sundance 2016

Sundance: What To Do When James Franco Slaps You

Photo: Killer Films

How would you react if James Franco smacked you in the face? What if Nick Jonas was standing beside you, snickering with each slap the actor landed? And what if Franco escalated the situation by ripping off his shirt and screaming at you to punch him in the stomach?

These were among the things flashing through the mind of 25-year-old actor Ben Schnetzer while filming Goat, a frat-hazing drama directed by Andrew Neel that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week. Schnetzer had known that Franco would be stopping by the set that day — the Oscar nominee not only produced the film, but agreed to cameo as a former frat guy who comes back around to party with his younger brothers — but he had no idea what Franco had in store for him. “The character that Franco plays in the movie is a legacy, someone we’ve probably heard all these legendary stories about, but for us as young actors, we all grew up watching James Franco,” Schnetzer told me this week. “So to us, he was the guy, you know? No acting was required when he showed up on set, because there was a lot of idolatry and admiration there.”

And then, as the cameras rolled, Franco began smacking Schnetzer, who played a troubled frat pledge. “That was unscripted, he just started slapping me in the face,” laughed Schnetzer. “There was one take where he said, ‘Punch me in the face, punch me in the face,’ and my wheels were turning. I was like, Am I gonna punch James Franco in the face right now? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” Instead, he settled for a punch to Franco’s taut, exposed abdomen: “He’s a big dude, a grown man slapping me in the face a bunch of times. But I let him have it, too.”

Meanwhile, Jonas — who played Schnetzer’s older brother, a more entrenched fraternity member — just giggled his way through the scene, grinning as the two actors exchanged blows. “The beauty of that scene, and of fraternity culture as a whole, is that there’s obviously a lot of alcohol,” Jonas said. “So you can kind of have a moment where you laugh in a scene that’s uncomfortable, and it works.”

That juxtaposition pretty much sums up Goat in a nutshell: Based on the memoir by Brad Land, the film chronicles the over-the-top antics of a fraternity with such a clear eye that you’re never sure whether to laugh, flinch, or both. “For all the hedonistic things that happen in the film, you kinda fucking like these guys,” said Schnetzer. “It’s not a cut-and-dry story. There’s a lot of shades of gray in it, which is provocative, I think.”

The film’s fraternity puts its pledges through the wringer, siccing them on each other and regularly humiliating them, and “If ever there was a question of, ‘Should we do this for real?’ we would,” said Schnetzer.

“Naturally, in those moments, there were things that were really uncomfortable,” said Jonas, who felt flashbacks at the film’s Park City premiere. “When you’re watching it back and you see that fear on the screen, I found it very hard to relax the whole time. I was really tense, because I was reliving it all.”

Fortunately, they’ve now put that all behind them — including the film’s fratty vocabulary, where nearly every line included the word “bro” used as an adjective, noun, or as just plain emphasis. “We had a moment with each other one day where we came back from set to decompress and we were sitting outside talking, and we caught ourselves saying ‘bro’ too much,” said Jonas.

“We had to check ourselves,” added Schnetzer, laughing.

“We were like, ‘We need to chill the fuck out and stop using that word, right now,’” said Jonas.

Sundance: What To Do When James Franco Slaps You