James Franco's oddest stunt yet

The actor says he used "bad judgment" -- but what really happened?

Published April 4, 2014 6:55PM (EDT)

James Franco     (AP/Eric Charbonneau)
James Franco (AP/Eric Charbonneau)

Oh, you really got us this time. James Franco, that professionally eccentric novelist, artist, educator and occasional soap opera actor, has now masterfully outdone himself. This week, he either hit on a 17-year-old girl because he's a horny 35-year-old man who can hit on 17-year-old girls, or he's pulling an elaborate stunt to create buzz for his new movie, or the whole entire thing is a big fake. We will likely never know. Because it's James Franco. The guy is like a one-man Improv Everywhere.

The story began when the Oscar-nominated thespian, currently starring on Broadway in "Of Mice and Men," met a Scottish young lady named Lucy. After she took a video of him outside the show, he flashed a smile at her and said, "You gotta tag me." Miss Lucy then did just that, whereupon the whole thing went quickly to DM. Based on the exchanges she later posted, she established that she was "nearly 18," leading Franco to move quickly to a line of questioning including, "You're single? What's the hotel? Should I rent a room? … It's me … Yes or no? Tomorrow or thurs?" Rent a room? Dammit, man, can't you even offer to buy a lady a drink? Or if she's underage, at least a slice of pizza? If the exchange is to be believed, Lucy was skeptical that the messages were coming from the real James Franco. Based on his track record of unusual stunts, who could blame her for calling him "so dodgy" and demanding he produce identifying selfies?

Franco himself seems to be owning up to Lucy's version of the exchange. He soon put a codicil on his Instagram account noting, "PLEASE DON'T DM IF YOU ARE UNDER 18, THANK YOU" and issued a tweet announcing, "I HOPE PARENTS KEEP THEIR TEENS AWAY FROM ME!" He then followed up with an aw-shucks interview Friday on "Kelly and Michael" worthy of vintage Hugh Grant. "I guess, you know, embarrassed," he explained, "and I guess I'm just a model of how social media is tricky. It's a way people meet each other today. But what I've learned, just because I'm new to it, is you don't know who's on the other end. You meet someone in person and you get a feel for them, but you don't know who you're talking to. I used bad judgment and I've learned my lesson. Unfortunately, in my position, not only do I have to go through the embarrassing rituals of meeting someone, sometimes if I do that it gets published for the world so now it's doubly embarrassing." "Freaks and Geeks" fans, doesn't it seem like only yesterday that he was the hot teenager? Suddenly he's the creepy old dude. For his performance, though, Franco received a reassurance from Kelly Ripa that his actions were "perfectly acceptable" and that "It happens to everybody." Well, that's news. I can believe that hitting on and getting hit upon happens to everybody, sure. But I was not aware until Friday's episode of "Kelly and Michael" that 35-year-olds asking teenagers whether or not they should get a room is something that happens to "everybody." OK, thanks, Kelly Ripa! I'll let my 14-year-old know, in case Ian Somerhalder or Adam Levine should ever come on to her.

Sure, it's a little arbitrary to consider that if Lucy, who describes herself as "nearly 18," were already 18, the whole thing would be far less of an event. She is, by the way, of the age of consent in New York, even if the fact that she wouldn't be old enough there to vote, rent a car or buy a beer does make Franco's pursuit of her a little, as they say in Scotland, dodgy. It's also more than a little peculiar for an ostensibly grown man to pull the "Golly, I'm so new at all of this Internet stuff. I guess you never know who you're really talking to!" classic circa 1995 routine when the exchange seems to indicate pretty clearly he knew her name, dating status, age and location while he was trying to hook up.

But what makes the saga of the movie star and the Instagramming teenager dodgiest of all is that, whaddaya know? Franco has a new movie coming out. In "Palo Alto," based on the stories of author James Franco, Franco plays a "hottie" coach who gets involved with a teenage Emma Roberts. The newest version of the trailer released on April 1. Two days ago, Franco posted on Instagram a photo of his youthful costar wearing nothing but bunny festooned underpants and a T-shirt that reads "I (heart) James Franco."

So what we are left with at the end of the week is either a story of a 35-year-old man undeterred in her ardor for a pretty fan when she mentions she's a teenager traveling with her mother, or an elaborate stunt in which James Franco, actor and writer, is riffing on a character he created for his well-timed new movie. Or maybe a little bit of both. Whatever his original intentions, the possibility that Franco may have decided that his young fan could somehow be a means of getting attention for his new movie seems not so far-fetched. Maybe he was lonely for a cute blonde, or maybe he was just looking to promote his new product. Either way, he sounds pretty damn selfish. What's certain is that he seems to be enjoying himself now, joshing that parents ought to keep their teens away from him. Done. And I think just to be safe, I'm going to steer well clear of his path myself.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Internet Culture James Franco Kelly And Michael Kelly Ripa Palo Alto Social Media Underage Girls