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Interview: James Franco

11th March 2013

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James Franco has starred in films as diverse as Spiderman, Knocked Up, Milk and 127 Hours. He also plays a gangster in upcoming Spring Breakers and Playboy entrepreneur Hugh Hefner alongside Amanda Seyfried in Lovelace.

From gay rights activist to mountaineer to soft-core porn king – Franco has a wide retinue, and it would be impossible to call him typecast. But until now, Spiderman aside, he has hardly been known for his family films.

So, what attracted him to a Disney fantasy adventure? As seems to be a theme with stars of Oz the Great and Powerful, it appears that the chance to work (again) with Evil Dead and Spiderman director Sam Raimi was the deciding factor. Franco even goes as far as describing Raimi as “the great maestro.”

“I think I speak for everyone when I say he just makes movies better,” he says. “He can make a big, special effects movie but they’re just grounded in his heart, and they have a foundation of really human characters. When I heard it was happening I just did everything I could to be involved.”

In the film Franco plays Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, a travelling circus magician in dusty 1905 Kansas, whose audiences are less than enamoured with his dubious performances.

In true Dorothy style, after a cyclone hits he finds himself landing in Oz, where he is immediately picked up by naive young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes him to be ‘The Wizard’who can save the people of Oz from an all-powerful witch – due to the initials on his hot air balloon.

“I thought the approach back to Oz was perfect,” Franco says, “in that they weren’t slavishly going to try and recreate a new version of Dorothy... the lead character would be completely different. He was anything but an innocent young girl, he was a conman, and so the way that the audience would be brought into the familiar world of Oz would be completely new, and the trip through Oz and the way that the character interacts with Oz would be completely fresh.

“So I thought they had both – respectful about what they should respect and innovative where they should be innovative.”

The pressure of playing The Wizard must have been huge – especially when the film had such a long history to live up to. How does an actor prepare for such an iconic role – surely adding a new and potentially risky dimension to a story that everyone knows so well is a dangerous game?

Franco openly admits to being a huge fan of the original early twentieth century L. Frank Baum books, all of which he read as a child, as well as of the 1939 film.

“When I saw the script,” he says, “I saw that they were going to be loyal and respectful of everything that we lovers of Oz expect, and that there would be familiar things in the Land of Oz that you need for it to be the Land of Oz - the yellow brick road, Emerald City and witches and flying monkeys and munchkins.”

Updating the much loved film 70 plus years later, with 3D et al, allows the filmmakers “to be able to capture this world in a much more spectacular and seamless way,” he says. “They didn’t need to rely on theatrical conventions like a man in lion pyjamas with the face cut out; they could create magical creatures in ways that are believable to the eye.”

In terms of preparation, there was of course the magic – Franco spent weeks training with a Las Vegas magician, which he describes as a “treat”. Does he still practice?

That would be no, because “a lot of the tricks were very elaborate and they require special doves and props and that kind of thing that I don’t possess.”

Speaking to James Franco, you get the impression of a grounded man (he is also a writer and filmmaker and has taught classes in filmmaking and screenwriting at New York University and the University of Southern California), modest despite currently being one of the hottest actors in Hollywood.

As a former host of the Oscars, he is diplomatic if slightly guarded when asked of his opinion of this year’s event, which he missed due to being elsewhere in the US promoting Oz the Great and Powerful – although he does believe that controversial host Seth MacFarlane “did a fantastic job.”

Franco’s portrayal of Oz, it seems, might be the biggest test of his career since his hosting of the 2011 Academy Awards.

But a few days after we meet, Oz the Great and Powerful’s opening weekend sees it gross $80.3m at the US Box Office, making it the third best March opening ever – so it is clear that, for movie-goers in 2013, the magical Land of Oz is as colourful and popular as it has ever been.

Read our review of Oz the Great and Powerful here

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