James Franco is off to be the wizard in Oz the Great and Powerful
PASADENA—Is James Franco really here? Sitting in a hotel room a few weeks ago, he looked recognizably like Franco. There was the movie-star-pretty face—that stubbled visage upon which, some time back, a gently sketchy-looking mustache took up squatter’s rights—and the squinty-sexy dark eyes. (When no one required his attention, he appeared to close them entirely several times.) And there were the film-school–approved worn brown-suede jacket, über-fatigued jeans, and rumpled hair.
But maybe this Franco was just a projection of the real Franco, part art installation, part wizardly illusion. Given the man and his starring role in Oz the Great and Powerful (which opens Friday [March 8] ), it would be fitting.
To make a prequel to that “most popular movie ever made”, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, producer Joe Roth decided he needed today’s most popular actors. “Except that they’re always working,” Roth said. “The gentleman to my right,” he added, indicating Franco, “generally has seven jobs at a time.”
Perhaps this was an understatement. Franco the actor has, among other things, played the primary human in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and appeared to sever his own arm in 127 Hours (for which he received an Oscar nomination).
Franco the everything else writes and directs films, has several master’s degrees, a PhD reportedly in progress, published and about-to-be-published fiction and poetry collections, gigs as a film-studies prof, and gallery shows of his artwork. Guest-starring on the soap opera General Hospital, Franco played a character who was also an artist and also named Franco.
In Oz, Franco, 34, is Oscar Diggs, aka Oz, a Kansas con-man magician who accidentally drops down into a land whose three resident witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams) quickly detect his charade. As a child, Franco was taken not only with the original film but also L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels. “These were, basically, my Harry Potter series, and, you know, they were some of the first books I read on my own, and I loved it.” He added: “I liked being transported to alternative realms, and it’s where a lot of my early imagination was sparked.”
A child reporter had a question. What, the boy wanted to know, was Franco’s biggest discovery making this movie? “My biggest discovery… Hmm,” Franco said. Thinking, he noted that he had already acted with a special-effects chimpanzee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In Oz, he has Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a flying monkey dressed as a bellhop. “So that was sort of similar to having another CG monkey, albeit with wings in this one.”
“What about the magic?” Roth prompted.
“I did have to learn some magic,” Franco said. “I didn’t know how to do magic. So I was very fortunate they hired one of the best magicians from Las Vegas—a man named Lance Burton, who does shows for thousands of people.” Burton gave Franco private magic lessons. “He taught me everything I needed to know to look like I was a magician in a travelling circus. So, how to present the illusion of levitation or make something seem like it’s disappearing and that kind of thing. So I guess that was new, yeah.”
Another child reporter wondered what Oz might be doing if he “were here, right now, in this world”. “I think Oz, my character, is very much a stand-in for the things that I do or the things that filmmakers do,” Franco said. “He’s fascinated with early forms of filmmaking and projection, so he’s probably a director. He’d maybe even direct a film like this.”
Would Franco be returning to General Hospital? “I’d like to; nobody’s asked me yet.”
There was still Franco the academic to be considered. “I’m teaching a lot,” Franco said politely, standing up to depart. He is instructing a production class at USC’s film school. “Two of my students are here. There they are,” he added, looking toward the back of the room. “Getting you on film!” a voice replied. “Getting me on-camera,” Franco echoed, sounding amused. But then, that would be nothing new.