James Franco (‘The Disaster Artist’): Our movie is ‘a friendship story about following your dreams’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

James Franco just won the second Golden Globe Award of his career this past Sunday. After previously prevailing for the TV movie “James Dean” (2002), he now has a trophy for starring in his latest film “The Disaster Artist.” For this project he also directed and produced, he plays the outrageous real-life actor and director Tommy Wiseau, who was responsible for “The Room,” one of the worst movies ever made. The character has brought him additional nominations at the SAG Awards, Independent Spirits, and Critic’s Choice. He might be receiving a second Oscar bid later this month following his previous effort for “127 Hours” (2010).

Gold Derby spoke with Franco a few weeks ago after the nominations started pouring in. Watch that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: James Franco, you’re having an incredible December, I must say. We’re gonna talk about the movie itself in a moment, but Golden Globe nomination, SAG nomination, Critics’ Choice nomination, tell me what all this means to you personally.

James Franco: (Laughs.) It means a lot. I’ve been down the awards path before with “127 Hours,” a bit with “Milk,” but this is the first time I’ve had a project that I directed that’s getting this kind of attention and it’s really… I don’t know. It’s humbling. It’s gratifying and more than that, this project is also really special to me, not only ‘cause in very strange ways maybe more than I like to admit, that the subject matter is very personal to me. But this is a project that involved my family, my brother, my sister-in-law, but also so many of my good friends. Seth Rogen is a friend and collaborator for 20 years now and it’s just a real special project to me. It sort of feels like a culmination of everything that I’ve done for the past 20 years.

GD: I wanna ask you this about the movie. In terms of awards, nominations, wins, I was just speaking to a friend last night who’s back at home and saying, “What kind of movies are you interested in?” “I gotta see this ‘Disaster Artist,’ it’s getting nominated for everything!” What does a group of nominations, recognition within the industry mean to a movie itself?

JF: It’s interesting because awards certainly get people to pay attention to a film. It raises its profile and it’s very, very helpful in that way. But our movie seems to have two different faces to it or something, where we are getting a lot of award recognition and great critical response but audiences are really taking to our movie. So it’s such a nice energy that I just love being around. The first weekend I went around to different theaters in L.A. and introduced it and then just sat in the back, like they didn’t even know I was there, and it just felt so good. People were having such a good time, and it’s almost like this movie is weirdly schizophrenic because it seems to be a huge audience pleaser in the way of just a crowd pleaser, but also it seems to hit some sort of deeper chord where people are recognizing the real effort we put into it. I guess I say that because it is a comedy and generally speaking, comedies haven’t gotten as much recognition as dramas, but I guess maybe our movie also has the heart of a drama. It is a love story. It is a relationship story, a friendship story at its heart and it is about following your dreams and it also in some ways is different than a lot of the movies that are up for awards this season because it is comedic. All I can think is, in this time, it’s nice to have something that feels good to watch. It’s very relieving, I think, and in that sense, I think maybe important.

GD: And funny on purpose, unlike “The Room,” which people were laughing at but not for the reasons they wanted it to.

JF: Yeah, our movie is funny on purpose, although it’s not a spoof. It’s not like a regular comedy. One thing I hear a lot from people that watch it is that they say, “I was laughing. I haven’t laughed that much in a long time, but at the same time that I was laughing I was feeling so much.” It’s hilarious but it’s also moving and sad. The fact that you could have that happening at the same time, ‘cause in our movie often the more dramatic scenes or the scenes where my character is hitting some sort of bottom are also some of the more funny scenes. I guess we were blessed with the subject matter, that we knew there were gonna be so many absurd circumstances but that underneath, it was a very moving, almost hero’s journey, regardless of how crazy and silly the movie that they actually made was.

GD: I think as audience member, though, from what I could gather, other audience members just like me, could sense your love and respect for the people that you’re portraying.

JF: Yeah. Our game-plan from the beginning was to always make Tommy [Wiseau] and Greg [Sestero] sympathetic. And we were really cued by the book, “The Disaster Artist,” because if all we had was the movie “The Room,” which I think is fascinating and I love watching and I love going to the theaters and watching “The Room,” it’s such a great, weird theatrical experience, but the book showed us that there’s a very moving universal story about outsiders and dreamers underneath the bizarre thing that is “The Room.” And that was always what we were aiming for, is to give dignity to their story, nobility to their story, because it’s basically every creative person’s story and everybody that comes to Hollywood has to start somewhere, and most people have to struggle. It’s a very hard business and it’s not just Hollywood, any creative endeavor. And so by elevating their struggle, or not even elevating, just by making their struggle relatable and universal, we could tell a bigger story than just the story of the making of the best worst movie ever made.

GD: I love the fact that movie opens already giving you some great moments but also a couple of sympathetic moments with the acting class. That’s a perfect way to set up everything and show who both of your main two characters are right in the beginning.

JF: Yeah, actually Allison Williams from “Girls” and “Get Out” wrote me a great email today. She broke down her interpretation of the relationship between Greg and Tommy so well and one of the things she talked about was how in that scene in the acting class, she understood why Greg, a seemingly stable guy, would follow Tommy, a seemingly eccentric and in some ways unstable guy. And one of the things Tommy did is he really went for it. He was unafraid. He might have been marching to his own drum, but at least he did it without fear and that is one of the things that I think the young Greg had. He was just too self-aware, too full of fear to really throw himself into his craft and so you can see them coming together. Yeah, Tommy’s rendition of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the famous Stella scene where Brando was calling up to Stella’s balcony, “Stella, Stella,” and all that Tommy really knows is that one word, “Stella” that he just repeats multiple times as he crawls up the scaffolding of the stage and jumps down. On one level that’s completely absurd and ridiculous and a misinterpretation of the scene. On the other hand, young Greg can look at that and say, “Wow, what guts. What balls. I need some of that.” And towards the end of the movie, too, Greg returns the favor, where Tommy can tell Greg, “Look, you need to just go for it. Like Nike, just go for it. Just go for it. Just do it.” That Greg can return the favor for Tommy and help him look at his own work with a new pair of glasses and understand it in a new way.

GD: He’s one of the most confident people I’ve ever seen in real life or on film. He believes and trusts every instinct, every word that comes out of his mouth.

JF: I mean, Tommy Wiseau is strange, yes. His confidence is his armor. My interpretation is that he was told “no” all of his life, was constantly rejected, and the only way that he was ever going to get anywhere was to believe in himself, and preparing for the role I couldn’t really go to Tommy and ask him about what he was thinking or feeling when he made “The Room” because he’s a great rewriter of history, right? And that’s also part of his defense. But what I did have were these recordings that he had made 20 years ago, driving around in his car and talking to this mini tape recorder and he would talk about his intimate feelings. Tommy knows I have these tapes now. He calls them the secret tape. “I know you have secret tape.” And in these tapes, I got to see the way he would boost himself up. For example, he would complain about acting teachers on these tapes. “Oh the teacher, he don’t understand me. He make fun of me. He don’t treat me like other students in class.” And then you’d hear him rewrite the script or boost himself up. “Well, I think he sensed my power and he intimidated. That’s why he treat me that way. You know what, maybe his class no good. Maybe I go and do my own thing. Maybe I’ll make my own movie.” And there you have in a nutshell, the way Tommy went from facing a mountain of rejection to deciding to make his own movie and you see, that’s the only way he was ever going to get anywhere is to pull together enough will and self-generated confidence to get this thing done and then after it was made and people laughed, again, he had to sort of rewrite the script and say, “I intend it to be comedy.” Now if you go to a “Room” screening and he does Q&As, people ask him questions, “Come on, did you really intend it to be that way?” He’s got that defense, “Yeah, of course I intend to make it that way, I’m the greatest director.” And that’s sort of his survival mechanism.

GD: As the director, one thing I loved about this, feeling it from the outside in is, you get to boss around one of your best friends, Seth Rogen, your brother, Dave Franco, and one of your first bosses, Judd Apatow. I thought, “You must be having a ball telling these people what to do.”

JF: (Laughs.) No, I mean, notoriously Seth Rogen or my brother will tell you, I stayed in character while I was directing “The Disaster Artist.” I directed the movie and acted in it, playing a director who acted in his own movie. So it was easier to just stay in character, but I didn’t go so far into character that I was “dictator” like Tommy. He says in our movie, “The word director come from dictator, rest my case.” So I didn’t do that. I have been working with Seth Rogen for almost 20 years. “Freaks and Geeks” was almost 20 years ago, which also was obviously produced and written by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, and so what Seth and I learned from Judd and then what I practiced on all of Seth’s sets was a very collaborative kind of working, often improvisation but the sets, the dynamics on those sets, on Seth’s sets, which were derived from the way Judd’s sets, were very fluid. Very specific kinds of people were involved and asked to be on movies as actors and writers and producers and everybody could contribute ideas for the scene or lines. So that’s how I was trained, and so now, when I’m on the set as the director and actor and producer, and Seth’s there as a producer-actor and then Judd comes on, we’re all just used to that collaborative mode, and so it doesn’t really matter that I was the director. It wasn’t like, “I’m bossing everybody around.” It was more that we all know how to do this thing and it feels more like musical chairs in a way. So it was, I would say, collaborative and not a dictatorship.

GD: A lot of people over the years that have played real life people and gone on, say, to the Globes like you are and hopefully the Oscars, have brought that person to the ceremony. Is that something you could imagine doing with Tommy?

JF: We just did the commentary for the DVD and Tommy was there with Greg and the writers and my brother and I asked Tommy, ‘cause a lot of people have asked the question that you just asked, I said, “Tommy, would you rather go to the Golden Globes or the SAG Awards?” And he goes, “Well how about both?” I feel like in this case, yes I want to take Tommy. And I feel like taking him to these awards is even more of a sweeter situation because when Tommy made “The Room,” he had financed it himself for $6 million. It doesn’t look like it was $6 million, but he made it for $6 million and he made back $1,800 on his first run, but he, despite that, kept it in theaters on his own dime for two weeks to qualify for the Academy Awards. It obviously didn’t get nominated, but I feel like now that we’re getting this recognition, it’s so heartwarming for me to be able to take him there and give him that, sort of make that dream come true in a way.

GD: Last time you were nominated at the Oscars, your only other time, you were also hosting, so you didn’t get to enjoy that experience like all the other first-time nominees.

JF: No, I did not. That was so crazy.

GD: Would you have done anything any different?

JF: (Laughs.) Peter Sellers had some crazy line like, “If you could go back and change anything in your life what would it be?” And I think he said, “I would not have read ‘The Magus.’” (Laughs.) I don’t know, I guess some book he hated. But for me, it was like, “Yes, I would not host the Oscars.” Now, that being said, I think that experience taught me a lot. Yes, I had to learn a lot of lessons in public. It’s just the way my life goes, I do have to learn things in public and sometimes they’re embarrassing or things that I’m less than proud of. In hindsight, when they asked me to host the Oscars, it was probably around this point in time in the calendar, I hadn’t yet been nominated for an Oscar but it was looking hopeful, and I realize now I was so full of anxiety and discomfort from the attention and also maybe even from the prospect of losing, that I couldn’t just go and enjoy that. I couldn’t go and just be there and enjoy the fact that I was one of five people in the whole world up for this award that year. So instead I said, “Yes I will host the awards,” as sort of a defense. This was my defensive move, to sort of project this idea that, “I don’t care. I’m above this. I’m an artist. I don’t care if I win or not.” When in fact, that very move, taking that huge move of hosting the whole Oscars just to show that I didn’t care, shows that cared so much and so hopefully I’m a little wiser now. I think it’s about seven years later and having gone through that experience and realizing what was going on, I can now just be grateful that there’s even discussion about awards, and that I’ve been nominated for the awards I’ve now been nominated for and really just be humble and grateful and really happy that people are responding to the movie that I made with my family and friends. I’m very moved by it.

GD: Last question, just this past weekend you went back to host “Saturday Night Live.” It had been a while since you hosted there. How was this experience different with a little time to reflect?

JF: It’s been about three years. It was my fourth time hosting. It was so great. It was my favorite of the four, and then in addition to hosting four times, I actually made a documentary about “Saturday Night Live” called “Saturday Night.” I think it’s on Hulu when John Malkovich hosted about eight or nine years ago. I love that place and this was the sweetest of the four. I’ve learned, and I learned it the first time, but I love the process of just turning myself over to those great writers and the great actors and just the whole process and it’s such a great lesson for me of releasing control, that I have some talents that I can bring to this but I don’t need to control everything and in fact, when I do release control, and I’m working with obviously talented people, that the results are better than I could ever achieve on my own. And somehow “SNL,” it’s just such a great teacher of that lesson and I felt great. I felt great turning myself over. I feel like they wrote me at least three classic sketches, the Spelling Bee and the lawyer that’s arguing about lasagnas, is referred to as “za,” and this gift wrapping sketch where I cut my finger and blood sprays everywhere and I ended up spitting blood and they got into Leslie Jones’ mouth and she almost, if you go watch the sketch she’s actually almost getting sick on live television. She and I laughed about it afterwards but in the moment it was incredible (laughs). You see Kenan Thompson, who never breaks, breaking, cracking up. That was incredible and they wrote me one really sweet pre-tape thing with this situation where I play this seemingly homeless person and then it turns out that it’s me in character, with Cecily [Strong]. It was just so good and it was all because I just turned myself over to the process and didn’t try to control anything.

GD: Well as I said right off the beginning, you are having a fantastic December. Maybe nobody in entertainment is having a better December than you.

JF: (Laughs.) Thank you.

More News from GoldDerby