Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
James Franco Talks Milk
Expanded Edition of 11-26-08 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Franco as Scott Smith, Harvey Milk's lover and first campaign manager in Milk
Milk star James Franco who plays Scott Smith, Harvey Milk’s first lover in the film, discussed the movie with Windy City Times.
Q: How did you get involved with the movie?
JF: I’ve known Gus for five years. He and I had a mutual friend, a painter whose studio I would go and work at. I was doing a play
that I had co-written and directed and acted in and sort our friend brought Gus to the play. It was at this dinky little theatre in North
Hollywood. When Gus Van Sant came to see it, it was the highlight of the whole run. So we met that way and saw each other every
so often over the years and talked about other projects that ultimately didn’t work out. Then two summers ago I was in England
studying literature and my agents called and told me that Gus was doing this movie on Milk and they said I might want to get
involved. Just being the biggest Gus Van Sant fan and knowing how important this movie was to him and how important the story
was I wrote him an email and said basically, “I’ll do anything in this movie just to be a part of it.” I would have played the pizza guy
but he gave me this great role.
Q: Your character is often subordinate – he’s eye candy in the pool scene, the wife in the dinner scene, a sort of supportive side
kick but he registers strongly because of your performance. How did you approach the character so he wasn’t just in Milk’s shadow?
JF: People have said, “You’re kinda playing the housewife role” and I know, from what I’ve read and heard, female actors say, “I
just don’t want to play another housewife role, I hate playing the housewife role” but I had never been offered the housewife role
before and I thought it was a good opportunity to play something different. When I started researching who the real Scott Smith was
I figured that this movie is called Milk, it’s not called Smith. I think Scott Smith was that supportive person for the real Harvey Milk.
It was important to play the person that was going to be the emotional grounding to Harvey’s huge ambitions. If I did anything else
it would be messy. I needed to play that supportive character as well as I could. That would show a loving relationship in contrast to
all the political stuff in the movie. It would take what would just be a political movie and bring it down to a personal level because of
this relationship that hopefully feels real and true.
Q: Do you think this story is better served being told by a director who is gay and is it a disservice to any of the gay characters that
most or all – for all I know – are played by actors who aren’t gay?
JF: That’s hard to say. In any art form, more often than not, if you have somebody who is personally involved with an issue or feels
close to a piece of art in some way, it’s going to result in something more personal. The fact that Gus felt so strongly about this
movie I guess because there are a lot of issues that relate to his own life – I’m sure it helped the movie. It’s not just a biopic for
him; this is a very important story for him because it relates to his own life. I might be talking out of turn but that’s what I assume.
I don’t know if a gay actor could have played my role better than I did. I just know that I feel strongly about all the issues that
Harvey was fighting for and hopefully, my passion for those issues were enough for me to devote myself to this character. But
inversely, you know; you wouldn’t want to preclude actors who are gay from being able to play straight roles and so to say only gay
actors can play gay roles I think would be detrimental in the inverse way as well. I don’t think that’s the way to go.
Q: How do you think the straight dudes that loved Pineapple Express are going to react to Milk?
JF: (laughs) I basically saw Pineapple Express as a love story, so they’ve already been bathed in that. I played that character like I
was in love with Seth Rogan’s character so…I don’t know how they’ll react. (laughs) I can’t decide movies based on, “Oh, the people
that liked that movie might not like this movie.” To me what Harvey was fighting for, the issues, are so plain and self evident,
obviously they are not to some people – but to me they are so plain and I just hope this movie raises awareness and if anybody
who saw me in Pineapple Express and wouldn’t normally see Milk but they’d go because they like Saul I think that’s a good thing. I
just have faith in the movie’s message; I just hope it gets across.
Q: Is there a difference between playing a real guy and a fictional character?
JF: I try to take all my movies seriously. I do research. On Spiderman I was playing a kid who went to boarding schools and stuff. I
stayed over at boarding schools and hung out with those kids. I mean, I try to take every role seriously. This movie certainly felt
different. But Gus, thank goodness, makes everybody so relaxed to the point where it results in more natural performances.
WCT: What about doing those love scenes with Sean Penn?
JF: What do you want to know?
WCT: Well you talked about doing research for all your roles. (laughter in the room). In most of the other movies I’ve done I’ve
had at least one kissing scene with a female actor and it I don’t think it would’ve flown if I’d said (to Sean), “Hey, we should go
research that love scene back at my hotel.” It’s just not what actors do. Most people know how to kiss and you just show up and
just do it and that’s it. (laughs)
Check the Archives for other Milk Interviews with cast members and historical consultant Cleve Jones