As soon as James Franco finished reading the Stephen King novel 11.22.63, he contacted the horror writer. Franco wanted to see if he could option the book about the John F. Kennedy assassination for a film or television project.
His email to King was just a little late. "He said, 'Yeah, sorry, J.J. Abrams is doing it.' And I thought, oh, I guess I won't be doing that," Franco says.
That ended his hope of producing the project, but not his connection to Abrams' eight-part series. The director-producer emailed Franco to see if he was interested in starring in the series that started on Hulu this week. Franco also directed one of the episodes.
In 11.22.63, Franco plays high school English teacher Jake Epping, who travels back in time to prevent Kennedy's assassination. His mission is threatened by Lee Harvey Oswald, falling in love and the past itself, which doesn't want to be changed.
Franco was born 15 years after Kennedy was shot, but he understands fully the magnitude of the event.
"It's sort of become, in a weird way, like, legend, maybe for my generation where it feels sort of like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or something like that, but in fact, it was this horrific event," Franco says. "But it kind of has this cast of legend over it now.
"And so I thought this story and this approach was so great because it's a fresh way in. We're not exactly telling a history lesson. With Jake Epping, the time traveler, you have a new in to the story and you get to learn everything all over again but from a completely fresh perspective that we haven't really seen before."
Franco sees his character as a fish out of water who is a conduit for the audience to look back at what the world was like more than 50 years ago. Having his character be just an "everyman" who is trying to do something extraordinary makes the role all that more interesting.
Abrams isn't worried that mystery is lost if you've read the book. He says it's his job is to make the questions asked along the way so interesting that it doesn't matter if the ending is known or not. The story comes from the original writing of King and the screen adaptation by Bridget Carpenter.
"One of my favorite things about Stephen King and the remarkable work that Bridget has done on this series is that they've both told stories that were so incredibly compelling and grab you by the heart and grab you by the throat and just drag you through this thing," Abrams says. "There is a power to the premise, but a power to the telling."
Basing a production on a best-selling book opens the project up to scrutiny by those who have read it. Carpenter is certain fans of the book will be satisfied with the adaptation and those who have knowledge of the story will be able to follow it with no problem.
Part of that will come from the series being shot in Dallas at Dealey Plaza, the location of the Kennedy assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald's shot, taken from the Texas School Book Depository, was filmed in the same spot, only a floor higher.
Every extra was dressed to match the footage from the famous Abraham Zapruder film.
Franco calls shooting in Dallas both incredible and eerie.
"It felt like revisiting, but also that we were doing something new that hadn't been done before," he says. "But like any movie or project that you go to the actual place, it resonates with something."
The limited series also stars Chris Cooper, Josh Duhamel, T.R. Knight, Cherry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Lucy Fry, George MacKay and Daniel Webber. A new episode will be available each Monday.