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James Franco attends 'Dream & Tar' Premiere during The 7th Rome Film Festival on November 16, 2012 in Rome, Italy. ROME, ITALY - NOVEMBER 16: James Franco attends 'Dream & Tar' Premiere during The 7th Rome Film Festival on November 16, 2012 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Stefania D'Alessandro/WireImage)

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Sundance 2013: Why Is James Franco So Interested in Gay Culture?

“Everybody fucking watches porn!” shouts James Franco, a wide smile on his face, after watching two men engage in sadomasochistic sex just ten feet from him. “They just don’t want to talk about it.”

That’s a moment from Franco’s newest film, a Sundance entry that people definitely will want to talk about this week: Titled Interior. Leather Bar., it’s a 60-minute experimental project that finds Franco and co-director Travis Mathews re-creating 40 sexually charged minutes of “lost footage” from William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 gay thriller Cruising. At least that’s the initial plan; once Franco and Mathews are on set, with extras milling around in various forms of undress, it becomes clear that fidelity to the source material is a low priority. Really, the Cruising tie-in is just a pretext for Franco to explore gay sexuality, a theme that recurs so often in his work that rumors continue to be fanned about his own orientation.

Just take a look at Franco’s C.V.: In addition to his most high-profile gay role, playing Sean Penn’s lover in Milk, the 34-year-old has also directed the full-frontal-filled short The Feast of Stephen, filmed a movie about gay Rebel Without a Cause actor Sal Mineo, and played gay poets Allen Ginsberg in Howl and Hart Crane in The Broken Tower, the latter of which Franco directed himself and finds him fellating a prosthetic penis in artfully directed close-up. It’s no wonder that in the trailer for Franco’s upcoming apocalypse comedy This Is the End, where several movie stars play themselves, his co-star Danny McBride cracks, “James Franco didn’t suck any dick last night? Now I know y’all are tripping.”

“Yeah, in some of those cases you named, I'd say my interest in the project had something to do with the character's sexuality,” Franco admitted to me last week, as he prepared to trek to Park City for Leather Bar. and kink, another sex-centric documentary that Franco is involved in. “Sometimes, though, it was just incidental, like with Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg, poets I admire for their work first and foremost. But the fact that their lives and part of their struggles as artists involves their sexuality made that interesting to me.”

But why would a mainstream movie star be so interested in gay sexuality if he were straight? Leather Bar. provides the potential answer during its centerpiece scene, where Franco’s friend actor Val Lauren probes him on that very topic.

"I don't like the fact that I feel like I've been brought up to think a certain way ... and what that is is straight-normative behavior,” replies an agitated Franco in the film. “It's fucking instilled into my brain."

"Every fucking toilet paper commercial has a man and a woman living in a house together!” he continues. “Every fucking love story is a dude who wants to be with a girl, and the only way they're gonna end up happy is if they walk off in the sunset together. I'm fucking sick of that shit, so if there's a way for me to break that up in my own mind, I'm all for it."

Still, Franco told me he was initially nervous about directing the unsimulated sex scenes of Leather Bar. — so much so that he brought on co-director Mathews, who’d already done just that in his gay indie I Want Your Love. I was a little bit confused by that claim; after all, in The Broken Tower, Franco directed a fairly graphic scene where he takes it from behind from Michael Shannon. It’s hard to believe he’d have any more inhibitions about helming a sex scene after that.

"Well, Michael Shannon and I didn't have actual intercourse," laughed Franco. "This is a whole different ballgame."

But isn’t it a little iffy for Franco, who begins Leather Bar. with a skeptical monologue about how marriage equality threatens “mainstream” gay culture, to take on these themes as a sexual tourist? "I guess you could say that I am appropriating parts of queer culture,” he ventured, “but I feel like one of my roles as an artist is to ask questions and to help create fissures in accepted, normalized ways of thinking. And not in all cases, but in a lot of the cases you mentioned, the sexuality of the characters helps me to do that."

Actors like Franco often seem to be employing a “one for me, one for them” strategy when it comes to picking projects — he’ll soon be seen in the megabudgeted Disney film Oz the Great and Powerful — but according to Franco, that juxtaposition is good for a film like Leather Bar. “The fact that I come from mainstream film and I'm doing a project like this does give it a different kind of energy,” he admits.

Still, Franco doesn’t want you to think of Leather Bar. as a lark or another one of his attempts to make meta hay out of his own celebrity. “My intentions are nothing but good,” he insisted. “I don't expect to make a lot of money off of this or anything — it's truly for artistic exploration. If people have a problem with it, I can't not do my work because I'm hung up on whether I belong there.”

Photo: Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images