James Franco on The Deuce and Why He’s Drawn to Projects About Sex Work

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The Wire is one of James Franco’s favorite TV shows, so when he had the opportunity three years ago to meet creator David Simon for a potential role in his HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero, he jumped at the chance. That didn’t work out, but Franco asked Simon then if he had other projects in development they might be able to work on together. Simon mentioned the kernel of an idea for a TV series about the old 42nd Street in New York and the birth of the porn industry.

About six months later, Franco read Difficult Men, a book about the showrunners of the most recent Golden Age of television — including David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, Vince Gilligan, and Matt Weiner. “I love this book,” he told Vulture during an interview in Los Angeles in July. “It changed everything for me because it really tracked the way that The Sopranos and then subsequent shows, like The Wire, revolutionized storytelling and television with fewer numbers of episodes. When you have 8 or 10 or 12, it’s like, wow. You can really focus the drama. So I called David up, and I was like, ‘Remember that show that you’re doing? Can we do it?’ I think David got excited about it at that point and said, ‘Okay, let me start this whole thing.’”

That thing is HBO’s new series, The Deuce, which is co-created by Simon and George Pelecanos and premieres Sunday, featuring Franco as twin brothers Vinnie and Frankie Martino, who are based on real-life twins that owned bars in Times Square in the ’70s and found themselves at the center of the rise of the now-billion-dollar porn industry. Franco, who also serves as an executive producer, directed two episodes. He spoke to Vulture about his experience.

You play twin brothers for the first time in your career. How did it go?
I loved it. Generally speaking, there are different requirements for a lead character and a supporting character. The lead character carries the emotional arc of the show. He or she is the ambassador of the audience and takes them in on the emotional ride. The lead characters generally have more dimension and they’re wrestling with more. Generally speaking, supporting characters come in, and they can be more eccentric, a little wilder, a little crazier, because they don’t have to draw the audience in in the same way. So, when you play twins, especially twins like this where one — Vincent is the emotional center of a lot of the story lines, and then Frankie who’s the wild man — as an actor I get the best of both worlds. I get to have the more dimensional kind of performance with Vincent, who is struggling with his place in this underworld. I get to play Frankie, who comes in and steals the show with all of his crazy antics.

Did you work with a stand-in?
Yes, that was the easiest way to do it. We had this great guy who had just graduated NYU with a degree in acting, Will Seefried. When I would come in as Vincent, he’d be dressed up as Frankie. As an actor, it was invaluable because I had somebody there to act off of. When [Michelle MacLaren] was directing the pilot we established this way of working where, during rehearsal, I would rehearse it once as Vincent, and then we’d do it again and I’d rehearse it as Frankie so that Will could see how I was gonna play it as Frankie. And then I’d go get made up as Vincent, he’d get made up as Frankie, and we’d do it, and he’d act opposite me, and then we’d shoot that side, and then we’d go back to the trailer, I’d be made up as Frankie and he’d be made up as Vincent, and then I’d do the other side. [Editor’s note: stand-in Chris Miskiewicz also worked with Franco.]

Did you ever feel confused or have to center yourself? 
Yes and no. It’s pretty compartmentalized. I’m only actually playing one character at a time, so I only have to focus on one character at a time. On the other hand, they actually allowed me to improvise a little bit as Frankie, but Will always played Frankie first because logistically, it was easier for my hair and makeup team to change me over from Vincent to Frankie. We wanted that changeover to be as quick as possible so the crew wasn’t waiting and we weren’t burning the clock. What that meant was, when I was playing Vincent, often I’d be in the middle of the scene and I’d have an idea for Frankie, but I’d have to pitch it to Will. I’d be like, all right, after I say this line, improvise this line as Frankie. In a way, I was kind of playing both characters at the same time.

And then you threw directing in there just to make it even more challenging?
That makes it more complicated, but on the other hand, as a director, when you get a script and you’re in preproduction on an episode, you’re going through the scenes, you’re going to the locations, you’re working with your [director of photography] and your [assistant director], and you’re breaking down the scenes and coming up with ideas of how you want to shoot it and how you want to block it and all this stuff. So by the time it gets to the shooting of the scenes, as a director, you already have a really good idea of what you want to achieve in each scene, what they’re about. Then it actually becomes easier to step in as an actor because what you’re doing is an extension of what you’re already doing as a director. You’ve already gotten the direction because you’ve worked it out as a director.

In your previous work you’ve explored porn and prostitution. What is it about this area for you as an artist that you want to keep exploring? 
The other projects I’ve done that involve porn that I can think of off the top of my head are Lovelace — I worked one day on that as Hugh Hefner, and I really did that as a favor to the directors, [Rob] Epstein and [Jeffrey] Friedman, because I had done the Allen Ginsberg movie with them, Howl. And then I did a movie called King Cobra, which was just a weird little indie. But I didn’t really know that much about the dawn of pornography; I didn’t know that much about the early days of American porn. I knew some of the history just from film survey classes where the film Deep Throat initiated this whole era of pornography almost being brought into the mainstream and being projected at more mainstream movie houses, and that really helped kick off this era of exploitation films. That’s about the extent of what I knew. I had no idea about certain factors that led to the rise of porn or the relaxing of certain censorship laws at the time: the fact that Deep Throat was mob-backed, or that even someone like Mayor [John] Lindsay in ’71 helped give rise to massage parlors, which were basically indoor prostitution houses, brothels, and that he was running for president so he wanted to make it look like he was cleaning up the streets of New York so he made these backroom deals with the Mafia, that if they took the prostitution off the streets and put it indoors that they wouldn’t be bothered, and that police were paid off to help that happen. All this, I had no idea about. Or that a lot of people that were involved in prostitution became early performers in porn. Or in some cases, just regular Off Broadway actors were involved in porn. There was an era before what we understand as the porn star. It was sort of the second generation of porn, actors that didn’t go through these other channels, that just said, yeah, I want to be a porn performer.

I knew none of the history of all of this, how this whole industry came about. Or even the history of privacy. In the early days you would watch a porn film either in a porn theater, before they had these booths because these booths weren’t invented. You’d have to go to a XXX bookstore and you’d just be out in the open, you’d have to wear your raincoat and masturbate under your raincoat or something because it was all out in the open. They actually had to invent the idea of the booth. From there, the idea of a live sex show that you’d watch from the booth, and then from there, we’d just track home video, and there’s more privacy. From there, pornography is now streamed, so you don’t even have to go to the movie store to rent your porn or buy it. Now you just get it right in your home.

You’ve also played a gay sex worker. As an artist, what are you trying to explore with these stories? What attracts you to these stories? 
In each of the movies, there’s a different interest, but I would say with The Deuce, what I love is that David Simon and George Pelecanos are behind this, and that what they want to do with the subject matter is use it as a tool to explore larger issues of capitalism, misogyny, the way that people are bought and sold, and that we’re all implicated. We want to push this kind of thing to the side and say, oh, I don’t do that. But look at the numbers on the internet. The numbers of people that watch pornography are huge! But we try to keep it in the shadows.

Where do you fall in the political debate about it? 
I have no judgment about what consenting adults do. One of the things, though, that my friend Rashida Jones’s documentary, Hot Girls Wanted, reveals is that the porn industry, at least today and throughout history, is unregulated. There’s no unions or anything. What happens is that people are still being taken advantage of in a really horrible way. As far as the content and the people involved, I don’t have any moral ethical judgment, but there is still a lot of exploitation that happens.

James Franco on Why He’s Drawn to Projects About Sex Work