James Franco has taken writing classes at more colleges than most applicants visit, making him a rare Hollywood star capable of dropping a word like "inchoate" into a conversation. • From UCLA to Yale and four campuses in between, Franco, 32, matriculated himself into one smart cookie. His Method actor tics — hemming, hawing and rubbing his face while searching the sky for a perfect word, then shifting ideas — suggest that Franco's mouth can't always keep up with his brain. • Franco charmed and sometimes confused a Telluride Film Festival audience, where 127 Hours had its world premiere in September. They should try transcribing a recording of his 40-minute public conversation, with avant-garde artist Peter Sellars asking questions. That's a lot of freely associated intelligence to handle. • So, here's James Franco for Dummies, three of the simpler lessons this erudite actor passed on about playing Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. (Ralston was also at Telluride, at one point spoofing Franco's quirks "in case I get to play him in a movie someday.")
Franco is the sole actor on-screen for much of Danny Boyle's film, stuck in a narrow canyon under a boulder until an extreme escape — leading to lesson No. 1:
Acting alone isn't as simple as it appears.
"Conceptually it sounds like an interesting project, at least to me: a guy alone in one space, wow. But that doesn't mean it's going to translate into something that people will rush out to see.
"Two things had potential to connect with an audience: A lot of the story would be told through minute physical action. If done right, it's similar to what they teach in writing classes: Show, don't tell. And when I do speak, it's an unusual circumstance where I'm talking to a videocamera. It was like a justification for old-fashioned soliloquies, talking straight to the audience, an unusual construct.
"I've never spent five days trapped anywhere, but I do talk to myself a lot when I'm alone. We all do. If I can capture something that people recognize, they'll relate to that, even in this extreme situation."
No actor works solo, even when he's shown alone.
"Because of the way the set was designed — it was a re-creation of the canyon — nobody could fit in there with me other than (the camera operator). Essentially I was, like, acting with him.
"One of the first scenes we did was when I had to try to get free. Danny told me don't stop, just keep going. I guess the shot lasted for 22 minutes, me banging against the boulder and doing everything I could to get out. I knew I was going to get beat up. I told Danny okay, I'm fine with that, as long as you get it on the first take. That sort of set the mold for every scene after."
Keeping it real can cause fainting, as two Telluride viewers did during the amputation scene in 127 Hours.
"That's a scene that's very intense. It's graphic but possibly the reason that people had this reaction is the way the whole movie is presented. Plenty of other movies have bloodier scenes, but because they're slasher flicks, you're relating to it in a different way.
"With this film, you allow the movie to go to this graphic place because you've invested so much into it. It makes it that much more intense because you're connected to this character in that way, not how you would with a teen slasher film. Or maybe it was just the high altitude."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.