James Franco Straddles Two Roles at Yale
By LISA W. FODERARO, March 3, 2011, New York Times.
On Sunday night he was in Hollywood, as co-host of the Oscar telecast in black tie. At 9 the next morning, he was in a Starbucks in New Haven, hunched over a book and barely recognizable in a gray sweatshirt, but still wearing his tuxedo pants.
James Franco, movie star, had rushed back on the red-eye to play his other big role: Yale doctoral student. By 9:25, he was at his seat in a seminar on medieval manuscripts. “I was surprised and delighted that he made it to class,” said Jessica Brantley, an associate professor of English. “He’s a dedicated student.”
Mr. Franco seemed to shrug off the bad reviews of what many in the national news media called an inert performance at the Academy Awards show. Yet later on Monday, he pounced on The Yale Daily News for some mild criticism of his monosyllabic Twitter style, posting a message with an obscenity scrawled in red Photoshop paint.
Yale has had its share of screen-star students, including Jodie Foster and Claire Danes, who have walked a delicate line between visibility and aloofness. But by all accounts, Mr. Franco, 32, who arrived last fall as a full-time student in Yale’s Ph.D. program in English, has straddled the line like no one else — at once the retiring scholar and the focus of attention.
In campus interviews this week, several people said he had worked to keep his new role more of an intense character part than a lead.
“He’s very good at not attracting attention to himself and blending in,” said Michael Warner, chairman of Yale’s English department, whose graduate course on Walt Whitman Mr. Franco took last semester. “He goes down in his charisma, and he looks with thoughtful attention at the people around him and doesn’t display the Hollywood wattage.”
But Mr. Franco, who declined to be interviewed, has hardly escaped the glare of publicity. Student journalists chronicle his every move. Twitter messages breathlessly report sighting him in his habitual hoodie and shades. A student-generated blog, James Franco Has Fun, lampoons all things Franco, soliciting pictures of “James being a crazy dude.”
And the fascination is fed by Mr. Franco himself, a self-promoting — and often self-mocking — polymath who is a film director, screenwriter, painter, author, performance artist and actor, with several film projects under way. In addition to the Yale program, which could take several years, he is on track to earn a master’s degree in film from New York University this spring. (“It’s a full-time program,” an N.Y.U. spokesman said. “You can’t do it any other way.”)
Last year, Mr. Franco received a master’s degree in writing from Brooklyn College, and this semester he is co-teaching a course on film editing at Columbia College Hollywood, a private school in Los Angeles. It is called “Master Class: Editing James Franco — With James Franco.”
Even at Yale, home of overachievers, he stands out. He has found time to undertake a multimedia musical production with about four dozen undergraduates that will open on campus in April. He is listed as a producer, but has worked with students on all aspects of the show, “The Stargazer,” including casting, making script revisions and acting in the film elements.
“We’re all really fascinated and awed,” said Cokey Cohen, the columnist at The Yale Daily News who drew Mr. Franco’s ire. “To see someone who has what we all consider to have an ideal life — with a fun, successful career — to be voluntarily doing so much schoolwork all the time is both really admirable and something I can’t even comprehend.”
Dr. Warner said the actor’s academic ambitions were impressive. “We have had experience before with students pursuing parallel degrees,” he said, “although the scale of his obligations is something that we’ve never seen before — but who has?”
Among students, attitudes run the gamut, from indifference to curiosity to full-blown obsession. Ileana Lucos, 21, an environmental studies major, said she and her friends were on high alert for news of Mr. Franco’s whereabouts.
“Definitely, the girls are like, ‘Oh, my God, I just saw him!’ ” she said. At Yale, she explained, “you have politically famous or otherwise famous, but not like a movie star that is Hollywood famous.”
“I don’t know,” she continued. “There’s something about him that’s mysterious.”
Others have had enough. “It doesn’t make a difference to my experience here,” said Stacey Diaz, 22, who has a double major, in international studies and African studies. “I think it’s weird that people are so wrapped up in following his every move.”
For his part, Mr. Franco strikes a balance between staying “almost under cover,” as Dr. Warner put it, and indulging his fans. This week he posted pictures online from inside his room at the Study at Yale, a boutique hotel where he stays when not commuting to his apartment in New York.
At Atticus Bookstore Café, where he stops in a few mornings a week for coffee, the general manager, Ben Gaffney, said Mr. Franco usually took a table in the back, books in tow. “He doesn’t come in to socialize,” he said. “Girls go up and blush and giggle and say, ‘Hi.’ He just smiles and nods his head.”
Still, Mr. Franco is clearly not your average graduate student. Last semester, when he and Dr. Warner needed time to discuss a paper, Mr. Franco’s personal assistant helped arrange an unusual solution.
“The only time we could find time to talk was during a train ride from New York to New Haven,” said Dr. Warner, who splits his time between the two. “So I met him on Metro-North.”
Jorge Castillo contributed reporting from New Haven.
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