in order to become the best actor in the world, and here I was, back on campus serving the very people who had been inviting me to frat parties a few months prior. I seemed to have taken five steps backwards, and the fact that I had left a top-rated university to join an army of hopefuls trying to break into a famously competitive industry often seemed like a fool’s quest.

On the wall next to the pizza service section was a framed photo of an elderly Marlon Brando being led by a man in a suit and a football helmet through a throng of photographers and gawkers. I’m pretty sure it was taken around the time of Brando’s son’s murder trial, but it inspired me as I served the slop: Brando was the pinnacle of film acting, and his picture was a reminder of the great tradition I hoped to be a part of.

After a couple months I started reading Demian. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but one day, without warning, I hung up my apron and walked out the back, never to return. I had planned to work that day, so once taking my exit I didn’t know where to go. With Demian folded in my pocket, I headed into Westwood, full of the passion of what I had done. On the edge of campus I ran into one of my former classmates, a girl I once had flirted with, sunning herself on the grass. I told her what had happened, but it didn’t seem to register. I felt like I had taken another step away from a conformist life and another step toward artistic freedom, but, talking to her, I sounded to myself like I was an immature kid who had quit his job.

At a café I jumped back into Demian, and I felt like I was understood again. Emil Sinclair, the narrator, is also on a search. His vacillation between good and bad, between expected pursuits and his own artistic path, seemed to mirror mine. Like so many young people in the ninety years since its publication, I felt like Hermann Hesse was describing my own interior and exterior struggles. Sinclair had Demian to help guide him, but I had yet to find my artistic mentor. Instead I had the book.

Demian became my Demian, a voice I could listen to and contemplate as I tried to find my way from childhood to adulthood and into the world of art. Of course there were many turns in the road ahead — I would get a job at McDonald’s, get work as an actor, grow to hate much of the work I did, expand my artistic horizons (Hesse became not just a writer but also a celebrated painter) — but reading Demian was an important step in the direction of a life that resonated with my ideals.

From Demian by Hermann Hesse. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Foreword Copyright © Whose Dog RU International, Inc., 2013.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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