Unfortunately, after waiting around all day, we finally only got actor James Franco for a few minutes, but hey, it’s better than nothing, right? (As we learned much later, Franco had to spend his time between scenes studying for school, so he didn’t have a lot of time to do press for the movie that day.)
Q: How hard was it to adjust to the performance capture, interacting with Andy and things like that?
James Franco: I don’t think it took much time at all. Actually, one of my reasons for doing this movie is to work with Andy, I didn’t know Andy was doing it, but to work with all the Weta people, Andrew Lesnie. I have watched every single minute of the extra features on all of the “Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong” DVDs. Just from watching that I kind of had an understanding of how it worked and I thought it would be a new and interesting acting experience, working opposite someone playing a chimpanzee. Andy signed on like a week or two before we started shooting to my great satisfaction. He was so good at it, the imagination just kind of takes over, just like you meet someone and the next day they are playing your mother. You kind of roll with it if the scene is working. Andy was so good with the chimp behavior that it was actually pretty easy to fall into that kind of relationship. And, I guess I’d also, I watched it probably a year ago, but I loved… the movie, “Koko: A Talking Gorilla,” directed by Barbet Schroeder, and that was actually shot in my hometown in Palo Alto. So I remember, I guess, something of the way that woman dealt with her gorilla, kinda came back to me, so I kinda started dealing with him in that way.
Q: You are obviously used to shooting scenes multiple times, but here you have to shoot each one three times the same way because of the mocap, how does that work for you exactly?
Franco: Yeah, well, I kind of have that discussion in my head. You can rebel against it or just complain about this process or I can just go with it and understand that it’s what’s necessary to make this kind of movie. When Andy’s there, it’s great, it’s akin to a regular acting experience, he’s a performer and I roll with it, and then, when he’s not there, I guess I justify it, you think it’s the death of acting, but you know there are plenty of stage plays where you talk to no one or you are using your imagination in a similar way and you have to create an imaginary world in front of you and react to it, if its there. So not necessarily the death of acting as we know it, I tell myself. It’s just physical memory and emotional memory and I try and, as an actor, the process is basically you have your motivation as a character and your reacting to the other characters. Both of those things kind of combine and that’s how a scene arises and so when I’m acting with no one, I try and have that motivation still but I guess I just try and conjure him in my imagination so that I can still kind of react off him as he was behaving.
Q: Can you talk about the emotional arc of your character in the movie?
Franco: Ah, yeah. Well this movie, this rendition of the “Planet of the Apes” series is different in many ways than the other ones but one of the differences is that the others seem to be much more about commentaries on class relations, interspecies relations, race relations, all of these things. Whereas ours is a prequel and it’s much more of a “Frankenstein” story where a scientist is maybe in our case not so moved by hubris, but in some ways he is, but he starts messing with nature and it gets out of hand. So I guess my character just goes from a pure science-orientated man who has few connections in life, it’s actually a pretty dismal existence, who doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father and his father has Alzheimer’s (disease) so he then starts taking care of him and at the end of his father’s life, towards the end of his father’s life he starts building this relationship with his father that he never had and then this chimp is thrust on him so now, then he starts having almost a father-son relationship that he never had in his life. So he goes from a very isolated, scientific, cold kind of personality to a much more humane and caring person.
Q: Do you feel the Alzheimer’s issue helps ground your character within the fantasy and it’s sort of a reality that’s important to the film working?
Franco: Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly the choice that they made. Like I actually haven’t seen all of the “Apes” movies, I saw the first one a long time ago and then I watched it again and I watched a documentary about the making of all of them. I guess back in the day they spent a ton of money, at the time, what was a ton of money on makeup and effects. Now I assume the original Apes movie has kind of a cult appeal but you look at the mask and you say, “Well… I can’t believe they are having serious philosophical conversations and they’re wearing those crazy masks,” but it’s interesting on that level, but reality or the idea of apes talking has moved forward. We have a different concept of that now of what is real. So not only have the way that they depicted apes changed and become much more realistic, but the storyline tries to be grounded in a more realistic world where it’s at least conceivable that this could happen.
Q: Does that help you as an actor to play this part?
Franco: Yeah, I don’t know, the crazy thing for me was Kim Hunter, who played Stella in “Streetcar” was one of the apes in the original movies. Roddy McDowall and Sal Mineo was even one in I think the third one and they all talked about how surprising it was that they could take that seriously so I could probably do it if people were still in masks but I guess playing a scientist that’s somewhat grounded in reality helps. It’s just a type of movie. It would just be a different kind of movie if we went the other way and I as an actor would find myself, find my way into that other movie. It’s not that I couldn’t do that, it’s just a different movie.
Q: You mentioned “Frankenstein” and Dr. Frankenstein is a tragic character, would you say your character has that going on?
Franco: Well, yeah, I guess he screws a lot of things up. (laughter) Not on purpose but he does everything for the right reasons, it just gets out of hand. I can’t remember Frankenstein’s motivation…
Q: Eternal life, but Will is trying to save his father, that’s his motivation. He’s trying to beat death in a way.
Franco: Yeah, in a way. Maybe you wouldn’t say it’s justified but most people would do whatever they could for their ailing family members so it’s at least understandable.